Our God is a “Personal God.” You know, I never really grasped what that statement meant until I was in seminary. Really, but that goes to show how the phrases we commonly use or hear affect our theology. Think about it this way. I grew up in a Methodist church out in the country and especially as I started coming into my late teen years and early twenties, the church took on a more evangelical and pietistic tone. As a result, what I heard people saying is, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” That is the kind of thing that Billy Graham always said, wasn’t it?
In the years following my conversion (I was born again in my early twenties), I became more and more involved in the evangelical and renewal movements that were connected with my denomination — Walk to Emmaus and the Confessing movement amongst other things. And again, that is what we talked about… “a personal relationship” with God.
Now, to me, what I understood by that was that my relationship with God was personal, deep, intimate, and in many ways, unique to my personality — much like I might have a personal relationship with a close friend of mine. Thus, my relationship with God would look different than yours might not because one was better or worse, but because it was unique to my personality. Surely, my relationship with Jason looked different from my relationship with Heath and that looked different from my relationship with Denise (who became my wife!). So, shouldn’t my relationship with Jesus look different than Jason’s. That’s how I thought at least.
The problem is that there is a gulf of difference between talking about having a personal relationship with God and having a relationship with a personal God…or, more accurately, having a relationship with a personal God through the person of Jesus Christ. The first is the common verbiage of the modern evangelical movement; the second is the verbiage of historic Christianity.
Now, if you are reading this, don’t get all excited and angry with me just yet. What I am not saying is that you should not have a deep relationship with God. Have that deep relationship; strive for it and grow in it. Jesus called his disciples “friend” just as God did with Abraham. It is right and proper to desire this kind of relationship that has been shared by so many saints that have gone before you — and that I have been blessed to share as well. This is not of what I speak. So, bear with me.
“Personal” can be used in a variety of ways. We can use the word to refer to something that belongs only to me (my unique relationship with Jesus). We can use the word to refer to an action I take in my life (my personal finances…or the personal/intimate aspect of my relationship with Jesus). Or, we can use the word “personal” to refer to someone who is a distinct person, not an idea or a force of nature (God being a person, not a force). And, when you recognize that this third way of using the term — that God is a personal God…hence He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — three persons — then that gives you a little bit of perspective on what the church has meant by a “personal God” (at least up until the 20th century).
So, theologically, when we talk about God being “personal,” we are talking about the reality that he exists as a person (in the case of God, as Three Persons). This distinguishes him from the gods of Hinduism and other pantheistic sects which have a view of their gods that presents themselves as forces of nature. That distinguishes the God of the Bible from the god of Buddhism, which exists more as a cosmic force that unites all things together. It also distinguishes the God of the Bible from Deism which views god as being distinct and separate from mankind and thus impersonal in every sense. Even the god of liberalism can be viewed in an impersonal ways as he is viewed as little more than a social construct and not as a sovereign God. The god of Islam, could arguably be spoken of as “personal” in this sense, yet he is certainly not the kind of person with which one could have a relationship in any meaningful sense of the term.
And so, perhaps when we talk about God being “personal,” we ought to listen more to historic Christianity than to twentieth-century “Billy Grahamesque” pietistic evangelism. Perhaps we ought to be saying, “Do you have a relationship with the personal God of the Bible through Jesus Christ?” That’s more of a mouthful, but it conveys a deeper and more accurate truth than I was given, given the language I heard growing up.