In “Beware of Under-Realized Soteriologies,” I took to task Mark Galli of Christianity Today and others for arguing that we shouldn’t expect to be transformed too much by the Gospel in this pre-consumate age, since most Gospel transformation awaits the eschaton.
Gerald Heistand of The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology argues, from another angle, that over-realized eschatologies are behind the popular evangelical nomenclature “personal relationships with Christ,” which implies a sense of Jesus’ presence that we Christians simply can’t have until the eschaton. Well, I know of no evangelical who argues that we can today know Jesus as we’ll know Him when we see Him face to face (1 Jn. 3:2), so if Gerald is contending merely for the application of the “already/not yet” to our present experience of the Lord’s presence, he’s preaching to almost the entire evangelical choir.
I don’t object so much to what Gerald asserts as what he denies — or at least omits. I believe that, as James Fowler notes, Gerald is advocating an “over-objectified understanding of Christ’s work” characteristic of much Protestant theology. The Bible plainly teaches that we can today know Jesus (and the Father and Spirit) in a remarkably intimate way — a way much more intense than Gerald suggests. He writes: “I don’t often feel an overwhelming sense of his [God’s] presence in the same way that I feel the presence of my human relationships,” and “Maybe I’ve just sold out, but I’ve come to make peace with the fact that we shouldn’t become too idealized about what it means to be in a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ between the ages.” But the Bible offers us a much more intimate relational portrait than Gerald allows.
For example, Jesus prays to his Father (Jn. 17:20–23):
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me….”
This is a striking passage. Jesus prays that God will grant to the disciples (both His apostles and subsequent believers) the same glory that His Father granted Him while on earth. Further, while here on earth (note: He discusses the glory of the eschaton later, in v. 24) they may dwell in the same relational oneness that He presently shares with the Father. Unless we are prepared to say that the incarnate Jesus did not “feel an overwhelming sense of his [God’s] presence in the same way that [Jesus felt] the presence of [His] human relationships,” it would seem that we, too, today, can experience a sense of the Lord’s presence even greater than that which we experience of our fellow humans.
Further, Paul writes in Colossians 1:27 that the glorious mystery he preached to the gentiles is that Christ was in them, the hope of glory — the “hope” stressing the not yet, but the “in them” accenting the already. We can know our fellow humans intimately, but they do not reside in us permanently by the Spirit’s work as Jesus does with His people. We can know Him more intimately than we know one another.
In Galatians 2:20 Paul goes so far as to say that it is no longer Paul, but Jesus Christ, who lives in him: in other words, Jesus’ very life dwarfs our life. However we may precisely interpret this statement, it is clear that Jesus is almost indescribably intimate within his people.
We can (and should) talk to Him every day and virtually all day. We tell Him that we love Him and want to honor and obey Him. He speaks to us externally by His Word and internally by His Spirit. Most amazingly, the very corporeal power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus bodily from the dead resides in our bodies (Rom. 8:11). For this reason, “[H]e who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Cor. 6:17)
So, we Christians can experience a “personal relationship with Christ”; and, in fact, such intimacy, which exceeds the intimacy of our fellow humans, should be the norm.
Don’t settle for less.