Rethinking our Vocabulary: “Personal Relationship with Jesus”

Asking hard questions about our Christian vocabulary may make us squirm a little. But it’s healthy to ask questions if our goal is to adopt better, more-biblical terminology.

Let’s consider the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus.” In the last century, evangelical churches grew in number as many people fled the mainline churches for a conversion-centered, conservative Christianity. Evangelicals found that one way to gauge a person’s spiritual life was to discover how they viewed Christianity. Was their religion simply a weekly tradition, filled with dry rituals and empty ceremony ( i.e. high church)? Or was it a vibrant “relationship” with God through the person of Jesus Christ (i.e. evangelicalism)?

Evangelicals began saying Christianity isn’t a religion, but a relationship. Our emphasis on personal conversion and subsequent transformation separated us from other denominations. The phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” arose out of this context as a way to differentiate between the two types of Christianity.

A generation of worship songs and evangelistic crusades pounded the phrase into evangelical consciousness. Songwriters took the “relationship” lingo and began writing praise songs to Jesus instead of hymns about him. Evangelists emphasized the personal aspect of conversion, showing how it’s not enough to know about Christ. One must know him personally.

Where does all this put us today? I’m convinced that the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” correctly expresses the biblical idea of discipleship and reconciliation with God. Evangelicals are right to use this phrase if through it we mean a personal, ongoing life of discipleship that includes gradual transformation into holiness. The Bible teaches that upon conversion we enter into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Jesus is our mediator, the one who reconciles us to God, and justified by faith, we are united to Christ.

But I’m also convinced that using the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” in our witnessing efforts does not help us gauge a person’s spiritual life like it used to. Times are changing. I have met and talked with people who assure me that they have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” even though their lives do not show evidence of Christ’s indwelling presence. Others tell me they know Jesus personally but have no need for the local church. A few are all about “personal relationships” with key religious figures, including Buddha.

What do you do when witnessing to a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness who also claims to have a personal relationship with Jesus? In the shifting landscape of post-Christendom’s rampant individualism, a “personal relationship with Jesus” can mean many things, too many things I’m afraid.

The other problem with the phrase is the way it sounds to men. When I’m witnessing to another guy, it seems weird to ask them if they want to have a relationship with Jesus. It’s not because I’m embarrassed by the concept or by the gospel. It’s because the terminology sounds, well, feminine. How many men want to talk about relationships? That’s why I think it is wise to find other phrases to get across the same message – a life of discipleship, following Christ, serving his kingdom, submitting to his lordship, etc.

What do you think?

Does “personal relationship with Jesus” still have staying power?

Will evangelicals eventually adopt other terminologies to express this important concept?

Does this phrase help or hinder your witnessing efforts?

written by Trevin Wax

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33 Responses to Rethinking our Vocabulary: “Personal Relationship with Jesus”

  1. Liz says:

    I think you have something there, but the emerging church will probably beat you to it. They love to change terms that are sounding too traditional. I agree with you, though. I am on a forum with people from all walks of religion and many speak of a personal relationship. Some of them also have a relationship with Mary.

  2. Trevin Wax says:

    I don’t think it’s “emerging” to question some of the terminology of evangelicalism today. Good questions about our vocabulary and practice can help us become better, more thoughtful Christians.

    I don’t recommend we ditch the “personal relationship with Jesus” phrase, because it does convey some important aspects of Christian conversion. But I don’t rely on it to tell me if a person is a true believer like I used to.

  3. Jeremy Sells says:

    I believe this phrase hinders our witnessing efforts. I say this because Evangelicals seem to be espousing (we don’t realize it for the most part) a different Jesus than the one found in scripture.

    I don’t mean that we are being heretics, but I do mean that we seem to present only one aspect of Jesus while ignoring the other aspects.
    Let me give an example,

    I walk up to a 25 year old guy and ask him if he would like to have a personal relationship with Jesus. He says that he ‘thinks so, but is unsure’. He asks me what will happen if he turns down Jesus’ offer of friendship and I reply, ‘You will go to hell and be in torment forever’. This guy is going to be confused and rightfully so. Imagine if I asked him to be my friend, he refuses, and I shot him! He wouldn’t have wanted to be my friend anyway I am sure.

    It is not about having a personal relationship with Jesus, it is about believing that He is Lord and He is worthy of praise, glory and honor. It is when we refuse to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and worthy of our devotion that the ‘punishment’ makes any sense.

  4. Trevin Wax says:

    I don’t think it has to be one or the other. It needs to be both. We have a personal relationship with the Lord of the universe. Both are true. Both are important. I think you’re right though that evangelicals tend to emphasize “friendship” with Christ over his lordship.

  5. Todd Benkert says:

    I’m not sure the language of relationship is the problem. Christianity is indeed a relationship with God. Where we fail, IMO, is that we do not describe the nature of that relationship. When we don’t, we leave the term open to subjective interpretation.

  6. Trevin Wax says:

    Todd,

    I think you’re hitting on something important here. The phrase is vague, and that is why it works in so many contexts and is problematic at the same time. There is no description of the “relationship” except that it is “personal.” That means different things to different people.

  7. Paul Cable says:

    I think it’s important that our “personal relationship with Jesus” always be seen in its trinitarian context: bringing us into a new covenantal relationship with the Father through his obedience, death, and resurrection. “Personal” can be wrongly used to mean “individualistic.” I don’t have any (positive) relationship with God outside of our membership in Christ’s body. I don’t think it’s an untrue or even an unhelpful term, but it can be dangerous, for sure.

  8. Paul Cable says:

    sorry. Make that “I don’t think we have any (positive) relationship…”

  9. Trevin Wax says:

    Good point, Paul.

    Of course, “personal” can also be interpreted today as “private” – not impinging on my way of life or on society as a whole, whereas the gospel should be holistic and encompass the transformed life of an individual as well as transformation of society.

  10. Paul Cable says:

    True. I like the term when it excludes an “impersonal” relationship, ie one that exists only in principle or theory.

  11. Tony Kummer says:

    Trevin,
    Great job on this article.

  12. Brandon Rogers says:

    Trevin,

    I think you bring up a good point. And I think Paul Cable said it well that many people mistake “personal” for “individualistic”.

    Personal spirituality is a popular thing amongst people in our culture. I think most consider themselves spiritual. And I think most people consider themselves a believer in some sort of God, or for that matter, some sort of Jesus. So if we walk up to average Joe American who has preconceived ideas about Christ, and preconceived ideas about spirituality or what a relationship is…it’s not enough to ask “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” He can honestly answer yes. Whereas if one asks, “Are you born again?” the answer may be different.

    I think we also have to acknowledge that the parameters of the relationship a human can have with Christ are determined by Christ. God commands us to come to him on his terms, not ours.

  13. Great post Trevin!

    I often cringe at the phrases “personal relationship with Jesus” and “Christianity isn’t about religion, it’s about relationship“.

    This is not because I don’t agree with these statements, as I do, and I think they are Biblical, but most “Christians” I know that use these phrases hold to a totally different meaning than the Biblical definition. I usually here these phrases from “Christians” who have no fruit of salvation, Jesus isn’t the Lord of their life, and they are living nominal lives. If I share Scripture with them, to encourage them, or discuss the gospel with them I get told to be quiet as, “Christianity isn’t about religion, it’s about relationship.” In other words, there are no rules, no objective authority, let sin abound as Jesus is my friend.

    In regards to evangelism, I hear these phrases used a lot by people who do not want to call sinners to repentance, or even discuss sin – and I consider that to be a perverted gospel.

    I agree with Todd in the comments – we can still use this phrase, where the problem lies is if we don’t clearly articulate the nature of the relationship.

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  15. Trevin Wax says:

    Brandon,

    I’ve been thinking a lot about something that we heard in the Reformation class we both took this summer… one of the reasons the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was so important to the Reformers was because if you had asked them about their “personal relationship with Jesus,” they would have immediately thought about the Eucharist.

    Something to ponder…

  16. Scott says:

    I have to consider what MY personal relationship with Jesus is and in what context it should be understood.

    First of all, Jesus initiated the relationship (well, the Holy Spirit). He therefore by soveriegn right has the lead making me subordinate.

    Second, unless His sacrifice is applied to my life I would have remained dead. Dead people do not have relationships.

    Third, as a slave freed from the bondage of sin and now a bond-servant to Jesus my relationship is one of servanthood alone. I must be seen bowing at my Lord’s feet in worship for being my Savior.

    Lastly, my relationship is as an adopted son. He has bought my freedom and granted to me a joint-heirship.

    If this can all be conveyed in the term “personal relationship” I am all for it.

  17. I think (#5) Todd’s comments are good. Out here in the Western US, folks are independent, practical, “I can do it” kind of people. They think “If I do this or that, I’m o.k.” I find the “not a religion, a relationship” concept very helpful to explain what a life of discipleship really means.

    Contextualizing and explaining the “relationship” is the key to its evangelistic success. Of course, this is true of any gospel-sharing process.

  18. I think we need to be careful when we use the terminology, ” A Personal Relationship with Jesus.” The truth is, every person in the entire world lost or saved has a personal relationship with Jesus. The Bible speaks of the personal relationship of the lost and Jesus as enemies, but that is still personal. Being at enmity with God is a personal attack on the Christ’s Lordship and his Holiness. The problem is not that lost people need a personal relationship with Jesus (because they already have one, though it be negative), but that they need to enter into a right relationship to Jesus, a submission to him as Lord and King over their lives.

  19. Paul Cable says:

    While I agree with the general sentiment behind the “not religion, relationship” response, I can’t help but notice that it’s easier to define and evaluate “religion” than “relationship.” “Relationship” defies objective definition. A relationship can be slightly different for everyone, barely able to be decisively externally evaluated (as by a local church). By insisting on the language of a “personal relationship” with God, we may be trying to hold on to our precious individualism by denying the objectivity of our, yes, religion (covenantal and relational though it be): no one comes unless drawn, all have sinned, all believers are being conformed to the likeness of and united to the same Christ, by the same Spirit.

  20. Paul Cable says:

    … to echo Nath @ RG. (#13)

  21. Todd Benkert says:

    I agree that relating with God as Lord and King is an essential aspect of the Christian’s relationship with God. I don’t agree that this gives a full picture of our relationship with God. The sentiment of the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” when explained, can capture the uniqueness of Christianity over other religions. It echoes the intimacy of Adam and God in the garden, broken at the fall, but reestablished by Christ. It echoes Jesus’ words in John 15:15 “I no longer call you servants … I call you friends.” It echoes the unique relationship we have as children of God and co-heirs with Christ (Rom 8:15, cf. Gal 4:6-7).

    “Personal relationship with Jesus” and “Christianity is not a religion…” are not merely pithy statements devoid of meaning. They are windows to a much deeper mystery — the unique relationship God establishes with every believer.

    Blessings!
    – Todd

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  23. Mel Kizedek says:

    Finally, something being said on this matter. But good luck cracking the SBC establishment. If they can’t change their integrity on membership, good luck getting them to change their lexicon. Then again, you’ll have to explain what “lexicon” means. Then you’ll be considered a Presbyterian or Episcopalian.

    What is a Presbyterian? It’s a Baptist that learned how to read.

  24. Tony Kummer says:

    Mel,
    Thanks for commenting. The joke about reading doesn’t have the same effect on a blog run by Southern Baptists.

    I think its really not an establishment issue. It seems like this phrase is almost a part of our evangelical DNA.

  25. vynette says:

    No matter the plenitude of numbers, warm and fuzzy, introspective relationships with Jesus will never bring about the will of God – the establishment of his Kingdom on his creation, for his creatures.

    The authors of the New Testament testified that Jesus was God’s ‘anointed’ who would one day sit on the throne of David and rule over the Kingdom of God on earth.

    “Belief in Jesus” is the conviction that what he did in the real world is the “way” to bring about this Kingdom. The followers of Jesus are expected to emulate his actions in the real world – the world of war, politics, religion, commerce, etc. To stand up for truth and justice as he did, to champion the disenfranchised and disadvantaged as he did, and to challenge any and all authorities and institutions if necessary as he did. The living values that Jesus embodied can be energised and translated into action everywhere, all of the time.

    Setting an example by personal conduct is how those who see your good works will perhaps emulate you just as you emulate Jesus. Universalisation of individual character in action is the means by which the Kingdom of God on earth will eventually become a reality.

    “For hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps:” (1 Peter 2:21)

    “However, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, for an example of those who were going to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Tim 1:16)

    Thus even the humblest, the most despised and rejected of the earth, can reclaim a sense of human dignity by carrying on Jesus’ work of establishing the ‘kingdom’ on earth in preparation for the culmination of the gospel: “The Kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of God and of his Christ” (Rev 11:15).

    Most doctrines actually turn this message of the New Testament on its head. Because they focus on Jesus as a person, many of his followers also focus on themselves, on their personal relationship with Jesus, and on their state of personal salvation – am I going to hell or to heaven? This path produces nothing and leads, for some, only to despair.

  26. Lisa says:

    Very thought provoking post!!!

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  30. Melinda Scott says:

    “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” 1 Cor 11:3

    “Personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is a form of false gospel. It advocates a “honoring God with your lips but act like a sitting duck” (vs James 2:14-26; esp vs 24) and “be yoked with the world to get them saved” (vs 2 cor 6:14).

    The TRUE Gospel message is

    1. Repent (matthew 3:2; matthew 4:17; mark 1:15; mark 6:12; luke 5:32; luke 13:3; luke 13:5)

    2. Believe that Jesus is the son of God (mark 1:15; mark 16:16; john 1:7; john 1:12; john 3:15; john 3:18; john 3:36; and many more!) sent as the final sacrifice (mark 15:38)

    3. Obey God’s commands (john 14:21; john 15:10; rev 12:17; rev 14:12)

    4. Love God (in everyway possibly; affectionately and sacrificially) (matthew 22:37-39; matthew 6:24)

    5. Love the believers (favor* them, give to them, be affectionate and favoring* of) (john 13:34; john 15:12; john 15:17; romans 12:10; romans 12:16; acts 2:42)

    *God does favor the obedient. The verse “God shows no favoritism” means He does not favor some for salvation over others – all are free to come and be saved – but God truly finds favor with the obedient (ex Mary who was “highly favored of God”)

    6. Agape (giving form of love – not affectionate!) to your neighbor (all of mankind) (matthew 5:44; matthew 22:39)

    And now to address the second part of this false (“relationship”) Gospel:

    Christ sat with sinners to preach the Gospel, not fellowship with them. Every encounter He had with sinners was to lead them to repentance, salvation, and then obedience. His fellowship was with the believing. The church from Acts onward practiced that too. 2 cor 6:14 says that we are NOT to be yoked with unbelievers. Our only action to them is to preach the Gospel to lead them to Christ and to help them with their needs and THEN fellowship with them when they become a believer.

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  32. I believe you may be a bit too gracious with your handling of the term “personal relationship.” The language is too distant from the language used in Scripture to describe our relationships with our triune God after conversion. It is too easily (mis)understood to be equivalent to claiming Jesus as little more the believer’s buddy.

  33. Robert says:

    I personally think that its a horrible question to ask and not just when evangelizing, i mean even in our “discipleship” as you put it. This is s catastrophe to Christianity. Should we even ask this question? Why do we ask this question? What are we being saved to? What are we being saved from? This question leaves things very open ended. Plus there is no universal generalized definition of what that question means. To different traditions it means different things. This is a bad way of phrasing this question!

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