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Is Being Saved the Same as Having a Personal Relationship With God?

We say that the heart of the Gospel is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, yet too often we don't relate to God in a personal way. Why is that?

Evangelicals often say that the heart of the Gospel is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. For many this relationship starts with a born-again experience. These are transformational and relational ideas. Yet we often relate to God in ways that betray these relational and transformational emphases.

We may … actually live focused on a series of techniques and formulas, a set of steps to follow or disciplines to implement.

Part of our problem starts with how we think about getting saved or born again. Instead of thinking about it in terms of a father inviting back a prodigal child into His loving arms to enjoy more years of daily living together, the over-riding picture for many of us is an impersonal court case in which the guilty go free.

This view can be called "transaction justification." In it we have God, the heavenly judge, rightly infuriated with our sins and demanding the payment of a penalty for them. Jesus Christ fulfils God's law and suffers punishment in our place and thereby assuages the wrathful Deity. We are saved when we express faith in Christ and thereby receive the pardon of sin and Christ's righteousness before the divine tribunal.

The emotions related to this court case may be strong and our relationship with the judge may be highly charged, but once we are freed on this technicality, eventually the feelings fade and we have not much of a relationship with the judge.

This courtroom imagery, if leaned on too heavily, can lead to an understanding of the Christian life as minding our p's and q's in order to keep God happy. We may talk about "a personal relationship with Jesus" but actually live focused on a series of techniques and formulas, a set of steps to follow or disciplines to implement. Christian living becomes a moral and spiritual calculus: add the proper spiritual formation disciplines, subtract whatever list of moral prohibitions your subsect of Christianity frowns upon, multiply by the power of the Holy Spirit—all that equals the Christ-like Christian.

We call this process sanctification. But I'd like to argue that, when we think of it like math and law and codes of behaviour, we are in effect denying the key personal relationship aspect!

Perhaps we can start to correct ourselves with a fresh look at the story of Adam and Eve. The Bible first uses "nakedness" to describe the love and intimacy they enjoyed in Eden with each other and with God. When they ate the forbidden fruit, they immediately experienced shame at their nakedness and covered up with fig leaves. God later gave them animal skins and banished them from the Garden.

This story tells us, among other things, that the fundamental human predicament is the rupture of the relationship with God and with other humans.

The story should inform our understanding of redemption. Redeemed Christian living should be living again without shame because we embody love and consideration for God and for other humans. We long to run and meet the God who came to us "walking in the garden in the cool of the day" (Genesis 3:8). We desire to be open and embraced in love by other humans.

Humans today often persist in living with fig leaves and animal skins—that is, we live lives of lonely desperation and travel between partitions of alienation. But the Gospel promises that God stepped into the desolate space outside of the garden to redeem creation. God came "walking" to the daughters and sons of Adam and Eve in the humanity of Jesus Christ. He offers us the opportunity again to experience the exhilaration of unmitigated relationships with God and with other humans.

Jesus' culminating prayer in John 17:22-26 reflects the relational and personal nature of redemption. He prays that we will experience the relational unity He enjoys with the Father and at the same time that that unity will characterize our relationships with each other.

The fulfillment of this prayer is portrayed in Revelation 21:3-4: "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes."

It is a vision of a people who no longer know the shame of nakedness—tears, betrayal, abuse and death—because the conditions of alienation from God and each other no longer exist. It is a promise that once again we will love in the presence of God and each other without fig leaves animal skins and the shame of "nakedness."

Steven M. Studebaker is assistant professor of systematic and historical theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2007.




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