Pastor's Blog

I closed my last blog (Jesus Is NOT My Girlfriend) with this statement:  “I think it better to speak, not of my personal relationship with Jesus, but of the covenant relationship between Christ and His Church.”  That provoked some response and thoughtful questions – so allow me to elaborate.

Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.  That’s a prominent evangelical slogan.  What do evangelicals mean by that?  The idea is that religion is impersonal -- formal, distant, cold -- whereas relationships are personal – comfortable, engaging, warm.  Cold impersonal religion is not attractive; warm, engaging relationships are.  So, evangelicals call people to “accept Jesus as their personal Savior” and to begin “a personal relationship with Jesus” (or God).

Why would anyone have problems with that?

Having converted from Catholicism, I found evangelicalism’s insistence that the Bible be the basis for religious beliefs an attractive proposition.  Martin Luther said he did “not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves” and trusted the God’s Word instead.  Evangelicals follow in Luther’s footsteps.  What does God’s Word say?

I’ll tell you this:  the Bible never talks about Jesus as a personal savior and it never calls Christianity a personal relationship with Jesus.  That doesn’t make that terminology wrong.  “Trinity” isn’t a biblical term, but it accurately encapsulates the biblical teaching of one God existing in three separate persons. 

Why did evangelicals feel the need to add the word personal to the discussion of salvation?  What were they trying to clarify or correct by calling Jesus a personal savior (instead of just “the savior”)?  The Bible talks about faith in Christ – not a personal relationship with Jesus.  Why did evangelicals feel the need to speak and write this way about the Christian faith?

If you feel a need to emphasize the personal aspects of salvation, it would seem you are trying to correct a view that seems too impersonal – don’t you think? 

Think about Catholic Christianity for a moment.  In Catholicism the ordinary person doesn’t relate directly to God or Christ.  God is too high and too holy and the people too lowly and too sinful.  The Church relates to God.  The church-goer relates to the Church.

And how did the average church-goer “relate to the Church”?  For centuries, people couldn’t read and didn’t have their own Bibles.  Bibles were written in Latin and common people didn’t read or speak Latin!  But all church services were done in Latin (this only changed when I was a small boy!).  “Going to church” meant standing, sitting, kneeling, and making the sign of the cross for an hour while you had no clue what was being said by the priest.  But you didn’t have to understand.  You just had to be there while the Church did the business with God for you.  You didn’t have to be personally involved.

Could religion get any more cold, distant, or impersonal?

Men like Martin Luther protested (hence Protestants) against this impersonal approach to God.  Luther wrote and spoke in German so that people could understand what was going on – so they could say “amen” to things and affirm their own beliefs.  Luther began removing the Church as the mediator, the go-between, the middle-man.  He and the other reformers preached that all Christians are priests, that the veil has been torn open and we can go directly to God because of Jesus.  And they preached that each man must take the personal responsibility to do so.  Your faith is your faith – not your parents’ faith or your godparents’ faith or your priest’s faith.  Yours.  Your faith is your personal response to God’s truth.

Evangelicalism (descended from the beliefs of the Protestant Reformers) takes this personal responsibility, this personal choice of faith, for granted.  But it hasn’t always been merely “granted”.

This is the first step and the most basic meaning of personal as it is applied to our faith in God.  It is jargon that protests impersonal mindless ritual and insists on each soul taking personal responsibility for its choices and beliefs.

More on this next time...

As a traditionalist I try to be as understanding as I can of the perspective of contemporary music, but one of my pet peeves that I struggle to get over is what I call “Jesus Is My Girlfriend” songs.  You know – songs with lyrics about Jesus embracing you and drawing you close, His love for you or your love for Him that could just as easily have been crooned to your girlfriend when you were a teenager and the lyrics still would have made sense.  I have a problem with these kinds of lyrics on several levels.

Advocates of contemporary worship music have explained to me that lyrics like this are justified because erotic or romantic love is used of Christ’s relationship to us, and they usually appeal to Ephesians 5.25-32, which says:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.

“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Is this about erotic or romantic love between Christ and the church?  Is that what we’re supposed to picture?

Or is it about the giving of the self, personal sacrifice, to bless and benefit one’s partner?

It doesn’t say that husbands should love their wives’ bodies as they love their own bodies.  It says a man should love his WIFE the way he loves his own body.  I provide for my body – I feed it, I wash it, I bandage its wounds, I give it rest – I care for myself – and I should care for my wife because she is united with me.  The same is true of Christ and the church.  He provides and cares for His church because He is bound that closely to His Church.

I wouldn’t deny that erotic, romantic, or sexual love is one aspect of the expression of the selflessness of love.  But I think the point of Ephesians is to focus on the selflessness that characterizes true love (the Greek term is agape) and not merely on the romantic/erotic aspect of marital love.

Second, and I think more importantly, Ephesians 5 doesn’t depict the relationship between Jesus and me, but between Christ and the whole churchThis distinction seems to have been lost, despite its being a thick thread woven throughout the fabric of both the Old and New Testaments.

Evangelicalism talks about a personal relationship with Jesus.  Evangelicals introduced that terminology to call people to a personal response to the gospel rather than merely trusting in infant baptism or in having been born into a particular church tradition.  Each person must respond to the gospel message;  each person must make a decision to believe.  That is what makes the relationship to Christ personal.

The Bible depicts God’s relationship to Israel and Christ’s relationship to the church, not as a one-on-one relationship, but as a relationship with an entire body of people as a body

A husband loves his WIFE.  He relates to her as a whole person.  He doesn’t have a personal relationship with her hand or her eye or her cells.  They are loved in the context of her whole person.  Likewise, Christ has a relationship with His Church, and it is a relationship with me only insomuch as I am a part of the body.  That larger love for the entire body of Christ is what is depicted in Ephesians 5.

The notion of Jesus caressing and embracing me personally in a romantic way is not an accurate representation – and may even be a misleading misrepresentation – of the idea intended in Ephesians 5.

I think it better to speak, not of my personal relationship with Jesus, but of the covenant relationship between Christ and His Church – which I will probably need to explain in more detail in my next blog.

Another issue that troubles us traditionalists about contemporary music is the emphases we find in contemporary artists – and perhaps more especially emphases that seem to be lacking.

We are very accustomed to singing about salvation – God sending Christ to save us from sin.  These hymns reinforce what we believe to be the core ideas of our faith – that the problem is sin;  that the solution is the grace of God, the shed blood of Christ, and forgiveness of our sins through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death. 

Sometimes we take these ideas for granted, and what younger people often don’t understand is the costly battle that was fought to prevent these ancient doctrines from being lost to the faith.

In the 1800’s educated European elites began denying the existence of the supernatural.  Anything supernatural was merely ancient superstition. 
                …The Bible wasn’t from God, it was just another human book.
                …Jesus was just a man, a popular human teacher. 
                …Belief in miracles was abandoned as unscientific and irrational.
                …The shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sin was dismissed as tribal superstition – and
                Christ’s death as a sacrifice was discarded as primitive and inhumane.  The doctrine of hell was
                discarded for the same reason.
                …The notion that there was only one way to God was deemed uncompassionate.  The new  
                doctrine was that all religious roads led to heaven.
Theological Christianity was replaced with experiential spirituality.  Liberalism says that if you feel a spiritual experience is truly divine – it is.  It is not to be judged by theology.  All experiences are valid and should be accepted without judgment or criticism.  The important thing about all religion is to be tolerant of everyone’s doctrines and experiences.  Be nice.  Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings with negative energy.

These changes in Christianity didn’t take place overnight, nor did they take place without a fight.  There was much debate and argument into the early 20th century.  But by 1940, it was clear that the traditionalists (aka fundamentalists, conservatives, evangelicals) had lost the battle.  Liberalism forced conservatives out of the denominations, seminaries, mission boards, and churches.  If you believed in traditional Protesant teachings, you had to build a church, a denomination, a school, a mission board, from the ground up.

And that’s exactly what conservatives did.  Mountain View Chapel is one of the many churches that sprang up preaching the traditional truths of the faith.

Can I bring this back to contemporary worship music?

Today’s worship music doesn’t focus on the doctrines of salvation from sin that we fought and sacrificed for.  It’s not that contemporary artists deny those doctrines.  Most affirm them – but they are not the topic of their songs.  They focus instead on the theme of personal pain – sadness, anxiety, worry, isolation, loneliness – rather than sin, and on Jesus as our comforter and friend, rather than our sacrifice and savior.

Traditionalists acknowledge that we have “a friend in Jesus”.  Our concern is that this emphasis on “relevance” and “experience” is just a stealthier and subtler way of crowding out the uncomfortable but powerful traditional doctrines of the faith.  That’s why so many traditionalists engage in “worship wars”.

While I want to battle division in our ranks, I don’t want to forget that the enemy is more subtle than “any other beast of the field”.  He can appear as an angel of light and can gently twist good into an evil in such a gentle way that we don’t notice it.  That’s why we’re called upon to be sober and vigilant regarding him.

The liberal churches opted for relevance thinking that they were saving Christianity from extinction.  But the opposite seems to be true.  The more relevant liberals became, the more quickly their churches and denominations have died.  They ignored the problem of sin and left themselves without a need for a Savior.  And with no Savior, there is no message.

I don’t think we need to rid ourselves of songs about spiritual experience.  But I strongly believe that we need to “beef up” the other side – songs that remind us about the great old truths of the Christian faith.

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