Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

Truth and Experience

1 Corinthians 12:1-3

Teaching t05411


This section of Paul's letter is about meetings. As Paul deals with problems they were having in this area, he touches on a lot of the same issues we deal with today.

Beginning in chapter 12, Paul instructs them on the use spiritual gifts in Christian meetings. But before getting into this, he lays down an important rule (read vs 1-3). This is difficult to understand at first glance, isn't it?

It sounds like Paul is saying the litmus test for being a Christian and/or spiritual is simply to utter the phrase "Jesus is Lord." But common sense tells us people can mouth these words without being Christians at all, let alone spiritual. This objection is confirmed by passages like Mt. 7:21 and Titus 1:16.

The clue to understanding this passage is vs 2, because vs 3 is a conclusion based on vs 2 ("therefore"). Paul reminds them that before they came to Christ, many of them were "led astray to the dumb idols"—they had been seduced into false religious cults. How did this happen? How does this fit into their present situation?

We know that many of these cults emphasized "inspired utterances" as evidence of spirituality. [1] The Corinthian Christians were evidently emphasizing such utterances (especially TONGUES) and saw them as proof that they were Spirit-filled. Because of this, their meetings were an unruly cacophony of noise and chaos. But did this prove that God's Spirit was really in charge?

Paul's answer is "Not necessarily." His point is: "If religious experience is your main evidence for spirituality, haven't you forgotten where that led you last time? It led you into what you now realize were false gods!! Realize, then, that the key evidence God's Spirit is not the experiences people have while speaking, but rather the theological content of their speech."

So Paul is addressing the relationship between truth and experience as they relate to Christian spirituality. This issue is so important and so timely that I want to spend the rest of our time today explaining and applying it before we go on to the rest of what Paul teaches. We can distill his perspective on this subject into two statements that temper each other . . . 

Experience must be subordinated to truth

Paul is saying we should look to doctrinal content more than to religious experience as evidence of authentic spirituality. Both have a place, but the two are not equal. One must be in priority over the other. Religious experience is good, but it must be subordinate to truth.

What a timely reminder! American society has accepted the antithesis with regard to religion: truth must be subordinate to experience. Having rejected the notion of revealed absolute truth, experience is the bottom line for religion. Doctrinal content is unnecessary at best and destructive at worst. Consider these culturally mainstream statements:

MASLOW: "The experience of surrender, of reverence, . . . of awe and the feeling of smallness—these experiences which organized religions have always tried to make possible—are also common enough in the peak experiences (of non-religious people) . . . To the extent that all mystical or peak experiences are the same in their essence and have always been the same, all religions are the same in their essence and have always been the same. They should, therefore, come to agree in principle on teaching that which is common to all of them. Whatever is different about these (religions) . . . are therefore peripheral, expendable, not essential." [2] Of course, one of these "expendable" issues is Jesus Christ as Lord, the only Savior of the human race.

CARMODY: "In an ideal study (of world religions), however, one finally verges upon the center of the other people's experiences and finds that it can virtually coincide with one's own . . . In this book we shall try to build our descriptions (of world religions) into a climactic presentation of the sort of peak experience, vivid and peaceful, that gives their world a center. Thus, we shall try to present the world religions as various "Ways to the Center." [3] In other words, all religions are simply expressions different ways of experiencing the same thing. How does this square with Jesus in Jn. 14:6? Or Paul in Gal. 1:8?

It is undeniable that advocates of antithetical propositions report identical religious experiences (tongues; visions; trance states; slain in spirit). Our culture concludes from this that all religions are equally true ("for you"). But the Bible says spiritual experiences can come from different sources (GOD; SATAN; SELF; GROUP HYSTERIA), and for this reason stresses that doctrinal content must take precedence over religious experience in discerning truth from error (Deut. 13:1-3; 1 Jn. 4:1-3 >> WARNING TO "DABBLERS")

Tragically, at a time when Christians should be emphasizing the importance of truth over experience, many are more than ever conforming to the primacy of experience over truth. Superficially, they may appear different because they proclaim Jesus as Savior, but in key areas they evidence conformity.

How else can we explain why Christians are such easy prey for hucksters (LEROY JENKINS; "MARJO" >> "But I can sense God's presence!" "If you'd have experienced what I experienced, you'd know that it is of God.").

How else can we explain the fact that a majority of American evangelicals say they don't believe in absolute truth? (STATS FROM VEITH'S BOOK & BARNA)

How else can we explain the increasing appeal to experience as the basis for biblical interpretation? I wish I could say this is rare—but it is common!

How else can we explain the disturbing trend to appeal primarily or exclusively to religious experience in evangelism? Since such experiences are part of every other religion, we can expect experience-evangelism to be increasingly ineffective.

CHRISTIAN APPLICATION: This is why we should emphasize content, content, content!!! This is why we should emphasize objective evidence as well as experience in evangelism. This is why we should have a healthy skepticism about experiences which are contradictory to or devoid of biblical content.

But this statement must be tempered by another statement . . . 

Truth should not eliminate experience

Just as religious experience must be subordinated to truth, truth should not eliminate experience.

The desire to avoid experiential extremism can be a sufficient motive to resist even biblically valid spiritual experiences.

Some churches here in town will kick you out for speaking in tongues—quicker than if you were committing sexual immorality. They have come up with the unscriptural position that God has removed all such gifts from the church (HYPER-DISPENSATIONALISM).

I can understand the desire to do this. Experience-orientation can be terrifically divisive, as we have witnessed in our own church over the last two years. It is definitely easier to just say "We'll have none of that here."

That certainly would have been the cleanest way for Paul to handle the Corinthians. In spite of all the Corinthian's excesses in this area, however, Paul didn't do this. He introduced strict controls, he emphasized the primacy of truth and love—but he also said "Do not forbid to speak in tongues" (14:39-40; see also 1 Thess. 5:19-22).

This over-reaction produces another form of extremism that is every bit as ugly and destructive as experiential extremism. The cold-hearted Christian deist is a spiritual prune (scholar or activist) who is no better off than the raving fanatic (VERWER QUOTE: “It's easier to cool down a fanatic than to warm up a corpse")! What we need is balance . . . 

Questions that promote balance

"Are you able to evaluate religious experiences objectively in light of scriptural truth—but without becoming suspicious of all experience?"

Are you offended when people question experience-based guidance? When they ask for objective evidence of healings? When they insist on rules of order for meetings (TONGUES W/OUT INTERPRETATION; PROPHECY UNJUDGED >> "God's presence was so real!")? When they disagree with and correct statements that are unbiblical or imbalanced? This is what God says we must do (1 Thess. 5:21-22; 1 Cor. 14:29). Unless we are comfortable with this, we're going to get into trouble.

On the other hand, many of us can objectively evaluate experience, but are unenthusiastic in our own personal walks. We can get super-excited about a FOOTBALL GAME, but mock people who get excited about Christ at a meeting. We can weep over a SOAP OPERA, but never weep over our sins and God's grace. If this is the case, we shouldn't use others' experiential excesses to rationalize our own experiential poverty. We should ask God to soften our hearts!!

"Are you ready to welcome and cultivate spiritual experience—but without making it the focal point of your Christian life?"

If you feel you must have dramatic experiences to keep walking with Christ (F.M.: "I felt like I needed to have it again."), or when that's all you want to talk about, or when a meeting is a boring unless you were knocked off your feet, or when you view this as the key evidence of a Spirit-filled life, something is seriously wrong.

But there is nothing spiritual about a dead meeting, or a Christian walk void of all experiential vitality! We should affirm that the experiential aspect of Christianity is real and important. We should cultivate it ourselves and urge others to do the same.

Many of you may be surprised to know how important this is to me and how important I think this is for people I work with. I want them exposed to people who are excited about Christ, expressing their true feelings to him, thanking God, praising him, etc. How can we cultivate fun, wholesome spiritual experience without going off the deep end?

Using your spiritual gifts to serve others is exciting

Personal prayer (individual & corporate): we are restored to his perspective, sense his guidance, reminded of & experience his love (Acts 4; THURSDAY NIGHT PRAYER)

Studying scripture: wisdom and insight breaking in upon you is a real buzz


Sharing Christ with non-Christians (Acts 1:8)

GOSPEL: You can't cultivate something you haven't received . . . (Rev. 3:20)

NEXT: spiritual gifts, ministries, effects; principles of Christian fellowship . . . 


[1] "In classical literature, Apollo was particularly renowned as the source of ecstatic utterances, as on the lips of Cassander of Troy, the priestess of Delphi or the Sibyl of Cumae (whose frenzy as she prophesied under the god's control is vividly described by Virgil)."  F.F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, New Century Bible (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1971).

[2] Abraham Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences

[3] Denise L. and John T. Carmody, Ways to the Center (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1984), p. 11.