“Personal” Relationship with Jesus?

John Suk, in his book Not Sure, a book about a pastor struggling with doubt and faith, spares no softeners when he turns to the widespread belief that the essence of Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus. His contentions are the following:

1. There is no theoretical consensus what this means.
2. Different religious denominations don’t offer official ideas on what it means.
3. Personal relationship has become what the person says it is.

Are you uncomfortable with this “personal relationship with Jesus” language? What do you think of Suk’s proposals?

“The bottom line is that the huge emphasis contemporary evangelicals put on a great personal experience of and with Jesus as the be all and end all [don’t overcook this “be all and end all”] of Christian faith has little or nothing to do with Scripture and everything to do with taking from our culture [individualism precipitates a longing for the personal] what it thinks human happiness is all about” (150). In other words, they are creating their own designer religion. It demythologizes God, humanizes God, shrinks God, and makes religion therapeutic — it’s self-talk too often.

But what about the Bible? Suk has pondered this one:

1. God is present; Jesus is present with us.
2. Jesus is especially present when we serve others.
3. God is sometimes distant; Jesus spoke of his absence (John 7:33, 34; 8:21).
4. Jesus’ absence means the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We want the same kind of relationship we have with a spouse but, Suk says, we can’t (153).

So what is faith? Faith is trust in the promise of God, a promise that says Yes in King Jesus. He says instead of saying “I have a personal relationship with Jesus” we should say “I believe in Jesus.” Faith is to believe in God and to love others (1 John 3:23).

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  • Stephen W

    If a genuine personal relationship with God is not possible (and isn’t better than one could have with a spouse) then I don’t see that there’s any point to Christianity at all – it’s just another religion based on words in a so called “holy book”.

    The Bible tells me that God is my “Father”. A Father who writes a book about himself to give to his children and is then absent from a personal relationship isn’t much of a Father, is he?

    And if part of what Jesus does is show me how to live, then you have to look at the relationship he had with the Father and assume that we’re supposed to pursue the same thing.

  • Paul W

    I’ll admit that Evangelical language and priority of ‘personal relationship’ largely alludes me. I’m a personal being and God is a personal being so any type of relationship we have will have a personal component to it, right? I think Evangelicals are trying to get at something more than simply two personal beings in sometype of relationship though. It just gets a bit slippery for my comprehension when they start trying to explain what that ‘something’ is.

    With all due deference to the recognition that spousal imagery exists in the Bible with regard to God and his gathered people . . . I simply have a difficult time seeing the language of ‘personal relationship’ forming a significant Scriptural paradigm for how God relates to his people. And I certainly don’t get what Evangelicals mean by the phrase.

  • The part I have issues with is the use of the word ‘personal’, which adds the vagueness and the hint of contemporary narcissism. In the New Testament there are cases of Christians being addressed by the risen Jesus (in dreams and visions), which implies relationality. But the private friend in my pocket idea I see nowhere in the Bible. What we need to explore is how our relationship with God (which, as a Christian, I believe involves relating to the risen Jesus) is formed by our prayer, rather than the way we pray being formed by a culturally imported set of dubious assumptions.

  • Tom F.

    Are you uncomfortable with this “personal relationship with Jesus” language?

    Well, of course it means a lot of different things: a relationship is not a doctrine. I confess I don’t understand why Suk goes after this concept- what is lost by its emphasis? what is gained by its dismissal?

    Granted, the “personal” aspect is likely an import from individualism. And granted, the concept is infused with any number of consumeristic and romantic notions about the self (this is what is really behind the shallow “therapeutic” which gives a bad name to real therapy), which are clearly pulled from the culture, yes.

    But there are serious and radical theologies that emphasize relationship, Zizioulas on the Trinity, for example, and Grentz on the self. I am fine with dropping the “personal” aspect, but the relational aspect I think is worth emphasizing and exploring.

    What do you think of Suk’s proposals?

    I only sort of understand Suk on the spousal metaphor: I guess I don’t particularly feel that I want God to be my spouse, but I suppose he’s right that a lot of language out there does use this imagery. I guess it just seems to me like there is something lost in only saying “I believe in Jesus”. I believe in math, I believe in money (in that I believe its worth something), but this seems to fall short of how we are to identify with Christ.

    Perhaps the way to balance this relational understanding is by looking at what gets de-emphasized with “personal relationship” language: the church and the body of Christ. It is undoubtedly true that “personal relationship” ideas are responsible for the “Give me Jesus, not religion (when religion ends up being the local church)” ideas. Could we as Protestants admit that our relationship with God is, to a large extent, (gasp!) mediated through the church? Have we used the “priesthood of all believers” simply to knock down priests, and not seriously enough considered how the body of all believers does in fact have a priestly, mediational role? Jesus is the High Priest, but that does not mean that the body has no priestly function.

    Overall, interesting thoughts, but I think Suk is slightly overreaching here.

  • Stu

    This has been a huge stumbling block for me. Personal relationship is so loaded with expectations of palpability, immediacy and responsiveness that it seems incredibly odd to talk of relating with God in this manner. It’s often struck me as odd that people’s encounter with God would make them feel so sweet, when often in the Bible the encounters are downright terrifying (isaiah’s call for one). So they’ll reply that God related with Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets in a personal way. But I suggest that there is no indication that this was normative for all. In fact there’s enough narrative body to indicate that God personally related with his emissaries, but not the rest of the people.
    So then the reply is that Jesus is our interface if you like and he was personally relating to his disciples. He even called them friends. But the issue here of course is that the disciples experienced Jesus uniquely because he was in the flesh. Of course that was going to be a personal relationship. So again, this is not normative.
    So the personal relationship is difficult to define post ascension. Sure the Holy Spirit is sent, and there is an intimacy there that can be at times amazing, but this relationship seems to be unpredictable at best.
    When we step back for a moment and simply look at the language we use about God it should be clear that God is not a friend in the personal relationship sense of things. Rather, God is worshipped. Surely that changes the understanding significantly?
    I am God’s friend in the sense of friend/enemy. I am known by God as his servant. I am appreciated by God for my worship and my love for others. I am redeemed by God because I am valuable and worthy of God’s care. But there is no earthly relationship that really does justice to the relationship that we have with God.

    To stephen in #1, “If a genuine personal relationship with God is not possible . . . ” the issue i have here is with the word genuine. Nothing I have outlined above lacks genuineness, in fact it reinforces the great cosmic difference (not to be confused by divide or separation) between the Creator and the created.
    I agree there are softer verses that describe God’s relationship with us and I’ll take them, every one of them, but only against the backdrop of God who is by simple scale, unknowable. That we can know as much of this perfect love as we do, is more than enough for me.

  • phil_style

    @Stu, #4, your thoughts concur with my own.

    The term “personal relationship” is loaded with all of the sensory requirements that are associated with all other personal relationships.

    I’m going to be honest and state that, rather unsurprisingly, I have never once heard God’s voice audibly, I have never physical touched God, not smelt Him or seen him. Yet, I have carried out these tasks with every other personality I claim to have had a personal relationship with. So, when how/when does this term apply?

  • Stu

    phil said it shorter and better 🙂

  • As I sweep through the New Testament the “personal” I see is with others in community. We submit to Jesus as King and encounter the personal touch of God in each other.

  • We had so many in our missional community struggling with the lack of a real “personal feel” to following Jesus that we stopped using the word “personal” because of all the confusion it created. I did a post on this dynamic a little while ago> http://danwhitejr.blogspot.com/2012/01/individualism-and-community.html?m=1

  • Keaton Brownstead

    Seems like he is just arguing semantics, and that his end result is roundabout what many would define a “personal relationship.” Not in any sensory form, but in that we no longer require mediation through a priest, sacrifices, etc… Sure, people have used that as a cop out before, but we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. What kind of irks me when it comes to these sensational whistleblowers is that they are more often than not deconstructing a straw man of what they want to think everyone believes – them against the world. If the end is to just reclaim terms, however, it is vanity and chasing after the wind.

  • Joel Schwartz

    The personalism of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) does a wonderful job of emphasizing that the human person is fulfilled and understood through interconnected work related to the self, interpersonal relationships, and membership in an community. If we understand “personal relationship with Jesus” as “relationship between persons that leads to the fulfillment of said persons” (or something like that), then anything that fails to recognize any of those dimensions is an incomplete idea of a person, and points to an incomplete relationship. Sadly, we tend to understand that phrase as justification to hide from community and one another.

  • Chris Jones

    I suspect many, many folks in the evangelical world do not experience God in the very intimate terms used by the spiritual gurus within the movement but are afraid to say anything because they think they are sub-Christian. I haven’t read this book but I will now to see if I should recommend it. Thanks Scot for bringing up this topic. Phil’s comment (#5) is great. I will copy and paste that one to pass on to friends struggling with their “lack of intimacy” with God. Dan Jr. I like your link, thanks for sharing it.

  • Reading his definitions, I agree with him, but if someone were to ask me on the street whether a follower of Christ needs a personal relationship with Him I think it might, in many cases, be more accurate to say “yes” if forced to a yes or no answer.

    As with nearly everything regarding God though, universally “yes” or “no” answers are few and far between and must always be qualified.

    I do see what he’s trying to say though and I agree. For the average evangelical (whatever that is) it seems like “personal relationship” has been thrown around to combat “legalism” to the point that it connotes an emotionalism and severely downplays the centrality of the fact tht those who follow Jesus aren’t those who just have a relationship, but those who literally follow him in his life and death in love for others.

    I like Rob Bell’s Nooma video about this. He also has trouble wrapping his mind around “personal relationship” with God and instead talks about relating to God in Christ as a beautiful song playing for all time throughout creation. To relate to God well (in this metaphor) is to join in singing along with the tune. Everybody hears the tune, though some who “have ears to hear” discern the notes more precisely and clearly. What matters though, is singing along. Some who might hear clearly tend to hear the notes, analyze their structure, and marvel at the genius of the composition, but feeling confident they know where the somg is going fail to join in, or just hum along quietly. Others with less trained ears may at first hear only “vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme” (to quote Dylan) but welcome the invitation to sing along as best they can.

    We’re all kids in 4th grade chorus and it’s concert night. There’s a cassette tape playing over the loudspeaker. Am I the kid who knows the song but thinks I’m too cool to sing loudly, or am I the kid belting it out half a measure fast and off key, but joyfully and loudly as I wave at my parents?

    Which kid has a more intimate relationship with the Spirit of the whole affair?

    In the end, all words on the matter are metaphors right? Whether by the words “personal relationship” or not, it’s all about forsaking self and keeping in step.

  • Is it unreasonable to believe that salvation is embedded in the transformation process? We see Nichodemus in John 3 – but no resolution. It is notable that we see him 2X later in the gospel of John. There is also no resolution with the woman at the well. Her bad news becomes the means of good news for many others to come to Jesus and believe. *Following* is a much more accurate model than “personal relationship.”

  • Mike Miles

    When we look at the New Testament (the Epistles, especially), we almost always see the relationship between God and humanity described in terms of community. How we relate to God and how we relate to others cannot be separated. You cannot “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” without also “loving your neighbor as yourself.” My problem with the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” is that it seems to favor individualism and the idea that your faith does not require others, when in fact this is far from the truth.

  • T

    I echo Tom F. here.

    phil_style (& Stu & others), I agree with the post in that there are many vague and even individualistic ideas and expectations around the term “personal.” But I don’t think we want to equate or reduce “personal relationship” to “physical relationship.” I want to make that suggestion in response to phil’s comment and question in #6. I’ve never audibly heard God’s voice, but I would be lying if I said he hadn’t communicated with me, repeatedly and personally. Also, as Stephen and perhaps others have mentioned above, it’s not the “spouse” analogy alone or even primarily that we see in different parts of scripture that makes me think that God relates to us “personally” but many of the teachings and themes of Jesus, whose repeated and particular use of the term “Father” was a turning point in history, IMO. As just one example, when urging people not to worry about the basic necessities of life, Jesus uses amazing language and reasoning: “not a single sparrow, worth spare change, falls to the ground without your Father’s notice, and you are worth more than many sparrows” “the very hairs on your head are numbered.” The whole tenor and thrust of his teaching is to, yes, trust God rather than worry, because he is concerned for each individual. There are, honestly, too many such teachings and examples to be more thorough, but this one has serious implications by itself that God relates to us in a personal way.

    Again, though, there are parts of the post I agree with. I’m not a fan of using the term as the centerpiece of evangelistic language, or even at all in such settings, for several of the reasons named in the post and for others. Also, I always understood the history of the term to be, at least in part, an intentional distinction from how many evangelicals understood mainline and Catholic understandings of the faith. That’s another reason I don’t see a great deal of value in the term in evangelism.

  • Doug

    Many (many, many) years ago while at L”Abri I heard a saying which has kept me humble and open: “Reality is always more complex than any one statement about it.”. I can empathize and agree with Suk to a large degree but wouldn’t want to get rid of the term “personal relationship” all together. As long as it is nuanced properly (as has been done in many of the posts) perhaps it should be seen as a secondary dimension of larger dimension(s) of “we/church” and “mission/purpose” (and perhaps other dimensions as well). I love the music metaphor of #13.

  • I welcome leaving the phrase behind. It’s vague and not particularly helpful in describing faith.

    Having said that, I also am convinced that God is personal. As people created in his image, we would have to carry the stamp of his personal nature with us. Francis Schaeffer wrote extensively on this in He is there, He is Not Silent and The God Who Is There. I lean towards his ideas and would love to hear someone expand on the phrase in a way that the average believer could understand.

  • DRT

    In short, I don’t understand what personal relationship means. I have heard god speak to me directly, but still don’t understand.

    I believe that the evangelicals I know say personal relationship to distinguish between being saved by faith (a personal act) rather than participation in a Christian community, which they think is salvation by works. It is derisive toward Catholics.

    Given I don’t understand it, you may guess, accurately, that I think it is dangerous and definitely Christian-ese.

  • DRT

    Fr. Richard Rohr has a daily contemplation for today that I think is applicable, and wise.

    The West has made an art form of the individual person; it is one of our gifts to civilization, but we have paid a big price for this gift. Because of our over-identification with the self, we overemphasize our separateness and uniqueness, remaining trapped and alone. (Even Christians usually seek an entirely private notion of salvation instead of their communion with everybody else—which would be “heaven” itself).

    What mature religion does is give us an experience of what Owen Barfield calls “full and final participation” in the mystery of God and creation. This means that before you identify with your separateness, you identify with your union and participation in something larger than yourself. This no longer comes naturally to us; instead we crawl back to our primal union with great difficulty.

    The private self we are overly conscious of, the self we are absorbed in, is the one that mystics say does not even exist as separate—at all! Buddhists would call this passing form “emptiness.” Jesus would call it “the self that must die”—and is going to die anyway in its illusion of separateness. So Jesus would say, “Go ahead and let it die now and then you will be free!”

    This “participation is something larger than yourself” is the key that I feel the King Jesus Gospel helps give us, and also that personal relationship takes away.

  • DRT

    …last thought (and then we are off to see the Dinosaur skeleton’s at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh….)…

    This is also a strength and a weakness in Calvinism. They use the glory of god to act as that element that is great than themselves, but then miss the boat by then saying, “therefore he cares about ME and saves ME”. They always seem to be saying god is great because he cares about me as an individual and for that I love him….. not quite the same as participating in something larger than oneself.

  • My gut reaction to the idea that “the ‘personal relationship with God’ thing isn’t true” is to be incredibly worried and terrified. God doesn’t see me, on an individual level? I’m just lost in a huge crowd? I’m on my own?

    I use the term “personal relationship” because Christianity isn’t just about information and rules. There’s also the part where God knows us and understands all of our needs, and helps us with our problems. That sounds “personal” to me.

    Also: maybe the obsession with a “personal relationship with God” comes from American individualism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Different cultures value different things, and the gospel manifests itself slightly differently in each culture. For example, when I visited China and saw how generous the Chinese were toward guests, it reminded me of how God is generous and knows our needs without us having to ask. So in the same way, American culture really values the individual (and there are both good and bad results from this view) so it makes sense that American Christianity would really fixate on how God understands/ relates to people on an individual level. It’s truth, but there’s way more to God than that.

  • TJJ

    There are important issues here to discuss. But the notion that the idea of a “personal relationship” with God is a new cultural thing of present day evangelicals only is to be very ignorant of the writings of Christian writers/leaders throughout Church History. Recently reread Augustine’s confessions. Personal relationship with God indeed!

  • Karl

    The relationship Jesus modeled with his own Father (which he taught his disciples to emulate) seems quite personal to me.

    I agree the way in which the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus” gets bandied about in American evangelicalism can be shallow, simplistic and fuzzily undefined (whatever it means to you individually – often greater self actualization). But I’m not sure the answer is to de-personalize the relationship Christians have with Jesus and through him, with the Father.

  • phil_style

    @T “But I don’t think we want to equate or reduce “personal relationship” to “physical relationship.”

    I may have mis-communicated by comment at 6. I’m not arguing that “personal relationship” implies physicality, what I am implying is that it implies some kind of predictability and/or reliability – it’s just so happens that physical phenomena are the best ways in which we describe relationships.

    The “personal relationship with God”, precisely because it lacks verifiable inputs on God’s part, means that it is unpredictable. A one sided relationship (e.g. a long dark night of the soul) is no kind of personal relationship in the way we normally apply the term. In this case, it’s hard to see that there’s not any difference from the “imaginary friend” scenario so often caricatured by many critics of the faith.

  • “1. There is no theoretical consensus what this means.
    2. Different religious denominations don’t offer official ideas on what it means.
    3. Personal relationship has become what the person says it is.”

    Aren’t these true for all personal relationships?

    Moreover, the arguments against such a term imbue personal with more sensory experiences. We don’t touch, hear, or see Jesus. Yet, we do have, I think, a personal relationship. One, it is person to person. Jesus relates to us through the Spirit as distinct persons. We are not just a generalized body, nor relate to God through an intermediary. Jesus relates to us as particular people, and as a particular person each person relates to Jesus in a particular way. That’s where the “I believe” language is deficient. That asserts an intellectual agreement but not a personal relationship that is implied in God’s particular work in our particular lives.

    Moreover, the personal relationship becomes even more potent if we think in terms of a social trinity, where personal relates in the trinity to the distinction between the three–not one of sight, hearing, touch but of trust and fullness of being. So, our personal relationship with Jesus is oriented not by belief in a set of statement about him, but about our orientation in life to live lives of trust, where we do his will. Jesus enters into a covenant relation with us and as particular people we respond to this particular person, with the ultimate goal being in eternal relationship with Father, Son, and Spirit.

    Such language emphasizes the “person” part of the personal–I am a person, Jesus is a person–we relate to another based on mutual recognition of this reality–not a contract or business or cultic other kind of relationship. That’s why Jesus took particular people as important and why the Corinthian church had such a problem with communion–they were depreciating particular persons.

    We relate to God uniquely because God relates to us uniquely–that is the essence of the work of the Holy Spirit–who relates to us and brings us into communion with Jesus in a different way than anyone else (though there are a lot of overlaps).

    Sure, the relationship language can sound shallow–but it should in many cases! To respond we shouldn’t change the language but change the transformative task of the church. Rather than teaching people how to believe a bunch of facts and follow certain ethics, we should help people understand what it means to live in this relationship.

  • Tom

    Growing up in the evangelical church, I understood “Personal relationship” to infer, “Did you personally and intentionally decide to follow Jesus (conversion) and become actively engaged in personal spiritual formation (discipleship)?” as opposed to just being a member of a church because my parents belonged there. Much of it was in reaction to the Catholic church that appeared to be more of a cultural religion to those of us on the outside.

    I know that phrase still gets thrown around a lot in the evangelical church, but I am sensing that people are beginning to move towards “I’m a Christ follower” or “I’m believing in Jesus.”

  • Percival

    As usual, I agree with T (#16)
    A knowledge of God in the Bible is more than a knowledge about God. If we merely called it a relationship, it would mean nothing. As cliche as “personal relationship” has become, it is hard to see how any follower/friend/disciple/child/brother of Christ can say the relationship is somehow impersonal.

  • dopderbeck

    Hmmm. I agree with him in what Evangelicalism especially at the popular level often takes this to mean. But even in non-evangelical contexts, there is always an important emphasis on the personal dimension of faith. The Catholic Catechism, for example, stresses that faith always involves a personal response, and certainly scripture repeatedly invites the personal response.

    But I think this is an important difference: how does all this relate to the Church as the full people of God; and how does it all relate to God’s love for the whole world. In the Catholic tradition, faith is personal but it isn’t only personal — an individual’s faith participates in the faith of the whole Church. This is why an individual Catholic could be wrong about lots of things but still could be considered to possess the fullness of the faith. But for Evangelicalism, at any moment it is all about you, and only you. That’s an unbearable burden, quite literally, and it isn’t one we’re meant to bear. So IMHO, we evangelicals somehow need to recapture the corporate dimension of the faith in addition to its individual / personal dimension.

  • Dianne P

    Rant alert. At last – someone addressing this whole personal relationship thing. I have a problem with this on so many levels. Even when I was a full participant/teacher/leader in an evangelical chuirch, I always cringed when I heard this thrown around as THE definition of salvation. So I cringed a lot:) And still do.

    First, the idea that this is definitive for salvation. This is widely used about/against Catholics and mainstream Protestants. “They” just go to church… “they” don’t have a personal relationship. I won’t even go into the judgmentalism of that. Where is that in the Bible? It is especially sad when one person is converted to the personal relationship idea, then proceeds in deep sadness because their family and friends don’t have that personal relationship, thus, they must not be saved. It is now incumbent on them to pray/push for the salvation of their friends and family.

    I used to lead a group of women who were new to bible study. I called them my rookies. Many of them were Catholic. Their faith was strong… their questions, deep, big. It was a weekly occurrence that other women came to me, with great concern, wondering if these rookies were ready for a personal relationship and would now be saved. Needless to say, we didn’t see my role in the same light.

    Second, personal relationship has, as its first word, PERSONAL. ME, ME, ME. Give me a break. So much “creative” theology follows from this. How many times have I heard that Jesus would have died just for ME – if I were the only person on the earth, God still would have sent his son to die for ME. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. Somehow this notion proves the magnitude of God’s love. I missed that part in the Bible. I think it says something like “God loved the world so much…” Yes, that includes ME, but it’s not just about ME.

    Third, the personal emphasis overlooks the kingdom of God. IMHO, Jesus died to reconcile the whole world, and as Christ-followers, we are part of that reconciliation going forward. The prayer that Jesus taught was “OUR Father”, not My Father. Not just my Daddy.

    Fourth, this is a place where the apophatic tradition might be useful. In the evangelical church (my experience, I’m not generalizing… much), there is a lot said/prayed about the attributes of God. On the surface, this is a good thing, but proceeding on that path, the attributes are human-like, related to ME, and therefore limiting. And we come to know God as MY BFF… It’s like a Scout checklist – helpful, trustworthy, etc. etc. What has God done for ME lately? Yes, it is good to reflect on the attributes of God, but with full awareness that that does not DEFINE God. God is all that… and so much more.

    Fifth, maybe this personal relationship thing in some part explains why so many people in the US claim to have a personal relationship and/or are born again, yet are unchurched. If it’s about God and ME, who needs community?

    Rant over.

  • dopderbeck

    Let me add this too, following a bit on Dianne (#28)’s comment, which resonates with me: I think a big part of the problem is not just language of a “personal relationship,” but the notion that “personal relationship” implies a unique, ecstatic experience of conversion / salvation that follows some kind of set pattern.

    The language that really irks me here is something like: “he got saved when he was 20” or “I sure hope Bob gets saved” or “I was praying to Jesus and going to church, but I wasn’t really saved yet….” This is what lies behind the Bible study thing Dianne describes, I think. Our language of conversion should be broader and should focus less on the event and more on the process; and our point of reference should really be baptism.

  • Doug

    @ Dianne #28 Great rant. Are you by any chance the Dianne P. who taught my wife at GRBC?

  • Stephen Hesed

    I understand the concern some might feel over the “personal relationship” language, and indeed, it can sometimes be made into something narcissistic that’s not anchored in theology or praxis. But I affirm this language nonetheless, as I believe it points to the reality of the Holy Spirit living inside the individual Christian and the intimacy of Christian prayer. I believe that we’re meant to interact with the Spirit (who remember, is God) on a daily basis, allowing it to lead and empower and encourage us. I also believe that when we pray, we should pray as children to a Father. This is a big part of the point of Matthew 6. Combined with Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing,” I can’t see how this could be described as anything other than a personal relationship with God.

  • Wyatt

    I agree with Suk on all three contentions. I never understood what a “personal” relationship with Christ meant. Ever. How else who God relate to us? Impersonally? Come on, gimme a break! “Yes, I have an “impersonal” relationship with Jesus.” That sounds just as stupid as “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.” I am not sure what eaither statement means.

    Can I relate to God as I would my wife? Not sure. Given some of the biblical imagery of marriage and male-female relationships especially in the Prophets and some of the more graphic imagery like Song of Solomon, I think God understands this. But does He invite us to the same kind of intimacy? I think not. Relating to the Creator of all things seen and unseen and relating to my wife are somewhat different relationships. Suk is right. The Creeds are the confession, “I believe Jesus is the Messiah.” Period. Anything else you want to know?

    Here’s the bigger problem plaguing the Church today. We don’t deliver on the sales pitch of the “personal” relationship with Christ. No one know what it means and you can’t make God into your personal God without making him in your image. Big problem.

  • Percival

    What does “personal” mean? Personal does not always mean private or individual.

    Sometimes we say, “I’d rather not reveal that. It’s personal.” (private) Or, “I have a personal savings account.” (individual) But we also say, “Of course I don’t have a personal relationship with the president, but I met him once.” Clearly, when personal is linked with a relationship, it means there is a person-to-person reciprocal knowledge that goes beyond the factual. We are not saying that no one else knows that person or that it is a secret relationship. If it did, I would be totally against using the term as well.

    And yes, the term has little to no value in evangelism today. And yes, it carries the baggage of misuse and abuse, but I maintain that our relationship with Christ should not be impersonal. That’s just my opinion. Don’t take it personally!

  • Rob

    On the one hand I agree that the term sometimes can create confusion when people interpret it as something they must feel. It’s true we can’t see God with our physical eyes or hear God with our physical ears, etc. But one thing Christianity has that no other religion does is a living God that you can interact with. Because Jesus died and rose from the dead, we can come to God boldly and bring not only our requests but talk to Him in prayer and expect to receive a reply back from Him. Because the Holy Spirit lives inside of us we can be led by Him. The Bible that we read is not just a book but is the living Word of God that can transform our lives. These are all part of a personal relationship with God. God is personal and we are personal and we are able to interact personally with him. He didn’t just create the world and then leave us here to fend for ourselves as the deists believe. We have a living and personal God who loves us and wants to be a part of our lives.

  • Cal

    The “personal relationship” aspect is important because I think the original emphasis was a return to Scripture that everyone who is a Christian is a priest and can commune to God by him/her-self. Paul was in communion with the Spirit when he was in Arabia for 3 years wandering by himself.

    However, many American evangelicals then cast dispersion on the Church and Community. Just because it is unnecessary, and I mean by that it is not REQUIRED for communion, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be sought at all times. We are made to live together.

    Given that, I don’t use the “personal relationship” expression. When describing myself, I tell others usually that I’m following Christ Jesus. Sadly, I can’t just say I’m a Christian. Every time I have, people think I’m just culturally attached by the fact I’m white and American.

  • Dianne P

    Hi to Doug @ 32. Sorry, no. I don’t think so.

  • John Inglis

    I always took the expression to mean that God was a person and not some impersonal force. If God is a person, and I’m a person, and we have a relationship, isn’t it therefore a personal relationship? It seems to be a trite truism.

    Of course, there is much unpacking to be done. God is not physically touchable like human persons, and he’s omni-, and so it’s necessarily qualitatively different from the relationships we have with other persons (inculding angels, for those who have met them).

  • cw

    Defining the problem with the expression personal relationship is somewhat like the judge who said he wasn’t able to define pornography but knew it when he saw it. There’s a problem, but it can be difficult to explain. Unfortunately, the theology behind the expression can lead to inspiring lyrics such as in the chorus “Above All” : “like a rose trampled on the ground, He took the fall and thought of me above all”. Talk about cringing (Dianne P. # 30) 🙂

  • Perhaps personal relationship in the sense that Jesus said “my sheep KNOW my voice” and “those who love me obey me.”

    Perhaps personal relationship in the Trinitarian sense of kenosis and perichoresis.

    Perhaps personal relationship because IF God’s very Spirit dwells IN is richly – in those who love, trust and obey him, those who exhibit the fruit of that indwelling – if we are IN Christ, if we are ONE with him, if we are connected as a vine is connected to the branch, aren’t we in a personal relationship?

  • Jerry

    I wonder about the history of this terminology. I suspect it has nothing to do with doctrine faith and is a shibboleth to distinguish evangelicals in contrast to those who, supposedly do not have a personal relationship w Christ, e.g. Catholics.

  • Evelyn

    My Catholic husband was always really offended by the implication that he was somehow not a ‘believer’ because he would not have described himself as having a personal relationship with Jesus. Yet he absolutely was a believer – just not to evangelicals :-/ When he had a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit he saw it as one more step in an ongoing faith journey – not as a moment of conversion, or when he ‘became a believer’ or started his ‘personal relationship with Jesus’.

    So based on his experience, I would say the language is not necessarily helpful. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be helpful sometimes. It’s the making windows into other men’s souls that’s dangerous – no one should presume to be able to judge the nature of another’s relationship with God. Yet it’s a trap that’s all too easy to fall into.

  • MatthewS

    Like a forest shaping the path of a growing vine and the vine subtly affecting the forest in return, the terms and the images grow and develop over time in and among cultures which are dynamic, not static. Our idea of a personal relationship may be rooted in the NT and yet grow from there.

    Jesus spoke of the branch abiding in the vine, Paul spoke of walking in the Spirit, the church takes the Lord’s Supper corporately and yet as individuals. Just as the Psalmist moves back and forth between speaking of the worshiping community and the individual, so I believe the images from Jesus and Paul are true for both the community as it is comprised of individuals and the individual who is in community.

    All this to say I think that the personal relationship metaphor may be imperfect but good. If orthodoxy were the only thing, then the remotest philosopher who had deep theological reflection would be enviable. If orthopraxy were the only thing, we would essentially end back up at moralism, something any religion can offer without requiring the resurrection of Christ. But the Jesus Creed is that we love God whole-heartedly and we love others as we love self. The image of the body of Christ all being joined together is an organic, relational image as well. The heart transformation that is made possible by the resurrection and the ongoing work of the Spirit is something that happens in ways big and small, practical and philosophical, involving both heart and hands, but it happens in relationship with God and others.

  • MatthewS

    I think the point #1 about “no theoretical consensus” is not a strong one.

    Not trying to be rude, just offering personal reaction. Here is an example of how that strikes me, and perhaps I’m misunderstanding. But here is an example of faulty reasoning regarding hermeneutics. Some people remember Bill Gothard from his seminars of the 70s and 80s (sadly, he’s still going at it). His description of hermeneutics here: http://billgothard.com/teaching/hermeneutics

    He says: “One day, I called up my former Greek professor at Wheaton Graduate School. He had written on the subject of hermeneutics, and I asked him if he could summarize the rules of hermeneutics in a concise list. His answer startled me. He said, “Bill, there is no such list.” I asked how we would know if we are breaking hermeneutical rules if there are no rules. He explained that there are certainly guidelines of interpretation. However, they cannot be confined to one set of rules.”

    Gothard goes on to invent his own rules for hermeneutics, confident that because a professor can’t name the one list of rules or procedures to which everyone marches with military precision in lock step the whole enterprise is a mirage.

    So with relationship, but even more – it may be that we don’t have one nice neat little algorithm that precisely maps the machinery of personal and spiritual relationships. But lack of such an algorithm does not prove the relationship metaphor invalid.

  • When we speak of ‘personal relationship’, I suspect we don’t mean ‘personal’ so much as individual — we’re referring to a private, exclusive, one-on-one sort of thing.

    So my reworking of Suk’s proposals hinges on the Church… (Tom F, Mike Miles and dopderbeck have already made comments in this direction.)

    1. Jesus has ascended but has sent his Spirit.
    2. The temple of the Spirit is corporate (1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:22).
    3. Jesus is present by his Spirit as his people gather together (Eph 2:18).
    4. The Church, the ultimate place of service, unity and peace, is the true setting for all Christian experience and expression.

    I’ve put this in starkly corporate terms not to exclude the individual but to give the context for the individual.

    In this sense, we can speak of a relationship with Jesus — but it’s familial, and only secondarily individual. It’s a mutual, all-together, brothers-and-sisters sort of relationship. And this thoroughly corporate dimension is where the Bible actually establishes its spousal imagery, isn’t it?

    Perhaps this is something we need to recover: there is, for all intents and purposes, no faith apart from the Church. Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus goes the ancient saying.

    How does that sound?

    Cheers from Australia

  • I completely agree. Evn as ome one who considers themselves to be a charasmatic evangelical I have so many problems with this language, as I explain here … http://followergerrard.com/2012/08/06/why-i-never-ask-people-if-they-want-a-personal-relation-with-jesus/
    We need a more biblical way of expressing the gospel invitation.

  • Jon

    The “personal relationship with Jesus” came out of the sayings to have the knowledge of God, or to know God. There were different things RELATED to this, such as believing in Him, etc.
    However, “knowing God” in both the old and new testaments means doing His commands.
    “Knowing” someone as a euphemism/Hebraism is to have sex with them. To serve God is to “know” Him, whereas to serve the baals/do the customs of the Gentiles/do your own (wicked) thing is to play the harlot on God, or to “know other gods”.

    The relationship between worshiping God and doing His commands is obvious in the command, where it says in Deuteronomy 6 and Luke 4, “Worship the LORD your God, and serve Him only”, thus equating the two.

    Spiritual fornication (prostitution) is equated bluntly with idolatry in Revelation, and also elsewhere.

    So, to “know” God is to do His commands, which is why Jesus cites Psalm 119:115 in regards to their obedience, not in regards to MERELY a confession, but understanding the confession in light of what He also said, which is this: “why do you call Me ‘lord, lord’ and don’t do what I say?” and again, “whoever hears my words and puts them into practice is like a man who built his house on the rock”.
    Also, like John says very plainly in 1 John 2:3, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.”
    We know Him by His Son, who, if we hear Him, will obey what He says from the Father – this is God’s words, which is the truth, and eternal life.

    This is a seamless and accurate explanation which, if is held while looking throughout the Bible, you should find confirmed in most, if not all of the books therein.

    You can only know Him by believing in Him – not as an atheist says, which is equated to imagination, but by faith in His words, to know what He wants. You can only obey His words if you believe Him; otherwise, it is as the fool, which says in his heart, ‘there is no God’, and thus will never obey, since he does not truly believe.

  • Dear John,
    I feel sorry for you. I can’t believe that people would read your book, let alone take it seriously. Walk up to Jesus and tell him you don’t want a relationship with him. Better yet, tell him that it’s not about a relationship with him. My advice to you is that you should take some time away from the ministry and do some soul searching. Opinions like these can really hurt people who are already struggling with their faith. To deny a relationship’s importance, to anyone, let alone God, is the stupidest statement I have ever heard regarding the Christian faith. If you’re not walking around with a personal relationship with Jesus (the second person in God’s nature), then you’re walking around with a relationship with YOURSELF, coming up with weak and childish ideas like this to feed to people who themselves are already struggling with what it means to have a personal relationship with God’s revelation in the flesh (Jesus Christ). Shame on you if your conscience still listens. May God help you. A basic outline of what a personal relationship with Jesus Christ looks like is this (Faith is a prerequisite or it won’t be possible):
    1. Communication
    2. Sharing (with others)
    3. Believe (in everything He has said)
    4. Obey
    5. Listening
    6. Trust Him (step out)
    7. Follow Him
    8. Emulate Him
    9. Serve People (“wash their feet”)
    10. Love People
    11. Pray
    12. Study His Word
    13. Fellowship at a local Church
    14. Give
    15. Share your faith in with other people
    16. Stop writing trash when you don’t have fellowship with God.

    God bless you all, and if you struggle with a relationship with Christ, know that you’re not alone. Take the action, examine your heart, and step forward- if you want it bad enough, it’s there to be had. God bless you.

  • Jesus did not come to start another religion. He came to start a family……. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father! Romans 8:13 Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. John 14:23 Clearly these verses and many more teach about “relationship” If one does not understand the relationship aspect of Christianity they are just following a intellectual religion. The Pharisees did not understand this teaching and Jesus said it was because they were of their father the devil. The Pharisee spirit is of demonic origin and very dangerous for a someone who professes Christ.