Personal Relationship or Faith in Faith?


You won’t have to troll through many LCMS websites to find a “mission statement” saying their mission is to “lead others to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”  You won’t talk very long to a member or a pastor of a contemporary worshipping church (Yes, there is a double entendre there.) without a personal relationship to Jesus coming up.  I think what they are really talking about is having faith in faith, and I think it absolutely inimical to the Lutheran Faith and just plain sad for Christians.


Anglican Dr. Phillip Cary, professor of Philosophy at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, presented a paper to the 2007 Symposium on the Lutheran Confessions held at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN comparing the standard Protestant syllogism based on Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” with Luther’s.


The Standard Protestant one is:

            Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.

            Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.

            Conclusion: I am saved.

Luther’s syllogism is:

            Major Premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

            Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.

            Conclusion: I am baptized (that is, I have new life in Christ).


The Protestant syllogism requires “faith in faith.” “What matters is that moment of conversion, not the Sacrament of Baptism, because everything depends on my being able to say ‘I believe.’  For only if I know that I truly believe can I confidently conclude: I am saved” (267).  What’s required of us is not only that we believe but that we know we do.  Cary calls this requirement ‘reflective faith.’  Believing you believe.  I call it “having a personal relationship with Jesus.”


Believing you believe, believing you have faith becomes the be all and end all for the Protestant.  If I believe I believe then I am a Christina regardless if I go to church.  Of course, Protestants don’t go around saying, “I believe I believe.”  No, that confession takes the form, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”  This is their answer to what Cary calls “a peculiarly Protestant agony of conscience” which “was to attain assurance that you really had true faith” (267).


Lutherans don’t have this problem.  When we want to know whether we are saved, we turn to the promise made in Baptism as Luther’s syllogism shows.  The major premise of the Protestant syllogism is a conditional statement because it makes you ask, “Do I believe?”  The major premise of Luther’s is not.  “It lays down no conditions about what I must do or decide or even believe in order to make sure the promise applies to me” (268).  Their minor promise is about their believing.  Our minor premise is about the truth of Christ.


For the Protestant salvation is believing you believe.  This can be very difficult in trying times, but far worse are the “good” times.  Then you are perfectly happy with your personal relationship with Jesus.  You need nothing but you and Jesus no Baptism, no Word, no Sacrament, no Church, no ministry.


For the Lutheran salvation is Jesus: what He does, says, gives, in fact what He believes.  My belief is always uncertain.  We Lutherans freely confess in our explanation to the Third Article of the Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him.”  Part of our basic confession is, “I believe that I cannot believe.”  A Protestant dare never say that.  It is tantamount to saying, “I have no personal relationship with Jesus.”


Two closing items.  Lutherans do have a personal relationship with Jesus but we don’t seek it in our body but in His.  The Body of Jesus is His Church.  Second, I used Philip Cary’s article “Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin” published in the Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vo1. 71, No. 3/4, July/October 2007, pp. 265-281.  He doesn’t link faith in faith to a personal relationship to Jesus. This is my conclusion.


About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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