Personal Relationship with God
How often do you hear the phrase "personal relationship with God" in evangelical circles? On the other hand, how many times have you read it in the Scriptures? It may come as a surprise that this phrase is found nowhere in any sound English translation of the Bible. It is rarely found in Christian writing or sermons prior to the middle of the 20th century, and it was not widespread among the people in the pews in most conservative evangelical churches until about the 1970s. So, where did it come from, and why has it become so pervasive? Does it have a Scriptural basis? Does it represent some new understanding of Scripture that the Church overlooked for 1900 years? Is it just a contemporary way of stating the apostles' doctrine? Or has it crept into our thinking and verbiage from the world?
First, it certainly is true that we have a personal relationship with God. The Bible teaches us that God is a person, and that we are persons, having been created by Him in His image. He has a relationship with us, His creatures, that is fundamentally personal; that is, it consists in one person relating to another. It has been said that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, which implies this kind of interpersonal relationship with God in which we commune with Him, restoring in some sense the order of the garden of Eden. So, most certainly, Christians ought to pursue a personal relationship with God. But you probably feel instinctively that that is not what most evangelicals today mean when they use the term.
In a different sense, all humans have a personal relationship with God. The only question is in the direction of it. At creation, man was turned toward God, and God made His face to shine upon man, to use the Hebrew terminology. At the fall, man turned away from God. Yet God still sought after a remnant of mankind to redeem to Himself. His Holiness and justice required that He turn away from us, yet because of His mercy and grace, He didn't abandon us utterly but sent us His Son to purchase our redemption. Some are still turned away from Him, and if they don't repent, He will pour out His wrath on them for eternity. Others of us He has drawn back to Himself, and is working on our sin-marred characters to make us back into the kind of people who will truly enjoy having the light of His countenance shining upon us perpetually. But one way or the other, whether or not we choose to recognize it, we all have a personal relationship with God in this general sense, whether we want it and acknowledge it or not.
"Personal relationship" in both of the above senses refers to relationships of an objective kind -- the relatedness itself as distinguished from our subjective experience of it. But when some evangelicals say things like, "Christianity is a personal relationship with God," I get a different sense from either the interpersonal communion that the redeemed have with a holy God, or the general relationship all humans have to Him as our Creator and Judge. The focus tends to be on our experience of the relationship, our temporal, moment-to-moment experience. In the context of what is happening in many churches today, the implicit message is something like:
"Christianity isn't about dealing with sin anymore. It's not about atonement, justification, sanctification, or any of that scary and boring doctrinal stuff. It's about REAL LIFE! It's about family values, and good times, and getting through tough times, and recovering from abuse and addiction. It's about your experiences and feelings here and now.."
Matters of the transcendent and eternal have come to be of secondary concern to us, except as vaguely imagining them makes us feel that everything is going to be OK. In other words, when we say "personal," we often don't mean "interpersonal," nor even quite "walking with God." There is usually little more in view than some kind of ecstatic or warm and fuzzy experience. Few people would say those kinds of things right out loud (at least not yet). But I think that many are saying it by what they emphasize and what they omit from their preaching, teaching, auditorium design and decor, particular uses of mulit-media, music, dress, order of worship, and lifestyle, as compared with what we find in the Word of God.
The problem is not with the term itself -- while it's an extra-Biblical term, there's nothing unscriptural about it as such. But it has come to be used as a substitute for the gospel of God. When the apostles preached and taught the gospel, their focus was always on Christ, both his person and work. They spoke of his righteous life, his substitutionary, atoning death, his bodily resurrection, and the implications of those things for those who by faith are placed into Christ. With respect to man's response, their focus was never on an existential experience of God's presence, but on repentance from sin, ceasing to work to appease God or merit His favor, and trusting in the finished work of Christ alone for a right standing before God.
When the apostles preached the gospel, they spoke, not of personal decision and commitment, but of unity in Christ with the community of faith.
Why we say it
So, where did the term come from, and why did it suddenly rise to popularity in Christian circles in the last half of the 20th century? To answer that question, I have to tell you a crazy story. It's the story of how the West was duped. It's a long, sad, and complicated story, but I'll try to make it as brief as possible without distorting it overmuch.
Once upon a time, there lived a French mathematician by the name of René DesCartes. He was very good at solving math problems. But this one thing bugged the livin' daylights out of him: how do we know that we know what we know? Well, he puzzled and puzzed til his puzzler was sore, then he sat in an oven and puzzled some more. And finally he came up with a really ingenious solution: doubt everything until all you're left with is stuff that cannot be doubted, for whatever reason. He whittled it down until he was left with just one thing: he could not doubt that he was doubting, because if he doubted that he was doubting, he was doubting. Now, logically, only a being who actually exists can doubt anything. So, it follows irresistably that he, René existed. Bingo, problem solved. "I think, therefore I am," he said, or something rather like it in Latin. Mathematicians and philosophers ate it up.
DesCartes' logic cannot be refuted. But the trouble with it was that it didn't really get us anywhere. I mean, everyone already knew perfectly well that we existed, and few people really felt the need for proof of the most obvious thing in the world. Worse, it put all the emphasis on the human mind, omitting and, by implication, denegrating human experience, feeling, and intuition. But worst of all, it put a tiny crack in the human soul, one that would widen with time. You see, it really only proved to the individual doubter that he himself existed. Technically, theoretically, everyone and everything else that he perceived could still be imaginary, all a dream, or something very different than his senses perceived it to be. And that's how all the trouble started.
Different philosophers reacted to DesCartes' Rationalism in different ways, but by the early 19th century the upshot of it all was that Western society was swinging madly towards the opposite end of the pendulum trajectory. We were now denegrating rational thought, and embracing sensation, feeling, and intuition as our ultimate source of Truth.
Now, if we thought it was tough arriving at Truth through human reason divorced from sensory experience, imagine the time we had trying to get at it by irrational means. The silliness of the idea should have been obvious from the start. In fact, it didn't take long for us to discover that it would never work. But what now? We had already tried pure reason -- no good, ignores what we feel, which is a very important part of who we are, and a part of us that provides important clues about what is good and bad, what is real and false. And now we find that feelings won't get us there either.
So, believe it or not, we basically gave up. A guy with the ironic name of Immanuel Kant came along and concluded that we cannot get to God, because He lives away up yonder and we're way down here, and there's a great gulf fixed betwixt that you just can't cross. And practically everybody believed him.
We were left with only one thing: experience. We can just exist and experience life and not worry about proving anything or finding some Truth outside of ourselves. If there is any Truth out there, we can't know it, and so it's as if there weren't any, for all practical reasons. Whatever's true for you...'swhatevuh.
It was with the implications of that realization hanging over our heads that some European theologians, most notably Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Emil Brunner, redefined Truth and revelation for Christians. In 1938 Brunner published a small book entitled Warheit als Begegnung, and given the title The Divine-Human Encounter in its English version; literally the German title translates Truth as Encounter. His premise was that "truth is not found in the text [of Scripture] but is found when people have a personal encounter with Christ; only in personal relationships is Biblical truth discovered. Some have taken this so far as to say, 'It is the personal relationship that matters, so never mind the propositions.'"2 I once heard that stated this way: "We need to forget about theology and just focus on Jesus." Either way, personal relationships become a substitute for objective truth. Or at the very least our personal encounter with God's truth, and our experiences and perceptions of His truth, become elevated above Scripture as the authority on truth.
While Brunner meant thus to defend orthodox Christianity against the mainstream liberalism of the day, his dialectical approach to theology inevitably led him to a set of conclusions that are ultimately little different from those he sought to repudiate. For if truth is found only in experience, if it does not exist objectively independent of personal relationships, then there is no real truth - only human perceptions of truth. What happens when my perception of what God has revealed to me conflicts with your perception of what He has revealed to you? Which is the truth?
The dialectical method would tell us that both are part of the truth, and ask us to bring our contradictory ideas together and work out some sort of synthesis of the two into one new "truth." So truth becomes an ever-changing (the neo-orthodox would call it "dynamic") thought-scape of merging and diverging opinions, the shifting sands upon which the foolish man builds his house.
Some neo-orthodox theologians might instead advise us to ignore our differences; that they are not really that important as long as we all remain focused on Jesus. That is simply not clear thinking. Who is Jesus? If you believe that Jesus was merely a good man who died as a hero and an example, and I believe that He is the Only Begotten Son of God, the Lamb of God who died to take away the sins of the world, then we are not focused on the same person. He cannot be both. If He is your Jesus, then I am a fool, and of all men most miserable. If He is my Jesus, then you are His enemy, and on the road to Hell. How can those differences not be important? If Jesus is Who He claimed to be, and Who all of Scripture claims Him to be, and if He did what the Bible tells us He did for us, then of all topics in or beyond the world, we must not treat His person and work lightly. It is of the utmost importance not only that we know Him, but that we know Whom we know, that we grow in a true understanding of Who He is and what He accomplished for our salvation. A Biblical understanding of Christology is crucial in every sense of the word: it lies at the crux of Christianity, it lies at the crossroads of the Old and New Testaments, and it centers on the cross. In order to believe, we must know what we believe.
Yet even many of those who claimed to oppose the relativism of modern humanism and neo-orthodoxy unwittingly accepted Brunner's subtler and more appealing notion that it is our personal relationship, rather than God's Word, which is paramount. Thinking that we had found a new key to the truth, we gladly shifted our emphasis away from the study of sound doctrine and toward our experience of God. Serious study, after all, is a lot of hard work. And its dividends are seldom immediately apparent. But personal relationship - ah, that is as immediate as now! To use the terminology of the 1990s, we can do personal relationship. Yes, we can do it. We can feel it. We can experience it. And with nearly everything in our society around us pushing the idea that we deserve to feel good, and that value is found primarily in the immediacy of a happy experience, such a trade is hard to pass up. We've become a generation of spiritual thrill-seekers.
A religion that is seen to be essentially that kind of personal relationship is nothing more or less than humanistic existentialism in a new, more insidious form -- a form with sufficient religious overtones to deceive the masses. It's a message that's acceptable, even appealing, to the millions of people who have sat in ostensibly evangelical churches and Sunday School classes all their lives, and somehow never really been taught the Word of God -- and certainly never acquired a Biblical worldview. Add to that the constant influence of our I-centered society, and you can easily see how the congregations might take the pastors' words that way, even if they weren't meant quite that way, when he uses this terminology. Perhaps many pastors still believe, at least nominally, in the central Christian doctrines and in the objectiveness of truth, and are merely caught up in following the current trends in the evangelical subculture. Either way, it has the same damning effect on the people they have failed to teach, people whose minds have been shaped far more by the secularist society around them than by the Word of God.
In fact, when one uses the word "personal" to mean "human" in this context, it also means "secular." This, it seems to me, is at the core of the current emphases on "real life" and, in the evangelical market place, the "experience economy." Recently a representative of a prominent, ostensibly Christian publisher took the concept of "experience economy" so far as to suggest, at an industry-wide conference, that Christian retail stores need to "help postmodern people ... experience God through all their senses."1 This is tantamount to suggesting that the God of the Bible is essentially a material, existential God, no different from the Buddha of Eastern mysticism or the Baal of the ancient Middle East, who can be physically placed in a retail environment - as if He were made of wood or stone (or plastic!). According to Paul in 1Cor 2:8-14, since God's nature is Spirit, He cannot be perceived with human senses but is only revealed to us by His Spirit. We cannot relate to God through the sensual "spirit of the world."
To Christians, "real life" should mean the transcendent, transforming life that comes down from God, into the material world from outside it; not the life merely of this material world, a basically naturalistic life that's little different with Christ than without Him. "Those who worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth." Yet we have exchanged that which is true for that which provides a cheap thrill, that which is honest for that which is comfortably familiar, that which is just for that which is self-affirming, that which is pure for that which is sentimental, that which is lovely for that which is sensational, that which is of good report for that which is popular, that which is virtuous for that which is hip, and that which is praise-worthy for that which is trite.
I hear modern evangelicals saying, boiled down, "Hey, we're not going to try to shove those higher things, spiritual things, God's things, down your throat. We're all about ordinary things now - YOUR things. We offer real life, not old, dusty doctrine. We're hip. We can mold ourselves to see things your way now, however you may choose to see things. Just please don't leave." In the age of My Netscape, My Checking, My Life, My Faith, is it any wonder that the church is offering My Christianity? It's the ultimate in personal, fully customizable religion. It's about my relationship with God. I believe - whatever is true to me. And who are you to tell me what my relationship with God should be like? As long as I'm comfortable with it, why should it matter to you?
I recently had a conversation with two men who claim to be devout Christians; one of them, in fact, is a worship leader for a fast-growing evangelical church. They were discussing friends and relatives of theirs who seemed hopelessly trapped in homosexual lifestyles. One had a brother who stated that he would like to have had a wife rather than a male lover, but insisted that it would have been unfair to the woman because he could never have really loved her. The other had an acquaintance who said something like, "Do you think I want to be homosexual? It's a horrible way to live. But I was made this way and I can't change it." Their conclusion was that homosexuality must not really be wrong after all because it would be unfair for God to punish someone for doing something he couldn't help doing. When I suggested that the Bible's answer to homosexuality is to repent of it and turn to God, they looked at me like I had said something offensive and went on as if the experiences related to them by homosexuals made my suggestion obsolete. This illustrates what happens when we place our experiences and perceptions above God's Word as our source of truth.
Note that the problem is not in seeking a right relationship with God - we certainly ought to do that. The problem is in elevating our experience of the relationship to the status of the authority on truth, to the role of the source of truth for our lives. The issue is the role of the relationship, not the value of the relationship. The issue is about the nature of truth itself.
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom." If we are to rightly understand any subject, we must first know what our Lord has told us about it, and trust His Word. It must be the foundation of our knowledge of all else. All other information, whether from our own experience, those of others whom we trust, that gained from psychology, biology, or any other field of human endeavor, must be evaluated in the light of Scripture, never vice versa. We must submit our wisdom to the wisdom of God.
This attitude of "real life Christianity" and relationship-based religion has had a profoundly negative effect on the way we read, study, and teach the Scriptures. This is betrayed by another phrase commonly heard among modern evangelicals that is also found nowhere in the Bible: "apply it to your daily life." Like the phrase "personal relationship with God," there is an insidiousness arising from the fact that it is a good thing in and of itself. Learned truth must be applied through our actions or it is the dead, workless faith described in the book of James. But that is so obvious that it does not call for any special verbiage. In other words, all learned truth should be so applied; so what are we trying to distinguish with the phrase " apply it to your daily life"? The problem arises in the attitude toward truth that lies behind the need to use the phrase in the first place. We have observed the artificial line between the truth in our heads and the truth in our lives, and have in response developed a split view of truth: that which is merely factual and that with which we can do something; that which we have merely heard and that which we have encountered.
This has led us to a method of reading the Scriptures in which we are always searching for ways to interpret the words such that we can see how to apply them to our daily lives. This is a dangerously humanistic method. God's truth is bigger than us, beyond us. Our lives are contained within its authority. It cannot be shrunk down to fit within our perception of relevancy. It is not our job to determine what truth we need at the moment, nor how to apply it; that is the job of the Holy Spirit. We must approach the Scriptures with reverence ("the fear of the LORD") and an open mind. We must read them with the eye of faith. Even when it seems that we are reading nothing more than endless lists of unpronounceable names, irrelevant numbers, and historical trivia, we must trust God to use His Word in us however He sees fit. Once we begin overlooking some part of the Scripture because we can't see how it applies to us, we have stopped trusting God and taken for ourselves the responsibility for determining what is true and what is not. Worse, we have adopted to some extent the view that some truth is true for us, while the rest is irrelevant. We have fallen prey to Brunner's view of encounter-based truth.
Once we have determined to put our trust in God's truth rather than in our experience of His truth, we must answer this question if we are to begin the journey back to a right view of a personal relationship with God: what does the Bible say our relationship with God should be like? Before we tackle that question, though, let's think about the various other kinds of personal relationships from the viewpoint of how their terms are set.
The relationship between two adult men who have made friends with each other in a Sunday School class or at work is personal. What are its parameters, what is its basis? Just about whatever both men decide. They're peers, and they co-manage their relationship with each other to a large degree. The same, of course, is essentially true between any two adults in a similar situation. It's not entirely dependent on the wishes of the two people, though. We have laws under which, and within the bounds of which, we ought to relate: both the laws of God and the laws of our governments.
What about between a man and his wife? Pretty much the same thing, though (hopefully) deeper. The man is the head of the wife, so it's not quite the same. But certainly the wife shares in deciding many of the terms of the relationship. On the other hand, much about what a married relationship ought to be has already been decided for us beforehand. Man and woman did not create marriage, God did, and He has told us several things about how we are to relate to each other within the bonds of matrimony. So we see that in a marriage relationship, even more so than one between mere friends, there is a third party, so to speak, One Who sets forth many of the essential terms of the relationship between the other two. Here we have a hint about the nature of a Biblical personal relationship with God.
What about between parents and minor children? Here things are a bit more one-sided. It's still a very personal relationship, no one would question that, but the terms are decided almost exclusively by the parents, who communicate them to the children (and communicate, and communicate, ...). Not until a child is grown and has left the house does he gain the right to set some of the basic terms of the relationship with his parents. And by then they've usually already been well set. Aha! A stronger hint about our key question.
So what about our personal relationship with God? Who sets the terms there? The answer is so obvious that the question becomes rhetorical. Who has the authority to define the parameters for our worship of Him? On whose initiative was I brought into His family - His or mine? So, whose faith is it, really, His or mine? Who has the right to define Christianity?
And in what way has He chosen to relate to us? From the fall of man in the Garden to this day, God has related to man through covenants. Our relationship to Him is like one of a child to his father in some ways but it is more like that of a bride to her bridegroom in this way: it is based on the bridegroom's covenant. It is in no way casual, not a mere acquaintance. At its foundation, our relationship to God is solemn: the New Covenant in His blood. It is based on His bloodstained promise to keep us and to work on us until the day of Christ Jesus - the day our marriage to Him will be consummated. He has set the terms, and we may accept them by faith or reject them in unbelief. It goes almost without saying, then, we must learn what those terms are; and that leads us - you guessed it - back to the necessity of theology, of the study of God's law, of the study of doctrine.
And yet our modern American evangelical churches are filled with people who, having become accustomed to setting preferences for everything around them, seem to know of no reason why they should not be able to customize their personal religion, too. They are comfortably under the illusion that they are God's buddies, and that He doesn't mind if they help set the terms of their relationship with Him. They think this because their pastors and teachers have not taught them Biblical truth about God's power and holiness, and man's frailty and depravity. Consequently, we're not thinking in terms of that which is beyond the material world, a spiritual operating system written by God, headed by Christ, and have forgotten or ignored the fact that it is not man's place to fool with Christianity's "preferences." God, not men, founded the Church. It is a spiritual organization, not a physical one.
Unless these questions are asked, few of the many who have mixed Christianity with the secular religion of their daily lives will bother to think about the answers. And until they are taught the fundamentals of the faith, they will be unable to find the answers.
January 27, 2002
The problem with the phrase, "Christianity is a relationship" is in the subtle implications that come about by contrast with the traditional evangelical message. For centuries, evangelicals proclaimed the gospel message that
Christianity, then, was understood to be fundamentally a religion, the expressed worship of, a system of belief about, and most importantly the means of faith in Jesus Christ.
The modern evangelical message, at large, has shifted toward Christianity as a relationship. The gospel has been replaced by the message that God loves everyone unconditionally, that He has taken care of the whole sin problem thing so that it no longer presents a barrier between us and Him, and that He now waits for us to come to Him and enter into a loving relationship with Him. By contrast with the gospel, this is as much as to say that man is not fallen, and that we can therefore be God's buddies. The unspoken (unspeakable yet real) implication is that we are autonomous from and practically co-equal with God. God is over there, we are over here, and we may assent to God's wish to hang out with us if we so desire. After all, that's what He wants, right? Didn't He create the world because He wanted people to have a love relationship with? Didn't He give us free will so He could know that we were really choosing Him freely, and therefore that we really love Him? The Biblical answer to those questions is a resounding NO!
When the Serpent tempted Eve in the garden, part of his lie was that by breaking out from under God's command, she and Adam would raise themselves to co-equal status with God. Because they followed that lie, they and their progeny ever after (that's all of us) are turned away from God and toward the Lie. We are all born desiring autonomy from, and co-equal status with God. All of our lives (in the flesh) we stubbornly seek that goal, and are by nature opposed to anything that stands in our way. Our hearts are desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9), willing to do anything and believe anything that offers us hope to weasel out from under the truth that God is the sovereign and we are His subjects.
The movement toward Relationship Christianity is an effect of our first Satanic deceit. We accept it because we don't want to believe that we are hopeless without God's intervention. We want to think that we can pal around with God. We want to believe that He is no longer concerned about our sinful condition, that He winks at our sin.
The last thing we want to hear is that His holiness illuminates the darkest regions of our hearts, exposing our wickedness to His unbending gaze. The last thing we want to hear is the Law of God. But without the Law, the heart is cut out of the gospel and it comes to seem useless to us. And so, we have discarded it for a more relevant message, a kinder, gentler Christianity. May God's grace shine into our hearts and knock us to our knees as it did the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. Until we bend to His authority, our relationship to Him will be that of the criminal to the Judge.
1. CBA Marketplace, May 2000, p. 32
2. R. C. Sproul, Renewing Your Mind radio broadcast, June 7, 2000
Notes for further study:
Brunner, Barth, etc. (neo-orthodox theologians) for origins of personal religion and event revelation.
(Renewing Your Mind June 7, 2000)
"the Bible does not become revelation"
References to Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Althaus, Rudolf Bultmann;
Vox Dei "the voice of God"Barth said the Bible is werbum, not werba: revelation is not objective and propositional but dynamic and eventual. Event revelation means that the way God reveals Himself is through the events of history. These things tell us about God but cannot be reduced to absolute, axiomatic statements. They communicate no authoritative statements of objective meaning, but rely on our response to them for their subjective meaning.
Werbum Dei "the Word of God"
Werba Dei "the Words of God"
What is at stake here is not a single doctrine of the Bible, but a whole approach to truth. SproulThe Correspondence Theory of truth: that which corresponds to reality is true. This was challenged by the classic question of Bishop Barklay, "If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear?" Barklay would say, "Truth is that which corresponds to reality as perceived by God."
Soren Kirkegard's concern was with those who saw truth as something external to themselves but not relevant to themselves. He stressed the importance that people be vitally involved in a response to truth.
Brunner ([1889-1966 " from the school of dialectical theology" The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition. 2000] Basil, Switzerland) wrote the book "Warheit als Begegnung" literally "Truth as Encounter" [1938, tr. The Divine-Human Encounter, 1943 ibid.]. Truth is not found in the text but is found when people have a personal encounter with Christ; only in personal relationships is Biblical truth discovered. Some have taken this so far as to say, "It is the personal relationship that matters, so never mind the propositions." Personal relationships become a substitute for objective truth.
Brunner also said that the Bible was not revelation, Christ was the revelation: He is the "real" Word of God. The Bible is merely the supreme revelation of Christ.
Barth said that the Bible is not objective revelation but becomes revelation when the Spirit uses the Scripture to illumine ones heart in a metaphysical, existential way.
There is also the view that the Bible contains objective revelation but is not entirely revelatory.
The Council's confession in the 3rd article: "The written Word, in its entirety, is revelation given by God. We deny that the Bible is merely a witness to revelation, or only becomes revelation in encounter, or depends on the responses of men for its validity."