There are many who claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus. This profession, which never appears anywhere in Scripture, has become a popular cliché amongst revivalists (over the past century) and is often used as a means to distinguish themselves from other Christians.
Those of this Protestant persuasion will, as part of their evangelical effort, ask strangers, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
The question, a litmus test, suggests that they do have this personal relationship and that you must be able to mirror their own language or you are not a real Christian like them.
Those asking have a religious devotion to a particular kind of relationship for a particular reason. The reason is that they are reacting to something, namely dead religion, and they are not totally wrong for saying that religious devotion is not enough. I’ll go further into the reasons for their emphasis later on. But if you break it down, nor is a personal relationship without religious devotion enough. No, in actuality, a person needs more than a personal relationship with Jesus to be truly saved.
Judas, for example, had a personal relationship with Jesus. Judas, in fact, spent years in the inner circle of the disciples, physically right beside Jesus all the time, and was close enough to Jesus to give him a betrayer’s kiss. The relationship of Judas clearly lacked a necessary component. He was literally in the presence of Jesus, having actual conversations with Jesus, yet that personal relationship did not equate to salvation. Judas was with Jesus, he had a personal relationship with Jesus, but he was not religiously devoted to Jesus.
So why is a personal relationship important if it does not mean salvation?
Relationships can be good or bad. Relationships can start well and sour later on. Relationships can be based on a misunderstanding, an idea that we share something in common with another person, and then fall apart as the disparate reality sets in. We have many personal relationships, but what we really need is a good relationship, a relationship that can stand the test of time and bring us closer together.
What Is A Good Relationship?
Many young people “fall in love” with another person and get married. They are in love with each other, but more than that they are in love with an idea of what that other person represents. They have become closer through dating and eventually, through their physical intimacy, become one flesh. But this kind of love does not last, the initial feelings fade, the responsibilities increase, and many quit the relationship altogether once it starts to require more of them than they are willing to give.
Good relationships are self-sacrificial. Is it enough for a husband to tell his wife he loves her once, on their wedding day, and then go on with his life as he pleases?
No, relationships take work, they take a kind of religious devotion, an effort to remember special days, consistently doing things in a manner that respects the other. For example, if she wants the toilet seat down, then putting that seat down becomes a test of the commitment to love and cherish her. And, conversely, if a woman constantly undermines her husband, treats him as unworthy and pathetic, is her love real? No, love prefers the other person, it encourages and strengthens.
A good relationship means a loving relationship and a loving relationship is always self-sacrificial. A personal relationship, without a religious devotion to love, is not enough to sustain a marriage and it is not enough in the context of Christian faith either. No, Jesus asked for far more than a personal relationship. In fact, he asked for religious devotion as a prerequisite to a true relationship:
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:15-18 NIV)
Jesus said, “if you love me, keep my commandments.” It is then, and only then, does he promise that the Spirit will come. In other words, the personal relationship is contingent on our keeping the commandments, a religious devotion to be a fulfillment of his words, and not simply on our profession of having a relationship. Indeed, Jesus warned of those who never knew him, despite their use of his name, and it is because they did not put his words to practice. Having a good relationship with Jesus implies having a religious devotion to keeping his commandments.
How Do We Keep the Commandments of Christ?
Many are turned off by Christian tradition when the rituals and religious practices become separated from real love. They, rightfully so, see this sort of devotion as lacking a critical element and that being the indwelling of the Spirit. That is where the emphasis on “personal” and “relationship” came into the revivalist’s lexicon, they were confronting a kind of devotion that was separated from spiritual life and had a good reason for this.
Unfortunately, this newfound freedom from religion has often come at the expense of needed accountability and a true understanding of what a true commitment to Christ really is. Too many who claim a personal relationship, they claim to love Jesus, but do not keep his commandments and thus this personal relationship that they claim is really nothing more than the feedback of their own ego. A relationship with an imaginary friend based on their own personal ideas and not on the true person of Christ as they believe.
I’m not here to judge the authenticity of any commitment to Jesus Christ. However, like a marriage union produces children, there should also be signs of our commitment to Christ being more than something superficial, more than something we talk about. Those who truly love Jesus do not simply profess his name or claim to have a personal relationship, but they will also keep his commandments.
But what does that even mean?
What does it mean to keep the commandments of Christ?
I know some, from my Anabaptist roots, who try to turn the words of Jesus into a new law. When they say “keep the commandments of Jesus” they mean being duty-bound to a particular legalistic prescription (based on their own understanding of his words) and totally miss the point. In the end, those who do this, who exclude and refuse accountability to anyone besides themselves, are no different from Diotrephes who refused to fellowship with the actual Apostles of Christ. Legalism, a concern with words that supersedes relationships, is not keeping the commandments of Christ.
Rather, keeping the commandments boils down to simply this:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35 NIV)
To truly keep the commandments of Jesus means to love as he loves and to love those whom he loves. In other words, to have a good relationship with Jesus means to have a good relationship with his Church and your fellow man. Can a person who claims to love Christ, but can never get along with their brother and sister, be telling the truth?
True Relationship Bears Fruit Of Love
I’ve struggled recently over things related to money and relationships. We do not wish to be taken advantage of, especially not by other Christians, and I was beginning to have a bad attitude. I mean, am I not entitled to compensation, an explanation, a better attitude and more appreciation from them, etc?
In was in the midst of this that various family members, asking nothing in return, allowed me to use their vehicles, even accompanied me and gave hours of their time. Upon reflecting on this, and recalling the story that Jesus told of a man forgiven a great debt who goes on to try to get a little owed to him, I have endeavored to correct my attitude. If I were to demand everything owed I would be showing my lack of appreciation for God’s mercy towards me and set myself up for judgment.
My knowledge of that story of the ungrateful servant did not come to me through Jesus personally by some special revelation. No, rather it came to me through the religious devotion of those who taught me that story and by my continued desire to live by a Christian example, that this story was able to bear spiritual fruit. The seed was planted, it was watered by the work of the Spirit in me, and bore fruit in my actions. It is this kind of fruit that indicates a true relationship with Jesus, that which is described by St Paul:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV)
It is interesting to note that Judas, despite his personal relationship with Jesus, did not demonstrate the fruit above. Instead, he was sharply critical of a woman for her extravagant display of worship, for her pouring out a year of her wages onto the feet of Jesus, and even used the words of Jesus in his rebuke, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” But this was not out of genuine love for the poor nor was it born out of true love for Jesus. To Judas, the commandments of Jesus were merely a political tool, a way for him to prove his superiority to others or gain resources for himself, and a disguise for his true corruption.
Those who truly love Jesus bear the fruit of his love in their lives and that spiritual fruit is manifested in their personal relationships with those whom Jesus loves. It means esteeming others to be better than ourselves and having true humility (Philippians 2:3-5) rather than always be right. It also means being accountable to each other, holding fast to the traditions passed both in word or letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and being in Communion together with each other. We cannot claim to love God or have a true relationship with Jesus if we do not heed this warning:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:20-21 NIV)
Can we really claim to love those who we want nothing to do with, refuse to associate with, etc?
True Relationship Means Real Communion
The one potential issue that I have with the “personal relationship with Jesus” emphasis is where it reflects the individualism of our current age. Not everyone preaching Jesus is preaching the same Jesus and there are many who use their own personal version of Jesus as a means to their own ends.
To some, it seems “personal relationship” means they do not need to answer or be accountable to anyone besides themselves or those who mostly agree with them. They have a personal relationship with Jesus and, therefore, don’t dare ever question their understanding of Scripture or lifestyle choices! Nope, no matter how far their interpretations deviate from what has been long-established, they believe that their authority (as an individual) trumps all Christian tradition before them.
For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:4 NIV)
Ultimately, this claim of a personal relationship too often implies that an individual need not answer to anything besides their own personal interpretation of the Bible and/or feelings. It is indeed strange, given how even revivalists claiming personal relationships with Jesus can’t agree, that Jesus seems to tell his various personal friends contradictory things. But that’s not a problem, I suppose, those with a personal relationship can simply assume that others who disagree with them don’t have the same special connection that they do, that other people who disagree are either deceived or lying and go on believing their own Jesus?
This idea that Christians are all independent contractors, accountable only to their own personal Jesus, flies directly in the face of what the Apostle Paul taught about Christian love and the need for unity in the Church:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6 NIV)
And goes on to explain:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-15 NIV)
A true relationship with Jesus should bring a person into the body of Christ, which is the Church, where they can become mature and reach that unity in the faith that. But you can’t do that while playing lone-ranger or imagining yourself to be some special remnant and claim to “love one another” as Christ commanded. Unity requires agreement and agreement requires seeking each other out, it means submission to the entire body of believers, especially our elders, and being accountable to more than ourselves or only those who agree with us.
A person can profess anything, they can claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus all day long, but the truth of their profession rests on their keeping the commandments of Christ and that is to love those whom he loves, to humbly submit to each other in love, and realize that the world does not revolve around us or our own understanding of things. We should prefer unity over having things our own way, love requires sacrifice, love means religious devotion to the good of another (as in a marriage) and even admitting that we need other people in our lives to be accountable to for our own good. Our love for Jesus is expressed in our love and devotion to those whom he loves.
The short version is that we need each other to be strong, so we are no longer tossed about by every new teaching (or repackaged heresy) that comes along, and that is how we (the body) are connected to Christ, our head. In other words, it is through our Communion with the body of Christ, the Church, by our religious devotion to study and pray together, that we have our real relationship with Jesus. Therefore, it is through our partaking Communion together, by our real connection to the body of Christ, not only our professing of a personal relationship, that we show our love for God, our Father, his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit.