Sorry, Revivalists, Personal Relationship Implies Religious Devotion

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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)

Ah-ha!

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.

Truth: A Concept Bigger Than Words

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A couple Sundays ago I was riding along with some church friends on our way to a hymn sing (something us conservative Mennonites do) and we came upon a hitchhiker.

The hitchhiker, a young man, was strumming some sort of ukulele.  He had a sign asking for a ride west.  We were going west.  We conferred quickly, decided to make use of our extra seat and soon were on our way with one more passenger.

The young man, a friendly nineteen-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, has spent nearly two years on the road and told us of his nomadic lifestyle.  He relies on the hospitality of others, often sleeps under the stars, and is on his way to California.

Being that we are religious and on our way to a church service, the conversation turned to religion.  He explained that he is uncomfortable with the “Christian” label.  He described himself as “a follower of Jesus” and later that evening mentioned the influence of Taoism.

We invited him to church.  He accepted the invitation and soon he was amongst us Mennonites as we sang acapella music.  To my ears, we sounded pretty good.  He stayed until the end of the service and soon enough was being introduced by me to others in attendance.

One of those introduced, after some friendly chat (the usual Mennonite game banter and assessment of pedigree) ended by quoting John 14:6 at the young man, “Jesus is the way and the truth and the life” and emphatically stating this is the only way…

As we paused with this sort of non-sequitur concluding statement, presented in such a religiously cliché way, I almost asked this ordained Mennonite man if he knew what it meant.  But, fearing he would try to answer if I asked, I restrained the impulse and smiled.

I have no idea what my guest was thinking, he was courteous and didn’t seem too uncomfortable in our midst.  And so the evening went some polite conversation and some awkwardly presented evangelical dogma, me holding my tongue with slightly annoyed amusement and answering his questions.

Incidentally, nobody offered this young man shelter for the night (one of those asked apparently making excuse for himself because of his wife) and so we took him a few miles further west to ‘civilization’ where he would have more options.  We prayed with him, gave him some cash and bid him farewell before returning east again.

What is truth?

The incident above, especially the quotation of Scripture, seemed like a good basis for a blog and reason to consider the meaning of truth.  Truth, in this case, the idea of truth (alétheia) found in the passage, the truth of Jesus, that was partially quoted at my young hitchhiker friend.

The words “I am the way and the truth and the life” are cherry-picked from the Gospel of John.  It is a part of a discussion Jesus was having with his disciples about imminent events.  The disciples, as usual, were bewildered and asking questions:

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.'” (John 14:6-7)

Philip was still confused.  He goes on to ask Jesus to reveal the Father to them.

Jesus responds to explain in further detail, stating that he is one with the Father, that his words are spoken by the authority of the Father and telling them that the Father will be revealed to them through obedience to his teaching and by the Holy Spirit.

The truth of Jesus is more than book knowledge.

It is interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to diligently study Scripture.

Instead, Jesus told them to obey what they knew and that more would be revealed by the Spirit after their obedience.  It might seem backward, but faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26) and salvation is a gift from God:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

That is not to say that the Scripture is unprofitable, it most certainly is profitable to a believer.  It is “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 2:3-15) that Scripture is able to make us “wise for salvation” and only through this truth of faith can we ever understand.

Book knowledge is not the same as correct understanding and those who opposed Jesus most vehemently had a great knowledge of Scripture.  In fact, it was because of their own understanding of Scripture (and dogmatic literalism) that they rejected Jesus.

The truth of Jesus is something more than mere book knowledge, it is more than religious devotion to the study of a text or a theological proposition.  The truth of Jesus is something more profound and powerful than words on a page.  It is a spiritual reality that goes far deeper than fallible human knowledge or our finite ability to understand.

The truth of Jesus is something beyond description in words.

Truth is a word, but truth itself is not a word.

We use words to paint pictures in the minds of our audience.  Words are symbols used to describe ideas, they are things we use to describe other things and yet words are not themselves the thing being described.  Words are not truth of themselves any more than a portrait in acrylic color on canvas is the actual person being portrayed.

Words depend on the ability of our audience to understand them.  One could tell their cat to “take out the garbage” and the poor critter would stare at them blankly.  Language—like beauty is in the eye of the beholder—depends on the interpreter to correctly understand the word usage  Communication is an interactive affair requiring both parties to be on the same metaphorical page.

Furthermore, talk is cheap, words can also be used to construct a false image of reality and deceive.  Jesus warns of false teachers, people who profess with their mouths to be faithful, who present themselves as sheep and yet are inwardly wolves—We are told we can know people by their good or bad fruit. (Matthew 7:15-23)

So truth is more than words.  Truth is an abstraction, it is something greater than the sum total of words and language used to describe it.  Truth is something bigger than us and beyond our own concept of reality.  Truth is transcendent and, still, it is something that can be fleshed out and represented.

The truth of Jesus is God’s word and a living testimony about a greater reality.

Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, a Roman civil authority, to be judged.  The Gospels give slightly different versions of the events.  In summary, the religious leaders accuse Jesus, they say he claims to be their king (a crime amounting to sedition against the established state) and insist that he is evil.

Here’s one account of the beleaguered governor questioning Jesus and trying to get the bottom of the issue:

“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’

‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’

‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’

Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’

‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.

Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’

‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.'” (John 18:33-38)

This conversation is interesting and especially when Jesus claims to have come to “testify to the truth” and says those on the side of truth listen to him.  It is reminiscent of when he told the religious dogmatists that his sheep hear his voice and makes an incredible claim:

“The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’

Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me,  but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.'” (John 10:24-30)

For this Jesus is accused of blasphemy.  But to that charge, he replies by quoting their Scripture to them.  He quotes from Psalms 82:6, where it says “I have said you are ‘gods’,” and uses that to argue against their idea that his claim of divine sonship was blasphemy.

Pilate seems agnostic about truth and exasperated by Jesus.  He is dealing with a contradiction, he sees an innocent man not worthy of punishment and the religious crowd sees a man guilty of blasphemy against God who deserves death.

Pilate ultimately bends to political pressure and, while washing his own hands, complies with the demands of the crowd.  However, both Pilate and Herod (who’s part is described in Luke 23:8-12) seem to see Jesus as a curiosity rather than as a direct threat to the state.

The truth of Jesus is found in our following his example and being a self-sacrificial testimony of God’s grace.

The truth of Jesus is not a reasonable or rational proposition by worldly human standards.  It is only understood through spiritual means, through having the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and a process that starts in the heart (2 Corinthians 3) rather than through outward means.

It is transformative, as Paul explains:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The Orthodox Christian tradition would call this theosis or divination.  Unfortunately, my own Anabaptist tradition has picked to focus on the other negative end (the “be not conformed” part) and the result is an idea of “non-conformity” that usually amounts to a reactionary worldly effort to control outward appearance.

The truth of Jesus is about more than our ability to conform to a man-made list of requirements.  It is a truth that transcends all worldly means and is expressed in our unrelenting, unapologetic and uncompromising pursuit of the divine.  The truth is a positive vision.  The truth is God’s grace made manifest in us.

The truth of Jesus is a path we walk that leads us to greater life and the perfection of divine love.

The words “the way” (hodos) refer to a journey.  It is a path to walk and live out.  The trail was blazed by Jesus who died for our sins, but it is lived also by those who truly believe and wish to be disciples.  As Jesus said:

“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.'” (Like 9:23-24)

Jesus is using the cross as a metaphor.  A cross, in human terms, represented suffering and shame.  However, in following after Jesus, for a believer this is not useless suffering, it is not pain for the sake of pain or self-flagellation, it is suffering for the good of others or making a path to something greater.

Jesus promises a more abundant life (John 10:10) to those who follow him.  In this he is not promising material or worldly wealth.  But he does say that we should use our worldly wealth to gain friends and gain true riches (Luke 16) which is to prioritize God through our loving people:

“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)

Jesus said we can know the truth of a person’s profession of faith by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-23) and that the fruit of the Spirit is described by Paul “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)  Our truth must be more than words.

So what does ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ mean?

To understand this we need to understand the context.  The context is the last supper, it is during the Passover feast, the night Jesus is betrayed and an intimate moment.  In these passages of Scripture (John 13 and 14) the implications are clear.

Jesus explains that his disciples will be known by their love for each other, he says he must go so they may know the truth more intimately (promising the Spirit to those who obey his instructions and example) and then goes on to demonstrate a truth of love worth dying for.

The truth of Jesus is not a theological proposition, not a religious profession or book knowledge. His truth is not a product of human reasoning and founded on scientific research or evidence. The truth of Jesus is something found in our walking in the Spirit, it is demonstrated in our love for others and bringing the dead to life.

Truth is living a reality greater than our reality, something that transcends worldly knowledge and human understanding. Truth is both known and still yet to be known, it is a reality that goes beyond the currently available evidence and is something that can only be experienced through a true walk of faith.

The truth of Jesus transcends religion and is a walk of faith.

In some respects, it seems my hitchhiking friend may have a better grasp of faith than his religiously indoctrinated counterparts.  He is more literally taking no thought for tomorrow (Matthew 6:34) and depending on God to provide.  By contrast, we too often rely on our own understanding, planning, and abilities.

I wish my traveling friend well on his journey and pray that the truth of God’s word (Jesus) is made manifest in him.  May God’s truth of self-sacrificial love and spiritual life be found in us who claim to know Jesus.