Is a Personal Relationship with Jesus What I Really Want?
Peter Toon on the Theology of Salvation
Many people believe that the essence of Christianity is “a personal relationship with Jesus” (or “the Lord Jesus Christ”). Conversion is seen as entering into such an arrangement, and the Christian life is felt to be the experience of this relationship.
Such a way of speaking seems to be so sincere and so meaningful that few question its authenticity. Thus it has been granted a kind of orthodoxy by Christians of various backgrounds and theological traditions. “A personal relationship with Jesus” has become a standard form of expression for conservatives and liberals alike.
Few of those who encourage the use of this descriptive expression seem to realize that it is found neither in the Bible nor in classic theology. It is relatively recent and owes its origin and popularity to particular developments in Western culture—individualism, for example. Within evangelicalism, it is usually part of a popular theology that, claiming to be straight from the Bible, emphasizes that “God loves you as an individual” and that “Jesus Christ died for you as an individual” and that, therefore, “you as an individual can have a personal relationship with God or Jesus.” When a model of “a personal relationship with Jesus” is sought in the New Testament then, one is pointed to the disciples who followed Jesus in Galilee and Judea or the disciples who met with the risen Lord Jesus in the forty days before his Ascension.
In the New Testament, baptized Christians are described as being in the family of God as adopted children, within the Body of Christ as members and under Christ the Head, as branches of the vine whose trunk is Jesus Christ, as sheep following the Shepherd, as travelers in or on the Way to the Father, as members of the royal priesthood, as soldiers in the army of the Lord, and via many other images. They are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and they are to adorn and commend the gospel by what they are, what they do, and what they say.
Certainly the call to become a Christian is addressed by the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit (in the preaching of the gospel) to each person, for God loves the whole world. Further, the response to this call in repentance and faith is personal, made individually by each believer. Then, also, the gift of the indwelling Spirit who comes to live in the soul is a gift to a real person, which he individually experiences, for “the Spirit bears witness with my spirit that I am a child of God.” Christianity certainly involves and includes an encounter with the Holy Trinity by each Christian. It is personal and experiential.
However, the act of personal decision and commitment to the Father through the Son is only possible because of the invisible and secret activity of the Holy Spirit within the mind, heart, and will. It is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son who unites the repentant believer to the Father through the Son for forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. And it is the same Holy Spirit who places the new Christian in the Body of Christ, the family of God, and the royal priesthood as he brings that person into union with Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. Therefore, there is never an individualistic union of a believer with God. The fellowship, union, and communion are truly personal and very real (as the saints testify), but are always also together with all others who are in Christ Jesus by faith and love with the Holy Spirit.
It is not within the power and capabilities of any human being to place himself in friendship with God or in communion with the Holy Trinity. The Bible speaks of God establishing his covenant with man. The Lord Jesus Christ established the new covenant by the shedding of his blood—his propitiatory and expiatory sacrifice of himself on the cross. Only when God has established his covenant of grace is it possible for people to enter into it. So this action is not to be seen merely as God taking the initiative and man responding, as if it were a contract between a major and a minor partner. It is the Holy Trinity actually establishing the way and the means for sinful human beings to be reconciled with their Creator and Judge and brought into the fullness of life everlasting.
Through and in Jesus Christ, and by the Holy Spirit, God the Father created and maintains a gracious relation with the human race. This is his covenant of grace. It is all of mercy, for even the response of sinners to the invitation of the gospel is by the assistance and power of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, the acts of repenting and believing and confessing and obeying and trusting and loving are the acts of free human persons, but the freedom to act is only possible through the presence and assistance of the Holy Spirit, who indwells the soul and quickens the faculties.
A careful reading of the classic Book of Common Prayer (1928 in the United States) and of the other Anglican formularies (the Ordinal, the Thirty-nine Articles) will confirm that sinful human beings can only have fellowship with the Holy Trinity because the same Holy Trinity has established a covenant and created a relation with mankind through the new Man (Adam). This covenant and relation has its center and its meaning in the Lord Jesus Christ, the new Adam, who is the Word made flesh and the Mediator and the High Priest.
In the Common Prayer tradition, the Collect for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity reads:
O God [our Father], forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee; Mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And a Collect that may be used with any public service reads:
Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works begun, continued and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy Name, and finally by thy mercy obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
These with other Collects point to the truth that salvation is wholly by grace. (It may be noted that the general approach of the 1979 Prayer Book is to suggest that the covenant is more like a contract between a major (God) and a minor player (man) than a covenant that is wholly established by the one party, the Holy Trinity. Thus there is much talk in the ECUSA of “the baptismal covenant,” meaning what we must do on God’s behalf for our neighbors in terms of peace and justice.)
On the basis of the biblical theology as this is known within the Anglican way in the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer, it may be said that any talk that suggests that I can negotiate the terms of the covenant with the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit is to be rejected. Further, any talk that suggests that there is such a thing as a one-on-one union of the individual Christian and the Holy Trinity is also to be rejected.
We need to be very clear that any union that we sinful creatures have with God the Father is, always and only, through and in Jesus Christ. He, as the Son of God incarnate, has an eternal union with the Father within the Godhead, and we are united with the Father by being enclosed within the Son—that is, within his vicarious and sacred humanity. This is why the apostle Paul speaks often of Christians being “in Christ.” There is a perfect, personal relation of the Father and the Son and of the Son and the Father, and on the basis of this relation and within this relation there is a relation of all who are “in Christ” with the Father and of the Father with all who are “in Christ.” All these relations exist in and by the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit.
To use the word “relation” (Latin, relatio) is to follow the vocabulary created by the early Fathers to denote the way in which the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity are united and connected to each other within the perfect unity of the one Godhead. Here relation carries the strong sense of that which is objectively in existence and necessarily true of the reality of God, the Holy Trinity. Without relations of order there would be no Holy Trinity.
To translate relatio by the modern word “relationship” is to make a major mistake. While “relation” points to a fixed order or a precise union, “relationship” (strictly speaking) points to experience—experiencing what the relation actually is.
Based on the relations of order within the Holy Trinity, there are relations of order within God’s creation and redemption of the world. Thus both the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant (by Christ’s blood) are expressions of a relation with man established by God as the God of all mercy and grace. The origin, nature and content of these covenants or relations of order are created, fixed, and guaranteed by the Holy Trinity, and there is no room in them for negotiation from the human side. Ours is to love the Lord our God with all our being.
Again, to speak of these relations of God to man and of man to God as “relationships” is to invite confusion of thought.
Adding “ship” to the end of a noun changes the meaning to denote the state or condition of being so-and-so. So “relationship,” strictly speaking, is the state of being related. First there is the relation between persons; then there is relatedness of those in the relation, and finally there is the relationship, the experience or reality of the relation.
However, while the word “relation” seems to have kept its traditional meanings (which include of course the blood-ties of a family—thus relatives), the word relationship has taken on a meaning that is much broader than the one it had earlier this century. A “relationship” now refers to any kind of association or union, temporary or permanent, licit or illicit, moral or immoral, between two or more persons (or two or more groups of persons). Thus I have a relationship with my therapist, butcher, doctor, broker, dentist, friend, acquaintance, brother, lawyer, senator, pastor, daughter, teacher, plumber, baker, and wife—to name but a few! If I am gay, I have a relationship with one or more persons of the same sex. If I am heterosexual and committing adultery or fornication, I have a relationship with my “lover.” And so on.
Apparently the use of “relationship” in the modern sense began in the 1960s as a way of making neutral what was known as “having an affair.” It is perhaps one of those words (such as “interesting”) that is intended to have no moral connotation. It simply refers to some kind of association between persons, and it creates the impression that all such associations are of similar value—temporary and transient. Further, it belongs to the culture of modern, autonomous individualism.
“A personal relation to God” is a correct way of speaking if it is understood that this relation is of grace and is always and only through and in Jesus Christ, that is, in his Body, and with the Holy Spirit. “A personal relation to Jesus Christ” is an acceptable way of speaking if it is understood that this relation is that of the disciple to the Master, of the sinner to the Savior, and of the servant to the Lord, and is alongside and with other such disciples in the kingdom of God.
It is best, however, to avoid speaking of “a personal relationship with Jesus,” even though it can be given a sound meaning by those who have a right theology. In today’s environment and culture, as we have seen, “relationship” is a word that points to temporary and even immoral associations of persons. And whatever it is that unites the forgiven sinner to the gracious God, it is certainly not ephemeral, temporary, or immoral! We do not want to give the impression that becoming a disciple of Jesus is only for a short time while you or I feel good about it!To make clear that being a Christian truly involves communion with the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity within the household of God, one ought to use biblical and patristic terms. Thus one should say that one is a child of God, a disciple of Jesus Christ, a member of the Body of Christ, a soldier in the army of the Lord, a patient in Christ’s hospital, a lamb in the flock of Christ the Shepherd, a friend of God, a brother of Jesus Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a servant in God’s household, and so on. One can say with the apostle Paul, “I know in whom I have believed,” and one can say with the apostle John, “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son.” What one cannot claim is an individualistic relationship with either the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit or with the Three in One.
If we allow our minds to be formed by classical theology (in our case as Anglicans, using the Rites, Offices and Collects of the classic Book of Common Prayer), then we shall not fall into questionable modern ways of speech. Rather, by grace, we shall speak joyously and faithfully of our relation to the Holy Trinity grounded in his relation to us. Because the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit has come to us (each one of us), so we (each one of us) approach the Father through and in the Son and with the Holy Spirit. We have a personal and corporate relation to the Holy Trinity because our individual and corporate union is through and in the One Person of Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
Communion with the Holy Trinity and the communion of the saints is experienced uniquely on earth by the faithful at Holy Communion. The very elements used, which become for us the sacramental body and blood of the once crucified but now exalted Lord Jesus Christ, have an innate symbolism that points to the nature of our communion with God.
The bread is the composite of many grains of wheat that were first mingled and then changed by forces outside of themselves. Likewise the wine is the composite of many grapes that also have been united and then changed by forces outside of themselves. Each of us, as born from above by the Holy Spirit, is related to God by grace and is in communion with him, but that relation of grace and that communion of love only exist and are only known within the unity of the Body of Christ. There is no autonomous individualism in the covenant of grace, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. However, in this unity of the Body every member is precious.