When God Moves In: My Experience with Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians
Published in Indelible Ink: 22 Prominent Christian Leaders Discuss the Books That Shape Their Faith. Edited by Scott Larsen, WaterBrook Press, 2003. Also published in 2016 as chapter 7 of Renewing The Christian Mind (HarperOne Publishers).
The one book other than the Bible that has most influenced me is a little-known book by James Gilchrist Lawson, called Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians. It was first published in 1911 by The Warner Press of Anderson, Indiana, and was most recently republished in 2000 by Barbour Publishing of Uhrichsville, Ohio.
From a literary or scholarly point of view the book is of little distinction, which perhaps explains why it is not widely known and seems never to have been widely read or influential. But, given to me in 1954 by a college classmate, Billy Glenn Dudley, it entered my life at a very appropriate time, and, perhaps even more important, it opened to me inexhaustible riches of Christ and his people through the ages. This brought before me, in turn, a world of profound Christian literature of much greater significance for the understanding and practice of life in Christ than that book itself.
The peculiar doctrinal slant of the author led him to interpret "deeper experiences" almost entirely in terms of the filling with, or baptism in, the Holy Spirit. That is an unfortunate grid to place upon the "deeper experiences" of famous or not-so-famous Christians, as becomes quite clear from the "experiences" of the individuals described in the book. But, fortunately, that peculiar slant did not hinder the author from going, in considerable detail, into what actually happened in the lives of a wide range of outstanding followers of Christ-few of whom would have shared anything close to his view of the relationship between filling or baptism and deeper experiences of God.
The book begins with discussions of biblical characters, from Enoch to the Apostle Paul. Then, interestingly, it takes up certain "Gentile Sages" (Greek, Persian and Roman) which are also described as under the influence of God's Holy Spirit. Then a section is devoted to outstanding Christians of the early centuries of the Church, and, finally, a section (very brief) to "Reformed Churches" and the Reformation period.
The first individual selected by Lawson for a separate chapter was Girolamo Savonarola (born 1452), a major precursor of the Protestant Reformation. What most struck me about Savonarola—and I truly was smitten—was his drive toward holiness, toward a different and a supernatural kind of life—a life "from above"—and his readiness to sacrifice all to achieve such a life. Indeed this is what stood out in all of the people Lawson dealt with in his book. And the deeper experiences that brought them forward on their way clearly were not all fillings, or baptisms, with the Holy Spirit, though no doubt the Spirit was always involved and genuine fillings and baptisms occurred.
The experiences of these people did from time to time have the character of a filling or baptism, but more often than not they were moments of realization, of extreme clarity of insight into profound truth, together with floods of feeling arising therefrom. These experiences often were what George Fox called "openings," and they went right to the bone and changed the life forever.
Thus, of John Bunyan Lawson writes, "Bunyan's complete deliverance from his dreadful doubts and despair came one day while he was passing through a field. Suddenly the sentence fell upon his soul, 'Thy righteousness is in heaven.' By the eye of faith he seemed to see Jesus, his righteousness, at God's right hand. He says, 'Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed; I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that, from that time, those dreadful Scriptures of God left off to trouble me! Now went I also home rejoicing, for the grace and love of God'." (p. 133, 2000 edition)
I think the book's effect on me will be better understood if we indicate the individuals singled out for chapter-length treatment. After Savanarola came Madam Guyon, François Fenelon, George Fox, John Bunyan, John Wesley, George Whitefield, John Fletcher, Christmas Evans, Lorenzo Dow, Peter Cartwright, Charles G. Finney, Billy Bray, Elder Jacob Knapp, George Müller, A. B. Earle, Frances Ridley Havergal, A. J. Gordon, D. L. Moody, General William Booth, and, in the final chapter, "Other Famous Christians" (Thomas à Kempis, William Penn, Dr. Adam Clarke, William Bramwell, William Carvosso, David Brainerd, Edward Payson, Dorothea Trudel, Pastor John Christolph Blumhardt, Phoebe Palmer, and P.P. Bliss).
Now clearly this is a very selective and not well-balanced list of "famous Christians." But that was not something that bothered me as I took up the book and studied it. In fact, that these were, by and large, quite ordinary people only impressed me all the more that the amazing life into which they were manifestly led could be mine. I had been raised in religious circles of very fine people where the emphasis had been exclusively on faithfulness to right beliefs, and upon bringing others to profess those beliefs. Now that, of course, is of central importance. But when that alone is emphasized, the result is a dry and powerless religious life, no matter how sincere, and one constantly vulnerable to temptations of all kinds.
Therefore, to see actual invasions of human life by the presence and action of God, right up into the twentieth century, greatly encouraged me to believe that the life and promises given in the person of Christ and in scripture were meant for us today. I saw that ordinary individuals who sought the Lord would find Him real—actually, that He would come to them and convey His reality. It was clear that these "famous Christians" were not seeking experiences, not even experiences of the filling or baptism of the Spirit. They were seeking the Lord, His kingdom and His holiness. (Matthew 6:33)
Seeking was clearly, from the lives portrayed, a major part of life in Christ. The "doctrinal correctness alone" view of Christianity was, in practice, one of nonseeking. It was basically one of "having arrived," not of continuous seeking, and the next essential stop on its path was heaven after death. But in the light of these "famous Christians" it became clear to me that the path of constant seeking, as portrayed in the Bible (for example, Philippians 3:7-15, Colossians 3:1-17, 2 Peter 1:2-11, etc.), was the life of faith intended for us by God. Salvation by grace through faith was a life, not just an outcome; and the earnest and unrelenting pursuit of God was not "works salvation" but the natural expression of the faith in Christ which saves. Constant discipleship, with its constant seeking for more grace and life, was the only sensible response to confidence in Jesus as the Messiah. And the natural (supernatural) accompaniment of that response would of course be intermittent but not infrequent experiences of God, some deeper and some not so deep.
Now "deeper" also meant "broader." Lawson was remarkably unbiased in his selection of the "famous Christians," and this taught me a lot. The individuals selected for presentation ranged very broadly as to cultural and denominational connections. There were a lot of Baptists in the group, which was my own denominational background. That helped me. But there were also Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Salvation Army, and others.
Seeing that the experience of God in the calling to holiness and power did not respect sectarian boundaries taught me that I should disregard a lot of things that make for doctrinal and practical insularity in others, and place no weight upon them for myself.
It taught me, in Paul's lovely image, to distinguish the treasure from the vessel (2 Corinthians 4:7) and to attend to the treasure: Christ living in the individual life, and the individual living into obedience to Christ. The blessing of God has a natural tendency among men to create denominations, but denominations have no tendency to uniquely foster the blessing of God on anyone. We can and often should honor a denomination or tradition because God has blessed those within it. But it, after all, is the vessel and not the treasure. And we humbly acknowledge this to be true of our vessel as well.
The hunger for holiness, and for power to stand in holiness, to the blessing of multitudes of people, also knows no social or economic boundaries. This too was very important to me and was made brilliantly clear in the lives of the "famous Christians," many of whom were of no standing among humanity, or who disowned their standing. Not only did that give me hope personally, but it opened afresh the events of scripture for me, and showed for modern times how "unlearned and ignorant men" (Acts 4:13) could bring the knowledge and reality of God to the world. It showed how God and one individual, no matter how insignificant in the eyes of men, could make a great difference for good. I resolved that should anything come of my life and ministry it would not be because of my efforts to make that happen.
As I moved on from Lawson's book to study the works of these and many other "famous Christians," it was first of all The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis, that became my constant companion. Then it was the works of John Wesley, and especially his "Journal" and the standard set of his "Sermons." Then William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, and Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying. Then the various writings of Charles Finney, especially his Autobiography and Revival Lectures.
As my reading broadened, the writings of Luther and Calvin, along with the later Puritan writers, meant much to me, especially in filling out a theology that could support the spiritual life as one of discipleship and the quest for holiness and power in Christ, without the least touch of perfectionism or meritorious works. (Book III of Calvin's Institutes has been especially helpful in this regard.) I learned that the follies of discipleshipless 'Christianity' and of what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace" could never be derived from Luther or Calvin.
These great Christian writings meshed closely with the continuous reading of philosophers, from Plato on, which I began upon graduation from High School and continued through two years of life as a migrant agricultural worker. (I carried a volume of Plato in my duffle bag.)
The effect of all my reading has been constantly to bring me back to the Bible, and especially the Gospels, and to find in Jesus and his teachings--in what Paul rightly called "the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Ephesians 3:8)--the wisdom and reality for which the human being vainly strives on its own.
Jesus answers the four great questions of life: What is real? (God and his kingdom.) Who is well off or "blessed"? (Anyone alive in the kingdom of God.) Who is a genuinely good person? (Anyone possessed and permeated with agape, God's kind of love.) And how can I become a genuinely good person? (By being a faithful apprentice of Jesus in kingdom living, learning from him how to live my life as he would live my life if he were I.)
These are the questions which every human being must answer, because of the very nature of life, and which every great teacher must address. Jesus Christ answers them in the Gospels and, then, in his people, in a way that becomes increasingly understandable and experimentally verifiable, and as no other person on earth has ever answered them. He evades no question and ducks no issues. The present age is waiting for his disciples to do the same today.
I never cease to be thankful for James Gilchrist Lawson and his little book. It came to me at the right time and helped me to see the actual presence of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom and Spirit in the real life of real people. Thus it helped me to know something of "what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe, in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenlies." (Eph. 12:18-20)
Any reader should take from the reading of this book the simple but profound truth that they too can know by experience the truths of Christ and his kingdom that are set forth in the Bible: that if with all their heart they truly seek God, they will be found and claimed by him. (Jeremiah 29:13) This is what human life is for.