“This is life to know God” – John 17:3
Thesis: The problem that Christianity is mandated to solve is the problem of sin. Mankind falls desperately short of the glory of God’s moral perfections. The ultimate root cause of mankind’s sin problem is his alienation from God. Both of these points are agreed upon by all Christians. But where Christians differ is in their understanding of the Gospel’s role in solving the problem of our subjective experience of life, what I am calling "the problem of existence". In what follows, I will attempt to show that to solve the sin problem we must solve the “problem of existence” or the existential problem of fear, shame, guilt, alienation, powerlessness, and hopelessness. This problem of existence is only solved through conscious contact with God. In other words, the key to solving the sin problem is to solve the subjective experience of alienation from God and not just the objective reality of alienation from God.
Where Christians Agree – Our Problem is Spiritual
As Christians, our faith is that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. The good news, the salvation, that we preach is that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that the kingdom of God addresses the true root cause of the human dilemma. Our faith is that the true human problem is not a medical problem; it is not a political problem, BUT we preach that at the root cause of all of human misery is a spiritual problem. That spiritual problem is first and foremost that mankind is alienated and separated from God, our Father and our Creator. Upon being reconciled with God, the most basic and fundamental problem with human existence is addressed and the potential at least for a better existence is within reach. All Christians agree with this most basic gospel. Human beings are objectively alienated from God and Jesus Christ has provided the solution to this problem.
Where Christians begin to diverge in both theory and in practice is with respect to the extent to which the Gospel solves mankind's subjective experience of this alienation from God and the role that our subjective experiences of God play in overcoming the problem of sin.
The Conservative Evangelical Approach to the Human Problem
Before I begin this discussion, I would like to say that I do not think the labels conservative and charismatic are all that helpful. Nonetheless, I am going to use these terms to illustrate a distinction in approaches to the faith, and I think making this distinction is important to validate the role of experience in solving the problem of sin.
Speaking as a conservative evangelical, we might approach the human problem using the following line of reasoning.
Mankind's fundamental problem is the problem of guilt. The human being is guilty before God, and this guilt is an objective fact. Our subjective experience of guilt, if we are aware of it, is the consequence of a real objective guilt. We have within us an understanding of the will of God and the law of God. The law of God is written on our hearts as a consequence of being created in the image of God. This knowledge of the moral law of God is intuitive and essential to being human. In fact, it is this claim that our moral sense is a by-product of the metaphysical reality of God that new atheists, like Richard Dawkins, contend is not a metaphysical reality at all but is merely a by-product of evolution. In other words, morality is an evolutionary imperative not the imperative of our unseen and metaphysical nature.
The evangelical answer to how the gospel meets this fundamental problem is as follows. Faith is the acceptance that we are indeed objectively guilty and through faith alone in the biblical or apostolic understanding of the crucification of Jesus Christ reconciles us with God. The result of our faith is that we are positionally or objectively no longer guilty before God. Our status with God is objectively changed. What is key to this approach to the gospel is that the subjective problem of guilt is not the real problem and therefore the subjective problem of guilt is not the aim of the gospel. If one “feels” forgiven or not is not essential. If one “feels” forgiven is a secondary benefit but not essential to solving the human problem. This benefit is at best only partially experienced in this life but will be profoundly experienced only in the life to come. Here is the key difference between the charismatic/Pentecostal Christian and the conservative/non-charismatic Christian. The conservative believes that a profound change of character occurs through faith in the objective element of the gospel regardless of one's subjective experience of forgiveness and God's love. In fact to expect a profound subjective experience might lead one away from simple faith in the objective facts.
On the other hand, Charismatic/Pentecostal Christian agrees with the objective aspect of the Christian's salvation through faith alone but the more charismatic Christian adds that the Gospel fully intends the Christian to experience their reconciliation with God subjectively or in their conscious experience. In fact, in practice the Charimatic leaning Christian beleives that subjective experience through the Holy Spirit is necessary to have a profound change of character. (Note: I agree with the connection between experience and life transformation but I do not think the profound change of character lasts more than one day at a time. I find I only act truly beautifully when I am in that instance experiencing God's immediate presence.)
In this regard, and I hope I say this correctly, I side with more the Charismatic camp of the church. This distinction is absolutely vital, and is foundational with respect to our expectations of the Gospel and our methods in discipleship. Here is where I need to say this correctly.
The most basic difference between “charismatc/pentacostal” Christians and “conservative” Christians is the extent to which they directly address "the problem of existence”. By “the problem with existence”, I mean the problem of the “feeling” of fear, dread, insecurity, guilt, defeat, and shame, just to name a few. The real power of the gospel is it’s ability to directly address one’s subjective conscious experience of life. I am firmly find myself in this more spiritual or experiential approach to the Christian faith and I intend to argue and contend for this approach as the only path to a testimony of life transformation.
The "Conservative" and the “Charismatic” Approaches to the Faith
Let’s begin to look a little at the difference between these two approaches to the faith.
Both approaches, conservative and Charismatic, see the ultimate root cause of the problem as mankind’s objective alienation from God, but the extent to which the gospel directly meets and solves a person’s existential problem or the problem of existence is quite different in the two camps. For the conservative, and again I do not like these labels, the existential problem or subjective problem is not seen as within the chain of causes and problems that the gospel is directly addressing, or, stated even stronger, the subjective conscious problems are only solved when they are ignored. In conservatiev thinking, to confess and seek a better subjective sense of well-being can sometimes be seen as selfish. Furthermore, in some conservatiev Christian worldviews, the solution to the problem of temporal happiness is only expected to be experienced in the next life. On the contrary, in more experience focused approaches to the faith, it is the subjective problem of fear and guilt and shame that the gospel is meeting very directly. If we view the gospel as directly meeting the subjective or existential problem of fear and guilt and shame and hopelessness, then our ministry and our Christian practices are greatly influenced by an approach which places such a high value on experiences of God.
The Problem of Sin
The differences between these two perspectives on the gospel become very apparent as we begin to approach the problem of sin. Christian discipleship seeks as its fruit victory over sin. (Note, I think focusing on sin is very very appropriate and helpful.) The problem that the bible commands us to address is the problem of sin. I contend that the problem of sin is only solved when we solve, day by day, the subjective problem of fear, guilt, shame, anger and all the innumerable inner problems that we encounter as living, conscious, moral beings. Fear and shame and anger and hopelessness, the dread of existence, is only met by the immediate conscious knowledge of God. To know God in our experience is life.
When we discuss as a community what we are attempting to give to the thirsty sinner, my answer is always the presence of God or “the worship experience”. For example, a person is lonely. They feel helpless and hopeless. They seek to medicate this problem through innumerable dysfunctional means. We all desperately need to feel good about ourselves and our place in life. Most human beings simply ignore these problems and medicate to some degree. This intentional ignorance is called denial. This denial works well until we decide in earnest to tackle the problem of sin.
Focusing on sin and our character flaws and shortcomings surfaces our need for a change of our inner person and profound changes to our inner motivations. Over time as we continue to battle, if we are honest, we come to the conclusion that at the root of our problems is the problem of subjective alienation from God. We live out of a deep impulse toward self-preservation. Self-preservation leads to anger and resentments and a million other fors of self-centered fear. The call to live the cross becomes to us an impossible quest. Our carnal attempts to solve the problem of sin makes us aware of our inner motivations of fear and anger. we thirst for a better more holy existence where we can say we truly live in love and freedom instead of fear and resentment. We sin because we thirst and we thirst for God. The solution to the problem of sin finds its power in the conscious experience of peace and safety that come only from God. The solution to sin is in overcoming the subjective problem of alienation from God.
If this is our approach and our understanding of the disolution to the problem of sin, then we do all we can to help people experience God directly. Our worship practices are acts of seeking God. Our confession practices are not a duty but a means to obtaining eyes to see God. Our acts of service are a means to find God in doing good work with God. All of these disciplines are means to finding true freedom from the self-centeredness that characterizes all life apart from conscious contact with God.
My experience in my personal life and in ministry is that people, myself included, only act truly lovingly and selflessly when they are immediately aware of God. I only understand grace and mercy when I experience grace and mercy from God.
Picture a broken sinner and all his dysfunction. Is there any way for this person to have a profound change of character without a direct experience of God Himself? If he is alone and fearful and shattered by trauma and shame, how can we help? We cannot. We can only help to the extent to which God is present with us. It is only God’s voice that can tell this person that they have dignity. Only God can speak to the spirit of a person.
The Woman At The Well
Jesus’ ministry to the woman at the well is a wonderful text to understand how real salvation in this life works. The woman at the well was a religious sinner. Jesus cut through all this smokescreen of religion and asked her to "go get her husband". This question was intended to surface the SIN PROBLEM. Jesus went straight to the point and surfaced the sin problem. Then, what did Jesus offer the woman to solve this need for real salvation, salvation from the practice of sin. He said… “You come here because you thirst, I give a water that if you drink it you will no longer thirst”. Thirst is a subjective sense of pain. This thirst is the subjective problem of our existence. Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit meets us at the point of the problem of our existence. The holy spirit meets us in our fear and our dread and our hopelessness and purposelessness and He fills us with a joy unspeakable. Only a subjective experience of God that meets directly our "problem of existence" that solves the root cause of our natural life. It is only this blessed inner knowledge of God that leads to victory over sin.
Therefore, how are we to minister? We must understand that in order to meet the real spiritual need of people, we must offer them God Himself. We give to people the subjective existential experience of conscious contact with God as the only solution to their problem. We must focus our eyes on our sin to constantly place ourselves in a place of utter dependence and need for God. We must understand that the only power that we have over sin is the power of a conscious relationship with Jesus Christ.