One of the greatest benefits I received from my youth pastor and Young Life leaders in high school was the critical observation that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. Having grown up in the 1980s and 1990s American South, where church attendance was often a compulsory cultural behavior, this delineation needed to be clear.
The terminology of a “personal relationship with Jesus” remains an important part of communicating the core of Christianity to teenagers. Many initially misunderstand the Christian faith either as “just another religion” or as a set of moral behaviors. Consistently articulating the relational aspect of following Jesus reinforces the true nature of Christianity and the core of the gospel.
In recent years, however, I’ve questioned the wisdom of the “personal relationship with Jesus” phrase to describe Christianity’s core—for two reasons.
First, kids have numerous personal relationships, many of which are not particularly healthy. Adolescents may have a contentious or broken relationship with their parents or siblings. Betrayal, competitiveness, and comparison might mark their relationships with peers. Perhaps relationships with teachers and coaches involve pressure, criticism, and performance. By virtue of the tumultuous nature of adolescent social lives, many kids have mixed or conflicted associations when they hear about personal relationships.
Second, given the rise of technology and social media, postmodern kids may have an underdeveloped paradigm for personal relationships. The majority of their communication occurs in electronic form via texting, SnapChat, and GroupMe. When they hear “personal relationship,” then, what they perceive is actually rather impersonal. What they hear may not match our intent.
Over the past three years, I’ve started describing our relationship with Jesus in terms of union with Christ. While union with Christ may be the most important and prevalent theological concept, many believers never hear about it. Marcus Peter Johnson’s book One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Crossway) opened my eyes to the richness, beauty, and centrality of this neglected truth.
While you may know little about union with Christ, some view it as the most comprehensive aspect of Christian salvation. Michael Horton, for example, shows how union with Christ draws together the various aspects of salvation—including “the past, present, and future, as well as the objective and subjective, historical and existential, corporate and individual, forensic and transformative.”
Paul’s letters mention this doctrine of union with Christ nearly 200 times, using terms like “in Christ,” “with Christ,” and “through Christ.”
Jesus also describes this reality: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20). In simple terms, union with Christ captures the mysterious reality that Christ dwells in the heart of believers, and believers, simultaneously, dwell in the heart of Christ. Thus they are one.
In simple terms, union with Christ captures the mysterious reality that Christ dwells in the heart of believers, and believers, simultaneously, dwell in the heart of Christ.
In talking to students about our relationship with Christ, I now use language such as:
- Christ dwells in your heart.
- You aren’t just close to Jesus; you are one with Jesus.
- You will never find the intimacy you seek until you find the thing for which God made you: for Christ to dwell in your heart and you to dwell in his.
- If you’re a Christian, you already are married to Jesus. As a husband and a wife are intended to become one, you now are one with Christ, as he dwells in you, and you in him.
Certainly such terminology involves mystery and complexity. Junior high students in particular often struggle to understand this level of abstraction. I am finding, however, that this language carries far more emotional power and biblical force than simply saying, “You have a personal relationship with Jesus.”
Talk About It
There are several good reasons to make union with Christ your primary way of describing relationship with Jesus to teens:
1. It taps into the deep level of intimacy teenagers desire.
Young people pursue sexual activity, prioritize friendship, and live on their phones because they have deep, God-given longings for intimacy. Unfortunately, teens—like all others—often seek intimacy in the wrong places. A personal relationship doesn’t connote the same level of closeness and intimacy as Christ dwelling in your soul and vice versa.
2. It contrasts starkly with any other relationship teens have had.
Speaking in these terms prevents a student from associating their relationship with Jesus with mere human relations. We are more than buddies with Jesus—we are one with him. By talking about union with Christ, then, we can produce for students an entirely new and unique category that surpasses any other relationship they’ll ever know.
We are more than buddies with Jesus—we are one with him.
3. It serves as a theological foundation for many other vital concepts.
When I teach teens about moral matters related to sex and marriage, I start with union with Christ as the doctrinal basis for God’s design and boundaries in those two areas. When I teach on the sacraments, union with Christ becomes an essential element in helping them understand the function and purpose of baptism and communion.
I encourage youth and family leaders to learn more about this critical doctrine. It will help us all better understand the rich intimacy we enjoy with God in Christ.
- Greg Gilbert, Favor: Finding Life at the Center of God’s Affection (Baker, 2017)
- Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Crossway, 2013)
- Todd Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Baker, 2011)
- Rankin Wilbourne, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God (David C. Cook, 2016)
- Constantine Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Zondervan, 2012)