One of the terms or concepts very often used in the evangelical movement in which I spent a good part of my life was that of having a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus. And it is in this ‘personal relationship’, so defined, that ‘salvation’ and the hope of ‘heaven’ is, for many, so vital.
Interestingly, the term does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, it is said that the term itself only appeared in our vocabulary sometime in the 1940’s – subsequently entering into popular evangelical circulation as a result of its use by the late American Evangelist Billy Graham and others. None of this is to say that God is not interested in the individual, the person, as we saw very clearly in our last post. Nor is it to say that the concept, in and of itself, has no of value or meaning – but, as with many of the non-biblical terms we use or sometimes misuse, it can be dangerously misleading. How so?
The Bible and the early church, as well as other traditions within the Christian world today, take us beyond the concept of ‘relationship’ with God to that of ‘union’ with Him. This is first suggested in the book of Beginnings where we read – ‘A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ (Genesis 2:24) This is much more, much deeper and far beyond a mere relationship. However, it is also something of a mystical concept – and therein lies a problem. Interestingly, Jesus also quotes this verse in Matthew 19, stating of the man and woman – ‘They are no longer two but one.’
Just how devastatingly important this matter is becomes very clear even in a cursory glance at the scriptures connected with it. At the end of his time here on earth Jesus prayed to his Father –
‘Holy Father, you have given me your name; now protect them (his disciples) by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are.’
Paul uses the same imagery –
‘Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was.’
‘All who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.’
In the book of Ephesians Paul uses the word and concept of ‘union’ some six times. Among other things this ‘union’ is seen as being the source of our ‘spiritual blessing’, our ‘inheritance’ our position in the ‘heavenly realms’ as well as our future hope.
So why replace the concept of ‘union’ with ‘relationship’? I really don’t know – although I suspect this change may even have been thought of as helpful – one that was more understandable. After all the concept of ‘relationship’ is much easier to grasp than that of ‘union’. Union, as I have suggested, is somewhat mysterious and mystical – whereas the concept of ‘relationship’ is much more easily quantified and understood. So the idea of asking Jesus into one’s ‘heart’ (again not a biblical concept) in order that we might have a ‘personal relationship’ with him replaced, in many evangelical circles, the biblical concept of union with him.
Of all these pictures by far the most troubling to the modern ear is that found in Romans 6 – ‘Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was.’ Paul appears to take it for granted here that the sole ground for the Christian hope in this life and indeed the life to come is that the follower of Jesus has already died with him. Again this ‘death’ is somewhat mystical – as obviously literal death is not in view here. It is however a death that can only be understood in the light of union – not merely relationship. Negatively it is a death to self, to selfish ambition, to the ego and to independence from God. Positively it is a death which leads to life, peace, rest, fruitfulness and, vitally, to union with the Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this union of total submission (death) by the bride to her bridegroom (to use another biblical metaphor) leads to something mere relationship may not – intimacy. But that is a story for another day.
I have been troubled for some time over the fact that, in our attempt to make Christianity more palatable to the modern ear, we have at times diluted it beyond recognition. In reality, this is not a wealth, health and happiness gospel – but a gospel which declares that to truly live we must die and that true joy, peace and purpose can only be found in a faith that goes beyond relationship to full union with Christ – a union which can only be accomplished through death – ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (Jesus).
One of the major problems in our culture today is that relationships are fickle – they come and go very easily. This is mirrored in the church where we see hundreds if not thousands – many well-known ‘Christians’ among them, announcing casually that that have walked away from their ‘relationship’ with God. One is left wondering if such folk ever considered that Christianity is much deeper than a mere relationship. Indeed, was their ‘Christianity’ ever really Christianity in the first place? I must ask myself the same question.
If we die with him,
we will also live with him.
If we endure hardship,
we will reign with him.
If we deny him,
he will deny us.
If we are unfaithful,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny who he is.
(Hymn from the early church quoted in the book of Second Timothy)