There is more than one way to be a Christian. There are many aspects to the Christian faith and life, and different types of Christian traditions have emphasized different aspects of what it means to live a Christian life. For example, if you grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, you heard a lot about going to Mass. Going to Mass would be at the center of the Roman Catholic life of faith. Much more is involved in being a Catholic, of course, but being at Mass and receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion would be most important of all.
Lutherans don’t talk about ‘going to Mass,’ they say ‘going to church,’ and most Lutheran churches don’t have communion at every service. Going to church is important for Lutherans too, but Lutherans would talk more about ‘knowing’ than about ‘going.’ Know the catechism, study the Bible, expect good sermons to hear God’s Word explained, and so on. In all of this, it is not so much a matter of one group excluding the characteristics of the other, but more a matter of what aspect of the faith gets the most emphasis.
When Billy Graham began to receive national television coverage fifty some ago, many people were exposed for the first time to yet another way to be a Christian, another aspect of the Christian life, one that for Graham and those like him is of primary importance. Near the end of his sermons he would often say something like this: “Friends, you maybe go to mass every single Sunday, or you maybe know your catechism and read your Bible, and you maybe are even are the president of the ladies group and the Sunday School superintendent– but you may still be falling short, and may not really be a Christian– unless you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” he would ask, adding, “And if you do not, you can come down here in front right now, and make your decision to give your heart to Jesus. Then, and only then, you will have the assurance of your salvation.” That kind of preaching is just a part of another whole way of being a Christian, with a different emphasis, one that is not just about going to mass or to church, and does not stress doctrine and knowledge like the Lutherans; but instead, puts all the emphasis on this personal relationship with Jesus.
Again, this is not a wrong way of being a Christian, nor is it the only right way; but it is a different way; a way that, like any other way, has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Roman Catholic habit of going to Mass can build up in someone a strong a solid faith, solid enough to be passed on from generation to generation; or, it can become simply going through the motions with no impact of life outside the walls of the church. A solid Lutheran knowledge of the faith by knowing the catechism and the Bible can serve one well in withstanding the challenges of a culture that has become disinterested or even hostile to that faith; but it can also be nothing more than head knowledge with no impact on the heart or the hopes of the believer. And a personal relationship with Jesus can become the most powerful thing in one’s life, seven days a week, 24 hours a day; but the emphasis can shift off of a true knowledge of Jesus, and all onto the personal part, making it so individual and so personal that it becomes whatever you want it to be.
Another problem is that this personal relationship with Jesus approach can be so very vague and hard to define. Billy Graham, great preacher that he was, admitted to confusing some people on this. You can know if you are going to church and fulfilling that obligation, you can know the Bible, you can know and discuss what you believe– but how do you evaluate a personal relationship with Jesus who cannot even be seen? How do you even know if and when you have that, and if the relationship is good enough? When that becomes the primary emphasis, one can be left quite confused and uncertain about the whole thing.
Though some have given the impression that this is the only way to be a true Christian, this kind of language about the faith is quite recent in church history, only occurring in the last two or three hundred years. One can read through many centuries of church history and theology and not even find the phrase ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’ But still, even though this is not the primary way that many people have talked about the faith, this aspect of the Christian life is in the Bible, and even traditional Catholics and Protestants need to pay some attention to it. (continued…)
John 17:3 — (Jesus, praying to the Father, said), “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
Philippians 3:7-8a — Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.
I John 5:20 — We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits Thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me. O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly and follow thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.
–Richard, Bishop of Chichester, (1197-1253)