The Problem With A “Personal Relationship”

“I have a personal relationship with Jesus.” 

No phrase is more characteristic of evangelical lingo than this one. A close second may be, “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship,” followed by, “God is good all the time.”

We all know the phrase personal relationship but when pressed, many of us have a hard time explaining exactly what we mean by it.

What does a personal relationship with God mean?

Asking hard questions about our Christian vocabulary may make us squirm a little. But it’s healthy to ask questions if our goal is to adopt better, more-biblical terminology.

The Benefit

The phrase personal relationship with God is beneficial because it helps us do two things.

1). It helps us differentiate between those who simple practice occasional church attendance filled with dry rituals and empty ceremony and those who practice a vibrant relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ.

2). It helps us correctly expresses the biblical idea of discipleship and reconciliation with God. We are right to use this phrase if through it we mean a personal, ongoing life of discipleship that includes gradual transformation into the image of Christ.

The relational aspect of following Jesus reinforces the true nature of Christianity and the core of the Gospel.

Though the Bible does not explicitly teach that believers have a personal relationship with God, it clearly and implicitly teaches us that upon conversion we enter into a personal and individual relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As our mediator or go between, Jesus is the one who reconciles us to God.

Having been justified by faith alone, we are subsequently and eternally united with Christ. We indeed have a relationship with Jesus, and this truth is glorious! Using the language of a relationship with Jesus makes communion with God central to Christianity. That’s not a bad thing. The phrase is evocative (evoking emotion, experience and response), and it has been and continues to be useful. However, the phrase also presents a problem.

The Problem

In our current cultural and historical context the phrase personal relationship with God is often used to express one’s personalized relationship with God.

People will say that they have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” even though their lives show no evidence of Christ’s indwelling presence. Still others will say they know Jesus personally but have no need for the local church, the body of Christ. How can you have a relationship with the Christ, the Head of the Church, when you are disconnected from the body?

In the shifting landscape of post-Christendom’s rampant individualism, a “personal relationship with Jesus” can mean many things – too many things I’m afraid.

Therefore it is important for us to determine exactly what we mean by the phrase and find others ways to clearly express what we mean when we say personal relationship with God. 

What we mean by a personal relationship with God is that we have been brought into right relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s letters mention this doctrine of union with Christ nearly 200 times, using terms like “in Christ,” “with Christ,” and “through Christ.”

Jesus also describes this reality: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20). 

In simple terms, union with Christ captures the mysterious reality that Christ dwells in the heart of believers, and believers, simultaneously, dwell in the heart of Christ. This results in our oneness with God in Christ.

How should we talk about our relationship with God?

When talking to others (especially your children and grandchildren) about a relationship with God you need to understand two very important things

First, most people have numerous personal relationships, many of which are not particularly healthy. They may have a contentious or broken relationship with their parents, siblings or neighbours. Betrayal, competitiveness, and comparison might mark their relationships with peers. Perhaps relationships with teachers, coaches and employers involve pressure, criticism, and performance.

By virtue of the tumultuous nature of their social lives, many people have mixed or conflicted associations when they hear about personal relationships.

Second, given the rise of technology and social media, postmodern generations (Gen X, Millenials, Gen Z) may have an underdeveloped example for personal relationships. The majority of their communication occurs in electronic form via texting, TikTok, and Instagram. When they hear “personal relationship,” then, what they perceive is actually rather impersonal. What they hear may not match our intent.

With this understanding we should approach conversations about our relationship with God doctrinally and experientially.

Sound doctrine concerning our relationship with God

1. Christ dwells in our heart.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. Ephesians 3:16-18

2. We aren’t just close to Jesus; we are one with Jesus.

But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 1 Corinthians 6:17

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. John 17:20-23

3. We live in Christ

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20

4. Nothing can separate us from His love

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

We have not been invited to practice a dead religion filled with dry rituals and empty ceremonies. Rather, we have been invited to participate in a wonderful and vibrant relationship with God through our union with Jesus, made possible by his finished work on the cross.

This understanding of our personal relationship with God helps us have a better and broader understanding of what happens upon our conversion to Christ and the subsequent relationship we enjoy.

In His grip,

Pastor Matthew