A personal relationship with Jesus or fellowship with God?
We hear much talk these days about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and, while the concept is not necessarily bad, it’s not exactly Biblical. Fellowship, on the other hand, is a Biblical concept and something which believers have with God the Father through faith in the Son, Jesus Christ.
Why would I say this? Well, look for the word “relationship” in a good Bible concordance. It’s not in the King James Version, the New King James Version, Young’s Literal Translation, the American Standard Version or the English Standard Version. It is used once in reference to a sexual relationship in the New American Standard Version and several times in the New International Version but not in reference to our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. On the other hand, look up the word “fellowship” and you will find abundant usage.
What’s the difference between these two words? And, why are so many talking of having a personal relationship with Jesus when the Scriptures really don’t specifically speak of such a relationship?
If you look at what is said about having a “relationship” or “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ, the focus is on us and what we do; and that’s appealing to people because most think of their faith as something
they choose or do. And, how do we establish this relationship? The usual answer is by spending time in Bible study and prayer, attending uplifting and emotionally-moving church services, listening to Christian music and immersing ourselves in everything “Christian.”
While these things are not bad, there’s a problem. I am and you are, by nature, a sinner and spiritually blind, dead and an enemy of God (cf. Ephesians 2:1ff.) and we cannot by any choice we make or anything we do make ourselves acceptable to God or establish a personal relationship with Him.
Fellowship, on the other hand, is a Biblical concept in which we sinners who are out of fellowship with God and under His wrath and condemnation for breaking His commandments are brought into fellowship with God the Father through faith in His Son and His atoning sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the entire world.
St. Paul wrote to the believers at Colosse: “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he [Jesus Christ] reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: if ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven” (Colossians 1:21-23).
John writes of this fellowship in his first epistle (1 John 1:3; 1:6 - 2:2): “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: 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 the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
God desires that we have fellowship (koinonia) with Him, but the only way we sinners can have fellowship with the just and holy God is by acknowledging and confessing our sins against His holy law and looking to Christ Jesus the righteous and His propitiating or atoning sacrifice on the cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world (cf. John 1:29; 3:1415; 14:6). When we are brought to faith in Christ Jesus through the hearing of God’s Word and continue in that faith by the Spirit’s working through the Word and sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Romans 10:17; John 6:44,63; Titus 3:4-7; 1 Corinthians 11:23ff.; Acts 2:42), we are in Godwrought fellowship with God the Father and His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and also with all other true believers in Christ Jesus.
I can’t establish and maintain a relationship with Jesus Christ or with God because of my sinfulness. Even my best efforts to establish a relationship with Jesus come far short of making me acceptable to God, and I am only fooling myself if I think my efforts are, of themselves, pleasing to Him.
But God has made it possible for me, a sinner, to have fellowship with Him. He did that by sending His Son into the world a true man to redeem me from sin and make me acceptable in His eyes through faith in Christ Jesus (cf. Galatians 4:4-5; Colossians 1:19-23). And, working through the preaching of the Gospel, He has brought me to faith in Christ, washed away my sins in Holy Baptism and assured me of pardon and forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper. God brought me into fellowship with Him through faith in my Savior and His blood shed for me upon the cross; and God keeps me in that fellowship by preserving me in the faith through the hearing of His Word and through the promises of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (cf. Philippians 1:6).
Can I establish a personal relationship with Jesus Christ by my decisions and choices, by my life and works? No! But God has graciously chosen and called me to trust in His Son. He has brought me to know and trust in Christ Jesus. And, He has brought me into fellowship with Him and His Holy Christian Church made up of all believers in Christ of all time!
With that said, all who trust in Christ Jesus are in a relationship with Him. He is their Head and Savior; they are members of His Church and His bride. Cf. Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Peter 2:1-10; Revelation 21:1ff. But the problem with most of the relationship talk these days is connected with erring views about who establishes the relationship and how. We don’t establish the relationship by our piety and devotion, God brings us into fellowship and makes us His children by God-wrought faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12; John 6:44,63).
Randy Moll is the managing editor of the Westside Eagle Observer and also the pastor at Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rogers. He may be contacted with questions by email at rmoll@ nwadg.com. Opinions expressed are those of the author.