Not a Religion, a Relationship: Thoughts on the “Personal Savior” term

On Facebook, I was asked by my old college/seminary friend Jonathan Erdman (who blogs at Beginner’s Pen) for my thoughts on an article he posted on his wall “The Novelty of the Personal Relationship with Jesus”.  The piece was written by James F McGrath on the Patheos blog that references work done by Joel Miller who developed a relevant chart on the usage of “personal relationship with Jesus” and “personal savior”.  The research shows that the usage of these terms really did not happen at all before the 1970s when the phrases began to skyrocket.  They are, explicitly, nowhere to be found in Scripture.

I have used the terms “personal savior” and “personal relationship with Jesus” before myself.  In fact, back in the 1990s, I probably could have been found guilty using the bumper-sticker phrase “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” referring to a commitment to Jesus.  Admittedly, these cheap slogans induce in me a bit of an eye-roll as I recall them.

Miller writes in his blog, “To begin with, whenever we speak about faith being personal, we run aground on the modern misunderstanding of the word. We tend to think of personal as meaning ‘applies primarily—or even only—to me,’ like personal taste…But when we speak of personal faith, or resort to labeling our faith as such in the face of a disagreement over what is or is not true, we run the risk of reducing our creed to caprice, opinion, and fancy. Well, that’s what it means to me. This is particularly a problem today in our consumeristic, me-centered, self-indulgent culture.”  And to that, I give an affirmative “hear, hear!”

If “personal Savior” means we adopt Jesus only for ourselves, in our own American individualist way while excluding community or the historical testimony of those believers who have went before, we will miss a full encounter with the Christian faith. Our spirituality should not be like the old Burger King commercial:  “Have it Your way”.  My faith would not amount to much without my wife Michelle, my family, church leadership, my church congregation and other friends speaking into my life with counsel, advice, encouragement, or interventions.

Yet, I still have more nuance and sophistication in my view of the term “personal relationship with Jesus”.  When I hear the term, I immediately recall the worst of Evangelical mass marketing.  In my own head I envision mega churches with massive parking lots, food courts in the building, super sized auditoriums, state-of-the-art rock star lighting and a charismatic leader sprinkling a few Bible verses in a monologue focused on cliche self-help platitudes.

However, that is just my reaction to the term.  The concept espoused by most Christians who use the term is well-meaning.  What is trying to be conveyed is that God can be very near.  The Creator of the universe via His Son and by the impartation of His Spirit can be connected with, yes, in a very personal way.  The Apostle Paul, in Acts, proclaim at the Areopagus:  “And He (God) made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:26-27, ESV)  God being not far from any of us makes God personal.

Language obviously evolves and changes.  Evangelicals and other Christians in the late 60s and 70s began describing their experiences with Jesus as a “personal relationship” and forget the term, the concept was the vital truth of their faith.  It may be true that “personal Savior” has become a term hijacked by subculture marketing efforts and this may mean we may need to come up with other or newer combinations of words to describe the concept of a connection with Jesus.


About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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One Response to Not a Religion, a Relationship: Thoughts on the “Personal Savior” term

  1. erdman31 says:

    Good point about how faith is personal. Yes, yes! I’d say that my faith is deeply personal, but I definitely do not have a “personal relationship with Jesus.” For many evangelicals, that means I’m not a Christian and not “saved.”

    My formative evangelical context was probably very close to yours. The litmus test for Christian faith and being “saved” was that one must have a personal relationship with Jesus or “ask Jesus into your heart.” This was the sine qua non, without-which-not. If you didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, then you weren’t a Christian. This is, of course, heresy, on pretty much every level: there’s no historical precident for it and it isn’t biblical. Chrsitianity, from the beginning, was following Jesus, not having Jesus as your BFF.

    I don’t have anything against people who have a personal relationship with Jesus, nor would I make fun of anyone who has Jesus as their BFF. It’s just that this isn’t the essence of Christianity and the evangelical movement that has claimed that the “personal relationship” is the sine qua non have done great harm to authentic Christian faith.

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