Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The life of the Reformed Christian is a life full of rich experience. The person whose faith is void of experience has a dead faith. He is neither Reformed nor Christian.
The experience of the Reformed Christian is described especially in the creeds of the Reformation. The creeds of the Reformation describe the experience of true faith as taught by Holy Scripture. This rich experience of faith was the experience of the Reformers themselves, as their faith was controlled and directed by Scripture.
The experience of the Reformed Christian is especially described in the Heidelberg Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism is perhaps the most personal and practical confession of the Reformation. As is evident from the opening Lord’s Day, its theme is the Christian’s comfort. The Catechism beautifully develops the main teachings of Scripture to show how they provide true comfort for the believer in the daily struggles of his life. Already in the opening Lord’s Day the Catechism speaks of the believer’s experience. It asks in Question 2, “How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?” In response the Catechism points us to three things. To enjoy true comfort it is necessary to know our sins and misery, our deliverance from sin, and our gratitude to God for this deliverance.
The knowledge of which the Catechism speaks here is not just intellectual knowledge but also the experiential knowledge of faith. When someone has just lost a loved one and he speaks of the pain and despair he has come to know, then we all understand that this is not just an intellectual knowledge but also the knowledge of experience. He has come to experience pain and despair. So also does the Catechism speak of an experiential knowledge. If we will enjoy the Christian’s comfort we must come to know and experience our sin and misery, our deliverance in Christ, and gratitude for such deliverance. This threefold knowledge the Catechism proceeds to develop. The personal knowledge of our sin, deliverance, and gratitude become the threefold division under which all the main truths of Scripture are developed. And this is the normal experience of the Reformed Christian.
Let’s look at this threefold experience of the Reformed Christian as described in the Heidelberg Catechism.
First, the Reformed Christian experiences misery on account of his sin.
In Q. 3 the Catechism asks, “Whence knowest thou thy misery?” It understands that the believer knows or experiences misery. It inquires as to the source. That source is the law of God. From what follows, it is apparent that the law is the source of the Christian’s misery, in that it shows him his sin. This knowledge of sin becomes the source of great misery in his life. He has sinned against the God whom he has come to love. He has offended His God. What misery this causes.
The same experience of misery is set forth by the Catechism in Lord’s Day 33, which speaks of true conversion. True conversion is described as the mortification of the old man and the quickening of the new man. The mortification of the old man consists in “a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins and more and more to hate and flee from them” (Q&A 89).
The experience of the Reformed Christian begins with misery and sorrow over sin.
However, this is not the totality of his experience. By faith, he also knows deliverance in Jesus Christ. There is good news for the grief stricken sinner. God has provided for him a Mediator in His Son, Jesus Christ, who not only satisfies the justice of God for him (Lord’s Days 5&6) but also provides him with all things necessary for his salvation (L.D. 11). This salvation the believer also comes to know. Through the preaching of the law he comes more and more to learn about his sinful nature, and thus becomes more earnest in seeking remission of sin (Q&A 115). This salvation he finds in Jesus Christ. Even though he is a sinner, He comes to know that he is righteous before God in Christ and an heir of eternal life (Q 59). He comes to know true conversion, in which the old man of sin dies and he becomes a new man in Jesus Christ (L.D. 33).
With this knowledge of deliverance comes a wonderful and glad assurance. The Catechism teaches that assurance of salvation is part of faith. In addition to being a certain knowledge, faith is “an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits” (Q&A 21). That assurance is the normal experience of the Christian is also emphasized in the Canons of Dordt. “The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election” (I, A, 12). In connection with the preservation of the saints, the Canons teach: “Of this preservation of the elect to salvation, and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers for themselves may and ought to obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they arrive at the certain persuasion that they ever will continue true and living members of the church, and that they experience forgiveness of sins, and will at last inherit eternal life” (V, A, 9).
Having come to know his deliverance from sin in Jesus Christ, the Reformed believer experiences gratitude. How great are the works of God to save him, a worthless sinner! The knowledge of his sin and deliverance produces gratitude. The believer expresses his gratitude in a life of good works and prayer. This life the Catechism explains in detail in the third section of its instruction.
This life of gratitude, however, is far from perfect. The Catechism points out that “even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live not only according to some, but all the commandments of God” (Q&A 114). And so the life of the Reformed Christian is one of constant struggle. Being converted to God, he has a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ. He delights to live according to the will of God in all good works (Q&A 90). Yet he constantly falls into sin, so that he also grieves for sin. Consequently, the Reformed Christian constantly endeavors and prays to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that he may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till he arrives at the perfection proposed to him, in a life to come (Q&A 115).
This knowledge of sin, deliverance, and gratitude is the experience of the Reformed believer — because the Reformation has brought him back to the Bible.
The Roman Catholic Church had over the years taken the Bible away from the people. It had done this in two ways. First, the Roman Catholic Church denied the authority of Scripture as the sole rule of faith and life. To the Bible it added the decrees of the pope, the decisions of the church councils, and the traditions of the church fathers as being of equal value to (in fact greater than) the Bible. Besides, the Roman Catholic Church denied the office of believer, so that the Bible was considered unintelligible to the laity. The results were devastating. The preaching of the Word and the true knowledge of God receded into the background and were virtually lost. Neither did the church consider the knowledge of God important. What were important were the sacraments, which the church corrupted terribly. The church multiplied them and made them outward rituals which, if observed regularly, would hold back an angry, vengeful God. This did not produce godly sorrow for sin, assurance of salvation in Jesus Christ, and a life of gratitude to God. It produced fear, as the people stood before a vengeful God. Martin Luther is a case in point. He did all that the church required; yet he lived in dread fear of God.
A key emphasis of the Protestant Reformation was the true knowledge of God in Scripture. It held up the Scriptures as the only revelation of God for salvation, and thus the sole rule of doctrine and life. It understood also that the Scriptures belong to the people and that the people not only can but must know the Word of God. To that end, the preaching was restored as the heart of the worship. And the sacraments, which serve to declare the gospel in picture form, were given their proper place in the church. The Reformation also emphasized that the true knowledge of God that leads to salvation is not just an intellectual knowledge, but also a spiritual knowledge of the born-again heart that embraces the God and Christ of Scripture. This led the believer to experience the misery of his sin, the joy of deliverance, and deep gratitude to God.
This true experience of faith was threatened by a mysticism that developed in the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation. It was found among some of the radical elements of the Reformation and continues even to the present.
Mysticism is the error of seeking the true knowledge of God from within oneself, rather than from the Word of God in Scripture. Some mystics claimed special revelations of God through dreams and visions. Others spoke of an inner voice of God. Most emphasized experiences through which God speaks. These experiences were often ill defined and extremely vague in nature, difficult to articulate even by those who claimed to have these experiences. The more radical mystics spoke of a mystical union with God in which they came to a unique and special knowledge of God. Some even moved in the direction of pantheism, claiming that they eventually would become God. Others denied the reality of sin as well as the need for atonement. This was because the inner voice that spoke to them did not speak of sin or of atonement. It spoke only of union with God.
Not all mysticism was of this radical form. Some mystics turned their attention to Scripture, yet relied also on the inner voice of God for the true knowledge of God. The effect was that in many ways the true revelation of God in Scripture was devalued and the inner voice of God through experience took its place.
We find this kind of thing in the charismatic movement of our own day. Lip service is given the Scriptures, but what really matters is the inner leading of the Spirit and the special gifts that the Spirit gives. Here God speaks and is to be known. This has resulted in a shallow view of sin, the error of perfectionism, and a virtual loss of the atonement of the cross. In the process the true experience of faith is lost.
There are also those who have become very mystical in the area of conversion. A conversion experience is elevated to the all-important element in the Christian’s life. Again, this conversion experience is ill defined. But when one has it, he will know it, and he will live the rest of his life out of it. Because such a conversion is completely subjective and not directed by the Scriptures, doubts always arise as to the genuineness of the conversion. In fact, doubt becomes the norm, even the mark of piety. This leaves the Christian inescapably in the misery of sin.
How important it is to retain the Reformation principle of Scripture alone. God speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures. Through the Word He works faith in His people and confirms it. By that Word He also guides the believer in his experience. And that experience is one of misery over sin, joyful deliverance in Jesus Christ, and deep gratitude, which leads to a life of service to God.