We’ve all heard questions such as this, perhaps rolling our eyes at the awkwardness of the question but not being able to diagnose accurately the reason for our uneasiness. In fact, we may fear that questioning such a pious question might seem un-Christian and unbecoming of a person having “a good relationship with Jesus.” This “relationship” language has become the widely accepted way of describing the Christian’s life of faith (or a non-Christian’s lack of it). A “good relationship” with Christ is likely that faith life of the strong Christian. A “bad relationship” is perhaps that faith life of the wandering sheep. A “non-relationship” may refer to that faith-less life of the unbeliever. Despite its common usage, could it be possible that the language of relationship is an unhelpful and unbiblical way of speaking of the Christian’s life of faith? While usually well-intentioned and innocently put forth, might such “relationship” language undermine the full comfort of the gospel and give a false picture of what salvation means for the Christian?
To be sure, more things can be in a relationship than just people. The sun is in relationship to the earth. As that relationship changes, so does the weather. An airplane has a relationship to the ground. As the plane takes off or lands, that relationship can be described differently: closer, further, growing, shrinking, etc. In each example, whether in the case of people or objects, the language of relationship describes the closeness between two objects; the closer the objects to one another, the better the relationship. In fact, to be in a relationship necessarily implies that the objects or persons are separate from one another—the relationship merely describes the amount of separation.
The language of relationship is the way we often instinctively describe marriage. How is your relationship with your spouse? Good? Bad? Complicated?
When we use the language of “relationship” to speak of our Lord’s gift of marriage, we contradict the very way that the Lord Himself speaks of marriage: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Man is united to wife as ONE. No separation, no distance, and no relationship. No distance between them to be described as close or far—the Lord simply gives marriage as the “one flesh union.” To bring the language of relationship to the marriage is to risk ripping away the oneness.
In the very same way, we are not in ANY relationship with Jesus. To be in a relationship with Him, even if we were to call it “good,” would still suggest separation from Him. And separation from God is the opposite of salvation. This is precisely why the Lord gives marriage: to describe the mysterious union between Christ and His Bride the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Our Lord Jesus does not want to be far from us, but to be with us (Immanuel), to baptize us into His Name and be with us always. He wants us to be in Him, and He in us (John 17:21-24). This union had existed at creation, prior to man’s fall into sin, but an eternal distance was placed between man and God because of sin. Because of sin, man found himself in a relationship with God for the first time—and any relationship with God is a bad one. But now, through the blood of Jesus, we have been reconciled to God—restored to oneness with Him; the relationship was restored to unity through the cross. Through Jesus Christ, sin is forgiven, guilt removed, shame cleansed.
An examination of various popular translations of the Scriptures reveals that the English word “relationship” is rarely found in most translations (including the NIV and NAU) and never found in others (including the ESV, KJV, NKJ, and RSV). There is no Greek or Hebrew equivalent for the concept of “relationship” in the English language. When we do run across the language of “relationship” in the New Testament, it’s almost always used to expound upon the Greek, to clarify a thought, or to smooth out the translation. For example, the NIV’s translation of Romans 2:7 includes this phrase: “if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God,” but the Greek holds the simple three word phrase kauxasai en Theo (“boast in God). The concept of “relationship” is added here for the purpose of clarification. In the GWN (God’s Word to the Nations), the concept of “reconciliation with God” is translated “restored relationship with God” (e.g., Romans 5:10, II Corinthians 5:18-20). Such an English rendering of “reconciliation” as “improved relationship” undermines the unity to which we have been restored. We have been reconciled, and that reconciliation is not a relationship but a unity.
“Do you have a relationship with Christ?” When we think of our life of faith in such a way, we bring distance between the Lord and us. Then, the Christian is left to try to close the gap in some way. Such a Christian’s logic likely begins with the Gospel, but then the relationship question brings doubt: “Salvation is free; we can’t save ourselves; Jesus did it all and restored your relationship with God. BUT, how is your relationship doing? Do you want it to be better?” Following this logical progression, how would the Christian improve the relationship if not by works or emotional manipulation? Perhaps he thinks he needs to “feel closer” to God through some sort of mystical experience or “get closer” to God by his better imitation of Jesus. Either way, by thinking he is in a “relationship” with God, the full comfort of the gospel is stripped away as he looks at his relationship and wants to improve upon it himself. When will he be close enough? When will he know his relationship is strong enough? How will he finally rest in the peace of knowing he’s in a good relationship?
It’s never enough—the sinner will never close the gap, improve the relationship, or get closer to God--if it’s up to him. Tormented by the potentially weak nature of his “relationship” the sinner is tempted to look to himself, his works, and his emotions to improve upon that relationship. Wrapped up in his own relationship-improvement, his eyes are taken off the cross and off his neighbor—looking inward for comfort. The comfort for the sinner is that Christ has made us one with Him. His perfection, holiness, and righteousness are ours. We’re covered in His blood—fully wrapped in Him. No relationship to improve; no gap to close; no feeling to strengthen. It’s out of our hands—it has been fully finished by His hands on the cross. We have been reconciled to the Father—we are unified with God through Jesus Christ.