To hear many attempted presentations of the gospel, one would think that being right with God is a matter of having happy thoughts about Jesus. I heard two preachers recently emphasize that, to be right with God, one had to have a relationship with Jesus.
Sadly, neither preacher talked about the righteousness of God, the justice of God, the sinlessness of Jesus, the cross, repentance, or faith in Christ. “You must have a relationship with Jesus.”
Both preachers were doubtlessly well-intentioned, but both missed the gospel. The apostle Paul provides this succinct statement: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:1–5 (ESV)).
The Bible places Jesus at the center of the gospel. He dies for our sins, he was buried, and he was raised from the dead. We must believe this gospel, turning from our sin and receiving Christ’s death on our behalf: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9 (ESV).
What we do not find is that we are to seek to have a relationship with Jesus. Why is there this emphasis upon having a relationship with Jesus? Perhaps it is a response to a sterile, emotionless Christianity, a religion without heart. Whatever the intention, leaving out our sin and unworthiness, the centrality of the cross and the resurrection, and repentance and faith produces nothing more than a relationship with an imaginary Christ, not the Christ of the Bible.
The problem, it seems, is that Christianity is too often viewed from man’s perspective and not God’s. Not only is there little talk about Christ’s cross, there is little, if any, talk about bearing our cross, that following Jesus will often be very uncomfortable for us. Jesus warned, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27 (ESV)).
People happily receive a “gospel” of having a relationship with Jesus because such is an easy religion. God becomes God someone who is now for us. He endorses our decisions, makes right our mistakes, and then safely delivers us to a place of bliss after death. Such thinking, though, betrays a sentimental view of Christianity and is naive and foreign to the Scriptures. How contrary is the popular view to the mindset of those who truly love God!
The warning of Samuel Rutherford [1601-1661] rings true centuries later: “When the race is ended, and the play is either won or lost, and ye are in the utmost circle and border of time, and shall put your foot within the march of eternity, all the good things of your short nightdream shall seem to you like ashes of a blaze of thorns or straw” (I. D. E. Thomas, The Golden Treasury of Puritan Quotations, [Simpsonville, SC: Christian Classics Foundation], 1997). We must keep this in mind: those who are not willing to forsake all, to love Christ more than any worldly good and more than any human relationship, give evidence that they are not serious about Christ. The Lord Jesus will not come as an addition to your life. He must become the very object of your desire. The relationship many religious people envision is simply a fantasy.
Those who would truly follow Christ cannot be superficial followers. Our Lord applauds no half-hearted devotion but requires single-minded allegiance. Must you have a relationship with Jesus to have eternal life? Most certainly—you must be “in Christ”: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:3–4 (ESV)). This is not, however, some “feel-good,” emotional, “Jesus is my best friend” sort of thing. Jesus is our Lord and Savior. We must be in him, turning from our sin and trusting in his atoning, substitutionary death which satisfied God’s righteous judgment against our sin. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)).