When Christians talk about having a "personal relationship with Jesus," what does this mean?
Christians believe that Jesus is alive, he knows us intimately, and is our best friend above all others. A personal relationship with him is exactly that: a relationship very much akin to that we have with other close friends and family members. Often people focus on the majesty and "kingliness" side of Jesus, and in doing so are tempted to distance themselves from him by seeing him as some distant, untouchable, unreachable figure on a throne high above us; but to have a personal relationship with him means to accept our own position as co-heirs with him, to share our lives much more openly with him.
As a Brit, when I meet (earthly) royalty I dress up and put on my best manners, and in effect put on a show. I don't need to do that with Jesus - he's seen me naked, in my own home, he shares my ups and downs and secrets that I certainly wouldn't blurt out to the Queen if I met her. So while acknowledging that Jesus is King, I don't treat him in a stand-offish formal way because he's also my best friend. That's what it means to have a personal relationship with him.
It all boils down to this: God is a personal god.
In order to get this as a concept, you have to pull back and take a look at it in light of other religions. If you look at other religions, you see gods who do not care about individuals. In other religions the goal is to please their god(s) enough to be accepted into heaven. The love flows one direction: towards the god.
Jesus, however, is different. He comes to each one of us personally. He reaches down and speaks to each of us individually and relates to us on a personal level.
This means that he wants to know us as individuals--that he wants to be loved by us as individuals. That he wants a relationship with us as individuals.
But that relationship means that we have to both speak (through prayer) and listen (through all the ways that God talks with us). That, ultimately, is what a relationship is. A give and take; both speaking and listening.
He wants our love and gives love in return. That's what a personal relationship is about.
In my experience Christians often seem conflate relationship with an experience thereof. Certainly, I did for the longest time. However, I am not in a relationship with my son because we interact (that's the outworking of the relationship), but rather simply because it's a fact that he is my progeny.
As a result, being in a personal relationship with Christ is a fact of my person being adopted into the family of God via the salvific outworking of my faith in Christ. Thus, being in a personal relationship is a fact and the result of my salvation.
One manifestation of that relationship has been (in my experience) personal interactions with God. Another manifestation is a growing desire to be like Christ, my savior and model, in order to please my Father in heaven.
Admittedly, "personal relationship" is a modern idiom. Even so, it's not that far from the gospel message.
John 1:12-13 NIV
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
In common use, I think the speaker usually means something more like "individual relationship", meaning:
- you didn't inherit the relationship from your ancestors or social group or church membership
- you didn't marry into it
- you didn't just decide your way into it without God's help - it's a two-way relationship
- the relationship exists and can be summarized as:
- you are the receiver of grace and believer in him,
- he is the giver of grace and like a father to you
and that has implications for your life.
Now, 2½ years after writing the above, I'd like to add (borrowing from other answers nearby): It's also an assertion that God is not an impersonal force, but rather has revealed himself to be someone with whom it is possible to have a relationship.
When God created Adam, He created him in a relationship with Himself. He walked with him in the garden. When Adam sinned, that relationship was severed. The death that Adam died was not a passing out of existence but a divorce in his relationship with God.
Jesus is the second Adam, the new man, the one who came to bring life were death had reigned.
When Jesus called his disciples He invited them to "follow me". They ate with Him, traveled with Him, worked with Him, talked with Him -- they lived in relation with Him. When Jesus was preparing to leave, he prayed in John 17 for a special kind of relationship between God and those who had believed in Himself ... a relationship where He would live in us through the Spirit and that we would be "in Him".
Through Jesus' calling and our faith in Him, all Christians are brought into this relationship. With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us we can speak to the Father through the Son as we are His children.
I'll be the critic here :) I enjoy being a critic...
I understanding that God expects us to show love for each other. In my opinion, when a Christian talks about their personal relationship with Jesus, they are basically saying that their salvation is between them and God and has nothing to do with other people.
When in reality the Bible makes it pretty clear to me that we will be judged based upon our love for one-another. This relates back to Jesus saying the following:
Mark 7:9 NIV
And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!
I don't find this personal relationship stuff in the Bible, thus it can only then be a tradition of man. And in fact, it does nullify the commandments.
We are commanded to love
And when you chalk up your Christianity to just a relationship between you and Christ, you nullify this commandment.
The personal relationship does not only exist between the Christian and Jesus Christ, but also between the Christian and God the Father. Christians may have a personal relationship with God because the Christian is adopted into God's very own family (Gal. 4:5-7; Rom. 8:14-17; Eph. 3:15). Just as you are familiar with your biological father, you can be familiar1 with God the Father and His Son. Of course, we must not believe that we can disrespect our heavenly Father, nor His Son to whom he has given all things (John 3:35), for just as we must respect our earthly father, likewise we must respect our heavenly Father and His Son, lest we receive His chastisement (Heb. 12:5-11).
1 sense 4: closely intimate or personal
No human can have a relationship with any non-living being. It takes two to relate, so another person is involved. A living person. A person who has died is a corpse and does not see, hear, speak, move or think etc. so no matter how much a living person might want to keep their relationship going after the other became a corpse, their relationship ended with the death of the one.
The obvious needs to be stated because when it comes to Christians having "a personal relationship" with Jesus, a primary point is that this Jesus who died on a cross did not remain dead, but was resurrected and glorified, appearing to over 500 people before he was seen with their own eyes ascending bodily up into heaven 40 days after his resurrection, clouds then hiding him from their view. Angels appeared and told them to stop gazing up into heaven, for he would return in the same manner as they'd seen him go. This goes to show why Christians speak of the risen Christ as alive and that they expect to meet him either in heaven after they die physically, or when Christ returns. Because Christ is alive, generations of believers continued to have a real relationship with him, even though they had never seen him.
However, another basic point is that this Son of God relates to God the Father in a personal, unique way, and this has to be grasped, because that influences our personal relationship with both the Father and the Son. There can be no relationship with the Son without relationship with the Father. Indeed, the Son of God lowered himself, coming from the Godhead to become a man so that the sin that ruins our relationship with the Father could be dealt with and justly 'removed'.
Thirdly, all of this relationship is enacted by the Holy Spirit who comes to indwell those who have drawn close to God by Christ. He is the vital link, assuring Christians that yes, they have now been adopted into God's family (that is the status of the new relationship), and enabling their reaching out in faith to succeed. This was most wonderfully explained by Jesus to his followers:
"If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him... But the Comforter, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you... Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you... I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of the Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you... Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word: That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee. that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." John 14:23, 26-27; 15:14-16; 17:20-23 A.V.
All of that is just an opening up of the awesome way in which humans can relate to God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. That is what "a personal relationship" with Christ is about. No amount of ritual, law-keeping, being religious etc can cause this relationship. It has to start with a sinner turning in faith to Christ, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit, usually only realised with hindsight. Once a person discovers just who Jesus really is, putting total faith in the finished work of Christ, they discover the Father as well. Jesus came to show us the Father:
"Philip saith unto him, Lord shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long a time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou, Shewest us the Father? Believe thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me... And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; Even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him; but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you." John 14:8-17 A.V.
That's certainly what I, and all the other born-again Christians I know, mean by having "a personal relationship with Jesus." Or, at least, that's how we came to relate personally with Christ, discovering year upon year more of the depth of this awesome relationship.
To answer your question I will first define in my understanding a couple of terms that I feel are important. The first is the word "relationship " and the second is "acquaintance"
Relationship is personal and often includes personal knowledge or understanding of someone and the experiences in life they have had.
Acquaintance is knowing someone but not on a personal level.
A personal relationship with Jesus to me means that we take the time to know him personally. We are interested in learning about him the same way when we meet our future spouse or a new friend. We invest our time in knowing that person we make sacrifices of things we enjoy just to make them happy. Whereas an acquaintance may be someone of influence who can assist us in getting something we want or need but unless needed they often remain at the back of the line in our long list of priorities. Or vice versa where they call on us only during a time of need.
In the book of Matthew 7:22-23, Jesus says
22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity"
Often I bring this scripture up because many in the Christian community operate under a hyper grace we can do anything and get to heaven principle yet Jesus himself actually states otherwise. By no means do I believe that when we accept Jesus we become perfect. Our desire to please him, love him, share him and the gospel become a primary factor in our life.
I once heard a sermon that asked the question if you were taken to jail on the accusation of being Christian and could actually be found guilty. That really stuck with me.
Would your acquaintances in life have any idea of what you believe? Or in the breakroom do you act, speak, or behave the same as in secular culture? Many times I have been at work in a warehouse environment and the breakroom sounds like sailors on a ship or what is thought about what is said in the men's locker room (I will say it's no better in many of the women's locker room) yet you see them outside of work with someone you know is Christian and they behave completely different.
Later in the gospels, Jesus gives various parables. In the parables of the sower, for example, the relationship of one who falls on the side is those who hear it but nothing really changes, one who falls on rocky soil often whither and the root is burned up represents a relationship that maybe they believed but let life pull them from being truly rooted in Christ. The one who grows in the thorns it is all superficial. They probably attend church simply because that is the "right thing" to do. In the Bible Belt, you will see this in dominant ways. Often they only let their guard down outside of church and those they know to be true followers before they show the true colors of their character. They present as holy while living a double life. The seeds that fall on good ground represent those who have a true relationship. Often they will have a testimony that keeps them from falling away. They have personally felt the presence of God in their lives and they can't fake it if they tried. They also couldn't deny it under the threat of death. A good example of this would be the underground church in China. Often with the threat of prison, they still risk it all to get scripture.
The relationship Christ desires from us is that deep-rooted constantly communicating, constantly growing. Sometimes we mess up and we get away from that "honeymoon" phase where we are so in love and it becomes so distant that we never talk our marriage needs therapy and I feel like we break his heart when we grow distant or cold or comfortable to be lazy in our walk.
It's easy to create an impersonal Jesus and many have done that. Jesus is showing us he is the opposite of that. He is showing us that he is very personal. There is plenty of scripture to show how much God knows us and Jesus wants us to know him the same way.
The Bible makes it pretty clear that this "personal relationship" is to be seen literally. Just one example:
Thomas the Apostle speaks (John, 20, 25):
"I won't believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.
Jesus endorses this attitude and bothers to get back to Thomas to strengthen his personal relationship with him and give him proof (John, 20, 27):
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!
And finally (John, 20, 29):
Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me.
So the Bible makes it very clear that Jesus wants us to have a personal relationship with him and that we have to follow the Apostles neither of whom was prepared to believe without a direct proof and personal interaction with Jesus.