Are You Just in a Relationship with the Idea of Jesus?

by Jared C. Wilson September 5, 2023

I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.
— John 15:15

When we relate to Jesus as an idea rather than as a real person, we might make our discipleship feel more efficient and productive, somehow more tangible and more “real,” but we’re short-circuiting the deep heart work Christ’s Spirit is dedicated to performing in us . . . “Wasting time” with the person of Jesus is far more impactful in all the ways that eternally matter than “getting things done” with the idea of him is. Therefore, relating to Jesus as a real person has implications for our understanding of personal spiritual disciplines and our communion with God.

Servant Spirituality versus Friendship Spirituality

Taking a look at John 15:15, I think we can see a Christ-directed premise for our communion with him: “I do not call you servants anymore. . . . I have called you friends.”

Teasing this out can be a little tricky, because in one sense we’re very much still to be servants of Christ. The apostles very often utilized servant language to characterize their relationship with their Lord. Paul, Peter, and James all refer to themselves as servants of the Lord. The Greek word here is doulos, which is more directly translated “bondservant” and more literally means “slave.” The apostles refer to themselves as essentially “slaves of Christ.”

Further, the very concepts of Jesus as Lord and as King — among other biblical titles — presuppose a master-servant relationship. For that matter, the reality that Jesus is fully God presupposes a master-servant dynamic!

So I’m not about to argue that “servant” is an inappropriate, much less unbiblical, referent for our relationship with Jesus. But when we dig deeper into the spiritual dynamic giving rise to this language, I think we can see a little bit of a twist not often considered. For the apostles, as for ourselves, to reckon ourselves slaves or servants of Jesus isn’t exactly to typify our relationship with him (e.g., like a slave would relate to a master) but rather our status before him (e.g., like a slave is bound to a master). Indeed, we’re told that Chris- tians aren’t given a “spirit of slavery” (Rom. 8:15) in relation to God but a spirit more akin to adoption. In other words, by referring to themselves as “slaves” and “servants,” I don’t believe the apostles are saying that God treats us like slaves but that we nonetheless belong body and soul to God alone.

I think, in a way, Jesus is getting at this distinction in John 15:15. For instance, he says that a “servant doesn’t know what his master is doing.” He calls us friends, because he has “made known to [us] everything [he has] heard from [his] Father.”

One directive from owning our status as bondservants of Christ is remembering the holy otherness of God. Servants remember to be reverent in their communion with God, not flippant. They remember to “hallow” God’s name (Matt. 6:9 ESV).

And yet servants don’t have full and open access to their masters. They don’t operate from a baseline of favor and freedom with their masters. They aren’t let into the inner life and eternal plans of their masters. But friends experience all of these things. This is why I want to argue that our Christian faith, while anchored in our status as servants of Christ our King, is felt as real and transformative in our relationship as intimates of Christ our friend.

Consider the spiritual pursuits of two hypothetical believers. I’ll call them Christian S. and Christian F.

Christian S. and Christian F.

Christian S. gets up early every morning and reads his Bible according to a daily plan that will take him through the entirety of the Scriptures in a year. He prays the written prayer at the end of his devotional, sometimes adding specific requests for himself and others he knows. Throughout the day, Christian S. listens to Christian music while he works, and during his break he peruses Christian websites. In the evening, Christian S. leads family worship for his wife and children around the dinner table. Before he goes to bed, he recites a routine prayer.

On Sundays, Christian S. loads his family up in the mini- van and drives them to church. In Sunday school, he squirms a bit during share time but enjoys learning more about the Bible during the teaching. Christian S. is a bit of an armchair academic. He likes answering questions correctly and adding to his trove of Bible knowledge.

During the worship service, Christian S. just listens to the more modern songs but sings along to the older ones, mainly because they please him with their familiarity. When it’s time for the preaching, he takes copious notes and frequently gets frustrated when he misses the next thing the pastor says because he was still trying to record the previous thing.

After lunch out, where Christian S. makes sure he leaves a good tip, wanting to represent the “church crowd” well, his family returns home. Christian S. notices several of his neighbors mowing their yards, and he doesn’t realize he’s a little chagrined. He doesn’t realize that he’s thinking he’s better than them for having dedicated his Sunday to the Lord.

This regimen constitutes the spirituality of Christian S. He’s not an unbeliever, not by any stretch. He’s not a fake Christian. He’s invested in this disciplined routine because he sincerely believes in God and in the gospel, and he takes God’s commandments and his own pursuit of holiness seriously. But if you asked him at any given moment what it feels like to be close to God, he would look at you puzzled. “What do feelings really have to do with anything?” he’d say, not exactly understanding the question. “Facts are superior to feelings.”

Indeed they are. But when other Christians come to Christian S. looking for counsel or help, they don’t experience him as particularly empathetic. He strikes many around him as being deep in conviction but shallow in compassion.

Does Christian S. experience closeness to God? In a way, yes, because he commits so much time to spiritual things like Bible reading, prayer, and church services. But in an- other way, no, because he’s treating all of these things as ends unto themselves, the mechanism by which to simply be a religious person. All of his religious efforts are generally oriented around knowing more and doing more — both good things — but this knowing and doing still fall short of the sort of being God plans to transform us into.

The Holy Spirit uses all of our efforts in the spiritual disciplines toward our good. And none of us engages in the disciplines totally free from self-interest or the corrupting influence of self-righteousness. But there’s approaching the spiritual life as something to master (relating to Jesus as an idea), and there’s approaching the spiritual life as something that masters us (relating to Jesus as a person).

Now, of course, reverence and discipline are good! But treating Christian spirituality like a chore chart or performance review is not. The former are important reminders that while Christ is our friend, he isn’t our peer. The latter treats Christ like an idea, a reward dispenser.

Now consider Christian F. He isn’t nearly as disciplined as Christian S., which is definitely not a good thing. Christian F. wakes up to his alarm but rarely feels awake until after he’s had a couple of cups of coffee. He opens his Bible and reads through a booger-eyed daze. Sometimes he uses a reading plan, but more often he just opens to a book he hasn’t read in a while. Christian F. is no theologian. He would lose against the average fifth grade Sunday school student in any Bible trivia contest. But he tries. He wants to know the meaning of what he’s reading. So he constantly asks God, “Help me out here, Lord.” Christian F. also wants to know what difference the Scripture he’s reading will make in his life. He doesn’t always see it, but he trusts that meaning is there and prays even more that God will show him.

When Christian F. goes to church, he feels lost quite a bit in Sunday school. A lot of it is over his head. But he does love the Bible, and he soaks in what he can. He also loves it when there’s discussion, because he likes hearing from his brothers and sisters. As he hears their hurts or fears or challenges or joys or wonders or successes, he prays for them. Inwardly he mourns for them or celebrates with them, whatever the case may be.

Christian F. is sometimes a minute or two late to the service because he spends time encouraging people or asking if there are ways he can pray for them. Sometimes he lingers to ask the Sunday school teacher to explain a couple of things he didn’t understand but didn’t want to interrupt the flow of class to ask about.

In the worship service, Christian F., like a lot of churchgoers, likes some songs more than others, but he does his best to sing along with them all, whether he “feels” them or not, and he discovers that in all of them there’s something good worth thinking about. And like a lot of churchgoers, Christian F. likes some sermons more than others, but he especially likes when the preacher gets to Jesus. This isn’t because Christian F. thinks the parts of the Bible that don’t mention Jesus aren’t inerrant or infallible or authoritative but because he’s come to suspect the whole thing is really about Jesus, and so when the preacher finally gets there, it feels like a crescendo of sorts, like they’ve made it to some great summit.

Christian F. is a messy prayer. He often wanders and rambles. He’s reverent but not formal. He mainly talks to God as if he’s talking to another person. This can make him uncomfortable when he’s asked to pray aloud in group settings. He’s not sure he knows how to pray with all those “Father Gods” and “Dear Lords” everybody else seems so good at adding. He’s also not sure how to pray without confessing sin. Christian F. sometimes forgets to ask for things besides forgiveness; he usually spends his prayer time telling God about his day and all that went with it and then admitting all the stuff he knows he got wrong. Christian F. doesn’t know how not to be himself in prayer.

Now, what’s the major difference between Christian S. and Christian F.?

I know I’ve stacked the deck a bit with these imaginary stand-ins. And I’m honestly not trying to criticize discipline and formality while celebrating casualness and informality. I’m certainly not trying to denigrate theological knowledge. (As a seminary professor and local church pastor, that’d be a dumb thing for me to do.) But in these admitted caricatures I’m trying to highlight two different ways we often relate to God and engage in spiritual pursuits.

Christian S. represents a servant spirituality. Christian F. represents a friendship spirituality. And the honest truth is that I’m not thinking of different people when I paint these contrasting portraits; I’m thinking of myself. Day to day, season to season, I’ve been both Christian F. and Christian S. If you’ve walked with Jesus long enough, you probably have too.

I notice a distinct — dare I say felt — difference when I’m relating to Jesus as a real person, despite a lack of regimented disciplines. Now, the smart Christian would ask, “Why not both?” Indeed. Jesus himself says that if we really love him, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). The real key to experiencing deep and renewing change by grace is to dedicate oneself to daily communion with Jesus, which necessarily includes a serious commitment to obedience. But his commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). Furthermore, I think too few locate this key because the disciplines themselves seem more manageable than the person of Jesus seems experienceable.

To move from a servant spirituality to a friendship spirituality means really believing — and not just theologically — that Jesus is a real person.

To reach a fuller possibility of friendship with Jesus and to experience spiritual newness through closeness with him depends largely on how real you believe him to be. Relating to the idea of Jesus can make you a smarter Christian, a nicer Christian, a more religious Christian, but it cannot make you a deeper, more joyful, or more authentically Christlike Christian.

This is an excerpt from my new book Friendship with the Friend of Sinners: The Remarkable Possibility of Closeness with Christ, available now wherever you buy books.

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