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 …”