Christians have traditionally spoken of ‘faith’ as the means of taking hold of the salvation of Christ. Roman Catholics have tended to speak of ‘faith plus works combined’, but at their best they don’t regard salvation as a matter of ‘earned success’ but simply want to stress that the faith that justifies leads to works. But in the last 40 years it has become the trend to speak not of our ‘faith in Christ’, but our ‘relationship with Christ’ as the shibboleth and marker of our salvation and true Christian status. Maybe there was some back room at the Lausanne Conference of 1974 where this decision was made. I’m not sure that anything was gained by it.
Do we as Christians have a ‘relationship’ with Christ? Yes we do, and in more than one sense. First, our salvation puts us into a covenantal relationship with Christ, as one of His people, and God the Father becomes our Father and the Holy Spirit indwells us. We are ‘adopted’ as children of God the Father. [For those of us who think St. Joseph deserves a little more credit, he adopted the Son of God as his own son so that we may become the adopted children of God.] So we are in a legal and covenantal relationship with the Trinity. After this, the practice of certain ‘means of grace’ or ‘disciplines’ both private [private prayer, Scripture reading, and meditation] and public [worship, group prayer, service on various levels] can cause us to go beyond ‘knowing about God’ to ‘knowing God’. Warning: C. S. Lewis argues in The Problem of Pain, page 23, that “in recognizing the impact of God upon me I am now helped by things that reach me through the external world, such as the tradition of the Church, Holy Scripture, and the conversation of religious friends.” Apart from these things, if God communicates to us, we would have a hard time knowing it was God. And, our ‘relationship to Christ’ is in the church and not separable from it. [I won’t say ‘through the church’ because that might be too much of a concession to Catholicism.] The Church is the Bride of Christ, not the Harem of Christ.
Perhaps some have feared that if we say ‘faith’ we will reduce it to mere ‘intellectual belief’ so we need another word. Well, we have ‘trust’. If we don’t define ‘faith’ and ‘trust’ as a mere single event in the past, as some Christians do, we are not in danger here. I have heard that the Greek word pistis, usually rendered as ‘faith’, really means something like ‘faithfulness’.
But what is gained by talking about our ‘relationship with Christ’ instead of our faith and trust in Christ? I can’t see what is gained. In fact, something may be lost. Hebrews 11 informs us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Are we perhaps reluctant to admit that a number of things, like the face of God, are ‘not seen’? Are we so hopped up on our religious experience to admit that we do walk by faith? What is this about?
And, furthermore, is it useful to say ‘Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship’? Well, it is not a religion in so far as ‘religion’ is a matter of our search for God and our ‘earned success’ in doing so. But it is very much a religion in other ways. And if Christianity is true, then only it offers a ‘relationship’ with the true God. But it is not a unique claim. Jews, Sufis, and bhakti Hindus also claim a ‘relationship’ with God, and it is a challenging task of apologetics to explain to them that they don’t have one. So I think it is time to go back to talking about ‘faith’ and ‘trust’ and less of the R-word.