C. In our last interview, Gaius, we discoursed on the influence of truth as it respected our eternal salvation; we will now inquire, if you please, into its influence on the holiness and happiness of Christians in the present state; or, in other words, into the connexion between doctrinal, experimental, and practical religion.
G. Such an inquiry may convince us of the importance of each, and prevent our extolling one branch of religion at the expense of another.
C. What do you mean by experimental religion?
G. Experimental religion may be considered generally and particularly: in general we mean by it the exercise of spiritual or holy affections, such as hope, fear, joy, sorrow, and the like.
C. And what relation do these things bear to Divine truth?
G. Under the agency of the Holy Spirit, they are its immediate effect. To render this matter evident, we need only inquire what have been the best seasons of our life, and our own remembrance will convince us that Divine truth has been at the bottom of all those enjoyments which were truly solid and valuable.
C. Some of the best times in my life have been those in which I have mourned over my sin with godly sorrow.
G. Very well; this holy mourning arose from a sense of your own depravity, a truth plentifully taught in the Bible.
C. I can remember, also, many joyful seasons when I have been in the lively exercise of faith and hope.
G. Very good; but faith has truth for its object, and hope lays hold of a blessed immortality. Take away the doctrine of the cross and the promise of eternal life, and your faith, and hope, and joy would be annihilated.
C. I have heard some persons exclaim against doctrinal preaching, as being dry and uninteresting: “Give me,” say they, “something spiritual and experimental.”
G. Doctrines, it is allowed, may be so represented as to become dry and uninteresting; but Scripture truth is not so in its own nature. The doctrines of the gospel are expressly called “spiritual things,” which are spiritually discerned.
C. Does not the term experience convey the idea of proof or trial?
G. It does; and this is what I had in mind when I said the subject might be considered particularly. Though we use the term to express the exercise of spiritual affections in general, yet it is more accurate to apply it to that proof or trial which we make of Divine things, while passing through the vicissitudes of life.
C. Experimental knowledge, we commonly say in other things, is knowledge obtained by trial.
G. Very true; it is the same in religion. There are many truths taught us in the Divine word, and which we may be said to know by reading; but we do not know them experimentally till we have proved them true by having made the trial.
C. Mention a few examples.
G. We read in the Scriptures of the doctrine of human impotency, and we think we understand it; but we never know this truth properly till we have had proof of it in our own experience. Further, We read of the corruption of the human heart, and think in our early years that we believe it; but it is not till we have passed through a variety of changes, and had experience of its deceitful operations, that we perceive this truth as we ought. Again, We read much of the goodness and faithfulness of God, and we subscribe to each; but we never realize these truths till, having passed through those circumstances in which we have occasion for them, they become imprinted upon our hearts. It is then that we feel their force and taste their sweetness: hence it is that “tribulation worketh patience, and patience experience.” It was, no doubt, a cheering truth at all times that God was the portion of his people; but never did they realize that truth so fully as when they were stripped of their earthly all, and carried into captivity. It was then that they sang, as taught by the prophet, “The Lord is my portion, saith my soul, therefore will I hope in him.”
C. All the experimental religion seems then to bear relation to truth. If taken generally, for the exercise of spiritual affection, truth is here the cause, and these exercises are its immediate effects. If taken more particularly, for that proof or trial which we have of Divine things as we pass through the vicissitudes of life, truth seems here to be the object of which we have experience.
G. True: and the more we have of experimental religion, the more we shall feel ourselves attached to the great doctrines of the gospel, as the bread and water of life, whence arises all our salvation, and all our desire.
C. Will not the connexion between doctrinal and experimental religion account for the ignorance which is attributed to carnal men with respect to Divine things, as that they do not receive them, and cannot know them?
G. It will; nor is there any thing more surprising in it than that a mercenary character should be a stranger to the joys of benevolence, or a dishonest man to the pleasures of a good conscience: they never experienced them, and therefore are utterly in the dark concerning them.
C. Will you give me your thoughts on the influence of truth on holy practice?
G. Perhaps there is no proposition but what has some consequence hanging upon it, and such consequence must be expected to correspond with the nature of the proposition. A truth in natural philosophy will be productive of a natural effect. Divine truth, when cordially imbibed, proves the seed of a godly life. For example: If there be a God that judgeth in the earth, he is to be loved, feared, and adored. If man be a sinner before God, it becomes him to lie low in self-abasement. If salvation be of grace, boasting is excluded. If we be bought with a price, we are not our own, and must not live unto ourselves, but to him who died for us, and rose again. Religious sentiments are called principles, because, when received in the love of them, they become the springs of holy action.
C. Do the Scriptures confirm this view of things?
G. You must have read such passages as the following: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.”—“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”—“Grace and peace be multiplied unto you, through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord.”—“Speak thou the things which become sound doctrine.” I suppose our Lord meant something like this when he told the woman of Samaria, “The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life;” that is, The gospel or doctrine that I preach, when cordially imbibed, shall become a well-spring of heavenly joy and holy activity, rising higher and higher till it terminate in everlasting blessedness.
C. What inference may be drawn from all this?
G. If God has joined these things together, let no man, whether preacher or hearer, attempt to put them assunder.
C. Is it proper to distinguish between doctrinal and experimental religion?
G. If by those terms it were only meant to distinguish between the truth to be known and a spiritual knowledge of it, they are very proper; but if the latter be considered as existing without the former, it is a great mistake.
Excerpt from: “Dialogue III: The Connexion Between Doctrinal, Experimental, and Practical Religion,” in Dialogues and Letters Between Crispus and Gaius.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Controversial Publications. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 2, pp. 652–654). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.