Is Christianity a life based in experience or is it a Doctrine?


by Mike Ratliff

6 In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. (1 Timothy 4:6 NASB)

From January 1986 until the late fall of 2005 I probably would have, if asked, responded to the question in the title that Christianity is a life or at least a relationship while doctrine, though unnecessary, helps us understand that. I didn’t really believe during that time that doctrine was of any real value. Why? My whole understanding of Christianity is that it is based on my experience. For some odd reason I didn’t think much past that in an attempt to understand why my experience would be so radically different than other Christians’ experience.

Let us reason together here. Lay aside, for now, your preconceived notions that Christianity is based entirely in our experiences and feelings. I know that most professing believers hold this because of the way we disciple new believers. How often have you seen Christians unintentionally put down their weaker brethren by relating their “experiences” in our faith and implying that they are what all believers should be experiencing or they are not mature or maybe not really saved?

I don’t post many of the comments I receive on Possessing the Treasure because of the hateful attitudes expressed therein or the fact that the one commenting violated one or more of the rules we have here for comments. In any case, occasionally someone will leave a comment in which they say something like this as they critique what we teach and hold here. “We don’t need any creeds or confessions! We just need to know Jesus! You are a Pharisee who is in bondage to your legalism!” I find it interesting that no scripture is ever used in these things, only the repeating of phrases from their favorite preacher or author. The reason I brought this up here is that I wanted you to get the perspective of the two views. I confess that, even if I never expressed it to anyone, I held the very same views prior to late 2005.

Here is an exerpt from the article by J. Gresham Machen titled “Liberal Christianity is not Christian” that is right before this post.

But, it will be said, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The assertion is often made, and it has an appearance of godliness. But it is radically false, and to detect its falsity one does not need to be a Christian. For to say that “Christianity is a life” is to make an assertion in the sphere of history. The assertion does not lie in the sphere of ideals; it is far different from saying that Christianity ought to be a life, or that the ideal religion is a life. The assertion that Christianity is a life is subject to historical investigation exactly as is the assertion that the Roman Empire under Nero was a free democracy. Possibly the Roman Empire under Nero would have been better if it had been a free democracy, but the historical question is simply whether as a matter of fact it was a free democracy or no. Christianity is an historical phenomenon, like the Roman Empire, or the Kingdom of Prussia, or the United States of America. And as an historical phenomenon it must be investigated on the basis of historical evidence.

Is it true, then, that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life? The question can be settled only by an examination of the beginnings of Christianity. Recognition of that fact does not involve any acceptance of Christian belief; it is merely a matter of common sense and common honesty. At the foundation of the life of every corporation is the incorporation paper, in which the objects of the corporation are set forth. Other objects may be vastly more desirable than those objects, but if the directors use the name and the resources of the corporation to pursue the other objects they are acting “ultra vires” of the corporation. So it is with Christianity. It is perfectly conceivable that the originators of the Christian movement had no right to legislate for subsequent generations; but at any rate they did have an inalienable right to legislate for all generations that should choose to bear the name of “Christian.” It is conceivable that Christianity may now have to be abandoned, and another religion substituted for it; but at any rate the question what Christianity is can be determined only by an examination of the beginnings of Christianity.

The beginnings of Christianity constitute a fairly definite historical phenomenon. The Christian movement originated a few days after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. It is doubtful whether anything that preceded the death of Jesus can be called Christianity. At any rate, if Christianity existed before that event, it was Christianity only in a preliminary stage. The name originated after the death of Jesus, and the thing itself was also something new. Evidently there was an important new beginning among the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem after the crucifixion. At that time is to be placed the beginning of the remarkable movement which spread out from Jerusalem into the Gentile world–the movement which is called Christianity.

About the early stages of this movement definite historical information has been preserved in the Epistles of Paul, which are regarded by all serious historians as genuine products of the first Christian generation. The writer of the Epistles had been in direct communication with those intimate friends of Jesus who had begun the Christian movement in Jerusalem, and in the Epistles he makes it abundantly plain what the fundamental character of the movement was.

But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modem sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It is perfectly clear that the first Christian missionaries did not simply come forward with exhortation; they did not say: “Jesus of Nazareth lived a wonderful life of filial piety, and we call upon you our hearers to yield yourselves as we have done to the spell of that life.” Certainly that is what modem historians would have expected the first Christian missionaries to say, but it must be recognized at least that as a matter of fact they said nothing of the kind. They came forward, not merely with an exhortation or with a program, but with a message,–with an account of something that had happened a short time before. “Christ died for our sins,” they said, “according to the Scriptures; he was buried; he has been raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” – J. Gresham Machen

Ever since late in 2005 I have been looking for a way to express the very thing Dr. Machen said in these few paragraphs. Real Christianity is a life that is lived according to the doctrine of which our faith consists. This doctrine, or as some like to say, this “systematic theology,” is based on what happened when Jesus came, lived, died, resurrected, and ascended all based on why He came and lived the way He did and died the way He did and rose from the dead the way He did, and ascended into Heaven the way He did. This is our doctrine and as Dr. Machen said, this is what the early Christians preached. They did not preach to people the “good news” that Jesus came to make their lives better. No, they preached that Jesus came and died in their place so that God’s wrath against their sin was placed on Him instead. They preached that while the Holy Spirit worked in the hearers’ hearts to draw them to the truth. They were regenerated and they believed and repented and received Christ as Lord and Saviour.

Was their faith a life full of experience or is it eternal life founded on the Gospel? You may be saying, “What’s the difference?” Well, the difference is that the former leads people to believe that they are genuine Christians because of their experiences and feelings while the latter confirms to believers that they are Christians because of what their doctrine tells them about all who believe.

16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NASB)

Is Christianity a life or is it a doctrine? Yes, I know that as we mature as Christians, learning to pray and serve and study the Word that we will have “experiences” and “feelings.” I know this because I experience these things too. However, is my Christianity based in these things or is it based in what God’s Word tells me is true? Our foundation for living in and by God’s grace is to obey His Word and we can’t do that unless we know His word. Those claiming that we do not need any creeds or confessions or doctrine or theology are those who say Christianity is a life and our feelings are what determines our authenticity.

I have never met a mature believer who has not at some time or other suffered a period of time when God seemed millions of miles away and their hearts were as dry towards God as could be. Does this mean they aren’t Christians because they are going through this? Nonsense! No, and I have never seen one of these mature believers who did not once again attain their joy after spending some time in prayer and worship and meditation on God’s Word. When they come back they will tell you that the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word was the means of their comfort because of the promises therein which God opened up to their heart.

Christianity is a life that is lived in light of the doctrine of Christianity. Those who  deny the necessity of theology or doctrine are also saying we have no need of Christology. That is the doctrine which describes Christ. That is utter nonsense my brethren. Christianity based on feelings has no foundation. This form of Christianity has its roots in relativism, which means it is a form of Liberalism or Modernism or Post-Modernism.

The more we come to understand these truths the more we also are able to “see” that God is Sovereign and He is not haphazard in His ways. No one is a Christian outside of His Sovereign Grace. No one is a Christian on their own terms. All in Christ came to be there by God’s grace through faith, not of themselves, it is a gift from God, that no one may boast. How do we know this? Isn’t this found in Ephesians 2:8-9 and isn’t it found in our doctrine of salvation? We must not allow relativism to poison our minds here, but, instead, let us seek the Lord and His truth, live by it according to His grace as the Holy Spirit fills our spiritual sails, moving us to walk where and how God desires.

Soli Deo Gloria!

6 thoughts on “Is Christianity a life based in experience or is it a Doctrine?

  1. Mike you don’t know how much I needed to hear this. You are an instrument in God’s hand.

    I thank Him for you.


  2. Hi Mike,

    You wrote: “I have never met a mature believer who has not at some time or other suffered a period of time when God seemed millions of miles away and their hearts were as dry towards God as could be. Does this mean they aren’t Christians because they are going through this? Nonsense!”

    Thanks for writing this, it is such an important thing for believers to know – the Christian life is not linear, it is highly dynamic and complex, filled with plateaus and valleys, as varied as we are as humans.

    And thank you for emphasizing the importance to check your feelings with the scripture. Theology and doctrine ARE important!!!! Every believer is a theologian; just a matter of whether they’re getting their theology from the right place! 😉


  3. Christianity is a life lived…by the doctrine once given (and not recently I might add), which is, in a nut shell: “Not my free will but Your Will be done Lord…here on earth as it is done in heaven.”

    Stellar post brother! Thanks for your regular, accurate and Christ centered teachings.


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