On “inviting Jesus into my heart”

Some years ago, when people did theology on list-serves rather than on blogs, I wondered aloud, on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association List serve, about the wisdom of encouraging people to “accept Jesus into their hearts.” It triggered a good discussion. I was reminded of that conversation when I read a post by Paul Helm, recently, in which he reflects on this terminology himself. You can find his whole post here, but I’ll cite a large part of it for your easy contemplation. He wrote:

 No one thinks that the language of asking Jesus into one’s heart, or of giving one’s heart to Jesus, is reductionist language, because without question people who talk like this are saying something of theological and spiritual importance about themselves. Nevertheless there is also something odd about it, as Derek also seems to think when he refers to ‘terminology that I might have used then’ implying (I think) that he would not speak that way now.

I don’t suppose for a moment that this is Calvinistic snobbishness in Derek’s case any more than (I hope) it is in mine. It’s not a case of someone demanding that if we are to talk seriously about theological and spiritual matters we must speak the language of the Westminster Standards, and only that language, to do so.

Of course we may understand the language as figurative, and then it could literally mean any of a number of things. But what if we take it more literally than that? Even so, there’s something odd about the language, just as (I would say) there’s something attractive about it. Not just that it’s terse and compressed (nothing wrong with that), or deficient in theological gravitas. Rather, it’s OK but it is going down the wrong track, a track that could lead off the track altogether, into the wilderness. I seem to remember that somewhere C.S. Lewis writes that to think of God as an old man with a long grey beard is a mistake, but that it’s not a very serious mistake. I’m inclined to think that a person who talks of conversion as asking Jesus into his life is making a more serious mistake. So let’s try to see why this might be. 

What’s going wrong?

 What is someone who asks Jesus to come into her heart saying? Here are things we need to bear in mind. The expression at least has this in its favour, that it is centred on Jesus. But according to the New Testament and the church’s confession of her faith, Jesus is not now in a position to come into anyone’s heart. Having suffered crucifixion, and enjoyed resurrection – how exhilarating that must have been! – he is now ascended to the Father, and though physically located at a place, the New Testament shows little or no interest in this bare fact, nor in the problems that it raises, but it stresses that he is now at his Father’s right hand, a place of exaltation and authority. So the language of taking Jesus into one’s heart invites Jesus to have a role which he is (literally) in no position to fulfil.

It is true that there is some language about Jesus in the New Testament that is related to talk of taking Jesus into one’s heart. We might point to Revelation 3.20, ‘If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me’. Jesus comes and enters into a person’s ‘door’.And there is John 14.20 ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’. But even here care is needed. The words from John’s gospel are concerned with the coming of the Spirit upon Christ’s departure. For the Father and the Son to take up their abode with the believer is to do this through the ministry of the Spirit. Christ Jesus will not abide with today’s believers literally, nor does the New Testament encourage its readers to think that he will, any more than Paul (for instance) is not in the least interested or concerned to show to his readers and hearers what is God’s will for their lives, or to offer advice about how they might discover what God’s will for them is. 

Jesus-centric

 But what is attractive about the language is that it is Jesus-centric. And bearing this in mind, one way to think of the use of such language is as an affirmation of the great fact of the believer’s union with Jesus. He is in Christ, witnessed to by the fact that Christ is in him by his Spirit. I suggest that this is one way of reading such informal expressions, as testifying to the believer’s willing union with Christ. But as well as keeping the emphasis on Christ’s Spirit as the indweller of God’s people, I reckon that such language ought to be tempered by the emphasis of Paul that Christ dwells in the hearts of his people by faith. (Ep. 3.17) The language of Christ coming into the heart is the language of union with Christ, and this (Paul tells us) is the language of believers.

What I hear from Helm is a healthy caution, without condemning the practice completely. I’m interested to know: what thoughts did his ruminations trigger for you? Do you think it is a good thing for us to encourage people to invite Jesus into their hearts? Why or why not?

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6 Responses to On “inviting Jesus into my heart”

  1. Werner Peters says:

    Terry,
    I was raised in a German home (in Winnipeg), and an old German Christmas carol was going through my head as I read your article.

    Kling, Glöckchen, klingelingeling,
    kling, Glöckchen, kling!
    Laßt mich ein, ihr Kinder,
    ist so kalt der Winter,
    öffnet mir die Türen,
    lasst mich nicht erfrieren!
    Kling, Glöckchen, klingelingeling,
    kling, Glöckchen, kling!

    So here is the picture – the poor Christ child is outside of my heart, and it is cold out there. Pity the poor child. Invite him in to the warmth of your heart’s living room.

    As children, this was the picture I had, although I was also taught that Jesus died for my sins, and that asking him into my heart was necessary to be saved.

    It was a wonderful paradigm shift for me to finally learn that Christianity has far more to do with the fact that God has received me in Jesus, than it was me accepting him. Although I always keep John 1:14 in mind, where we learn that we “receive” him when we believe.
    Werner

  2. David Tiessen says:

    Paul Helm touches on the biblical sensibilities for ‘heart’ as principally a matter of ‘will’ at the centre of a person’s life, so in that sense there may still be a place for the phrase in question. I can also appreciate the emphasis on union with Christ as central to the Christian life as leaving an opening for this. But it seems to me that what Werner touches on above regarding pietism is the dominant way in which the phrase is now heard. The ‘heart’ is thoroughly sentimentalized in our culture, being associated now with interior sincerity, feelings, ‘following your heart’, etc. I think the phrase now reflects a thoroughly individualistic approach to salvation and to the way the faith is lived, at the expense of the emphasis in Eph 3, which clearly makes the connection between the ‘inner being’ and the cosmic scope and scale of Christ’s work, and names the centrality of the Church in that picture. It thus tends also to function entirely without reference to the ecclesial sacraments, principally baptism, which deliberately and explicitly connects the individual and the corporate as one is joined to the whole People of God and marked as Christ’s own forever (but now I’ve given my location away!). To reference Robert Jenson’s little book, Lutheran Slogans, I think the slogan carries some legitimate theological freight, but that we should encourage people to explore the meaning of baptism and then be baptized, not “invite Jesus into their hearts.”

  3. Dale Dueck says:

    I agree with David Tiessen’s assessment. The notion of the “invitation” is certainly very “heart-felt” but not particularly accurate as I think about Eph 2. Perhaps “heart-felt” is key to the invitation. As I think about the evangelistic services I have attended in my earlier years, the invitation certainly fits the evangelistic format of the personal nature of one’s relationship with God.
    The problem I have with the idea of the invitation is twofold. First, it seems to lean heavily on the feelings of the acceptor of the invitation. Second, it seems to lean heavily on the acceptor as the one who controls and initiates the relationship. The idea suggests that God is out there, and I am the one who does the inviting. In my reading of the NT I don’t get the sense that people control or initiate their relationship with God any more than lazarus controlled the resurrection he experienced in Jn 11. To my understanding these are things that belong to God to which we respond to his invitation to life through Christ. The point is that we respond to his invitation, not he to ours. Perhaps this in some way gets back to the free-will/sovereignty discussion.
    I further agree with DavidTiessen that while in some way the idea of the invitation does have merit, caution should be exercised though in just how far the idea applies.
    Just a word about Rev 3 and Jesus standing at the door. I believe this passage has been misinterpreted and misapplied for many years by evangelicals. It has been a standard part of many evangelistic services but the primary context is clearly not evangelistic. Its primary context is calling luke-warm believers to repentance, not unbelievers to faith. As with the invitation discussion, it fits the emotional sentimental needs but doesn’t reflect an accurate understanding of what the text is actually saying.

  4. Tony Penner says:

    It is interesting that you post this discussion at this time. The issue of the appropriate ‘language’ of conversion has been a hot topic in my circles. I often here three similar statements regarding a persons experience of regeneration. One is that they, “Accepted Jesus as their personal Savior.” The second is that they, “Asked Jesus to be their personal Savior.” The third is that they, “Invited Jesus to be their personal Savior.” Each of these declarations is similar in the object of affections of which Paul Helm notes. Each takes a definitive anthropological perspective that makes the action of the asking, accepting and inviting in the corner of the person.
    I want to be generous particularly to individual cases when they convey to me that they have expressed any one of these. They are merely conveying that they are in a relationship with Christ that hopefully involved what the Bible requires of Salvation from a human perspective; repentance and belief. So while, strictly speaking what they are expressing in not a direct quote from Scripture, it is the sentiment being expressed that should be understood.
    Also I believe that from the perspective of the monergist, the expression that one accepted Christ as Savior is only conveying a compatabalist understanding of salvation. Calvinists can agree that from a human stand, they believed and repented because it is something they greatly desired even though they are aware that any desire for such was derived solely
    from God.
    But when we speak strictly theological I have a concern. The language of the phrase has been a clarion call of those who would dismiss the role of effectual grace. This small phrase can be no doubt an expression of a relationship with Christ that little to do with propitiation and everything to do with libertarian free will.
    It has been the fodder of evangelistic crusades and revival meetings that produce emotional expressions but little apparent change in heart. And who really is doing the accepting, who makes an invitation, who really is doing the calling?
    I have been of the mind not to correct those who use this language, but I have also begun to change the way I speak of my conversion to Christ. I prefer to say something like, “Jesus Christ saved me from my sins” or “I became a Christian through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”
    These days there is such a disconnect between biblical truth and reality and such a perpetuation of traditional language devoid of any biblical substance. The Church needs to be lovingly and patiently taught to think and make expressions explicitly biblical.

    Also as a note: I agree with Dale Dueck that Rev. 3 has been misinterpreted consistently in evangelical circles. He is right, this is not an evangelistic verse but a call to the church to repent. I cringe inside when I hear pastors and evangelists use it to plead for unbelievers to repent.

  5. Poetreehugger says:

    While it may be true that “Christ Jesus will not abide with today’s believers literally, nor does the New Testament encourage its readers to think that he will”, we do seem to be encouraged that Christ will be with us always, as in Matt 28:20 for one example. Whether this is through the ministering of the Spirit is quite likely, but we don’t seem to need to work out the exact theological formulation to take much-needed comfort from the words. Perhaps a poetic understanding is easier for some of us.

    After reading this post and comments this morning, I was stuck for a while with “Kling Glöckchen” playing in my head. When I managed to silence that, the topic of needing the nearness of God and the problem of ultimate separation anxiety brought another song to mind, by Henry F. Lyte:
    Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
    The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
    When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
    Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
    Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
    Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
    Change and decay in all around I see—
    O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
    I need Thy presence every passing hour;
    What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?
    Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
    Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
    I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
    Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
    Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
    I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
    Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
    Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
    Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
    In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
    (I recommend the Indelible Grace Music version.)

    As far as the terminology of “Jesus in your heart”, that reminds me of the time I was shopping in the theology section of a used book sale, and a stranger asked me whether I was born again. To my complete surprise, I found myself feeling resentment and confusion because I had no idea what she might mean by those over-used words, and whether that might be biblical, or a social or cultural catch phrase.

  6. Daryl Climenhaga says:

    Just to note that I find the comments intriguing — given that so much of my life has been outside North America. Both parties in the conversation may end up trying to get others to accept their own preferred terminology rather than questioning and listening to the other to see what he/she actually means. I know that when I use such terminology (which is not often), I mean: Meet God with your will and affections; don’t just believe in God as an article of faith in a catechism. Some (such as Erickson) have tried to restrict the Evangelical family to those who believe the right things; I want to make Wesley’s “My heart was strangely warmed” at least as important as the catechism.

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