Many people in religion give lip-service to the Scriptures, but in reality guide themselves purely by their own feelings about what has happened to them and their desires for what will happen to them. We often hear things such as “God laid this on my heart” without thought to what God has specially revealed in the Scriptures. I have heard of people saying, “I wouldn’t take a stack of Bibles for what I feel in my heart.”
As an example the danger in basing religious convictions purely upon the interpretation of one’s own experiences consider the religious philosopher John Hick’s “conversion experience” and his subsequent interpretation of it. Hick writes:
[F]or several days I was in a state of intense mental and emotional turmoil during which I became aware of a higher truth and greater reality … changing my recognition … the reality that was pressing in upon me was not only awesomely demanding but also irresistibly attractive, and I entered with great joy and excitement into the world of Christian faith.1
Hick’s account is similar to the stories of many people who claim to have entered the Christian religion. But his “entrance” into religion did not lead him to be consistently committed to any particular religious organization, because, as Paul Badham summarizes,
[Hick] subsequently came to see that there was no necessary connection between this experience and the doctrinal framework into which it was first placed. Like Schleiermacher before him … Hick affirmed the reality and authenticity of the experience itself, while insisting that this did not in any way give binding authority to the system of thought within which it was first articulated.2
Hick was right to conclude that his own experience offered no binding authority, because experience never gives us binding authority. Only Christ does that (Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 3:17). And Christ has not been vague about what He wants us to do. When one reads about true conversion experiences in the book of Acts (e.g., 2:37-47; 8:36-40), he is struck by the clarity and simplicity of the commands and corresponding obedience. People knew what the problem was (sin), they knew what the solution was (penitent obedience, particularly baptism), and they knew what to do after they became saved (faithful living according to the pattern provided by the apostles). Their simple obedience in the first century, unlike Hick’s subjective experience which had no necessary connection to a doctrinal framework, had an explicit connection to a doctrinal framework. The framework stretched all the way from the creation of the world, to the Old Testament foreshadowing of the coming Messiah, to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, to the very moment at which the scheme of redemption touched their very lives. The same framework stretched on into the future, because it included the purchase of the church to which they were added upon their baptism (Acts 2:47; Colossians 1:13). They understood clearly that salvation was available only through the Christ of history (Acts 17:30; 1 Timothy 2:5).
The conversion of the Christians during the apostolic age was a response of obedience—not mere subjective feeling—to objective data, presented by those carrying the authority of God. Why should our attempts at conversion today be anything less?