How many times have you heard the phrase, “you need to have a personal relationship with Jesus,” or something along those lines (a common variation replaces “Jesus” with “God”)? Having grown up in Oklahoma, the heart of the Bible belt, the only phrase I think I’ve heard more often is “Boomer Sooner!”
The fact is that “you need to have a personal relationship with Jesus/God” has become a ubiquitous claim in evangelicalism at large, found on the lips of everyone from the local Baptist youth minister to the beloved Rev. Billy Graham. Unfortunately, popular as it is, the phrase is simply… dumb.
Yes, I said dumb. No, I won’t take it back. Let me explain my reasoning.
First, I want you to think about how hard the Christian Church has worked since her founding by Christ Himself, through the apostles, to be precise in her terminology. Look at the ecumenical councils, where sometimes the debates came down to the proper use of a single word. The Nicene council notably divided for a time over homoousias vs. homoiousias before deciding that the former better articulated the Biblical truth that Christ, the Son of God, is by very nature God. The Nicene Creed to this day has the language it does because men were willing to sacrifice their lives over a single Greek letter, which was the difference between confessing Christ as the “same substance” vs. “similar substance” as the Father.
Historically speaking, when Christians use words it is not as a show of rhetoric, a matter of irrelevant semantics. Rather it is the desire to correctly and consistently proclaim God’s Word in all its truth – without abstraction or equivocation in the language we employ – that pushes us to be very, very specific and careful in our choice of words and how we use them.
Until recently, that is. It seems obvious to me that in the past one to two hundred years many Christians have lost their taste for accuracy in their use of language. I’ve written before on the trend towards obfuscation and lack of precision in the language of modern evangelicalism – our current subject is another instance of this.
This is because the statement that “you need to have a relationship with Jesus/God” is a complete sham, in that it essentially ignores what the word “relationship” actually means.
Allow me to give you the “New Oxford American Dictionary’s” definition of “Relationship”:
Relationship: the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected; or the state of being connected.
Think back to your school days, to the “compare and contrast” assignments you sometimes got. The question was never “do x and y have a relationship?” Surely not, but rather, “what is the relationship between x and y?”
Straightforwardly said, everything that exists has a relationship with… everything that exists. The substance of that relationship may change depending upon the two subjects in consideration, but the basic fact that they do have a relationship – someway, somehow – is immutable.
- You have a relationship with your parents: you are progeny, they are your procreators.
- You have a relationship with your shirt: you are the wearer, it is what is worn.
- You have a relationship with the sun: you see light, it gives light for you to see by.
- You have a relationship with anything you can possibly think of: you are the thinker, it is the subject of that thought.
So we see from this that the question is not “do you have a relationship with Jesus/God?” By the definition above, of course you do. The real question is: what is the nature of that relationship? This distinction is important because, see, I have a relationship with Steven Speilburg (he’s the entertainer, I’m the entertained), but that type of relationship does not give me access to his money. Now, if our relationship was of a different nature, say, he my father and I his son…
With Jesus, there are two options. Either your relationship is based on the Law of God that you fail to keep, OR it is based on the Gospel, which is the promise of Christ to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.
In other words, is your relationship with Jesus like the relationship that even the demons have – the one that results in being cast into the lake of fire? Or is it a relationship like Abraham had – the one that resulted in him being called “friend” by the Almighty?
So let’s have no more of this “you need to have a relationship with Jesus/God” nonsense. We need to be more specific than this in our witness to the world. We need to tell them that every knee will bow – that they already have a relationship with Jesus. That is, if they do not believe, their relationship is that of the condemned to the judge. If they turn from their sins and believe, their relationship is that of a son to God the Father, and brother to Christ our Savior.
You’ll always have a relationship to Jesus/God.
The question is: what kind?