The Puritan Thomas Goodwin reports walking down the road one day behind a father walking hand in hand with his young son. Suddenly, the father stoops down and picks up the boy and begins lavishing him with hugs and kisses. Goodwin asks the question, “Is that boy at that moment anymore his son than when he walked down the road holding his father’s hand?”
The answer, of course, is ‘no’; the boy is not anymore his son than when he previously held his father’s hand. His status as a boy loved by his father hasn’t changed, but his experience of that love certainly did! In this way, the Puritans defined the difference between mere knowledge of the truth and the experience of that truth. The experience of truth they referred to as the ‘kisses of God.’ By this, they referred to certain times when the Father of lights lavishes his love on his children in such a way; their experience of that love is greatly heightened.
It would be easy, by this, to assume that the Puritans were like many modern Christians today who seek experiences above the knowledge of the truth. But if we did, we would be grossly mistaken. These men and women were among the most doctrinally sound believers the Church has ever known. They were masters of the Bible, which any Puritan sermon would abundantly reveal. Yet at the same time, they also knew that God intended doctrine not only to satisfy the intellect (a necessity), but be enjoyed by our emotions and wills as well. The goal of Puritan meditation was not only to establish the truth firmly in the mind, but to excite the emotions and therefore empower the will.
The prayer of Paul in Ephesians 3:14-19 makes this evident. Paul is writing to people who are already indwelt by the Spirit of God having been regenerated. But he wants them now to “grasp the truth” experientially as well as academically. The word comprehend is a Greek word katalambano which means to ‘seize’ or ‘lay hold of’ an object, sometimes violently. This seems a strange way of talking about the love of God. But Tim Keller reminds us that “Paul is talking about meditating and pondering something until you break through, until, as we say, it ‘hits you” (Prayer, Tim Keller). He goes on to describe how this occurs—“through the Spirit’s blessing of our meditation on the saving work of Jesus.” Meditation is the means by which believers grasp the breadth, length, height, and depth of the love of God.
Some believers can perfectly parrot the doctrine of the love of God, but they remain cold and sterile, unmoved by it. They have a “knowledge of the truth” but to quote the Puritan John Owen, they remain strangers to the “power of the knowledge of the truth.” But God never meant for the glorious Doctrines of Grace to be known merely academically only, but to move us to the depth of our beings. The Puritans constantly wrote about the need for the experience of the truth. Puritans like the great John Own were “unabashedly experiential.” Owen wrote: “Let us not mistake ourselves. To be spiritually minded is not to have the notion and knowledge of spiritual things in our minds; it is not to be constant, no, nor to abound, in the performance of duties; both which may be when there is no grace in the heart at all.”
Tim Keller reminds us that “you can have all the sound doctrine possible and be fastidiously performing your ethical and religious duties according to biblical principles and have ‘no grace in the heart at all.’” What then is the essence of true Christianity? John Owen responds by saying, “it is to have our minds exercised with delight about heavenly things, the things that are above, especially Christ Himself as at the right hand of God.”
Of course, Owen tied spiritual experience to Scripture. He was wary of the mysticism developed in the medieval church. Today, many of those seeking mystical experiences are often not wedded to Scripture and sound doctrine. Before they can be exhorted to know the ‘power of the knowledge of the truth’ they must first know the ‘knowledge of the truth.’ Meditating on Scripture so as to really experience the power of the truth is not a clever technique; it requires a deep love of the truth and a desire to make it our own.
Owen spoke much of the need for ‘light.’ By ‘light’ Owen means our knowledge of right teaching or doctrine. But he went on to say that “our doctrinal and biblical knowledge cannot leave the affections behind.” For example, if we believe that the God of the universe really loves us, it should make us unshakeable in the presence of criticism and rejection. To quote Tim Keller, “If doctrinal soundness is not accompanied by heart experience, it will lead eventually to nominal Christianity—that is, in name only—and eventually to nonbelief. The irony is that many conservative Christians, most concerned about conserving true and sound doctrine, neglect the importance of prayer and make to effort to experience God, and this can lead to the eventual loss of sound doctrine.”
The first thing all should seek is to be well established in the “knowledge of the truth.” But one must not stop there but go on to ensure one’s affections experience the truth, which is held in the mind. Only in this way can we be assured that the truth in our minds leads us to the experience of the truth in our knowledge of God.