Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why Protestants reject the idea of having personal relationship with Jesus

The way the typical Evangelical talks you'd think that having a personal relationship with Jesus was the central aspect of the Christian experience. In fact, they're right, but what Evangelicals don't realize is that their Protestant theology of Justification by Faith Alone actually goes directly against the idea of having a personal relationship with Jesus. This post will hopefully be a "light bulb" moment for Catholics and Protestants reading this.

I've written about this briefly in a couple of older posts (The Sinner's Prayer and A sketch of the Catholic view of Salvation) but I'd like to reiterate it from an Ignatius Press blog article I came across and bookmarked to share with others. The article is Eternal Security? A Trinitarian Apologetic for Perseverance, which sums up the matter quite nicely mid-way through: 
The effect of the isolation of soteriology from Trinitarian dogma is most evident in the pervasive Protestant doctrine of "the eternal security of the believer," also known as "once saved, always saved." According to this doctrine, continual relationship with God is merely, albeit necessarily, symptomatic of salvation. This notion is contrary to the Catholic understanding of salvation as identical to perpetual relationship with God, through participation in His eternally relational life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Eternal security proposes a radical separation of relationship with God from salvation by God, as is evident in the homily "sin cuts Christians off from fellowship with God, but never from the eternal gift of His salvation." This homily at least trivializes the essential message of the Gospel, which is salvation through reconciliation to God
In Protestantism, what saves a person is not their relationship with the Trinity. Instead, they see a relationship with the Trinity comes only after they get saved. The reason why they believe this is because they view salvation as something man does rather than what God does. In the case of Adam, God could not justify him unless he first kept the law perfectly, which also meant God could not be in a relationship with Adam until this took place. So it was up to the man, Adam, to save himself and thus earn a relationship with his Father in Heaven. Since Adam failed this test, God had to send another man, Jesus, to accomplish that task. It is from here where Protestants say once this "perfect obedience of Christ" is "imputed" to the believer then salvation results, and a byproduct of salvation is getting to enter a relationship with the Trinity. 

That might sound strange and blasphemous, and it is, but there is a reason why Luther and Protestants taught this. The "alternative" would be the Catholic view, in which salvation is synonymous with entering into a relationship with the Trinity, in which man cooperates with this Divinity dwelling inside himself to either grow in that relationship (through acts of love) or weaken (even sever) that relationship (through acts of sin). Protestants rejected the idea man can cooperate with God's grace since they see it as somehow robbing God of glory and failing to provide man assurance of his salvation, but nothing could be further from the Truth. 

Here are a few texts of Scripture that bring this point out most beautifully:
Deuteronomy 30: 6 The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

Romans 2: 28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

Romans 13: 8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Galatians 5: 13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Recall that in the Protestant mind, Adam did not need the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to be able to love God and neighbor in order to fulfill the law for his justification, since they think he was able to do that by his human abilities alone. But this ability was lost for Adam and all mankind after Adam sinned. The perverse result is that the Holy Spirit is now seen as a crutch, to help the Christian 'hobble around' and try to emulate a 'healthy' Adam as much as possible, and when they're completely 'healthy' they wont need the Holy Spirit anymore than Adam did. To make matters more embarrassing, since they're only 'hobbling around' they (logically) teach even the good works they do as Christians are tainted by sin and are only accepted because God graciously overlooks their worthlessness.

But see how opposed this Protestant view is to the Scriptures and the Catholic faith! The Holy Spirit is not a crutch, but rather an integral part of man living the way God intended. Without the Holy Spirit, man cannot exhibit the super-natural acts of love towards God and neighbor, since these acts go beyond man's human abilities. The truth is, Protestants cannot really explain the above verses, because in them Paul says Christians are called to and enable to "fulfill the law," something that Protestants think can only be done by perfect (sinless) obedience. But in Paul's mind, it is exhibiting the super-natural character of Holy Spirit inspired Love that fulfills the law, not some perfect (sinless) obedience. In fact, by Protestant logic, Jesus would have not had to be divine nor would He have needed the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill the law, and yet the Scriptures are clear Jesus was not only Divine, but that His human journey was guided by the Holy Spirit (e.g. Matthew 3:15).

In Conclusion, while Protestants are right to emphasize the personal relationship with Jesus, their theology unfortunately subordinates relationship with God to a footnote or afterthought. That should not be, and as more Protestants come to see this, they're leaving Protestantism for the more Biblical model of Christianity, which is Catholicism.


Anonymous said...

If you haven't before, I suspect you would be interested in garigou-lagrange' s book on the three conversions, which is something of a theological primer on Catholic spirituality. I bring it up here because one of the most striking points in the book is when he argues that Luther's theory of justification completely destroys the idea of a spiritual life, the life of sanctififying grace and ultimately participation in the divine nature. This is something that is often overlooked in all the arguments about sola scriptura, sola fide, etc. It is in some ways much the same argument you made here, though in a more thomistic mode. -eric

cwdlaw223 said...

Great article.

MJV said...


I am a Catholic and I agree with Catholic theology and even the logical conclusion that Luther's view of Justification brings. However, the irony for me is that it seems to flesh out the opposite of the theological framework--at least in my experiences. It seems to me, most Protestants have more of an experiential spirituality (personal relationship) than do Catholics.

Nick said...


I would agree with you but in a qualified sense. Any Catholic who is living out their Faith is automatically engaged in a Personal Relationship with the Trinity in a far more profound way than a Protestant ever could. So lacking the Sacraments and other structures, what these Evangelical Protestants are experiencing is a lesser taste/share but they are nonetheless typically more vocally thankful about what they do have. And of course, they don't understand their own (typically) anti-Sacramental and non-existant systematic theology to recognize the irony and problem.

MJV said...

Hi Nick,

I agree completely with what you said. My former experience as an evangelical was that evangelicals look for experiences through so many different mediums to "try" and have a deeper experience with God whether it's "praise and worship", "Holy Spirit experiences", "the latest greatest devotional", etc. All the while the intimacy with Christ can be experienced in the Sacraments but unfortunately refuse to acknowledge them.

BTW, I really appreciate your work on penal substitution. I'm working on my graduate degree in theology and it has been a useful resource. Keep up the good work.

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