A “personal relationship with Christ” is a phrase used among born-again believers to contrast an impersonal relationship with God. (Another popular phrase among born-again Christians is, “Relationship, not religion,” which says the same thing.) But is this idea actually taught in the Bible? Do we need a personal relationship with Jesus to be saved?
Actually, the idea of a personal relationship is spread throughout the OT as the Israelites departed from the true God and turned to idols. God made the comparison, saying that their idols had ears but could not hear and mouths but could not speak. However, those having a personal relationship with the Lord knew that the Lord hears them and speaks to them. God brought up this impersonal/personal dynamic when He scolded Aaron and Miriam, saying that Moses speaks with Him face to face while they did not (Numbers 12:1-15).
Jesus had to contend with this repeatedly in His encounters with the Pharisees. They wanted the systems of man-added laws to remain intact while Jesus demonstrated a relationship with God as Father, a relationship that is anything but impersonal. (“Father” appears in the gospel of John more than 100 times.) Jesus talks to the Father, thanks the Father, obeys the Father, acts in the place of the Father to forgive others, and so on – all of which is very different from following rules out of a book.
In Matthew 7:21-23 we find judgment rendered against those who thought they were obeying God, but Jesus rejected them because He never “knew” them. They had not related to Jesus as a person, but only performed deeds on their own. One of the meanings for the Greek for “knew” is “to become acquainted with, to know.” Jesus wants a personal relationship with His followers.
You’ll find this principle continued in Acts and the epistles, where God is known. Paul the apostle keeps talking about God as someone to know, to love, to hear, to obey, and so on – very much a personal relationship like you would have with people you know. For instance, you can obey the CEO of a company while never meeting her by just following your supervisor or company rulebook; that would be an impersonal relationship (or no relationship at all). God wants us to come directly to Him (Hebrews 4:16) with our sins and talk to Him about them as though He was the one who pointed them out to us.
I was formerly a church-goer who paid more attention to the forms of the religion and completely missed a relationship with God. This is common with church-goers in just about every denomination, but I suspect is more common among the highly ritualistic churches where forms and rituals feature prominently each week. Which is more personal to you when meeting with friends, to speak to them by reading from a script each time, or to talk freely about what’s happening in your life? One is impersonal; the other is personal.
But think about the gospel: a person coming to God on the basis of the gospel, that God forgives sinners, means that the sinner comes to God in a personal way, as though she had herself offended a holy God and needed to receive forgiveness on a personal level. We hope she would go on and learn to relate to God as a being with which one could have a loving relationship, turning away from a life without God to a life with God at the center. What could be more personal than to follow the greatest commandment – to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength?
Renewing a right relationship with God is the whole point of salvation!