Your Own Personal Jesus?

by Richard on March 31, 2006

Evangelicals generally insist that ‘the meaning and purpose of life is to have a personal relationship with Jesus.’ That’s how a Methodist pastor I was listening to a few months ago put it. Philip Yancey says it another way in his Reaching for the Invisible God (Zondervan, 2000): ‘getting to know God is a lot like getting to know a person. You spend time together, whether happy or sad. You laugh together. You weep together. You fight and argue, then reconcile.’

But we also confess that Jesus is not physically present on earth. So how does one have a personal relationship with someone you can’t talk to, share a glass of wine with, or even email? We need to do some fundamental reflection on the whole notion of having a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus Christ. While, on the one hand, I respect the longing for intimacy with God that these words reflect, they also concern me because they betray a creeping sort of secularization of our language about God.

John Suk, a professor of homiletics at Asian Theological Seminary in Manila, The Philippines, challenges popular evangelical jargon.

via maggi dawn.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }


dh 03.31.06 at 5:32 pm

You can’t talk to? Jesus doesn’t interact with us even though He isn’t here in bodily form? I still don’t see the conclusion of the post of having a problem with the term “personal relationship with Jesus”. I see a bigger problem with people having a problem with the term “personal relationship with Jesus”. I see no problem with what people call the “so-called jargon”.

“Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.” Just because Jesus is not there in bodily form doesn’t mean He isn’t there or that we can’t have a relationship with Him. This discussion doesn’t make sense to me. I challenge those who challenge the term.


Kim 03.31.06 at 7:25 pm

This is an excellent post that has the guts to say things that a lot of folk suppress, perhaps lest their faith be considered suspect (”Oh, so you’re not ‘born again’?”) I am reminded of the boy who exposed the emperor’s nakedness in the teeth of the denial of his subjects.

I myself preached a sermon entitled “Taking Jesus As Your Personal Lord and Saviour?” to my Reformed congregation in December 2000 (repeated less successfully, I suspect, among Richard’s Methodists in May 2003!). It raised the same issues and made similar points: the absence of such language in the NT; its tendency to valorise self at the cost of community; its begging the question about the nature of salvation - its susceptibility to what Bonhoeffer called “salvation egoism”; its sentimental piety; its apolitical discipleship; its reflection of the narcissism, cult of feelings and obsession with being “in a relationship” of contemporary culture; the sheer fantastical psychology of it all, which mirrors Feuerbach’s critique of religion as a self-deceptive projection; and so on.

To be fair, however, the phenomenon has a history which dates from the “the theology of the heart” (Jaroslav Pelikan) of 18th century continental pietism. Nikolaus Zinzendorf (1700-60), for example, said that “We must all become acquainted with the Saviour personally, otherwise all theology is naught.” Reconnecting with the religious “affections” after the arid speculations of 17th Protestant scholasticism was no doubt important and laudable, and it was properly exploited, existentially and theologically, by the likes of the Wesleys and Jonathan Edwards, who criticised over-emotionalism and honoured reason and the intellect. However, by the nineteenth century a proper experiential faith had desended into the bathos of the kind of popular revivalism which is so evident in (say) The Sankey and Moody Hymn Book (1873), with its abattoir atonement imagery and its Jesus “walks with me and talks with me” flights of fancy.

For me (personally!), the term “faith” is quite adequate to the discourse of discipleship, and I am comfortable with the fit of a Jesus straight off-the-peg rather than one-made-to-measure. Christ is, after all, the Lord, not just my Lord, and he is certainly not my personal valet. As a character says about her conversion in Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus!: “The moment made me feel special, and yet, of course, nothing makes a person less special than conversion - it . . . universalizes you.”


Dave Warnock 03.31.06 at 7:38 pm

I have just started the first of two books by Clive Marsh on this subject “Christ in Focus: Radical Christocentrism in Christian Theology”. He aims to tackle the questions:

- What do Christians mean when they say “Jesus is here”?
- What does the attempt to be Christ-like actually amount to?
- What does it mean to claim to be “in Christ” or to say “Jesus Christ” is with us?
- What sense can be attached to the Church’s identification of itself as “the body of Christ”?
- Is the Church the only “body of Christ” in the world today?

So far the first few pages are good :-)


dh 03.31.06 at 8:44 pm

Kim, I think taking it to the super extreme way I kind of mircroscopically get what you are saying. However, I don’t see the absense of that language in light of Romans, John 3, etc. At the same time I don’t downgrade the importance of community but what i see from the Bible is to be part of community requires Faith in Christ alone. (exp. I am the Way the Truth and the life no one comes to the Father but through Me. etc. (saying this not to preach but as an example:) or (If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and Believe in your heart that God has risen from the dead you shall be saved.) I don’t see it as a universal thing. I will say when Christ died it is available to all but it requires Faith in Christ alone of His death and resurrection and the Belief that Jesus is God and there is no other for Salvation. The available to all is universal but that is all I see from scripture. In balance I believe in community AND individual and you can’t have one without the other individuals responsibility to be Born Again and the responsibility on discipleship for the Body of Christ to act, move and be obedient to Christ. Does that make sense, Kim?

Dave here are my answers to your five questions:

1) His Spirit is here as referenced in Acts of Pentacost
2) Being obedient and acting to the best of ones and/or communities abiltiy to Christ and the Word of God and operate in conjuction within the Holy Spirit as well.
3) Being Born Again and accepting by Faith with all our heart, soul and mind Jesus’s death and resurrection and believing with the same emphesises Jesus is God
4) The is evident by the giftings and the workings of the giftings as the members move in the utilizing of those giftings for God’s Kingdom
5) yes


dh 03.31.06 at 8:45 pm

on 5 though a person who doesn’t go to church but is a believe heart,soul and mind is part of the Body and indirectly part of the church. Kind of like the foot that went to sleep. :) just being humorous with “body” and “body parts” on this subject. Great discussion Dave. :)


Dave Faulkner 03.31.06 at 8:57 pm


I had my two-pennyworth on this article here:

Suffice to say I think Suk has an important point, but he may be engaging in hyperbole to make the point.


Lee 03.31.06 at 9:18 pm

Hello - long time reader, first time commenter. ;-)

I had two thoughts upon reading this - one is that, in addition to us living “in Christ” doesn’t Christ also live “in us” as St. Paul says? I take this to mean (at least!) that our relationship with Jesus is far more intimate and mysterious than other kinds of relationships. It is, in fact, sui generis.

My other thought was if this talk of a “personal relationship” may - at times; not always - be related to what Luther referred to as “enthusiasm,” i.e. looking for spiritual experience outside of the ordinary means of grace. If that’s right, might this have something to do with the absence of a high sacramental theology and piety among many evangelicals? In my tradition (Lutheran) we “meet Jesus” above all in the Word and Sacrament (which I suppose you could call a “personal relationship”). Our relationship with Jesus is anchored to his work of calling us to faith.

I’m no theologian - jus some thoughts.


dh 03.31.06 at 10:27 pm

Lee I think it is both at the same time but for me the sacrament doesn’t a Believer make. However, I do like “Our relationship with Jesus is anchored to his work of calling us to faith.” but I would also add a second anchor of our response by Faith to Him as well. Here is a thought I realized in writing this Lee. The Bible says “We love Him because He first loved us.” So it is Him to us at the cross and resurrection and us to Him by us placing our Faith in Christ alone. So we meet Jesus at conversion and Jesus met us by making Salvation available in the first place at His death and resurrection. Wow, Lee, isn’t it amazing how the Holy Spirit works like this. This discussion has given me are renewed insight in the enterworkings of Salvation, discipleship and the workings thereof. Thank you Jesus. :)


Dave Warnock 03.31.06 at 10:43 pm


I agree with your points.


Ok standard answers but what do they really mean

Clives book interests me as he appears to be digging deep into what Christians actually mean by all these phrases.


Beth 03.31.06 at 11:22 pm

Lee - I really like your take on this, it’s made me think. The idea of the sacraments as central to one’s personal relationship with Jesus is just beautiful and, Anglo-Cath though I am, I’d never thought of it in those terms. It’s the exact explanation of how the Eucharist makes me feel, and probably also why I get antsy and annoyed when I don’t go to Church because I’m “too busy”!

I suppose my view is that a personal relationship with Jesus is not about a change in him, but in us. So, the personal Jesus is the same as Kim’s “straight-off-the-peg” Jesus, because we have to adapt our lives to his will and teaching in order to have that kind of a relationship with him. dh, your quotation fits in with this - Jesus loved us first, and that never changes; our love for him is a reaction to his unchanging nature and creates a change in us to bring us closer to him.

Thanks, guys!


Richard 04.01.06 at 7:23 am

I’m very sypathetic to Yuk’s article, especially the way he links the way we talk about God to secular therapeutic culture. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to lose the language of relationship from our God-talk. As a Methodist, the experience of the ‘warmed heart’ — the individual encounter with God — is a part of my story. But that can’t be seperated from the sacraments of the church or the community of faith, as Lee (welcome!) suggested.
Part of the problem with the phrase “personal saviour” is the way it suggests a sense of ownership. My personal cd player and personal organizer are things that are *mine*. I put them in my pocket for my use. You can have your own personal organizer, but you can’t have mine.


Kim 04.01.06 at 10:47 am

Yes, thanks to Lee for his observation about the sui generis nature of the faith-relationship with Jesus - not least because the relationship is, ipso facto, a relationship with the entire Trinity (the patristic wisdom that opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt: i.e. the persons of the trinity are differentiated by their own relations, not by their actions towards us): hence its the mystery of faith.

I also second Richard for his insistence on the the place of the affections in faith - let us say its “personal” but not “indivdualistic” nature.

And, finally, I do not want to impugn fellow Christians who do talk a different language of faith - as long as they know what they are talking about! And I certainly don’t deny that there are plenty of folk - Sisterhoods are full of them - who have that “walk-and-talk” with Jesus faith - and who are saints because they walk the talk.


Eugene McKinnon 04.01.06 at 4:30 pm

What I have noticed about this “personal relationship with Jesus” doctrine is that it is to the exclusion of others. Suk is right. It excludes one from the realities of the world for which Jesus died and rose again for. It excludes people from church and it excludes people in the church from each other.

I remember returning home to my congregation after a devastating stint in my candidacy for ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. I newly minted “born again” believer walks up to me and says, “I’m just Christian, I’m not Presbyterian.” He then proceeded to bash his girlfriend’s parents and claimed that they were not Christians. He bashed the elders, he bashed everyone, and I think he wanted to bash me.

The experience I got from our meeting was that he had a relationship with Jesus to the exclusion of others. Ironically the reason why I was returned to my home congregation was because I lost sight of the importance of church and the need for community to build me up and that I was to help build up the community. Before I returned to the congregation it was God and me versus my profs and the presbytery. Not the case at all.

What I have to say about this “personal relationship” with Jesus metaphor is that it is way too subjective and licenses people to judge fellow believers.

Blessings to all of you,



Beth 04.01.06 at 10:49 pm

“Jesus loves you - but I’m his favourite”, right?


irene 04.02.06 at 5:36 am

Speaking as someone who is intensely frustrated with this whole “personal relationship with God” thing… I do not doubt that we are called to be in relationship with Him (children of God, adopted into His family, Jesus said “I call you friends”, etc) but I want to know what this *means* when translated into day-to-day living. As Prof Suk says, “How does one have a personal relationship with someone you can’t talk to, share a glass of wine with, or even email?”

The question of how to relate to God is still one I wrestle with. I did briefly ponder it here:

So you see, this is not merely an academic discussion for me.

He is both Father and King, Friend and Lord. It is hard to balance both sides of the equation. I suppose many people tend to tip the balance on the side of “father & friend” simply because it’s easier to believe you’re dealing with some kind of benevolent indulgent God who wants to bless you and make you happy.


dh 04.03.06 at 1:20 pm

But isn’t the Gospel somewhat exclusionary? Doesn’t Jesus say “If you deny Me I will deny you before My Father in heaven.” or “Except a man be Born Again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”? I do think we need to be caring and embrace those who haven’t accepted Christ and love them into the Kingdom but we mustn’t deny the responsibility for people to accept Christ as their Savior and place Christ as Lord of their life. Salvation is something we enter into AND have in our life that. We both enter into it and possess it. However, to say one and not the other is very wrong somewhat like Kim says but there is some measure of possession by the very nature of Christ saying “…enter into him and sup with him and he with Me.”


dh 04.03.06 at 1:26 pm

I think people enter into the discussion with clouded predispositions by the whole right/left thing they miss that Jesus is friend, father,king, savior, lord ,etc. He is all of these at the same time but to deny the “personal relationship” part seems strange to me and promotes a lack of responsibility for us as individuals to be right standing with God by accepting by Faith what Christ did on the cross. This however doesn’t degrate the responsibility of the Body of Christ to be under the Lordship of Christ as well. It is both 100% at the same time.

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