Personal Relationship with Jesus: A Biblical Concept?

I recently re-read Rob Bell’s best selling book Love Wins and was pleasantly shocked at how much of it I agree with. Well, I agree with about 80% of it. The problem is that the other 20% is not just off, but terribly wrong and misleading. In any case, I was struck by something he said as he was slaughtering our sacred evangelical cows in chapter one. Bell pointed out that even though Christians today emphasize having a personal relationhsip with jesus“personal relationship with Jesus,” the phrase never occurs in the Bible. Never. How is it that the thing we find most important about our faith was never mentioned in the Bible?

It’s an interesting question, and in one sense he’s right. The phrase never actually occurs in the Bible. And when you follow the Apostles around in the New Testament, they never ask people to invite Jesus into their heart or to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Generally, they proclaim Jesus as the risen Lord and Savior and call people to lay down their lives and follow him. So, is the idea of having a “personal relationship with Jesus” unbiblical?

Yes and no. It all depends on what you mean by the word personal.

If by “personal” you mean private, then no, having a “private relationship with Jesus” isn’t in the Bible. (Neither is inviting Jesus into your heart, by the way.) Our faith in Jesus is public, not private; it’s communal, not individualistic. But if you simply mean that a significant aspect of our salvation is coming into communion with our Creator through Jesus—then yeah, I think that’s pretty biblical.

In other words, while the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” isn’t in the Bible, the concept is. In fact, it’s everywhere. From Genesis to Revelation, the Garden to the New Jerusalem, the idea that our Creator desires to dwell with, commune with, and relate with humanity in spite of our sin, in spite of our mess—well, that’s pretty much a major theme of Scripture. In one sense Bell is spot on. Having a private little religious experience with our private little Jesus is not very biblical. But in another sense he’s dead wrong. Relating with our Creator—that’s a significant plot in the story.

Let’s push this a bit further, though, because I still think there’s something to be gleaned from Bell’s point. Our relationship with Jesus is not private. It’s communal. That is, the center of gravity in our relationship with Jesus is in the church. Not in your heart, not on some mountaintop, and no, not in some building. But in the local gathering and global unity of Christ’s blood-bought bride. Consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:22-23:

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Did you get that? The fullness of God is not in your individual heart and it’s not on some mountain top away from civilization. It’s in the church—that messy gathering of broken, high-maintenance people that we “have” to visit every Sunday (and if you’re in the Midwest, every Wednesday as well). Paul goes on to call this church the temple of the Lord where “you also are church 1being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21). Again, Paul prays that “you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19), which he already said resides in the local body (1:23). This is why God gave us spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:11-12), so that the body of Christ would be built up, made mature, and become unified where the “fullness of Christ” would radiate (Eph. 4:12-13). Fullness of Christ! It’s not in you. It’s not in me. It’s in us.

The New Testament bleeds community. Our faith—our personal relationship with Jesus—is inconceivable apart from the local community of believers. This is why Paul often refers to the church body (not our individual bodies) as the temple of the living God (1 Cor 3; 2 Cor 6). The church is where God’s presence dwells on earth. There is a sense in which God’s Spirit dwells in individual Christians, but individual Christians are lifeless apart from the church.

I’m fine with having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” But I think it’s more biblical to think in terms of having a corporate, one-another-ness relationship with our risen Lord. Our relationship with God is communal, because that’s where the fullness of God dwells.

Leave a Reply

*

6 comments

  1. Thank you bro! This is a good reminder. In fact, John 15: 9-12 Jesus Himself teaches that the essence of abiding in His love and in His truth is keeping His commandment, which is to love one another as He has loved us. This abiding starts in unity with Christ but is simply executed in love for one another which cannot be done alone on a mountaintop or in our prayer closet.

    “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

    Now I ask you as the evangelist I am, doesn’t this idea of “personal relationship” significantly alter the Gospel work and the expectations that we place on ourselves and new converts in our sanctification afterward? After all, we have this sort of “sanctification is a personal matter of the heart in relation to full-fledged obedience to God’s commandments,” Some people would even say, “We are to obey God’s commands.” I’m like, “Which ones?” In fact, loving God and loving our neighbor-practically was the New Testament Church’s sanctification; their ‘set-apartness,’ if i may. This Greatest Commandment and the next which is ‘like’ it, as Jesus put it, covers the whole Law and it cannot be practiced privately.

    Oh me & my questions :)

    Bottom-line, I love the blog bro. Thank you

    • Preston

      Brother Bert, great question! And yes, I think it would alter our evangelism a bit. Instead of inviting individuals into a personal relationship with Christ, we would invite them into the New Covenant people of God, where Jesus is Lord and believers are their family. This, of course, includes a personal relationship with Jesus (properly defined), but much, much more.

      Thanks for popping in!

  2. Pingback: How we misuse: “a personal relationship with Jesus” | Bert Alcorn

  3. samuel choi

    Wow so helpful and clear. I really appreciate this and hope it infiltrates the church in a gracious and edifying way, opposed to a very reactionary way. Thanks P!

    • Preston

      Thanks Sam! Always a pleasure to hear from you, brother!

  4. samuel choi

    1 thing, with what u mentioned regarding Biblical accounts of Gospel “presentations”, I also noticed they never proclaim that God loves them so much! This seems to be the cornerstone of many Gospel preaching. Thoughts?

Type to Search

See all results