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In my twenties I played drums for a traveling worship band. We heard a lot of preachers over the years. At invitation time it was common to hear emotional calls to begin a relationship with Jesus. I know I've heard something like the following multiple times. "Salvation isn't about doing good works; it's about having a relationship with Jesus." It's a little sickening how this term has become a famous buzz phrase. The reason I say it's sickening is that, according to the way most define a relationship, the statement is logically contradictory.
The problem with this statement is that it is either true or false depending on how you define relationship. The next time you hear a preacher say something like, “Salvation comes by a having an intimate relationship with Jesus,” ask him after the sermon, to define relationship. If getting into Heaven is based on having a relationship with Jesus, then he ought to be willing to define his terms.
In my dating years, I had quite a few DTRs as we called them. DTR stands for: Define The Relationship. This happens when a couple is moving from friendship into a romantic relationship. It's common for young men to live with the ambiguity of not knowing if she's a girlfriend or a friend that’s a girl. So, I remember a number of DTRs. In the case of having a saving relationship with Jesus, we need a DTR.
In my experience, many preachers define a relationship with Jesus by giving a list of spiritual disciplines. Read your Bible, pray, go to church, and share your faith will usually be on the checklist. Proponents of the relationship-for-Heaven concept will usually use the marriage analogy. They will say things like, "What kind of shape would a marriage be in if a husband never talked to his wife (prayer) or spent time with her (going to church). To intensify this problem many preachers will use the following verse to unsettle their listeners:
And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me.’ (Matthew 7:23)
The unsettling preacher will use this verse to make his listeners doubt that they really know Jesus. He will call into question whether they really have a relationship with Christ. He will then point to the last half of the verse and tell his audience to do good works or Jesus will unexpectedly reject them at the pearly gates. The idiocy of this interpretation is that the very people Jesus will reject are those who think they can get into Heaven by doing good works. Seriously, go and read the passage. It teaches the exact opposite of what these preachers are saying it teaches. The people that Jesus says he doesn’t know, are legalists who think they should be let into Heaven for their works.
Even when I was a kid, I saw a huge inconsistency in the notion that salvation was free but required a relationship defined by spiritual disciplines. By this definition, a relationship with Jesus is comprised of good works. If a relationship gets you into Heaven, and a relationship is comprised of good works, then that means good works get you into Heaven. That doesn’t work because:
By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
Defining a relationship that leads to salvation by good works contradicts this verse. If salvation comes by having a relationship, it must be a relationship that is a gift from God. A saving relationship must be one that we can’t boast about. Is it possible to boast about a relationship that is maintained by reading your Bible, prayer, and going to church? Obviously.
Here's the sticky part. Those preachers are right to say that you need a relationship with Jesus; it's just that they are confused if they think that a saving relationship is like a marriage. That's because marriage is made up of two equals who both have something to contribute. However, in terms of salvation, we bring nothing to the table, except belief. A saving relationship is not like a marriage, but instead like a parent-child relationship. That’s the way the Bible describes the relationship that saves.Notice how John puts it:
He gave the right to become children of God to those who believe in His name. (John 1:12)
Notice that the relationship that saves is not only a parent-child relationship, but it's like an adoption. We were orphans hungry in the dark. God gave us the opportunity to become His children, not by a list of spiritual disciplines, but simply by believing in Him. This describes a relationship which is a gift. That's why Paul could say:
…You received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” …We are children of God. (Romans 8:15-16)
Those who simply believe in Jesus are freely adopted by God. It is not because of any merit or admirable qualities in the abandoned child that a parent chooses to adopt them. It is based solely on the will and compassion of the parents-to-be. Adoption by God is given to all who want it. Belief is the key that opens the doors to Heaven.
Remember the example I gave above from Matthew 7:23? To some Jesus will say, “I never knew you.” This sends chills down many people’s spines. Many are concerned that they may get to the gates of Heaven only to hear Jesus say, “I never knew you, depart from me.” So, let’s settle this right now. What does it mean to know Jesus? Luckily Jesus answers that question simply:
And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:3)
To know God and Christ is the equivalent to having eternal life. How do you get eternal life? Believe in Jesus. It’s that simple. The people in Matthew 7 had not believed in Jesus, as they were instructed to do. Instead they will attempt to get into heaven by showing a list of their supposed good works. (Matthew 7:22) Their works are not good enough to get them into Heaven. Jesus then says, “I never knew you.” Jesus never knew them because they never had eternal life. Eternal life is the way to know God and Christ, in this context.
So, if a preacher says, “You need a relationship with God to be saved.” They are right if they define relationship as John and Paul did. If by relationship it’s meant: the free adoption of God for all those who believe in Jesus, then great!
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