One of my hobbies is watching college football and basketball (Go Hawkeyes!). A few years ago I saw a clever poster at a bowl game. It was at the Oklahoma/Boise State bowl game. A fan in the Oklahoma student section, no doubt wanting to send a message to his parents and the world that his education was paying off and wishing to tweak the opponents, held up a sign that said “Hey, Boise is not a state, I looked it up.”
One of the favorite new words of the pseudo-Lutherans is “relationship,” and I am here to hold my placard saying “Hey, relationship is not in the Bible, I looked it up.” Go to any COWO or blended LCMS parish and you will find the word “relationship” being used ad nauseam as though having a relationship with Jesus were the fourth sacrament. This is really bad, dangerous and un-Lutheran spirituality. The phrase “relationship with Jesus” is harmful in at least two ways.
First, it is a way to sneak the law into what sounds like a very “gospelly” thing. The question “How is your relationship with Jesus?” sounds so sweet and nice but actually it is a killer and cannot be answered without understanding and applying law and gospel.
“You want to know how my relationship with Jesus is? Well, I am a sinner and so I deserve to go to hell but He died to pay for my sins and so everything is really jiggy between the two of us.”
“That’s not what I meant. What I meant was are you living the victorious life? Is Jesus your Lord and not just your savior, things like that.”
“Oh, you want to know if I am doing enough to please Jesus. I told you, I am a sinner and deserve to go to hell.”
The pseudo-Lutherans and their American Evangelical friends will never get that little exchange because they do not understand and apply law and gospel.
Secondly the phrase is harmful because quite frankly, there is no such thing as a relationship. I owe this insight to my theological mentor Dr. Norman Nagel. It is a creation of the late twentieth century romantic emphasis on psychology and feeling. There is no third thing between you and me called a relationship. There is only you and me and how we treat each other.
Focusing on the concocted relationship takes you one step away from simply examining your life according to the ten commandments and actually ends up distancing us from the law of God that the phrase is intended to highlight.
“How’s your relationship with your wife?” is a meaningless question. Instead, one should ask “How are you treating your wife? Are you being kind to her and cherishing her?”
Dr, Nagel was fond of promoting Luther’s notion of standing naked before God. It renders the invented notion of a relationship useless and meaningless. In spiritual matters there is no buffering third thing standing between you and God called a relationship that needs working on. There is just you, standing naked before God in all your sin and He in all His holiness. That kind of puts things into immediate, intuitive perspective. There is no imaginary thing called a relationship. There is just you and God and it is not a pretty picture. There is no buffer. There are no preppy clothes that you wear to your COWO or blended service. There is no Starbucks coffee cup. There is no weird praise-swaying of hands and arms as if you were waving to Jesus. There is just you standing naked before God in all your sin with the forbidden tree of life in the background.
“Relationship” is not a Biblical word. It is not a Lutheran word. It does not appear in the Bible. It does not appear in the exhaustive index of Luther’s works. It does not appear in the exhuastive index to Pieper’s dogmatics. It does however appear already on the second page of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. (By the way, “purpose” is also not a Biblical or Lutheran word. It does not appear in the Bible in the invented manner of Rick Warren and twentieth century Existentialism and psychology.)
Of course God is triune and no discussion of standing before Him naked is complete without filling in the picture with Christ. At the right hand of the Father is the Son who doesn’t tell the father that your relationship is pretty good and only needs a little brushing up. Instead, he goes right to the nail holes in his hands and says “This is what gives him good stead before you Father.”
It is sad that so many Lutheran churches and pastors have fallen for the pietistic and psychological spirituality of the evangelicals who promote this notion of a relationship with God. They claim to be Lutheran. They sprinkle a few Lutheran terms into their preaching and teaching but they are not really Lutheran. How sad. I wonder if they even know that Boise is not a state.