Geoffrey L. Willour
A common concept in our contemporary evangelical culture is that of the believer having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Do Reformed Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? That depends on what you mean by it.
Many evangelical Christians use the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" as a synonym for being in saving union with Christ (or, to use more popular terminology, for "being saved"). Or, more narrowly, the phrase is used to describe those who are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone, apart from works. In this sense, committed Christians within the historic Reformed faith most certainly do have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Like their broadly evangelical brethren, Reformed believers are "saved" through their union with Christ, having been justified through their God-given faith in Christ alone.
However, the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" is sometimes used in evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal circles to describe an immediate, direct, and mystical experience of Christ, in which he allegedly speaks directly to the believer and makes his presence powerfully felt through extraordinary experiences of the Holy Spirit. This kind of mysticism is evident today when Christians make comments like "The Lord told me to do such-and-such," as if they have direct communications from God and immediate encounters with his Spirit. Believers within the historic Reformed faith would have strong reservations about the concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus in this sense.
The heart of the issue is this: how do we as Christians experience communion or personal fellowship with our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ? Many Christians today are convinced that it is at least possible, if not absolutely essential for salvation, to have a direct, immediate, and mystical experience of Jesus Christ and his saving benefits. Or, to put it another way, many believe that Christ and his saving benefits can be experienced in an unmediated manner through individual mystical encounters produced directly by the Holy Spirit, apart from the ordinary ministry of the church or the ordinary means of grace (the Word and the sacraments).
Many evangelicals today would be shocked to learn that the Reformers and the original evangelical churches of the Reformation (whether Lutheran, Reformed, or Anglican) would neither recognize nor support the direct, unmediated mysticism of contemporary evangelical piety with which the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" is often freighted. Against the mysticism of contemporary evangelical piety stands historic Reformed piety, which could be described as a moderate, mediated communion with God.
At Pentecost, Christ poured out the Holy Spirit upon his church, and the Holy Spirit does indeed continue to apply the saving benefits of Christ to his people. But how does the Holy Spirit ordinarily apply the benefits of Christ to the elect? Does he do it directly through spectacular encounters and powerful religious experiences? The biblical answer is that God has appointed certain ordinances in his church to be his instruments in applying and sealing the benefits of Christ to his people, namely, the ordinary means of grace: the Word, the sacraments, and prayer.
Certainly we ought to experience a deep and growing personal communion with Jesus Christ, but we should not expect to experience such communion apart from the God-ordained means of grace or the ordinary ministry of Christ's church. We do indeed experience a personal relationship with Jesus, but this relationship is experienced through the ordinary ministry of the church and the ordinary means of grace that Christ has entrusted to his church, not through direct experiences of Christ or the Holy Spirit.
In this present age, when we live in the tension between the "already" of Christ's accomplished work (the cross and the resurrection) and the "not yet" of Christ's consummated work (the second advent and the eternal state), our experience of communion with Christ comports with the age in which we find ourselves. As pilgrims living in this present age, we have to wait patiently until the "not yet" of the consummation to commune with the incarnate Christ in a face-to-face manner. We earnestly long for that glorious day, but in the meantime God strengthens and encourages us in our pilgrimage through the ordinary means of grace, which signify the presence of his kingdom and are a foretaste of the age to come.
The historic Reformed faith lays great stress on the fact that our sovereign God is pleased to use objective, outward, and ordinary means to bring his elect to salvation, to nurture and preserve them in their salvation, and to carry out his kingdom purposes. The Holy Spirit uses such things as words, water, bread, and wine in this way.
The subjective aspects of the faith, such as personal prayer, Bible reading and meditation, and especially the appropriation of Christ and his saving benefits through "accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace" (Confession of Faith 14.2) are vitally important. However, God ordinarily is pleased to awaken and nurture the Christian's subjective faith through the objective means of grace and the ordinary ministry of the church.
In contrast, much of evangelical piety today tends to downplay the importance of the visible church and the ordinary means of grace, stressing instead the latest innovative techniques and "how-to" programs designed to improve one's direct experience of Christ. Perhaps one of the reasons why many professing evangelicals today "church hop" from one church to another without committing themselves to responsible membership in any one church is this prevailing evangelical stress on subjective experience. Such an orientation can lead one to seek out the church with the latest spiritual fad or innovation promising a more powerful, direct encounter with Christ, and thus to dismiss as "boring" or "irrelevant" the ordinary Word-and-sacrament ministry.
Contemporary evangelical piety lays great stress on the need for believers to have daily devotions, meaning personal Bible reading and prayer. This makes sense, given its understanding of what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus. But often one finds that what is lacking is an equal stress on the importance of involvement in the local church, including responsible church membership and submission to ordained church leaders. The personal (in the form of Bible reading and prayer) eclipses the corporate (participation in corporate worship on the Lord's Day).
Of course, the Reformed faith has always stressed the importance of such acts of personal piety as daily Bible reading, personal prayer, family devotions, and so forth. However, in Reformed piety this personal aspect of the faith, though vitally important, is in a sense subordinate and secondary in importance to the corporate practice of the faith.
Certainly eternal salvation and our growth in grace are deeply personal and individual matters, and the Reformed faith recognizes this. At the same time, when people are saved, they are not only brought into union with Christ, but also brought into the communion of Christ's body, the church. During this present age, the body of Christ manifests itself within the fellowship of the visible church, which consists of all who profess the true faith, together with their covenant children. As our Confession of Faith explains, the visible church is "the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (CF 25.2). This does not mean that the church saves us, or that church membership is somehow a condition for justification or essential for salvation. Rather, it means that Christ has entrusted the objective means of grace to his visible church, and that God in his ordinary dealings with sinners is pleased to use those public means to awaken and strengthen saving faith in the hearts of his people.
Christians enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the sense of being in saving union with Christ and of communing with him in Word and sacrament. But no Christian today has a "direct pipeline to God" or experiences new revelations of the Holy Spirit.
Only after we die and ultimately in the day of resurrection will we have a personal relationship with Jesus in a direct and immediate sense, as we behold our Savior face-to-face in glory. Our relationship with Christ and our enjoyment of communion with him in the present age are very real, and should fill us with joy that is inexpressible. However, they are mediated to us by the God-ordained means of grace, which are effectually applied by the Holy Spirit as we receive them with hearts of faith and trust in Jesus alone.
The author is pastor of Redeemer OPC in the Toms River, N.J., area. New Horizons, July 2011.