Pastor's Blog

God said and did things in the world in Jesus Christ.  Then through special witnesses (the apostles) God sent out a message to the world that consisted of
                (1) A recounting of what Jesus said and did – His miracles, His teachings, and most importantly, His death and resurrection and . . .
                (2) An explanation of what these things mean – that Jesus is not just a good teacher but the appointed king and judge of the final, the Christ;  that Jesus’ death was not merely a Roman execution, but was the appointed sacrifice for the sins of the world; and that Jesus resurrection means that He is still alive and will someday return, rid the world of the enemies of all that is right, and finalize God’s kingdom on the earth – a place and a time where what God wants will be what everyone wants.

God calls people to believe these things – and that means            
                (1)  Affirm that you believe them to be true and  
                (2)  Entrust yourself to the truth of those truths, i.e. live as though you believe they are real.

The choice to believe that way (and to continue believing and living that way) is faith.  And faith, evangelicals preach, is personal.  Neither your parents nor godparents nor your minister can believe on your behalf.  Every person, every soul, must personally make that choice to believe.

The Bible doesn’t use the personal terminology – personal faith, personal Savior, personal relationship with God.  Evangelicals added it to distinguish the saving faith of genuine individual commitment to Christ from empty lip-service to nominal religion.  And I believe that is correct.

But once the terminology of the “personal” was introduced, it seems it took on a life of its own.  People imported other aspects of the meaning of personal into their view of their relationship to God.  They started to think of their personal relationship with their personal Savior to be no different from their personal relationships with any of their personal friends.  It's personal and private -- just you and Jesus, and the cluster of experiences and interactions and feelings between you.

Since a personal relationship with friends means personal interaction with them, that, it is assumed, must be what a relationship with Jesus is.  He walks with you and talks with you along life’s narrow way.  You talk and He talks back.  You bare your heart and He bares His.  Some believe they hear Jesus’ voice responding when they pray – either in their heads or in dreams or visions – though most evangelicals I know believe it is more subtle – that Jesus talks mysteriously, almost indescribably, through your feelings, “in your heart”.  You just sort of sense in your gut that Jesus is communicating to you.  You feel good about certain thoughts or ideas that suddenly enter unbidden into your head.  You have a feeling of peace about certain ideas.  You just sort of know it’s not your imagination or your own feelings, that it’s Jesus communicating through the Holy Spirit.

You can just sense His presence -- usually described as a comfortable feeling of warm acceptance, the feeling that removes fear, that God is near, that you are not alone, that you feel loved and cared for.  You just feel that Jesus is there with you and for you in a very tangible way.  You just . . . know.  Many evangelicals talk about these feelings as being intimate with Jesus.  The more regularly you experience them, the more often you feel them, the more intimate you are with God.  Sometimes this intimacy is even spoken of in romantic or sexual terms – being held close, being hugged, being embraced.  Having this kind of intimacy is seen by many evangelicals as the pinnacle of spiritual maturity.  Having these feelings and sensations and experiences is what it means to know God.

I’m almost out of space – so let me sum up my thoughts on this.  I accept that faith is a personal choice.  But regarding a relationship to Jesus being "personal" in the sense that I've described here -- that has not been my experience, nor is it, as far as I can tell, the way Scripture characterizes a believer’s walk with God.

But more about that  next time . . .

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.

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