In 1989, Depeche Mode released their 23rd single in the UK, a hit song that quickly climbed the charts and would eventually be covered by such notable musicians as Johnny Cash, Jerry Williams, Nina Hagen, and Marilyn Manson. The song was entitled “Personal Jesus” and the steady rhythm of the chorus drummed out the following lines:
Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who cares
Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who’s there
…reach out and touch Faith
While Depeche Mode used the “personal Jesus” idea as a metaphor for codependent human relationships, the concept has nevertheless permeated western Christian culture. Testimonies typically hail back to the moment when one has “finally accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and savior” and the standard evangelism question points to the same idea: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?”
Yet Scripture knows nothing of a personalized faith.
Bear with me here, and let me clarify what I am NOT saying. I am NOT saying that we should not be impacted on a personal level by the Christian faith – we absolutely should. I am NOT saying that we do not come to Christ on a personal basis – we absolutely must.
However, the idea of a personal savior has taken on a life of its own, replacing the locus of the Christian life with our personal agendas and pushing Jesus to the margins. We customize, privatize, and minimize the Christian story, relegating Jesus to little more than “someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares.” This corrodes the very heart of the Christian faith, eating away at its life transforming power, and ripping Jesus away from His divinity in order to wedge Him into an idol fashioned after a hyper-individualistic culture. This simply won’t do.
Christians need to reject the idea of the personal Jesus, and we need to do it for 5 reasons:
1. Christians Are Called To Follow Christ, Not Just Accept Him
The central cry of Jesus was never “accept me.” In fact, it was quite the opposite. Jesus walked a path which called Him to be despised and rejected, betrayed and belittled, criticized and crucified. The call of Jesus to His disciples and to us is to follow. Following requires leaving things behind and forging forward, laying down your life that you might find it, dying to yourself that your might discover the life abundant in the purposes of God. Acceptance is passive. Following is inherently active.
2. Christians Are Called To Conform To Christ, Not Christ To Christians
At the heart of spiritual formation is the move to become “Christ-like”. Often, this challenges our preconceptions and wars against our desires. Good. It is supposed to. The Jesus Way is a way of transformation, of exposing our darker side to the Light of the World that the shadows may be cast away and we may become luminaries of incandescent glory, reflecting the blinding rays of the Son. We must never customize Jesus, reducing Him to an eternal moral teacher that can give us a hand when things get rough. We must allow ourselves to be confronted by Him, restored through Him, and conformed to Him.
3. Christians Are Called To Community, Not Isolation
John Wesley once wrote that “Scripture knows nothing of solitary religion.” From Genesis to Revelation, we see the story of a God who is creating a people, not just persons. In the instances where we see individuals emphasized, they are emphasized for the purpose of the people. Abraham was called individually to carry the covenant for what would become the people of God. Moses was called individually to free the Israelite people. David was called individually to lead a nation of God’s people. The prophets were called individually to be the mouthpiece of God to His people. The disciples were called individually only to then be sent forth to gather a global people. The popular notion that Christianity is a personal affair, making the community of faith unnecessary, finds no basis in the pages of Scripture. It is only in community that we find accountability, corporate prayer, unified worship, and the edification of the saints. It is only in community that we become the Body of Christ.
4. Christians Are Called To Serve, Not Be Served
So much of Christian rhetoric emphasizes the blessing of God and de-emphasizes the way of the cross. Much of popular Christianity is about seeking these blessings, about conforming God to our will, about how God somehow is charged with serving us. I am not diminishing the reality of the blessedness of God, but blessing is hardly the entire picture. Jesus completely inverts the concept of privilege, calling His followers away from notions of entitlement and into a life of servanthood. The reality of this is that, as we serve one another, we will be served in the process; but the notion that service is somehow owed to us is completely overturned. We, who claim ourselves as children of the greatest King who ever existed, express this most dutifully as servants.
5. Christians Are Saved For More Than Just Themselves
The Christian concept of salvation does more than just look over its shoulder at a sinful past now washed clean. It does more than look at the present as we are engaged in a process of spiritual renewal. It looks to the future, at the outworking of our salvation expressed as a transformed people transforming the world. In other words, Christians are not just saved from sin, they are saved to God. We become active participants in the breaking forth of God’s Kingdom as the redemptive order confronts and exposes the manifestation of sin in society. To limit the concept of salvation to a personal experience (or worse, a personal event) truncates the fullness of what it means to be Christian. We are not just saved from a life of sin; we are saved for a world where sin still manifests.
The popular evangelistic rhetoric calling for people to “accept Jesus as your personal savior” needs to be overturned. It is only in the call to “come and follow” and to “take up your cross” that we begin to regain the deeper things which have historically defined God’s people. It is here, in the deep water, where Christianity comes alive.
So… reach out and touch faith.
What do you think? How does the personalization of Jesus impact the Christian faith?
Image Credit: Espejo