My own personal testimony

I was raised a Lutheran, which, I found out later in life, was a good thing. Essentially, Lutheran theology is pretty sound. Now, I’m not saying anything about the current state of that institution, as I haven’t been to a Lutheran church in probably 20 years or more (the last time was probably to a funeral). I’m just saying that core Lutheran theology – the theology you’ll find dating back a few hundred years – is good stuff.

But, then the Jesus movement hit, and I was bombarded with teachings all centered around the need for me to have a “personal” relationship with Jesus, and a “personal” testimony. It was no longer good enough just to believe the truth. It’s tough for a Lutheran kid to all of a sudden be surrounded by people who could tell you the exact moment they were “saved.” My testimony, on the other hand, was pretty bland. “Well, I was raised in church, and believe in Jesus, and, well, that’s about it.” No big sins, no major doubts, I never dabbled in Satan worship or did drugs (although as weird as I am, some people refuse to believe this). I was just a good Lutheran kid. My Baptist friends doubted I was saved.

The Jesus Movement led to the Great Evangelical Swell that has now engulfed us, and even a whole lot of Lutherans now have personal testimonies. In America (I can only speak of what I know), Christianity has become a personal, if not personalized religion; that is, American Evangelical theology is built around an individual experience or understanding of the Gospel, and around a personal experience of forgiveness. It’s not enough to be able to state (with meaning) the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed; a higher form of belief is to be able to say, “I once was lost but now I’m found, and my life is so much better now.”

You know what? Personal testimonies are not necessarily bad things; but there’d better be something better than your personal testimony, because to be honest, your experience, and your understanding, and your own personal faith are not really all that impressive. Do you know how many people avoid church just because of the testimony of Christians? Do you get what I’m saying here?

Furthermore, personal testimonies tend to change with the circumstances. I’m not talking about the rehearsed speech you may have about the day you went forward at a rock concert- I’m talking about your current, ongoing Christian experience. It may be okay today, but what about next week? What happens with life turns upside-down, and your “fruit” sours, or your faith waivers, or depression hits? It happens, people!

A “personal” testimony – the natural result of a “personal” religion – is faulty because your testimony and your religion are not founded on Jesus; it’s all based on you and your perceptions, and often what you want to believe. Our experiences and our perceptions are just not very reliable. To say, “I believe this because I experienced that” may work in this culture, where personal experience is paramount. However, personal experience is not an adequate foundation.

In this culture, we tend to think we can have the kind of religion that we want. However, it doesn’t matter what kind of God you want to worship. It doesn’t matter if you happen to choose to believe in a pre-trib rapture or in a 10,000% return on your tithe (yeah, I heard that guaranteed on TBN last week). It doesn’t matter what kind of experience you want with your religion. It doesn’t matter if you want to believe in a pacifist God, or in a judgmental, finger-pointing God. God never asked you what kind of a God you wanted…

That same preacher who guaranteed the amazing return on your giving (only if you sent it to him, though) also said something quite profound: “If something is true, it’s true for everybody.” Bingo!

What I’m not saying

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with having a personal connection with God, a personal experience of God, a warm feeling in your heart, or whatever. There is definitely to be a personal aspect to our relationship with God, including some kind of personal experience. In his various letters, Paul seems to assume that people do have some kind of personal experience when they receive the Holy Spirit, and in Galatians 3, he asks that they think back: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law, or because you believed?” It’s good, it’s fine, it’s a normal Christian experience.

What I am saying

However, my point remains: you can’t base your Christianity just on your experience, or just on your own testimony. There’s something better. When your life is in crisis or your faith comes under attack, you need something a bit more solid than, “well, I believed (or felt, or experienced) that once.”

You need God’s testimony. That’s why the Bible is so important. Way back in Genesis, God kept reminding people of His testimony: “I am the God who …” Read through the Gospel of John; the whole focus of the book is to present God’s testimony of who Jesus is, and why he came. (The other books in the Bible do the same thing.)

What you want, what you believe, and what you’ve experienced, is largely immaterial. The demons believe, Hindus have experience. What God believes is critical.

Would you like to know my personal testimony? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …”

10 thoughts on “My own personal testimony”

  1. Patti, you raise a number of issues. Paul tells the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:18,19), “…when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”

    I do believe that the Holy Spirit will bring us into all truth, but also know that our “knowledge is imperfect” and “know in part” (1 Cor 13). We become unified when we acknowledge that no one theological system has it all together, no group is perfect, and we all have a part of the truth. The core issues, such as the deity of Jesus, etc., are shared by the whole church – the “incidentals” we like to argue about. By comparing the various teachings against the whole of the church, it becomes easier to see who’s a bit off. (As a pastor friend of mine says, it also would help if people would just read the Bible.)

    It’s true, our thinking and beliefs are colored by our experience and teaching we’ve been subjected to. It takes work to shake that off and try to see the Bible for what it really says. And, Fatherhood issues are rampant in the church, extremely common. I take faith in what Jesus said in John 6, that his job was not to lose any that the Father brought to him. I believe he can do it…

    Now: The Red Hymnal! I don’t know if Missouri used it or not (I was ACLU – one of the liberal lutherans); it was in use during the 60’s-70’s. The 2nd setting was the liturgy used during Lent, if I recall – it was in a minor key, was very, very rich. I wish I had a recording of it.

  2. Hi! Ex-Lutheran here.(LCMS) I hear what you’re saying. One objective-what about the Holy Spirit to led us into all truth? I mean if we’re tuned into Him won’t the interpretation of the Word be the same. Is that what it means to come to the unity of the faith?
    Anyway, I pretty much stay in a confused state with all the options for following Jesus, and with all other people have said they’ve experienced. I find that I come up wanting.
    All that I’ve thought that I’ve heard from the Lord heretofore I’m considering a washout because I believe it’s been filtered through my cloudy lenses. (Effects my upbringing has had on me.) I don’t even know if I know who God is-I mean His nature. My vision has been flawed by my “personal relationship” with my earth father.
    So, the truth of Jesus Christ never leaving me or forsaking me when I go through these times is pretty comforting and foundational. And that I know His love is everlasting.
    Hey, what is the 2nd setting in the Red Hymnal? How does it go?

  3. Hi John, thanks for your thoughts. btw, I still haven’t had a chance to look at your book, but I’m looking forward to it. (To everyone else, take a look at John’s site: modelinggod.com)

    My theory at this point is that our main difficulty in understanding is that of tunnel vision: we tend to focus too narrowly on particulars, missing the big picture. The problem of humanity in general is that our “field of vision” is narrower than God’s. Furthermore, modernism has tended to narrow our vision even further, where we look at things microscopically. Give people different microscopes, and the chances that they will be looking at the same thing from the same perspective is virtually nil.

    But, that’s a topic for another post…

  4. I’ve been (silently) enjoying your blog for some time, but this latest installment has drawn me in…

    I completely agree with the post. I’d like to take a shot at why we see so many books written about personal experience: people are unable to interpret the Bible in a non-contradictory fashion.

    We learn through BOTH knowledge (Bible) and experience…you do a great job showing that our experience isn’t objective. (We may be hearing from our flesh instead of God.) So we STILL need an objective way to determine whether our experience is truth. Having an understanding of the Bible is the only way.

    However, so many people have mangled interpreting “God’s testimony”, it seems the trendy response is to discredit understanding God’s word, rather than find ways to improve our methods of understanding the Bible.

    Then every discussion about the Bible is really just a decision between which parts to believe and which parts to ignore.

    Perhaps the pendulum will swing back to knowledge in the near future…

  5. It’s been a while since I’ve studied Luther (I do have a copy of the recent movie, but haven’t had time to watch it yet – perhaps we should get together for movie night).

    It’s my recollection that his discovery of justification by faith alone pre-dated the Diet of Worms and the mess that followed. Rather than “inventing” a new framework, it seems rather that he just discovered Paul; in fact Luther identified strongly with Paul as seen through Galatians.

    Certainly there was a personal element to it, rather than just being a Christian “by default” (“default” of de church?). I’m just saying that a 14th century understanding of a “personal salvation” is probably different than how most Evangelicals would define it today. Even being aware of the grid, I still find it hard to see around it. But, I’m trying…

  6. Luther apparently also had some serious doubts about his own salvation experience. Once he distanced himself from the sacramental grace of Church ritual and priestly authority, he had to reinvent his own (read: personal) framework for the redemptive experience. This caused him a great deal of anguish which he may not ever have gotten over. Luther’s revolution was as much a personal quest for assurance as it was an ecclesiatical renovation.

    I like the wine thing too. Mainline has its advantages.

  7. Good word man. I loved it. (But that’s based on my own personal experience with it)

    Fun stuff, I give it a ‘7″

  8. I have considered that, and obviously he has been blamed for a whole lot worse (including some of Hitler’s views). However, to be inperpreted properly, Luther needs to be seen in the context of who he was and where he was coming from. To read him with a post-enlightenment filter changes him considerably (as does reading Jesus or Paul in the same way).

    Luther had no desire or intent to leave the Roman church, and later had some dialog with the Orthodox church, because he still saw that Christianity was not a “me and Jesus” type of thing. The general mindset of interpreting scripture in the Orthodox churches (and, I believe, the earlier Roman church) was that even though the individual could read it for themselves, it was not interpreted absent the input of the whole church, including historical interpretations. Augustine, of course, had a lot to do with how scripture was seen.

    It seems to me that the major factors in the ego-centric gospel are the Renaissance, and later, the Age of Reason/Enlightenment, and while the Renaissance started around Luther’s time, I don’t think it really picked up much steam until a 100 or more years later. It was people like Galileo, Montaigne & Descartes who really instituted the shift to an egocentric mentality. Then, viewing sola scriptura through this grid, paved the way for modern evangelicalism. I don’t think Luther would have approved.

    I tend to value Lutheran theology for a number of reasons, including that it is essentially amillenial, covenantal, corporate and confessional. And, I really loved the liturgy, especially the 2nd Setting in the older Red Hymnal. Not to mention the fact that they used real wine…

  9. It dawns on me that Luther himself, whether he intended it or not, was the impetus for the “personal” testiimony movement. His doctrine of “sola scriptura” ultimately led to the value of the individual’s relationship with God apart from church tradition or authority.

    Could it be that what you value about your religious heritage is decidedly NOT the Lutheranism that Luther jarred into being?

  10. Wow. Just think of how many Christian bestsellers this little position would eliminate. Then again, since nobody actually reads the Bible anymore, you’d basically be eliminating 95% of ALL testimonies.

    Uh, does anyone have a testimony I can borrow?

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