In recent years, many evangelicals have rightly realized that our movement has been guilty of over-emphasis on the individual experience of faith, forgetting that Christ created a Body, not a collection of autonomous individuals. This over-emphasis led to the view that personal experiences such as a “sinner’s prayer” are the sole assurance of our salvation. Sadly, without other assurances these experiences are pretty shaky. Folks become isolated and they doubt their salvation. We lost the sense that personal conversion is one important part of the Christian life, but not the end or whole of it.
Because the evangelical movement over-emphasized personal experience, we lost the assurance that God gives us in the sacraments. These external realities are meant to fortify and strengthen our personal faith.
So many evangelicals, especially in Anglican and other sacramental traditions, have come back to a more full understanding of the ways in which God assures us of his grace and love. We have come to value the reality that we are visibly and externally related to Christ and his People, not just invisibly and personally. Our personal experience of God is a part of our corporate experience of him, not separate from it. We have emphasized that our baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs of God’s presence, assuring us of his presence just as much as our personal experiences of him can.
But one thing we need to retain, from our wonderful evangelical history and forefathers, is the orthodox Christian belief that our faith is personal. No, we don’t “personalize” it, and we don’t experience our faith alone, but it is personal, inward, and experienced. Affection for God and personal experience of his presence and work in our lives flow from the Gospel message.
In Deuteronomy, the People of Israel were called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart…” Jesus reaffirmed this in the Gospels. The Psalms sing of this personal, heart of love for God, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” Paul says that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Our outward confession and our inward, heart-felt belief unite together in God’s gift and grace.
We are not all the same in emotional expression or expression of passion for God. People are unique. The heart is not simply our emotions, although emotions are part of the heart. Our level of conscious enthusiasm and excitement will wax and wane. But the Holy Spirit invades our personal lives, affects our hearts, and turns them toward Christ in faith. We are changed people through our encounter with God. Sometimes that encounter is vivid, immediate, and tangible. At other times it is subdued, quiet, and slowly revealed. In any case, we are called to seek God personally, to follow after him with our hearts, and to pray for him to transform us at the core of our being.
Some folks have never heard the message that the Gospel is for every part of our lives. The outward experience of Church worship and sacraments, a great gift of God, has not been connected to an inward faith. The experience of this inward connection may be dramatic, or it may be quiet; it may be sudden, or it may take time to become visible. But each Christian should seek after it. Ask the Holy Spirit to take all the blessings of the outward experience of God, and to stir up that inward heart of faith. Seek and you shall find!
And all who have experienced God in a personal way pray for the Holy Spirit to once again stir up what St Peter called the “lively faith.” Our hearts are always in need of a gentle turn toward God and others.
Greg is the founder of Anglican Pastor. He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.