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It is common these days to hear questions like:

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?


The most important thing is your personal relationship with Jesus.

The Bible never uses this phrase. Jesus certainly had personal relationships with his disciples, but after his death, Paul never tells the churches in Corinth or Rome that they need better "personal relationships with Jesus." The other epistles don't talk about ways to "strengthen" that "personal relationship," etc.

How long has a "personal relationship" with Jesus been talked about in Christian culture? Where did this term and related language originate, and what is its history?

EDIT Please note I'm not specifically looking for Biblical references to support this concept (although that could certainly be part of a good answer!) I'm asking about the cultural history of this concept. And while I can appreciate that even Jesus made statements that can be easily interpreted as supporting a personal relationship, he definitely did not emphasize this aspect of Christian culture. When, where, how did the concept of a "personal relationship with Jesus" enter Christian culture as a prominent theme?

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29 August 1989 - actually I was there at that point in history, when it started with Depeche Mode: google.com/… –  Greg McNulty May 18 '12 at 22:12
Great question! –  Joel Glovier Jun 16 '12 at 14:09
Since you bolded "term and related language" in your question, I'm wondering if you are interested in answers that would address similar concepts that don't use the same language. I would think that the general concept of an intimate individual relationship with Jesus could be traced back very far in Catholic tradition (much farther back than the Enlightenment anyway), but you'll rarely hear a Catholic use the actual phrase "personal relationship with Jesus". –  Ben Dunlap Jun 18 '12 at 3:27
@BenDunlap: Yes, I would be interested in hearing about that. –  Flimzy Jun 18 '12 at 12:30

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Summary: As you noted, the concept of a "personal relationship with Jesus" could be argued from Scripture, but it is certainly not emphasized in any way. Relationship with God is almost exclusively described in Scripture as a communal experience. The emphasis on "personal relationship" is a modern emphasis, and is rooted more in Enlightenment thinking than in Scripture.

The Biblical Emphasis

An Individual Death

Every last person matters to God; He wants everyone to be saved, no matter how "bad" they are. So there is certainly an open invitation to every person - and this has always been emphasized.

However, what many people do not understand is what God is inviting us into. He is inviting us to die to our self, and live for Him. This is the "cost" of following Jesus. This is not "the real you", or "a better you"... this is "a dead you"! In other words, we are called to shift our focus from ourselves to others.

Most of the individualistic language in Scripture is either used to describe the entry of sinners into the Kingdom, or the rebellion of heretics against the Kingdom, but not life in the kingdom. (example)

A Communal Life

When we join the Kingdom of God, we become a part of something special. There are many ways this "something" is described in Scripture. Here are a few:

The Biblical picture of life in the Kingdom is far from individualistic; it is one of interdependency - we grow in our relationship with God through one another and with one another. (example)

The Enlightenment Emphasis

The Rise of Individualism

The Enlightenment drastically changed the way people viewed the world. One of the most significant shifts in thinking was from a communal focus to an individualistic focus.

three fundamental ideas ... encompassed everything the Enlightenment would stand for. First among these was individualism, which emphasized the importance of the individual -source

In the secular realm, this shift in focus led to a new emphasis on "individual rights".

"My Personal Relationship"

This global shift in thinking from communal to individualistic also led to a new emphasis in the teaching and evangelism in the churches. No longer was the believer merely a part of something bigger, suddenly the believer was the central focus. This minister summarizes it well:

The spirit of the Enlightenment has blossomed in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries... In the church this individualism translates to: "All I need is my Bible and my God. Anything and anyone else is a threat to my freedom." -source

Nowadays, all that matter is "my personal relationship with Jesus." As long as I have that, I'm OK.


I am not claiming that believers are disconnected from God in any way, or that God is not a "Person" who loves His people intimately. God is "personal" in many senses of the word, and we are each "individually" invited to come to Him. However, the individualistic emphasis on "personal relationship" is not rooted in Scripture; The emphasis in Scripture is on an integral, interdependent, communal fellowship with God and all His people. We grow in Christ together.

I am also not claiming that there never lived a person prior to the Enlightenment who emphasized individualism in the Church... I am simply saying that we can thank the Enlightenment for the prominence of this theme in churches today.

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In the 1200s, St. Gertrude wrote a prayer that included this line: "let my heart be so united with Thine, that our wills may be one, and mine in all things be conformed to Thine." That sounds like "personal relationship with Jesus" to me and predates the Enlightenment by several centuries. Gertrude is hugely influential in Catholic piety and I wonder to what extent her ideas and emphases survived in Reformed thinking. –  Ben Dunlap Jun 18 '12 at 3:37
@BenDunlap: That sounds more like complete servitude. That could include a personal relationship, but one can be completely submissive and conformed to another's will without ever having even met them. –  Flimzy Jun 19 '12 at 14:40
@Flimzy I would agree with you if the prayer only said "let [my will] in all things be conformed to Thine" -- I was more interested in what precedes it, which I believe qualifies the servitude in a personal way: "let my heart be so united with Thine, that our wills may be one". This is not how a butler might speak to the owner of an estate, but how spouses or dear friends might speak to one another. –  Ben Dunlap Jun 19 '12 at 16:44
<Obsolete comments removed.> –  El'endia Starman Jun 19 '12 at 16:56
@BenDunlap When people today emphasize "my personal relationship", it has connotations of individualistic, independent, isolated approach to God. For example, interpreting passages like John 16:13 and 14:26 to mean, "the Spirit will teach me all truth directly", rather than "the Spirit will lead us into all truth via one another". The individualistic thinking in churches today is mostly due to the influence of the Enlightenment. The question isn't so much whether others thought this way previously, but why it is presently emphasized as a "prominent theme." –  Jas 3.1 Jun 20 '12 at 0:19

I think the popularity of the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus", and "accepting Jesus into your heart" among evangelicals comes from the influence of a few evangelical figureheads in the past century such as Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and others.

However, the concepts themselves - when understood correctly - can certainly be found in very explicit terms within Scripture.

1) "A Personal Relationship with Jesus" - In speaking to this phrase let me first say what I believe the intent behind the phrase is, when most commonly used: The idea of a "personal relationship with Jesus" speaks primarily to the idea that a person does not just know about the historical character called Jesus the Christ in a purely historical or religious context. It speaks to the fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the message that by placing one's trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of their personal sins they can have restored fellowship with God, and a direct relationship with him where God listens to the individual and relates to the individual through the Holy Spirit, through the Scriptures, and through the Body of Christ (the Church).

The phrase speaks to the personal nature of this relationship and how biblical Salvation is a personal process where God interacts individually with each of the people he is giving salvation to - not just in a generic and disconnected relationship to all of mankind.

While we do not read the words as such in the Scriptures, neither do we read any of our English words in the original text - all are an interpretation. But while we don't read these words even in our English interpretation, the concept behind them is very much present in many passages throughout the New Testamant.

So while I would assert that the actual words in question have been made popular by contemporary evangelical leaders (who started the exact linguistic combination of words I surely don't know), I would also argue that the concept which they actually represent is not unique to our culture, or some post-enlightenment thinking. The idea of personal salvation is very explicitly discussed in the Scriptures.

Here's a few of the passages in the New Testament that make the case:

Consider John 14:23-26 which emphasizes the incredibly interpersonal relationship between the person who loves Jesus and God, to the extent where Jesus describes coming and living inside that person:

Jesus replied:

If anyone loves me, they will obey me. Then my Father will love them, and we will come to them and live in them. But anyone who doesn’t love me, won’t obey me. What they have heard me say doesn’t really come from me, but from the Father who sent me.

I have told you these things while I am still with you. But the Holy Spirit will come and help you, because the Father will send the Spirit to take my place. The Spirit will teach you everything and will remind you of what I said while I was with you.

Also, consider Revelation 3:20 which again uses an unmistakably interpersonal analogy:

Listen! I am standing and knocking at your door. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and we will eat together.

In the first century culture of the middle east, eating together was a very personal things. As much as we want to peg the enlightenment with being the source of our individualism (and it certainly was on a certain scale), it's not as though the idea of personal, intimate relationships were absent from society before that time period. In fact, one of the greatest demonstrations of a personal, intimate interaction you could have with another person in ancient culture was to eat a meal with them. It was a symbol of deep inner fellowship. So for Jesus to say "I will come in and we will eat together" is explicitly language of personal intimacy.

So though the words in our present form were not combined as such, the connotation certainly existed in very explicit terms in Scripture.

2) "Accepting Jesus into your heart" - Although you didn't ask about this phrase, it's very commonly used in conjunction with the other, so it's worth mentioning...

Now I don't know that this phrase in the cliche form it has become is particularly helpful in sharing the Gospel with others, but it certainly seems to have biblical basis for it's connotation.

The idea of "accepting Jesus into your heart", or "receiving Christ" comes from the biblical notion of "believing in Jesus," or as some translations say, "receiving him":

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name. (John 1:12)

In the above passage from the Gospel of John, John is presumably referring to people who "reveived" Jesus as the Messiah, or Sent One from God. While many rejected Jesus (particularly the religious leaders), his own followers "accepted" him as God's Messiah.

Further, on a more conceptual level, the "heart" has long been considered by cultures to be a representative term for the "seat of emotion", or "the innermost part" of a person's being, or even the place where a person's love originates.

It also is used to represent a place of "authenticity" or "sincerity." If I say, "I mean it from the bottom of my heart," you know what I'm really trying to say is that I'm being authentic and sincere in the action or words associated with that.

So in this regard "accepting Jesus into your heart" may simply speak to a genuine and sincere belief or trust in Jesus as who is claimed to be, as opposed to an intellectual acknowledgement of his mere historical existence.

Finally, there is another very interesting passage in one epistle where I believe the specific wording about accepting him "into our hearts" may be actually derived from:

...so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the [m]saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19)

As a point of commentary: All this being said, I believe both of these phrases when used in the cliche way that most of us have heard them serve little purpose in communicating the real nature of life in Christ. The trouble is that when they are used as a cliche way to tell somebody what it means to be a follower of Jesus, they are often an oversimplification of what the Gospel life is really about. They usually lead to some prayer to "accept Jesus into your heart" which is more akin to an incantation than to actually beginning a real walk with Christ.

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In Revelation 3:20, Jesus is speaking to a church, not an individual. Ephesians 3:17-19 is all plural, social, community language. Same with John 1:12. John 14:23-24 is a personal invitation, but in context, the "obedience" is referring to Jesus' commandment to love one another (see 13:34-35, 14:15, 15:12,17). Also, the "teaching" in 14:26 is not individual, but communal (Eph. 4:11-16, 1 Cor. 12:14, 21, 29, etc.) –  Jas 3.1 Jun 16 '12 at 19:42
but by definition, a Church, or a community, is comprised of individuals... –  Joel Glovier Jun 17 '12 at 2:42
Also, how can you claim the statement in John 14:23-26 is not individual, when he clearly uses the word "anyone"? I think you are making a distinction between communal and individual that may not exist. –  Joel Glovier Jun 17 '12 at 2:51
The invitation in John 14:23-24 is personal / individual, but even in this invitation He is emphasizing an obedience which is only realized in community. In v.26, the promise of "teaching you all things" is to the body of Christ as a whole, not to the individual. This "teaching" is accomplished through the body of Christ as a whole. I was attempting to point out that Jesus emphasized a communal relationship with Him and other believers. The emphasis on the individual, personal relationship is a modern emphasis. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 17 '12 at 3:08
Okay, I completely agree with you about the community aspect. I'm not sure that you can separate the individual aspect, but certainly agree that it is intended to be fulfilled within community. If you mean that there is modern idea of individuality APART from community, I could see that too, sure. –  Joel Glovier Jun 18 '12 at 13:41

In the first letter from John, the first chapter, there something that could be interpreted as "personal relationship", with God and Jesus.

And truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. [...] If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

The word fellowship here is the greek koinōnia, which according to Strong has the following meaning:

partnership, that is, (literally) participation, or (social) intercourse, or (pecuniary) benefaction: - (to) communicate (-ation), communion, (contri-), distribution, fellowship.

So I do think the "personal relationship" is biblical and an early christian concept.

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Partnership does not necessarily mean "personal," though. And I think a strong argument could be made that koinōnia actually means a group involvement. Words like communion, distribution, and fellowship in your definition, would agree with that. Certainly some of those things can exist (in a limited fashion) "personally," but usually in a much diminished capacity. –  Flimzy May 18 '12 at 22:08
Actually, communion implies MORE than simply a personal relationship. –  LoveTheFaith May 19 '12 at 14:31
My New Testamant professor in college always explained koinonia to be literally, "having a share, giving a share", implying a direct, one on one, mutual interaction. –  Joel Glovier Jun 16 '12 at 13:05

Jesus spoke of this personal relationship on at least two occasions. Here is text from John 14:15-26 with my emphasis:

15 “If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

Note here that:

  • the personal relationship is not only with Jesus but also with The Father and The Holy Spirit.

  • eating together was a particular sign of fellowship (or a relationship). Here the reference is to making a home but the second passage mentions eating together (Revelation 3:20):

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

Just for clarity, this is after the Resurrection and Ascension, implying that this fellowship is available to all, not only those who met Jesus physically.

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In Revelation 3:20, Jesus is speaking to a church, not an individual. John 14:23-24 is a personal invitation, but in context, the "obedience" is referring to Jesus' commandment to love one another (see 13:34-35, 14:15, 15:12,17). Also, the "teaching" in 14:26 is not individual, but communal (Eph. 4:11-16, 1 Cor. 12:14, 21, 29, etc.) –  Jas 3.1 Jun 16 '12 at 19:59
@Jas3.1: I've heard that before about Rev3:20, but the verse says anyone not any church. Similarly for John 14, though it is a sermon to many, the word is anyone. –  Wikis Jun 16 '12 at 21:42
In Revelation 3:20 it appears (in context) that Jesus is speaking to a church, explaining that He is standing (outside) at the door, and if anyone (individually) opens the door (to the church... figuratively), He will come in. I don't see anything in the context to indicate that this passage is about a personal, individual relationship with Jesus. With that said, I recognize that your interpretation is by far the most widely held, so hey... I could be way off! –  Jas 3.1 Jun 17 '12 at 3:13
@Jas3.1: I know Nicky Gumbel uses the personal interpretation on the Alpha course, as does Matthew Henry. But others, e.g. David Pawson, take the view you do. –  Wikis Jun 17 '12 at 8:21

I think it's based on when did people start to use the phrase about religious or other subjects. It's not really a church history, but a English language history.

It turns out the earliest quote another group found was in 1864, but popularized much more recently into a cliche:

In this coming again of Christ by the Spirit, there is included also the fact that he will be known by the disciple, not only socially, but as the Christ, in such a way as to put us in a personal relationship with him, even as his own disciples were in their outward society with him.

Title: Christ and his salvation: in sermons variously related thereto (page 341)  Author:  Bushnell, Horace, 1802-1876.  Publication Info: New York,: 1864.  Collection: Making of America Books

You can read a similar discussion here.

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