“I Have A Personal Relationship With Jesus Christ!”
One of the most common (and, indeed, tiresome) statements made by a number of our Evangelical brethren is that they “have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” or that He is their “personal lord and savior!” This statement is often coupled with the notion that salvation was a single event which took place in time – which itself is often connected with the notion of sola fides and eternal assurance.
There are two claims made in conjunction with this claim of a personal relationship – that Catholics do not have a personal relationship and that a personal relationship is all that is required for salvation. Both of these notions are incorrect, and should be dealt with by a Catholic apologist.
Do Catholics have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
There are two ways to look at this question – do Catholics have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as defined by the person asking? And, do Catholics have a genuine personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
In order to answer the first, it will be necessary to find out exactly what the criteria for a “personal relationship” (according to the definition of the non-Catholic) actually are. The apologist should ask what the non-Catholic means by this, but – normally – the answer will be that the human being must accept Jesus Christ as his personal lord and savior, admit that he is a sinner and that he needs Jesus' sacrifice to wash away his sins. Sometimes, the personal relationship will include regular prayer and reading of the Scripture.
In this case, it can clearly be shown that all Catholics have a personal relationship with Jesus! The non-Catholic may say that a particular, explicit declaration of acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior is needed (especially if the non-Catholic believes that Catholics are not Christians) and so a very good tactic is to make that profession right then and there!
(It may be that the non-Catholic – if he or she is very anti-Catholic - will say that the prayer of profession must include a rejection of the “false Gospel” of Catholicism. Obviously, such a thing is not only unacceptable for a Catholic to do, but is also just downright rude and assumes that Catholicism is wrong – which is the thing actually under discussion!)
However, it is not enough for a Catholic apologist to show that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as far as a non-Catholic defines the term, but rather to show a genuine personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
The apologist should use the Eucharist as a starting point, showing that Catholics not only have a relationship with Jesus Christ in prayer, but also have a relationship with His actual physical, real presence. Catholics commune with Jesus Christ in the way that He commanded us (John 6:53 and other Scriptural references). We read that Jesus Christ says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” - Catholics not only have the relationship which Protestants have, but also the genuine, sacramental relationship which connects us to the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By pointing this out (and defending the Catholic teaching of the Eucharist) the non-Catholic can be shown that the only true sort of personal relationship with Jesus Christ is found in the Catholic Church.
Is a personal relationship all that required for salvation?
Is a personal relationship required for salvation? Absolutely – the Catholic Church has never said it is not. However, there are a number of additional elements which are required for a full and complete relationship with Jesus Christ.
Firstly, is the personal relationship the non-Catholic has with Jesus a genuine relationship, and is it actually with the real Jesus Christ?
Jesus says that if we love Him we will keep His commandments – does the non-Catholic keep all the clear commandments of Jesus Christ that we read in the Scriptures? This includes reception of the Eucharist – the most important command of all. Can a relationship be called real and genuine if it doesn't take into account what the person wants from the relationship? What Jesus wants from us is for us to eat His flesh and drink His blood so that we can participate in His once and for all sacrifice made on the cross. If the non-Catholic is not doing this (and bear in mind that it is only in the true Church that the Real Presence is found) then does he or she have a real relationship with Jesus Christ?
Also, if the non-Catholic does not believe in the Real Presence, is he or she believing in the real Jesus Christ? The non-Catholic version of Jesus is not present in the form of bread and wine – how can this be the same as the real Jesus who says “This is my body”? An understanding of just how important the Eucharist is between Catholics and Protestants is essential here. The non-Catholic must be calling the Catholic an idolater, and the Catholic must be saying that the non-Catholic isn't worshiping the real Jesus – even if those exact words are not used!
(There are even a number of Protestants who, in fact, deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, His pre-existence for all eternity, or the fact He is not a created being.)
But perhaps the most important point that a Catholic should raise with a non-Catholic concerning the “personal relationship” comment is that a merely “personal” relationship is not enough. Heaven is often described (in the book of Revelation especially) as the wedding feast of Jesus Christ and the Church. This is not going to be a simple tete-a-tete, sit-down meal with Jesus and His worshiper! This will be a huge, corporate feast with the saints and angels in attendance. Having a relationship which is merely personal is not enough – in addition to having the correct relation with Jesus Christ through understanding who He is and by participating in the Eucharist, Christians are called to have a corporate relationship which takes into account the communion of saints and the Church established by Jesus Christ as the means for salvation.