Beyond Born Again
Section I– The Born Again Experience: A Brave New World?
Chapter 4: The Personal Savior
“I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” If you are an Evangelical Christian you can remember saying these words probably more times than you can count. If on the other hand you are not “Born Again,” you may have heard this phrase from an Evangelical inviting you to establish such a relationship with Christ. You may have had to ask just what the Evangelical Christian meant– how is it possible to have a “personal relationship” with an individual of the past? Even if Jesus actually rose from the dead and is alive today, how can one “relate” to him as to another flesh-and-blood person?
I first heard this question broached in a fascinating work by Richard Coleman (Issues of Theological Warfare: Evangelicals and Liberals). Even as a convinced Evangelical of several years’ standing, I could not help but admit this was a good question. Yet I have seldom either heard or read a discussion of it. In this chapter I want to explore what Evangelicals seem to mean, and to think they mean, when they claim to have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Hopefully such an analysis can serve to clarify the use of Evangelical religious language on a major subject.
When asked what his “personal relationship” terminology refers to, an Evangelical will often press for an almost literal application. If Jesus is alive today, why should one not be able to know him personally? Much Evangelical rhetoric suggests literal interaction between individuals. A beloved hymn describes how “he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own,” etc. A common evangelistic slogan defines Christianity as “not a religion; it’s a relationship.” A couple of problems immediately become apparent, at least to an outsider.
Everyday relationships between individuals depend upon conversational interaction available by sense impression. Conversations may be carried on at long distances and with time intervals (say, by letter or telephone), but there must be such interaction. Is Jesus available in this way? Obviously not. When a Born Again Christian claims that “I speak to him in prayer; he speaks to me through the words of the Bible,” this is really metaphorical and does not satisfy the requirement.
A second difficulty is the individualized, concrete picture of Jesus implied in such a claim to have a personal relationship with him. If the risen Jesus is still another individual analogous to ourselves (and this is dubious on the basis of New Testament texts such as 1 Corinthians 15:45), we find ourselves asking absurd questions like, has Jesus gotten older and wiser in the two thousand years since the Incarnation. Or, how does he listen to all those prayers at the same time?
Richard Coleman at least sees the first problem here.
A personal relationship with Jesus is different insofar as we will never have the opportunity to know him in his earthly existence. The relationship must therefore be formed on what we can learn about Jesus secondhand rather than by a firsthand experience; but this is no different from forming a personal relationship with somebody by correspondence. 
Though Coleman does sense the difficulty, his solution is wholly inadequate. As we have suggested, correspondence is in fact firsthand experience of another in that he is communicating specifically and intentionally with you. Coleman’s suggestion would also imply the possibility of “personal relationships” with Julius Caesar by reading the Gallic Wars, or with Abraham Lincoln by reading Sandburg’s biography of him. My point is not that Coleman has not said anything significant. It is merely to point out that he has failed to justify the use of “personal relationship” language for the kind of religious experience he means to describe, i.e., an “encounter” with the Jesus of the gospels.
Let me dwell a moment upon the real religious value in Coleman’s argument. His idea is very similar to that of nineteenth century theologian Wilhelm Herrmann, one of Karl Barth’s mentors. Herrmann contended that Christians experience that power and love of God only in the New Testament’s portrayal of the “inner life” of Jesus. As we are transfixed by the pictures of the personality there revealed, we are flooded by the grace of God. According to Herrmann, “the communion of the Christian with God” is mediated by our loving apprehension of the portrait of Jesus in the gospels. However, Herrmann vigorously denies that this devotion is tantamount to a “personal relationship with… Christ”  which pietists claimed to have. This latter, he says, is an illusion. The apprehension of a portrait of someone’s “inner life” is not a relationship with that person himself. Coleman’s argument really amounts to Herrmann’s view that the New Testament picture of Jesus is essential to Christian devotion. This would certainly be a valid point worth making, but since there is no “interpersonal give-and-take, “personal relationship” language is not appropriate, as Coleman tries to argue.
What else might an Evangelical refer to as a “personal relationship with Christ?” A second option might be that he knows Christ as a spiritual being with whom he is in psychic communication. Several UFO cultists and New Age channelers have claimed that Jesus literally communicates with them via internally “heard” voices. But Born Again Christians do not seem to want to make Jesus into a disembodied “spirit guide” or “space brother”. An analogous phenomenon that is accepted among them concerns occasional visions of Jesus. These are granted to certain individuals, usually Pentecostals. In these appearances, Jesus actually speaks to the individual, giving a particular direction or word of comfort. Again, we may gladly recognize the spiritual value of such occurrences, but this kind of thing is not likely to be what Evangelicals refer to with their “personal relationship” language. They themselves recognize such expereiences to be rather extraordinary, different from that “relationship” enjoyed daily by all believers.
Perhaps the Evangelical means that he experiences the reassuring presence of a divine providence in his life. This is obviously true; there is no question but that Evangelicals expereience this. But again we have to ask if “personal relationship” terminology is appropriate for this. One may pray to such a divine presence, and one may even interpret general feelings of comfort and reassurance as a response to one’s prayers. But is this really the kind of give-and-take interaction between individuals implied in a “personal relationship”? Along the same lines, it must be asked why such a spiritual
presence is to be characerized as “Jesus Christ”? Do not all religious people of whatever persuasion claim to experience such a divine presence guiding and comforting them? Obviously in principle there cannot be much continuity between the historical figure we know as “Jesus Christ” on the one hand, and such a rather amorphous benevolent “presence” on the other. One may reply, “Yes, but it is through faith in Jesus Christ that I experience this ‘benevolent presence.'” Once again we have an altogether valid, and valuable, point here. But it could more accurately be communicated with a phrase like “I know God through Jesus Christ.” This phrase, unlike the phrase, “I have a personal relationship with Christ,” has a solid exegetical foundation in the New Testament. And like the latter, the former is already a venerable part of Evangelical vocabulary.
A final inadequate meaning of the Evangelical claim we are discussing amounts to what I call the “figment of faith.” I do not think I am in error when I suggest that many Born Again Christians, in effect, mentally imagine a picture of Jesus listening to them. They pray to this imagined figure and even think themselves to receive some kind of answer or guidance from it. This phenomenon is perhaps most analogous to that of a child’s “imaginary playmate” with whom he pretends to frolic when there are no flesh-and-blood playmates about.  I suggest this based upon my own observation during twelve years in the Evangelical movement, but I also find other writers referring to it. Herrmann comments:
It is of course not difficult for an imaginative person so to conjure up the Person opf Christ before himself that the picture shall take a kind of sensuous distinctness…. Someone thinks he sees Jesus Himself, and consequently begins to commune with Him. But what such a person communes with in this fashion is not Christ Himself, but a picture that the man’s own imagination has put together. 
C. S. Lewis describes a similar state of affairs in The Screwtape Letters. “Screwtape” describes a Christian at prayer:
If you examine the object to which he is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many… ingredients. There will be [e.g.] images derived from pictures of [Christ] as He appeared during… the Incarnation…. I have known cases where what the [person] called his “God” was actually located… inside his own head…. [Such a Christian will be] praying to it— to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. 
I do not want to deny the religious value of even such a devotional “figment of faith” if one is able to avoid making an idol of it as Herrmann and Lewis warn against. A la Paul Tillich, such an imaginary figure might truly function as a transparent “symbol” through which the worshipper encounters the Holy itself. But once such a figment is recognized for what it is, a better alternative might be sought.
Do I have any such alternatives to offer? Let me suggest two. The first is suggested by the insightful analysis of theologian Don Cupitt.  The reader has probably heard the familiar distinction
made by Evangelicals between “knowing” and (merely) “knowing about.” The idea is that the impersonal, abstract, and secondhand knowledge about someone is vastly inferior to personal knowledge of that individual. This is no doubt true in the realm of knowable individuals like ourselves. But we have just seen how difficult it is to place a “relationship” with Christ in this realm. Cupitt suggests that a slightly different distinction be drawn. There is a personal kind of “knowing about” that is superior to an impersonal kind of “knowing about.” For instance, one may know about lvoe theoretically, say from movies or psychology books, but it is quite a different thing to know about love from being in love yourself. Note however that even in the latter case one is not “acquainted” with “love” as if it were a “Thou” in its own right. One “knows love” in that he knows about it from experience.
In the same way one could meaningfully claim that he “knows Jesus Christ” without claiming personal acquaintance with him. One could “know” him in that one truly discerns and grows in the presence of his Spirit as encountered in his Word or his Body, the Church. The difference is obvious between this, and a trivial “knowing about” Christ in that one merely knows, e.g., that he lived two thousand years ago.
Though Cupitt’s redefinition salvages the term “knowing Christ,” it does not deal directly with our phrase “having a personal relationship with Christ.” Here our second alternative can help. I want to call attention to what I believe was the original connotation of this phrase. Keep in mind the revivalistic context of its origin. Revivalists felt that the churches were full of “nominal Christians” to whom commitment to Christ was a rather abstract proposition. It was a mere religious inheritence from one’s culture. “Faith” in Christ was impersonal and cold. In this context, revivalists pressed home questions liek “You may intellectually believe Christ is the Savior, but do you take him as your personal Savior?” Was one’s relationship to Christ merely one of social convention, or was it a personal relationship? In short, the issue was not whether you related to Christ as an individual person, but whether you took your commitment to Christ as a matter of personal (i.e., existential) concern. The “personal” is focused on my side of the relationship, not Christ’s.
I am not ignoring the fact that this element is still very much present in Evangelical rhetoric. In fact, I am happy to be able to recognize this. I merely suggest that greater clarity would result if “personal relationship” language could be restricted to meaning “personal commitment.” The phrase itself need not be discarded, as long as in using it Evangelicals are careful to avoid the conceptually confusing dead ends reviewed earlier. The cause of evangelism could not but be helped.
Before concluding this chapter I would like to examine a little more closely what is supposed to be going on in a pietist or devotional “relationship with Christ.” Just how is a relationship with Christ a life-changing thing? I am going to take a brief dip into into the area of Evangelical spirituality, specifically, the “deeper life.” Incidentally, in view of my earlier observations, I think it will be interesting to note just how little the following devotional dynamics seem to depend on one’s being able to relate to Jesus Christ as an
individual person. Though, e.g., Miles J. Stanford calls it an “intimate fellowship” I suggest that the devotional process about to be described is pretty much a solo performance even as described in its own terms.
According to many devotional writers and speakers (e.g., Andrew Murry, Abide in Christ), the secret of the “victorious Christian life” is “abiding in Christ” (cf. John, chapter 15). The idea is that no one can live the Christian life except Christ himself. But since Christ is supposed to dwell in Christians, the believer can “let go, and let God.” i.e., let him produce spirituality through the believer. As Watchman Nee says, God “has given only one gift to meet all our needs: his Son Christ Jesus. As I look to him to live out his life in me, he will be humble and patient and loving and everything else I need– in my stead.” Stanford says it in a slightly different way, giving us an important clue about the how of it: “It is now a matter of walking by faith and receiving, appropriating, from the everlasting source within.”  “Appropriating” says it all. The idea is that in his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus Christ has won a “once-for-all” victory over sin. By personally “appropriating” that redemption, a person becomes a regenerate, justified child of God. As such he has access to “the unsearchable riches of Christ,” a sort of ethical and spiritual treasure-trove, imagined in almost pictorial terms as being stored in “the heavenlies.” This last is an archetypal realm where in Platonic fashion the ideal spiritual realities, including Christ himself, dwell. This picture accurately reflects the double-tiered apocalyptic worldview of the New Testament, as described by New Testament scholar Johannes Weiss:
…there existed a twofold world, and thus also a twofold occurence of events. The world of history is only the lower floor of the world’s structure. The world of angels and spirits is erected above that…. Moreover, what happens on earth has its exact parallel in heaven. All history is only the consequence, effect, or parallel copy of heavenly events…. But while those realities have transpired in the realm between heaven and earth, they must now be fought out on earth. 
Thus, upstairs “in the heavenlies” God already sees Christians as perfect; on the earthly, lower plane, believers must “catch up” by appropriating these “riches of Christ,” a divine potentiality for spiritual growth. This is the distinction between “positional” and “experiential truth” mentioned briefly in Chapter 3. It is this heavenly “positional truth” which is “appropriated” as you become experientially what you already are “in Christ”. Here, too, I suggest that this picture is pretty accurate to the Pauline strand of New Testament thought. Bultmann agrees that according to Paul, “The way the believer becomes what he already is consists… in the constant appropriation of grace by faith.”
In his “quiet time” of devotional Bible reading, meditation, and prayer, the Evangelical thinks deeply about all this. He may concentrate steadily on a particular virtue, say patience, and reflect on how “in Christ” it is his for the asking. He may “strive for the victory” or “rest in the victory,” depending on the preferred idiom. And after a while, presumably, his life begins to manifest more patience. Psychologically speaking, how should we understand the process?
We find a surprising parallel to this kind of “devotional victory” in a shamanistic litany analyzed by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in his essay “The Effectiveness of Symbols.” The incantation is used to facilitate troublesome births. Without ever touching or medicating the afflcited woman, the shaman summons all sorts of potent spirit-entities to battle the woman’s illness (also personified as a spirit). The woman hears what is in effect a blow-by-blow account of the mythological contest. At the end of the ritual, the shaman announces the the afflicting spirit has been vanquished. The woman, relieved at last, gives birth! How did it work? Levi-Strauss suggests that while the woman’s worldview and culture allow her no understanding of the actual medical-psychosomatic causes of her illness, the mythical beings of the incantation give her, as it were, a handle on her condition. Once she is given a personalized, objectified schema to interpret the otherwise mystifying condition, she is psychologically able to deal with it effectively.
I think that functionally speaking, pretty much the same process is at work in the struggles of the Evangelical pietist. From experience he knows only defeat in his attempts to be more virtuous (in our example, to be patient). How can he hope to control his unpredictable emotions? “For that which I do, I understand not” (Romans 7:15). The belief in Christ as a champion over sins, presiding over a supramundane “treasury of merit” provides an interpretive schema with which finally to “get the victory.” The pietist envisions Christ on the cross defeating the sin, e.g., of impatience. By “appropriating” this victory for himself, the pietist at last has a handle on his condition. “He’s shared with me / His victory / He won in days of old” (Keith Green). The cosmic drama enacted thus in his imagination functions pretty much the same way as the shaman’s litany of spirit-warfare. Eventually, patiences evidences itself.
All this begins to answer the question of how Evangelicals can say things like “I experience the power of Christ’s cross.” Short of experiencing the stigmata, what can this mean? Wouldn’t the Evangelical pietist in our example only be able to say that he has experienced patience? But his devotional meditation on the riches of Christ has led him so closely to associate “patience” with “the cross,” that experiencing the first seems to him tantamount to having experienced the second. While he yearned repeatedly for patience he was vividly picturing the crucified Christ and his “spiritual riches.” As the first “sank in,” so did the second. Watchman Nee illustrates this process when he discusses “the facts of the Cross.” He says that “Faith can ‘substantiate’ them and make them real in our experience.” In the same way, of course, experience is taken to be proof of various religious belief-systems in the context of which it occurs.
I suppose that the above analysis does not really reflect on the ultimate truth of the positional truth-appropriation schema, except that the analysis indicates that it is all explainable without recourse to divine intervention. That is, I think that most Evangelicals believe that “sanctification” results from the supernatural infusion of the Holy Spirit, whereas I have suggested that the process is quite explainable in natural terms. But perhaps it would not be a bad thing merely to posit that God uses “secondary causes” in the sanctification process. We find a similar situation in Bill Gothard’s teaching
about scriptural meditation. Citing Joshua 1:8 (“This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate therein day and night… for… then thou shalt have good success.”), Gothard promotes meditation on the Bible practically as a good luck charm. God wants people to meditate on his word and rewards them if they do. This seems to be the only connection between the action and the result. But later in the seminar Gothard seems to feel uneasy with this and supplies quite a different link, an intrinsic one, between the two: the reason meditation brings success is that biblical principles contain down-to-earth common sense about how to succeed in life, and the more one familiarizes himself with these principles the more astute and successful he will become. Suddenly there is no need for special divine intervention in human fortunes. Yet Gothard and his fans seem satisfied with this. And perhaps they should be! I only use this example to illustrate how “spiritual growth in Christ” need not presuppose a framework of supernatural power as pietist rhetoric often suggests.
Now that I have reached the end of this section on Born Again Christian experience, let me suggest how it might prepare the reader for what is to follow. Back in the introductory section, “Testimony Time,” I proposed that Evangelical apologetics and theology (the subjects of the next two sections) seemed to function as bodyguards for pietism. If my analyses have been at all cogent, the reader may not be sure that the much-vaunted Evangelical pietism can really bear the weight of the claims made for it. Can this really be the only answer for modern man’s existential dilemmas? Is it so compellingly superior to other ways of understanding and coping with life? I think these questions might make the reader willing to take a second look at the apologetics and theology predicated on this piety.
Now, I am quite aware that the truth question is not so easily answered. Even if the experiential results were not satisfying, Evangelical doctrine might still be true. (In fact something like this is surely envisioned in exhortations to bear one’s cross for Christ.) However, I suspect that in fact many Evangelicals do not separate the truth question from the pragmatic one. Though theoretically they might hold their doctrinal views on their own merits, my guess is that they were first pietists, and only became interested in apologetics and theology as means of propagating and defending that pietism. The egg came before the chicken. And if the preceding chapters have made such a reader a bit less unwilling or afraid to rethink his religious experience, may I invite him to feel free to rethink his apologetics and theology as well.
[Footnotes For This Chapter] [Table Of Contents]
“Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity” is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.