Is Jesus a friend or a doctrine?

No matter how carefully formulated, propositional truth is at best a cold, lifeless corpse without the quickening spirit of a personal relationship.

Winston Ferris is a layman who writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan.

 

Pastors and evangelists face a challenge—how to build new Christians into vitally alive, active saints; how to stem the tide of apostasy caused by indifference; and how to transform the uncertain into vibrant children of God.

The basic factors of the dilemma are certainly not new. They appeared within hours of sin's entrance into man's experience. Before sin Adam and Eve were personal friends of God. While conscious of the Creator-and-creature relationship, mankind's two parents enjoyed the intimacy of face-to-face conversation with God. The atmosphere of Genesis 2 and 3 implies more than communication it reveals close communication. Yet within an incredibly short time after the Fall that relationship was not only shattered but reversed. When God came to the Garden to seek man He found Adam and Eve hiding. In the evening they were afraid of the God they had loved that same morning.

Sin, then, creates alienation between man and God, an alienation that is virulent and sustained. It produces a separation so final that only divine power, ap plied with divine wisdom, can break down the wall isolating God's children from their Father. The solution, of course, is the plan of salvation, the restoration of a personal relationship be tween God and man through the person of Jesus Christ.

In Old Testament times only a handful of men broke through that alienation into personal friendship with God. Enoch was certainly one, and according to Scripture, Moses was another. Possibly Elijah, David, and Daniel also joined this number. The sacrificial system carried out in the sanctuary and later in the Temple sustained the minimum contact necessary for access to salvation, but it was hardly conducive to close communion between heaven and earth. And even this system depended on the coming Redeemer.

But when Jesus came things changed radically. God took human form and joined the human race. He walked among men, worked among them, served them. He attended their weddings and dinner parties. He stood by their beds of sickness and pain. A close examination of the Gospel narratives reveals how completely Jesus fellowshiped with man. His illustrations, parables, and teaching contacts touched every phase of human experience.

Jesus tends to be the despair of analytical, intellectual students of Scripture. His teaching seems fragmented and tantalyzingly incomplete. During His ministry He made it clear that His conceptual teaching was for the chosen few, not the multitude. Yet most of His ministry was spent in close social and spiritual contact with that same multitude. During His ministry Jesus spent His time with people, loving them, serving them. On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus summarized that ministry in a striking statement. He did not say, "He that hath understood my teachings hath under stood the Father," but rather "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9). With Jesus, the personal route was the pathway to salvation.

When the disciples became apostles and, under the power of His Holy Spirit, began carrying out the commission of the church, they went out as eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. They spoke of the Word of Life, "which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, . . . for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness" (1 John 1:1, 2).

It is inescapably clear that Christianity began through personal contact with the Son of God. It grew out of an intimate, personal relationship between God and man. And the inspired record of the New Testament is the result of men's struggling to place the meanings of that relationship in written statements. This sequence is crucial. First came the relationship, then came the intellectual attempt to put the experience into words for those who lacked personal contact with Jesus.

The goal of the written record is made plain by its writers. Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. The Bible, as the written Word, designs to bring men back to the Jesus whose life is the pivotal point of the written record. The goal was to initiate readers, who had not known the Saviour personally, into the same type of relationship the writers of the New Testament had experienced. The written record was and is essential. Yet it can never be quite the same as the seeing, hearing, and touching the disciples experienced in their association with Jesus. However, to read the New Testament is to feel plainly that a personal relation ship with Jesus is the supreme goal.

What was intended to be an open circuit of life experience became short circuited in succeeding generations of Christians. Even within New Testament times the tension began to grow. The struggle between spirit and letter, be tween form and power, between intellectual grasp and personal experience, provides a negative undercurrent in the Epistles. Already in Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, Galatia, and Thessalonica the pattern was emerging. The human mind is forever hungry to understand, and it is so easy to focus attention on written, prepositional statements and reasonings about truths, even when those truths deal with the most extraordinary Person in history. It is an easy matter to relate increasingly to the truths themselves until the personal relationship they were designed to produce is lost. In this way the cycle of spiritual disaster began.

Christianity is essentially a relationship with a Person. From that friendship understanding rises. The mind dwells on the relationship, analyses it, and systemizes it so that the experience, once so personal, can be joyfully shared with others. The sharing must be done with words—there is no other way. But the words become the only representation the new hearers know. In each group of hearers some seem to grasp immediately the Person behind the propositions and religious truths. They enter into a personal relationship with the Saviour. They talk and walk with Him as actually as if they had been among the select disciples in Palestine. In every age of the church these people have been the radiant Christians, the spiritual leaders, the vibrant soul-winners.

Yet these are the exceptions, not the rule. Even the casual reader of church history will see the pattern. Great reformations and revivals are always led by those on fire with a personal vision, knowledge, and relationship to the Son of God. The glow of these lives attracts others, and many flame with the same dynamic relationship with Christ. But in the second generation a loss of that personal relationship is felt. Experience and witness is no longer dominated by the person and love of an ever-present Saviour. Instead, spiritual effort turns increasingly to development of the fine points of doctrine and to refinement of exact statements about Christ and His truth. In succeeding generations the cold fog of scholasticism settles around the church, and personal fervency and devotion turn to cold doctrinal and propositional minutiae. Then someone within the church rediscovers the possibility and beauty of a personal knowledge and walk with the Saviour. The fire blazes out anew, and the cycle begins again.

Recognition of these facts is not an attack on doctrine or theology, or on those whose lives are bound by God's call to lead the church in understanding the mysteries of God. Doctrine and deep study are towers of strength, protective bulwarks against false doctrine and fanaticism that attack the people of God in each generation. Sound theology is essential to the church's survival and growth. Yet, however carefully formulated, propositional exposition of truth is at best a cold, lifeless corpse when it is without the quickening spirit of a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. The written and oral word always transmits the significance of personal experience. The experience gives meaning to the doctrine.

This truth presents a special challenge to Seventh-day Adventists. The breadth and scope of the church's doctrinal teaching is so manifestly a gift from God that the temptation is almost overpowering to make it the focal point of our evangelistic and pastoral contact both inside and outside the church. It is a further temptation to measure the spiritual growth of new hearers by the acceptance point by point of doctrinal check lists. Acquaintance with spiritual concepts can become mistaken for a growing acquaintance with Jesus. The beauty of intellectual propositions lies in the fact that they can be measured. Degrees of personal relationship with Christ cannot be measured so easily.

The plague of uncertainty about salvation we so often see among church members rises from careful indoctrination without a personal relationship to the Saviour. Among other questions, candidates for baptism are asked, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour?" The expected answer is Yes. Yet probing conversations with Christians after baptism often show that the Yes answer really meant "I accept the concept that Jesus must be my personal Saviour." The answer indicates a relationship to an idea, not to the divine Person behind the idea.

These facts confront us with a dilemma. As pastors, evangelists, teachers, parents, and concerned Christians, how can we maintain the vitally needed protection of full doctrinal presentation, and yet use it to bring others into a personal relationship with the Saviour, who is the center and circumference of all doctrine? Part of the answer lies in the contagious nature of all personal relationships. When the bringer of truth himself enjoys a deep, vibrant relation ship with God and Jesus the hearers are drawn to the Saviour. When you talk enthusiastically and joyfully about truth and doctrine, others become fascinated with truth and doctrine. What then would happen if Christians talked enthusiastically about what Jesus means to them personally and what He has done for them today? Others would be drawn to the Friend of the witness.

Yet this truth establishes only a direction of travel; it is not the road or means of transportation. The problem of how to build a personal relationship to Jesus Christ through the preaching and teaching and sharing of propositional truth is a challenge the church must meet. It must be solved by experimentation, by trial and error.

Christianity is a relationship with a Person. All Christian contact must lead to that Person and that relationship. When this takes place God's people will see a revival of understanding and appreciation of Biblical truth such as this generation has not known. We can set the church of today on fire for God. But the fire is ignited by personal knowledge and a daily walk with Him.

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Winston Ferris is a layman who writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan.

October 1979

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