Pastor's Blog

When I came into evangelicalism from Roman Catholicism, a mantra I often heard was “Christianity is not a religion;  it’s a relationship” and people talked about their “personal” relationship with God or with Christ.  And Jesus wasn’t just the Savior, he was your personal Savior.

I always found those ideas ambiguous and puzzling.  The whole attraction of evangelicalism for me was that religion was to be based on an unchanging standard (the Bible) rather than Popes and councils that often contradicted one another and created religious beliefs without an apparent biblical basis.  But the Bible never says anything about the faith being a “personal relationship with Jesus”.  At least not in those terms.

The origin of these ideas appears to me rooted in the 17th century.  Martin Luther and the other Reformers had broken with Catholicism and built new denominations around the sole authority of the Bible and the concept of salvation by grace through faith alone.  But they didn’t change too much about the way the Christian religion was practiced.  As far as the average church-goer could tell, Christianity was still about going to church and what you did in church – assenting to right doctrine and participating in the sacraments.

A few leaders in the next generation of Protestants felt this was insufficient.  Called Pietists (and in England “Puritans”) these men preached that merely performing religious acts was not faith;  it was “dead orthodoxy”.  If you were a Christian, they said, you had willingly chosen to live under God’s authority every moment that you lived under God’s sun on God’s earth – not just when you were inside the church building.  So true faith in Christ ought to affect all of life.  If it didn’t affect your personal life, your Christianity was empty and deficient – if it was even faith at all (James 2.14-24)!

The Pietists and Puritans took faith beyond church services, outside the church doors into everyday life.  They met together in small groups to discuss biblical teachings, pray together, and develop practices that conformed to biblical moral teachings.  Genuine faith was a commitment that affected the way you handled time and money, the way you lived out your marriage, the way you raised your children, the way you treated your neighbors, and the way you conducted your business and what you did in your leisure time.  Faith was not merely following church legislation blindly;  it was conscious personal assent to your own sincerely held beliefs – an ownership of your own life.  Faith was your conscious daily effort to know what you believed (not just what the church preached) and your conscious daily effort to live out your beliefs – to live a Christian life.

Living a Christian life made Christianity personal in a way that it had not been before.  Connection to the church as an institution was still important, but each believer was required to be more mindful for himself every day in his workaday world.

That notion of Christianity being personal (as opposed to merely “corporate” or “institutional” or “ritual”) has continued as a characteristic of the evangelical Christianity that grew out of the Pietist, Puritan, and Methodist movements.

But “personal relationship” didn’t stop there… 

More next week…

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