Already Friends of God
In some Christian circles, it is often said that everyone should have a personal relationship with Jesus, and that everyone should ask Jesus into his heart. These phrases assume rich truths: That Jesus Christ is the ultimate source of meaning, hope, and love. That a fruitful life finds him at its center. That this center is not merely a matter of priority, but that it is a relationship, and a very personal one at that.
On the other hand, the way this is said often puts a kink into that relationship. It assumes that unless one does something—usually praying a certain prayer, said in a certain way—one does not have a personal relationship with Jesus. Also lurking in the background is a Jesus who passively waits for us to pray before becoming our friend.
This approach encourages transactional faith. If we do X, God will do Y. And a great deal depends on us. That’s a lot of pressure: to start this personal relationship with the right prayer and keep it going with the right spiritual life.
To be fair, people who extol a personal relationship with Jesus don‘t necessarily take the language to its logical conclusion. Still, the fact that it so easily lures us into transactional faith may be the reason the New Testament never urges us to “have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” or tells us to invite Jesus into our hearts. Instead of exhorting us to have a personal relationship with Jesus by saying a certain prayer, the Bible says something much better: You are already a friend of God—enjoy it.
A strong current of the New Testament moves in this direction. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor. 5:19). In Adam, all have died; in Christ all are alive (Rom. 5:17). We see it especially in Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (1:19–20)
In short, because of what Christ has done in his life, death, and resurrection, we are in a relationship with him already:
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. (2:9–10)
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight. . . . (1:21–22)
Note the strong language. We are reconciled with God. We have peace with God. We have union with God. We have been brought into the presence of God. It doesn't get any more personal than that.
And it's apparently a done deal. Paul acknowledges that at one point we were enemies of God, but apparently no longer. We are now reconciled. Not just us, but everything and everyone: God reconciled “to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.”
Language like this—even when it’s biblical—makes us nervous, because we see universalism crouching at the door. Universalism is the teaching that everyone will eventually be saved. As much as many might want this to be true, it is never taught in the Bible. Jesus and Paul and John, among others, all assume that some people will reject God into eternity, as befuddling as such rejection might be.
Yet, how does this idea—that not everyone will be saved—fit with the idea that all have been reconciled to God? Are we reconciled or not?
The short answer is: Yes! From God's side, yes! “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them,” Paul says. No ifs, ands, or buts.
But then he goes on: “Be reconciled to God.” In other words, we are called not to create this reality but simply live into it. As Paul puts it in Colossians:
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (2:6–7)
When we repent and believe in the gospel, we are not making something happen; we are not creating a new reality. We are simply changing the way we think about reality—that’s repentance. And we are deciding to accept reality—that's faith. We trust that we live in a universe ruled by a gracious God who has created a bond of love between us and him.
That faith—that acceptance of reality the way it really is, that we are forgiven and friends of God—produces in us some extraordinary reactions. One is repentance: The fact of God’s forgiveness of us despite the gravity of our sin—well, that makes us even more regretful of sin and more committed to living according to God’s wishes. Another is gratefulness: We now live not out of a sense of mere duty, let alone in fear of retribution. Another still is what might be called evangelistic enthusiasm: we want to tell people the good news that their situation before God is extraordinarily good, if they could only see it and respond to it in faith.
In The Mediation of Christ, Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance summarizes the gospel this way:
God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ, God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself.
Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
There are other faithful ways to describe the dynamics of faith. But this approach too has biblical support, and it resonates deeply with that word gospel, which we often translate as “good news.” In this way of putting matters, the pressure is completely off. I cannot make a personal relationship with Jesus happen. And once I experience that relationship, I don’t have to worry about doing something that might lead to a break up. That personal relationship is the basic reality woven into the universe—Immanuel, God with us, forever. More specifically, this is the reality of my personal universe: Jesus loves me, this I know.
Given free will and free grace, we don’t have to pursue intimacy with this gracious and merciful God. We don’t have to live as if the universe is framed by and brimming with grace. But only a fool would think this unworthy of the entirety of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength (see Psalm 14:1).
To be sure, there are levels and layers of the relationship to explore and enjoy. A relationship with Everlasting Love is not something one masters in a lifetime. Nor in eternity, for that matter. As the biographies of the saints testify, such a relationship entails disappointment and hope, confession and forgiveness, suffering and healing, discouragement and joy. But such is an ever-deepening love. Those who repent and believe do not invite Jesus into their hearts so much as embark on an endless, tumultuous, and joyful journey into the heart of God.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today and The Behemoth.
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