Greg Laurie of Harvest Crusades, has the answer to popular radio talk show host Howard Stern's "deep insecurity and unhappiness": “You need a relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s the answer."
Whenever an evangelistic appeal is made to unbelievers, they are told that to be a Christian is to have “a personal relationship with God.” This saying plus “God loves you” and “accept Jesus into your heart,” are the three main pillars of popular evangelism, but they are not found in the Bible. Even the ideas behind them are unbiblical.
What do evangelicals today mean when they say they have a personal relationship with Christ? The usual answer is that this relationship began after they accepted Christ in their hearts when they walked to the “anxious bench” and prayed the “sinners’ prayer."
But this is a half-truth at best. R. C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries says that God is present in hell because he is the one who pours out his wrath on them for their unbelief and rebellion. In this present evil age, unbelievers know God but suppress this knowledge in order to enjoy their sinful lives (Rom 1:18). But in stark terror on the last day, the day of Christ’s wrath, they will plead in vain to the mountains and rocks to fall on them (Rev 6:16). And when they are sent into hell, they will weep and gnash their teeth (Matt 13:50) while they bow their knees and acknowledge—even in their rebellious state—that Christ is Lord in total subjection to him (Phil 2:10-11).
All mankind—not only Christians—have a personal relationship with God. One group is in a relationship of grace and mercy, while the other group is in a relationship of wrath and judgment.
"Quiet Time” Christianity
After their mountaintop “anxious bench” experience, new believers are told that their personal relationship with God consists in the kids’ jingle, “Read your Bible, pray everyday, and you grow, grow, grow.” Instead of receiving God’s grace by hearing the Word of God preached and partaking of the sacraments in the holy assembly every Lord’s Day, spiritual growth for them is through their own private “personal devotions.” In fact, many Christians eschew regular attendance in a church because they can “worship God anywhere, even at home,” a sure indicator of their Biblical bankruptcy (Heb 10:24-25). Their 10-minute “daily bread” of “quiet time” is romanticized in a song in this supposed encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus “in the garden” tomb on resurrection morning (popularized by pharmacist-turned-gospelwriter C. Austin Miles):
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me…
The hymnwriter tells us that Jesus speaking to him is not by reading and feasting on God’s Word, but by his “voice I hear falling on my ear.” To him, walking with God is not by living a life “in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:1-2), but by a stroll with the Son of God in a garden alone. Rick Warren recommends this “quietism” in saying, “[U]se ‘breath prayers’ throughout the day, as many Christians have done for centuries. You choose a brief sentence or a simple phrase that can be repeated to Jesus in one breath” (Purpose Driven Life, 89). This is the stuff of mystics such as Brother Lawrence.
Pop evangelism tells Stern that if he only has a personal relationship with Christ, he would be perfectly and continually happy and blessed for the rest of his life. Stern would be singing Fanny Crosby's "Blessed Assurance" in "perfect delight":
Perfect submission, perfect delight,
visions of rapture now burst on my sight...
Perfect submission, all is at rest;
I in my Savior am happy and blest...
This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long.
This "happy and blest" life "all the day long" is in contrast with Scriptural teaching of a life of striving for holiness (Heb 12:14), of putting sin to death (Rom 6:2), of sufferings and afflictions (1 Pet 4:12). A Christian's true saving relationship with Jesus is a relationship of slowly maturing in doctrine, worship and walk with God till the end of his life.
True Salvation: Not a Personal Relationship
No, salvation is not having a passive, sentimental personal relationship with Christ. Instead, it is the work of God in softening an unbeliever’s rebellious heart, making him a new creation, and giving him a new birth. While formerly hostile against God, he is converted by the Holy Spirit to come to God in faith and repentance by applying the benefits of Christ’s once for all substitutionary atonement on the cross for the forgiveness of sins and propitiation of God’s wrath. And with the indwelling of the Spirit, the new believer is empowered daily “to put off your old self, which… is corrupt through deceitful desires… and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24).
Sanctification is not merely having a personal relationship with God, but a whole process of knowing God through his Word and Spirit. This is why Jesus prayed to his Father for his people, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth“ (John 17:17). Spiritual growth comes, not by having little “quiet times,” but by receiving the means of grace daily through Bible study and prayer and every Lord’s Day through hearing the Word of God preached and partaking of the sacraments.
The True Relationship: Union with Christ
To be sure, a saving relationship with Christ is in one sense “personal.” This means that God savingly knows each Christian in person, and that every single believer knows him, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me… and they will listen to my voice” (John 10:14, 16).
This mutual personal knowledge between Christ and the believer is one of the characteristics of what is known as the union with Christ. But this does not mean that one can be a lone-ranger Christian—one who confesses “my only creed is Christ” and “me and my Bible.” This kind of Christian will never grow spiritually.
This is why a second characteristic of our union with Christ is its covenantal nature. When God elected those whom he will save before the creation of the world, he had in mind a specific group, his covenant people. This is the formula God repeats from the beginning to the end, “You shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer 30:22; cf Gen 9:12; Exod 29:45; Lev 26:12; Deut 27:9; Jer 31:1, 33; Ezek 14:11; 36:28; 37:23, 27; Zech.8:8; 2 Cor 6:16; Heb 8:10; Rev 21:3).
Throughout redemptive history, God’s relationship with mankind was never exclusively individualized, but always in a communal context, thus, “the communion of saints.” All God’s covenants are with the covenant heads—Adam (1 Cor 15:22), Noah (Gen 8:8-17), Abraham (Gen 17:1-14), Moses (Exod 19:5-6), David (Psa 89:3-4), Christ (Matt 26:27-28; 1 Cor 15:22)—and their “offspring after them.” Thus, believers are all members of one body—the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13, 27)—and of one household—the household of God (Eph 2:19). This body and household mature together (Eph 4:15-16), rejoice together (Rom 12:15), and suffer together (1 Cor 12:26).
Fourthly, this union with Christ is a spiritual union, which means that Christ’s life, death and resurrection are all applied by the Holy Spirit to the believer, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4; cf Gal 2:20). Because the Spirit of Christ indwells the believer, he is united with Christ (Rom 8:9-11).
Since the work of God’s Spirit is unseen—although the fruits of his work are seen (John 3:8)—this union is also a mystical union. It is a mystery “hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” as being “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:26-27).
Lastly, a believer’s union with Christ is summed up by the words “in Christ.” All of redemptive history is accomplished by God “in Christ.” All of the believer’s salvation—from election, to regeneration, to justification, to sanctification, to his final glorification—are “in Christ.” In the original Greek, the long sentence in Ephesians 1:3-14, which lists all of the above benefits of God’s grace and mercy toward his people, uses “in Christ,” “in him,” or “in the Beloved” ten times. Our whole salvation is “in Christ,” outside of us.
All mankind has a personal relationship with God. Right at this very moment, Howard Stern already has a personal relationship with Christ, but it is a relationship of wrath and judgment.
How about your personal relationship with God? Is it one of wrath and judgment? Or is it a saving relationship? Make sure that your relationship is of the latter kind by coming to Christ in faith and repentance, so that the Holy Spirit will indwell you and unite you to him.