“And patience; experience; and experience, hope.”—Romans 5:4
The deeper we search into the Holy Scriptures the more experimental matter do we discover in that divine Book. Both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament the spiritual experiences of godly men form a large part of the sacred record. And it gives a very fresh and a very impressive interest to many parts of the heavenly Book when we see how much of its contents are made up of God’s ways with His people as well as of their ways with Him. In other words, when we see how much of purely experimental matter is gathered up into the Word of God. In a brilliant treatise published the other year, entitled, “The Gospel in the Gospels,” the author applies this experimental test even to our Lord’s teaching and preaching. Writing of the beatitudes in our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount that fresh and penetrating writer says: “When our Savior speaks to us concerning what constitutes our true blessedness He is simply describing His own experience. The beatitudes are not the immediate revelation of His Godhead, they are much more the impressive testimony of His manhood. He knew the truth of what He was saying because He had verified it all in Himself for thirty experimental years.” Now if that is so demonstrably true of so many of our Lord’s contributions to Holy Scripture, in the nature of things, how much more must it be true of the experimental contributions that David and Paul have made to the same sacred record. And we ourselves are but imitating them in their great experimental methods when we give our very closest attention to personal and spiritual religion, both in ourselves and in all our predecessors and in all our own contemporaries in the life of grace in all lands and in all languages.
Now by far the deepest and by far the most personal experience of every spiritually minded man is his experience of his own inward sinfulness. The sinfulness of his sin; the malignity of his sin; the ungodliness and the inhumanity of his sin; the dominion that his sin still has over him; the simply indescribable evil of his sin in every way: all that is a matter, not of any man’s doctrine and authority; all that is the personal experience and the scientific certainty, as we say, of every spiritually minded man; every man, that is, who takes any true observation of what goes on in his own heart. The simply unspeakable sinfulness of our own hearts is not the doctrine of David, and of Christ, and of Paul, and of Luther, and of Calvin, and of Bunyan, and of Edwards, and of Shepard only. It is their universal doctrine, indeed, it could not be otherwise; but it is also the every-day experience and the every-day agony of every man among ourselves whose eyes are open upon his own heart.
And then, if you are that spiritually enlightened man, from the day when you begin to have that heart-sore experience of yourself you will begin to search for and to discover those great passages of Holy Scripture that contain the recorded experiences of men like yourself. “I am but dust and ashes,” said the first father of all penitent and believing and praying men. “I am vile,” sobs Job. “Behold, I am vile, and I will lay my hand upon my mouth. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” And David has scarcely heart or a pen for anything else. “There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin. My loins are filled with a loathsome disease. For, behold, I was shapen in iniquity.” And Daniel, the most blameless of men and a man greatly beloved in heaven and on earth: “I was left alone and there remained no strength in me: for my comeliness was turned to corruption, and I retained no strength.” And every truly spiritually minded man has Paul’s great experimental passage by heart; that great experimental and autobiographic passage which has kept so many of God’s most experienced saints from absolute despair, as so many of them have testified. Yes! There were experimental minds long before Bacon and there was a great experimental literature long before the Essays and the “Advancement” and the “Instauratio Magna.”
And then among many other alterations of intellectual insight and spiritual taste that will come to you with your open eyes, there will be your new taste, not only for your Bible, but also for spiritual and experimental preaching. The spiritual preachers of our day are constantly being blamed for not tuning their pulpits to the new themes of our so progressive day. Scientific themes are prest upon them and critical themes and social themes and such like. But your new experience of your own sinfulness and of God’s salvation: your new need and your new taste for spiritual and experimental truth will not lead you to join in that stupid demand. As intelligent men you will know where to find all the new themes of your new day and you will be diligent students of them all, so far as your duty lies that way, and so far as your ability and your opportunity go; but not on the Lord’s Day and not in His house of prayer and praise. The more inward, and the more spiritual, and the more experimental, your own religion becomes, the more will you value inward, and spiritual, and experimental preaching. And the more will you resent the intrusion into the evangelical pulpit of those secular matters that so much absorb unspiritual men. There is another equally impertinent advice that our preachers are continually having thrust upon them from the same secular quarter. And that is that they ought entirely to drop the old language of the Scriptures, and the creeds, and the classical preachers, and ought to substitute for it the scientific and the journalistic jargon of the passing day. But with your ever-deepening knowledge of yourselves and with the disciplined and refined taste that will accompany such knowledge you will rather demand of your preachers more and more depth of spiritual preaching and more and more purity of spiritual style. And then more and more your estimates of preaching and your appreciations of preachers will have real insight and real value and real weight with us. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” But he that is spiritual discerneth spiritual things and spiritual persons and he has the true authority to speak and to write about them.
And then, for all doubting and skeptically disposed persons among you, your own experience of your evil heart, if you will receive that experience and will seriously attend to it, that will prove to you the true apologetic for the theism of the Holy Scriptures and for the soul-saving faith of Jesus Christ. What is it about which you are in such debate and doubt? Is it about the most fundamental of all facts—the existence, and the nature, and the grace, and the government of Almighty God? Well, if you are really in earnest to know the truth, take this way of it: this way that has brought light and peace of mind to so many men. Turn away at once and forever from all your unbecoming debates about your Maker and Preserver and turn to what is beyond all debate, your own experience of yourselves. There is nothing else of which you can be so sure and certain as of the sin and the misery of your own evil hearts, your own evil hearts so full of self-seeking, and envy, and malice, and pride, and hatred, and revenge, and lust. And on the other hand, there is nothing of which you can be so convinced as that love, and humility, and meekness, and purity, and benevolence, and brotherly kindness, are your true happiness, or would be, if you could only attain to all these beatitudes. Well, Jesus Christ has attained to them all. And Jesus Christ came into this world at first, and He still comes into it by His Word and by His Spirit in order that you may attain to all His goodness and all His truth and may thus escape forever from all your own ignorance and evil. As William Law, the prince of apologists, has it: “Atheism is not the denial of a first omnipotent cause. Real atheism is not that at all. Real atheism is purely and solely nothing else but the disowning, and the forsaking, and the renouncing of the goodness, and the virtue, and the benevolence and the meekness, of the divine nature: that divine nature which has made itself so experimental and so self-evident in us all. And as this experimental and self-evident knowledge is the only sure knowledge you can have of God; even so, it is such a knowledge that cannot be doubted or debated away. For it is as sure and as self-evident as is your own experience.” And so is it through all the succeeding doctrines of grace and truth: The incarnation of the divine Son: His life, His death, His resurrection, and His intercession: and then your own life of faith, and prayer, and holy obedience: and then your death, “dear in God’s sight.” Beginning with this continually experienced need of God, all these things will follow, with an intellectual, and a moral, and a spiritual demonstration, that will soon place them beyond all debate or doubt to you. Only know thyself and admit the knowledge: and all else will follow as sure as the morning sun follows the dark midnight.
And then in all these ways, you will attain to a religious experience of your own, that will be wholly and exclusively your own. It will not be David’s experience, nor Paul’s, nor Luther’s, nor Bunyan’s; much as you will study their experiences, comparing them all with your own. As you go deeper and ever deeper, into your own spiritual experience, you will gradually gather a select and an invaluable library of such experiences, and you will less and less read anything else with very much interest or delight. But your own unwritten experience will, all the time, be your own, and in your own spiritual experience you will have no exact fellow. For your tribulations, which work in you your experience,—as the text has it,—your tribulations are such that in all your experimental reading in the Bible, in spiritual biography, in spiritual autobiography, you have never met the like of them. Either the writers have been afraid to speak out the whole truth about their tribulations; or, what is far more likely, they had no tribulations for a moment to match with yours. There has not been another so weak and so evil heart as yours since weak and evil hearts began to be; nor an evil life quite like yours; nor surrounding circumstances so cross-bearing as yours; nor a sinner, beset with all manner of temptations and trials, behind and before, like you. So much are you alone that, if your fifty-first Psalm, or your seventh of the Romans, or your “Confessions,” or your “Private Devotions,” or your “Grace Abounding,” could ever venture to be all honestly and wholly written and published, your name would, far and away, eclipse them all. You do not know what a singular and what an original and what an unheard-of experience your experience is destined to be; if only you do not break down under it; as you must not and will not do.
Begin, then, to make some new experiments upon a new life of faith, and of the obedience of faith. And begin to-day. If in anything you have been following a false and an unphilosophical and an unscriptural way of life, leave that wrong and evil way at once. Be true Baconians, at once, as all the true men of science will tell you to be. “If we were religious men like you,” they will all say to you, “we would do, and at once, what you are now being told to do. We would not debate, or doubt, but we would make experiment, and would follow out the experience”: so all the scientifically minded men will say to you. Come away then, and make some new experiments from this morning. For one thing, make a new experiment on secret prayer. And then come forth from your place of secret prayer and make immediate experiment on more love, and more patience, and more consideration for other men, and, especially, for the men of your own household. Be more generous-minded, and more open-handed, as God has been so generous-minded, and so open-handed toward you: if that has indeed been so. Make experiment upon the poor and the needy and help them according to your ability and opportunity and watch the result of the experiment upon yourself; and so on, as your awakened conscience, and as the regenerate part of your own heart, will prompt you and will encourage you to do.
Make such experiments as these and see if a new peace of conscience and a new happiness of heart does not begin to come to you, according to that great experimental psalm,—”Oh, that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways! I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries. He should have fed them also with the finest of the wheat: and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee.”