My good friend, Jeanette Levellie and I are having an interesting discussion on an important topic: Can we have a “personal relationship” with Jesus? You can read this post simultaneously on her site and mine. And then please jump into the discussion.
He said . . .
In my junior year of high school, at a Youth For Christ rally, I totally and completely dedicated my life to Jesus Christ. As our director, Dick Wynn, encouraged, I gave everything I knew about my life to everything I knew about God.
Unfortunately, I have struggled to have what most evangelical churches preach as the absolute essential to knowing God: a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
I’ve read my Bible—voraciously. I’ve prayed—fervently. I used my talents of writing and speaking full-time for the kingdom. But I have never sensed that I have a “personal” relationship with Jesus. Shocking!
In my thinking, a personal relationship involved having a best friend with whom I could hang out, discuss writing and have an emotional attachment. I’ve never sensed that in my relationship with Jesus. What is wrong with me?!
Here’s how I’m tried to reconcile—or rationalize—this conflict:
The phrase “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is not found in the Bible!
The phrase is believed to have originated in the mid 1800s as a part of the American revivals. Charles Fuller made the phrase popular on the “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” from 1937-1968 reaching 650 radio stations around the world.
Jesus and the original apostles never used the phrase. (Neither did they ask seekers to “invite Jesus into their hearts.”) Instead they taught would-be followers:
[A]ll must repent of their sins and turn to God—and prove they have changed by the good things they do (Acts 26:20).
It seems to me that . . .
Our relationship is based on obedience rather than emotions
Jesus is clear that the result of believing in him should be obedience to his teachings:
“If you love me, obey my commandments” (John 14:15).
“If you want to receive eternal life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17).
“I tell you the truth, anyone who obeys my teaching will never die!” (John 8:51).
I’m not suggesting a “salvation by works” theology, but Jesus is very clear that if we are a true follower of him, our faith will result in good works. (Click for an entire post on this.)
Our relationship is corporate, not “personal”
Jesus teaches that our relationship with others is an important part of our relationship with him.
“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35).
“[Father,] I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me” (John 17:23).
The apostle Paul also teaches:
The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12).
If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.
All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it (1 Corinthians 12:26-27).
So, instead of talking about a personal relationship with Christ, the New Testament teaches that as followers of Jesus, we are a family (Galatians 6:10), a body (1 Corinthians 12:27), a chosen people (Colossians 3:12), a household (Ephesians 2:19), a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9) and as the church (Colossians 1:18). Those descriptions seem to conflict with a “just Jesus and me” individuality. (Click here for my post on why belonging to a local body of believers is so important—even if it’s terribly imperfect.)
Yes, we must individually yield our lives to Christ:
“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved (Romans 10:9-10).
So for years, I have beat myself up for not having a “personal relationship” with Christ. That has never happened. I have personally accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and I have—to the best of my imperfect abilities—lived to model his character and teachings.
No, it’s not an emotional, my best-buddy relationship—at least for me—with Christ
Realizing that the words “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” are not found in scripture has freed me from a life-time of guilt and disappointment in my “relationship” with Christ. I do love—the Greek word is agape which is a willful-deliberate, not-dependent-on-feelings love—God with my whole being, and I do have deep, meaningful relationships in the Body of Christ. I just don’t have what the church has taught as the holy grail of spirituality.
Copyright © 2016 James N. Watkins
She said . . .
I understand your point, Jim, and agree that it will help personalities who operate more from logic than emotion not to feel that their relationship with Jesus isn’t valid. But referring to your argument that this concept is not a biblical one, don’t we in the Body of Christ commonly use terms such as “Communion,” “Trinity,” and “lifting up someone in prayer,” that aren’t taken verbatim from the Scriptures, but still contain the spirit of biblical teaching? So, even though that phrase “personal relationship with Christ” is not a quote from Scripture, could it still be a valid truth based on what we know of Jesus from biblical accounts?
Jesus told his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, but friends” (John 15:15). This sounds like a personal relationship to me. And when Peter had denied Jesus, after his resurrection Jesus went out of his way to reinstate Peter into his inner circle of followers. I imagine Peter felt very close to Jesus as a result of that conversation. Do not the images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, a servant washing the feet of his disciples, a healer of lepers and bleeding women, a man who wept with two women whose brother had just died, even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead in a few minutes—elicit feelings of trust and devotion in us? Do we not long to follow someone who laid down his very life so that we could be free of sin and know God as our Father, not our judge? These feelings and longings are indeed personal, even if in some personalities they aren’t as pronounced as in others.
I would feel cheated if someone told me I could not have a personal relationship with Jesus as I now experience it—he talks to me (if I dare to listen) by his Holy Spirit in my heart; he guides me by gentle nudges and impressions; he sends people my way to encourage me and help me not give up the fight. Although I don’t always feel his presence as deeply as I’d like to, the idea of a personal relationship with him—he’s my big brother, shepherd, healer, redeemer, and master—comforts me no end.
I wonder if Mr. Fuller was not reacting to a common teaching of the day that implied or even stated that we cannot choose to follow Jesus, that God hand-picks ones he wants to be his own. Perhaps his phraseology of a “personal relationship with Jesus” was a reaction to the unbiblical notion that none of us have a choice where we’ll end up, that our destinies are pre-ordained. Could Mr. Fuller be trying to help those who thought they weren’t some of the “chosen” few, to realize that Jesus offers salvation to “whoever will call on the name of the Lord” (Romans 10:11)?
Is it possible you and other brilliant, but brain-driven believers, are confusing “personal” with “emotional?” I think those of us who live from emotion—and that includes most women—place a high importance on “feeling” close to Jesus, just like we want to “feel” that our spouse, child, or cat loves us. Those who operate from their minds—this would be most men—probably rarely feel any emotion toward Jesus, or coming from him. Yet, they are just as much saved as we who dance around, shake our tambourines, shout “hallelujah” at every passerby, and ask Jesus what we should fix for dinner.
Because Jesus wants to get personal with everyone—feelers and thinkers alike.
Copyright © 2016 Jeanette Levellie
You said . . .
Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this issue. Thanks!
• Looking for love in all the right places (Jim)
• When we spell “love” wrong (Jeanette)
• Your Own Personal Jesus: Is the language of “a personal relationship” biblical? John Suk, in Chrisitianity Today
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