Christianity: Personal Relationship or Public Faith?
“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3, ESV)
“Christianity’s not a religion! It’s a personal relationship with Jesus!” This is a very common assertion made by contemporary Christians.
But is it true?
The short answer to that question is, “No.” But allow me to flesh out that short answer a bit.
First of all, this common assertion presents us with a false dichotomy. It is an assertion that makes a distinction between a “religion” and “relationship.” A “religion” is a public, organized faith centered around common beliefs, rituals, practices and ethical values. By that definition historic, biblical Christianity, meaning the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” as revealed in the Bible, is most certainly a “religion.”
Even a superficial reading of the Book of Acts, which records the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the Roman world, shows the apostles proclaiming a common confession centered on the Person and work of Christ, baptizing converts and their households, and organizing local, worshiping congregations governed by elders and devoted to the ministry of word and sacrament. They didn’t just preach the gospel and then tell converts, “Do you believe in Jesus? Great! Now go, have a great life, and enjoy your personal relationship with Jesus. See ya…bye.” No, they discipled converts by baptizing them and incorporating them into the life of the church, where these converts devoted themselves in the community of faith to the apostles’ doctrine, the fellowship, the breaking of bread (probably meaning the Lord’s Supper), and the prayers (Acts 2:42).
In other words, while Christianity was (and is) deeply personal in that it demands personal repentance from sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it is also a public and communal faith that is to be practiced in fellowship with other believers.
Of course, I believe that sometimes fellow Christians who claim that “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship with Jesus” are using the term “religion” not in its proper, dictionary sense, but as a derisive term used to describe the legalistic, works-righteousness attempt to earn God’s favor by church-going and religious deeds. Certainly Christianity isn’t “religion” in the sense of a self-righteous attempt to earn salvation by good deeds and religious performance. But even in this case the real distinction is not between a “religion” and a “relationship” with Christ, but between false religion (works-righteousness) and true religion (salvation through faith in Christ alone).
Jesus was certainly against false religion. But He was all in favor of true religion, meaning the gospel of God’s kingdom and the life of discipleship in the Jesus community (i.e., the church) to which the gospel calls us.
In addition, the assertion that Christianity involves a “relationship with Jesus” is problematic because it assumes that not everyone has a relationship with Jesus Christ. But the problem here is that the Word of God indicates that everyone has a “relationship” with Jesus Christ.
Now, dear reader, before you dismiss me as a heretic please hear me through. Everyone has a relationship with Christ because Scripture teaches that everyone was created by the God the Father through God the Son (Colossians 1:16). So all are related to Christ as creatures related to their Creator.
“But what about unbelievers?” you ask. Yes, they too have a relationship with Jesus. The problem is that they are related to Jesus in a similar way as a criminal is related to a judge, or an enemy is related to his adversary. The wicked and unbelieving have a relationship with Jesus; it’s just not a good one. It is a relationship of judgment, wrath and curse. Whereas the believer has a good relationship with Jesus, a relationship as sinner to Savior, servant to Master, sheep to Shepherd, subject to Lord. This is not because of the believer’s worthiness, but solely due to God’s sovereign grace.
The believer is “in” Christ (united savingly to Him), and thus has a good relationship with Christ. The unbeliever is outside of Christ (severed from His saving grace), and thus has a bad relationship with Christ. But both have a “relationship” with Jesus Christ.
Another problem with Christian faith being described as a “personal relationship with Jesus” is that the Bible simply doesn’t speak that way. Now, Scripture certainly recognizes that believers do indeed have a special relationship with God through Christ. As justified, adopted children of God they are given the Spirit of adoption and are able to address God as their heavenly “Father” (Galatians 4:4-7″; “Our Father which art in heaven…”, etc.). And they are said to be “in Christ”, meaning united savingly to Him in His life, death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5). However, nowhere does the Bible describe faith in the terminology of having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Given how this language is often used in church circles today, perhaps it would be wise for us as well to avoid this kind of language.
It seems to me that describing Christian faith as a “personal relationship with Jesus” is riddled with potential dangers. For example, there are preachers who describe this “personal relationship with Jesus” in such a way that it almost makes saving faith sound like the relationship that exists between two adolescent lovers (the “Jesus is my boyfriend” sense). Combined with contemporary worship music which often sounds like adolescent love songs, this terminology tends to reinforce an unbiblical view of Christ. Yes, Jesus is a “Friend for sinners” and the “Lover of my soul,” but Jesus is not my buddy, or chum, or pal. He is King of kings and Lord of lords, and I am called to be His loyal son and servant. Jesus is not our adolescent lover; Jesus is our Lord!
So is Christianity a “personal relationship with Jesus” or a public faith? Properly defined, it is both.