Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Ask Jesus into Your Heart?"

The other week my daughter Lauren went to the doctor's office for a check-up on her pregnancy.  While there she was shown a picture of little William's heart.  Upon arriving home, she excitedly told three-year old Ian that she had seen the baby's heart.  Ian's response was classic—and instructive: "Did you see Jesus in there?"

I stored this in my mental treasure chest for use at a later, opportune time.  Yesterday, while catching up on some blog and magazine reading, I came upon a post in Credo Magazine's blog by Paul Helm entitled, "Asking Jesus into my heart."  The opportune time, I concluded, was now.

Anyone who has heard Billy Graham or any number of similar evangelists is familiar with the jargon.  The evangelist speaks of the death of Jesus on the cross to save the world from the eternal consequences of their sins.  The requisite response of sinners to be "saved" is to believe that Jesus died for their sins and—so as to make the confession personal—to ask Jesus into their heart.  Appeal is often made to a peculiar text from the Book of Revelation in which Jesus, "the Amen, the faithful and True Witness, the beginning of God's creation (Rev 3:14)," specifically addresses the church located at Laodicea (in modern-day Turkey):
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.  (Rev 3:20, NIV)

Helm, an Oxford-educated philosopher and theologian who currently serves as a Teaching Fellow at Regent College in Vancouver, objects to the use of this terminology.  In his words:
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.
What is first of all evident is that the New Testament never uses the language of "opening the doors of the heart" in connection with "conversion."  The evangelistic sermons in Luke's Acts of the Apostles are very clear.  What one must do to be saved is "believe on the Lord Jesus" (Acts 16:31). Alternately, one must "repent and be baptized in the name of (the crucified, resurrected, and exalted Lord [Acts 2:22-36]) Jesus Messiah (Acts 2:38), which amounts to the same thing.  Baptism was (and is—"sacramentophobia" was less a characteristic of the nascent church than it is of many strands of modern evangelicalism) important because it was the specific, public concretization of (inward) faith (cf. Acts 8:36, 38; Rom 10:9-10).  At one's baptism the new believer confessed ,"Jesus is Lord" (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3), thereby placing him- or herself under the active Lordship of the resurrected Christ and initiating the life of cruciform discipleship demanded so often by Jesus himself (e.g., Matt 10:38).  The language of conversion in the New Testament is uniformly that of faith, repentance, confession, and commitment.

This is why the language of "asking Jesus into your heart" is so odd.  It is not that the language is figurative, though—as the example of my grandson demonstrates—such can obfuscate the issue for many, especially children, to whom the gospel message is addressed.  The difficulty is that this language belongs to an entirely different and inapposite realm of discourse.  It is the language of pietism (which, like ale and stout, can be a good thing if taken circumspectly and in moderation) and, more problematically, that of an emotionalism teetering on the brinks of both sentimentality and mysticism

Now I know that such language is designed, at least partially, to counter the notion that Christian conversion is simply an intellectual acceptance of the "facts" of the gospel.  After all, it was born in the context of Revivalism, one of whose standard whipping boys was the "dead orthodoxy" of the more confessional and/or liturgical churches.  I am no fan of Revivalism, but I am quite happy to affirm that the gospel works effectively to transform the emotions of people as well as their intellects and wills.  The Spirit does indeed "warm the hearts" of those to whom he applies the benefits of redemption, as Wesley wrote about so eloquently. 

Nevertheless, the language of "asking Jesus into your heart," at least as commonly presented, misstates the nature of the relationship between the believer and Christ.  In the New Testament, Christ is emphatically not portrayed as a pleading, though ultimately helpless, "Savior" who taps gently at the door of sinners' hearts in the hope that somehow some may let him in (such a notion fairly screams to be heard via the countless verses of "Just As I Am" sung ad nauseum at evangelistic services in my experience).  More problematically, such a picture of the knocking Christ ultimately portrays the Christian as Jesus' host!

Christ is the risen Lord to whom all authority on earth and in heaven has been granted (Matt 28:18).  As such he doesn't meekly plead with sinners to come.  He commands repentance.  The gospel is a royal announcement of God's victory in Christ.  And when people, in response to Spirit's efficacious "call" (i.a., Rom 8:29), believe (and, in the New Testament, are baptized as the definitive expression of faith), they are united to Christ in his representative acts of death and resurrection.  By virtue of their solidarity with Christ in his death, they are forgiven their sins (Rom 4:25) and have, indeed, "died" to "sin" as a power (Rom 6:2-3).  Because they have been "raised with Christ," they have been justified, (i.e., they have participated in the verdict pronounced on Christ at his resurrection/"vindication" (Rom 4:25).  Moreover, solidarity with Christ in his resurrection guarantees their future resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-22) and, in the person of the indwelling Spirit, they are thus given the power to live the new life of the kingdom in the here and now (Rom 6:4).  Christ, in other words, is the true locus of the believer's identity and existence.  Christ, in a sense, can be said to live "in" his people (Rom 8:10).  This is immediately defined, however, in terms of the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:10, 12).  "Christ mysticism" may be a venerable expression in certain older strands of New Testament scholarship and other brands of Christian piety, but it ultimately proves less than helpful.

What, then, of Revelation 3:20?  Simply put, this is not talking about conversion.  This becomes abundantly clear in verse 19, where Jesus' previous indictment of the Laodicean church as "lukewarm" (3:16) and "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked" (3:17) is explicitly declared to be corrective in function for those already in relationship with him.  Verse 20, therefore, must be understood as an offer designed to induce the requisite repentance and renew the fellowship with Christ that the church's moral shortcomings had broken.  As many scholars have noted, the language of Revelation 3:20 is almost certainly meant to allude to Song of Solomon 5:2: "The voice of my beloved, he knocks on the door. Open to me, my beloved."  The significance of this is nicely articulated by Greg Beale (The Book of Revelation [NIGTC; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999] 308):
The allusion to Cant. 5:2 points to a focus on renewal of a relationship, since there the husband knocks on the door of the bedchamber to encourage his wife to continue to express her love to him and let him enter, but she at first hesitates to do so.  By analogy, Christ, the husband, is doing the same thing with regard to his bride, the church.
All this is not to question that God can use, and indeed has used, this text and the idea derived (illegitimately) from it to bring people sovereignly into his kingdom.  Nevertheless, in view of the expression's notional imprecision and potential to cause confusion, I would suggest we could do worse than to discontinue its use in evangelism.  Would it not be better both to follow the example of the apostles in Acts and to utilize the language found in the Gospel according to John, the one book explicitly designed to bring people to faith in Christ?  To ask the question is to answer it.


  1. Evangelism has become a collection of jargon regurgitated. While we may grasp the concept of "asking Jesus into your heart" or "washing our sin away" or any of the phrases mindlessly repeated in church, we can safely suggest the non-Christian not only misunderstands, but is legitimately confused by our 'language'. The Gospel is enough. No need to add or take away. JUST THE FACTS, MA'AM.

  2. Hey Jim, This is good and, in my opinion, quite necessary. I teach and invite others to surrender to Jesus as Lord, and commit themselves completely to Him. I no longer supply the words to a prayer of commitment, either. To do so puts me in between the person and the Lord, in my opinion. Thots?

  3. The prayer is, of course, unnecessary, but it can reinforce the point that their faith isn't a momentary, passing thought. Of course, this was the place of baptism in the NT, as is clear from the story about the Ethiopian eunuch. But it is necessary that the would-be convert knows they aren't simply getting fire insurance, that they believe the gospel message which is about Jesus as savior and risen Lord, i.e., that following Jesus comes with a not-so-hidden (if we are preaching correctly) cost. And of course we shouldn't act as if we are comin between a person and the Lord in any way.

  4. Isn't it odd that if the Baptists and evangelicals are correct that their "born again experience" is the true and ONLY means of salvation, the term "born again" is only mentioned three times in the King James Bible? If "making a decision for Christ" is the only means of salvation, why doesn't God mention it more often in his Word? Why only THREE times? Isn't that REALLY, REALLY odd?

    Why is it that the Apostle Paul, the author of much of the New Testament, NEVER uses this term? Why is this term never used in the Book of Acts to describe the many mentioned Christian conversions? Why is this term only used by Jesus in a late night conversation with Nicodemus, and by Peter once in just one letter to Christians in Asia Minor?

    If you attend a Baptist/evangelical worship service what will you hear? You will hear this: "You must be born again: you must make a decision for Christ. You must ask Jesus into your heart. You must pray to God and ask him to forgive you of your sins, come into your heart, and be your Lord and Savior (the Sinner's Prayer). You must be an older child or adult who has the mental capacity to make a decision to believe, to make a decision to repent, and to make a decision to ask Jesus into your heart."

    It is very strange, however, that other than "you must be born again" none of this terminology is anywhere to be found in the Bible! Why do Baptists and evangelicals use this non-biblical terminology when discussing salvation?

    Maybe it's because...making a "decision" for Christ is NOT the manner in which sinners are saved!


    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

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