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A half-truth of modern evangelicalism: Jesus lives in the heart of the believer

The controlling New Testament story about the resurrected Jesus is that he is seated at the right hand of the Father, having received authority to judge and rule over the nations. The thought runs from his words to Caiaphas (Matt. 26:64; Lk. 22:69), through the preaching first of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:56), then of the apostles in the Greek-Roman world (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 12:2), to John’s climactic vision of the martyrs reigning with Christ, at the right hand of God, throughout the coming ages (Rev. 20:4). Behind it lies the influential and highly “political” promise made to Israel’s king in Psalm 110:

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! (Ps. 110:1-2)

This is not, by and large, the story that modern evangelicalism tells. The modern evangelical Jesus spends most of his time not sitting at the right hand of God but living in the heart of the believer; and a person is converted to this faith by explicitly inviting Jesus into his or her heart.

Because I think that for good missional reasons and even better biblical reasons we need to get beyond the modern paradigm, I have tended to assume that the sentimental, claustrophobic notion of Jesus living in my heart is at best outmoded and at worst theologically wrong. I got pulled up for that recently on Facebook—the language is there in the New Testament and cannot simply be dismissed out of post-evangelical prejudice.

But what does it mean? Perhaps not exactly what modern evangelicalism thinks it means. I don’t suppose I’ve covered all the relevant texts here, but it’s enough to be getting on with.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)

This is a common idea in Paul. The apostles in particular, and perhaps the saints generally, share in the suffering of Jesus so that they and others may experience the life of Jesus. He argues in 2 Corinthians, for example, that the apostles are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10). 

When he says that Christ lives in him, he does not mean that at his conversion he invited Jesus into his heart. He means that he has repudiated his previous life—not least his elevated status in Judaism (Gal. 1:13-14)—in order to pursue a Christlike calling that will inevitably entail suffering and probably death. He counts his “blameless” life under the law as dross for the sake of sharing in Christ’s sufferings, being conformed to his death, and experiencing the same resurrection power (Phil. 3:8-10; cf. Col. 1:24). The life of Christ is in him because the weakness of Christ is in him.

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Cor. 13:5)

It is difficult to say exactly what Paul means when he asks whether the Corinthians realize that Christ is in them (en humin). But he has just stated that Christ is speaking “in me” (en emoi), that he is not weak in dealing with them, “but is powerful in you (en humin)”, he was “crucified in weakness”, but “lives by the power of God”; and Paul asserts that “we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:4). So it rather looks as though to have Christ in them means to know the Christ who was crucified in weakness but who lives by the power of God, which in this case is a power to judge and discipline them.

But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Rom. 8:10)

What Paul appears to mean here by “Christ… in you” is “the Spirit of Christ in you” (8:9). The Spirit is the Spirit of God and of Christ because he is “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead”. Again, the point is that, through the Spirit, they participate specifically in the life-through-suffering of Jesus.

…that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith… (Eph. 3:16–17)

This, I would suggest, continues the pattern. There is admittedly less said about suffering in Ephesians, but these “saints” have been called and sealed with the Spirit for the sake of a future inheritance (Eph. 1:14, 18); and in some measure they anticipate that inheritance (this is the more realized eschatology of Ephesians) in their present experience, having been raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:5-6). So if Christ dwells in their hearts through the Spirit, it is in the sense that they replicate his story, they participate in his death and resurrection. But there is still an “evil day” of persecution to be faced (Eph. 6:13). The dwelling of Christ in their hearts is the outcome of the work of the Spirit—it is a matter of formation—so that they may endure through to the day when the church receives its inheritance among the nations.

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:27)

Again, for these Gentile believers to have Christ in them is an expression of the fact that they have a hope of sharing eventually in the glory that Christ will receive when he is revealed amongst the nations. They have died, their life is hidden with Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God, and when he appears, they also will appear with him in glory; therefore they should put to death what is earthly in them… (Col. 3:3-5).

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4–5)

Here again the issue is clearly not conversion but discipleship. The “abiding in” is reciprocal, and for Jesus to abide in the disciple may only be a figure for Jesus’ words abiding in the disciple (15:7)—or perhaps another way of saying that the Spirit of Jesus will be in them (14:17). The prospect of suffering as Jesus suffers is also immediately in view (15:18).

Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)

If the reference here is to Jesus rather than to God dwelling in them, the point is that they embody in themselves—presumably through the Spirit—the one who overcame the ruler of this world (cf. John 12:31).

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)

This famous promise is made not to an individual but to a community, but more importantly it is again an image of Christ, who himself overcame death, wanting to be at the heart of a community called to overcome opposition and persecution. He exhorts them to buy gold refined by the fires of persecution and the “white garments” of those who walk with Jesus through suffering (cf. Rev. 3:4-5). Those who conquer death, having eaten with Christ, will sit with him on his throne “as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne”.

The idea that Christ dwells in the heart of the believer is certainly in the New Testament, but not as a way of speaking about conversion—or even, for that matter, about a restored, intimate relationship with God. That is just a product of the modern evangelical mythology. Rather, it belongs to the context of discipleship—and discipleship in the particular sense of sharing in Christ’s suffering and death in hope of sharing in his resurrection, vindication, and kingdom throughout the coming ages. The persecuted but vindicated Jesus dwells in the persecuted community for the sake of the future of the people of God.

Comments

By your own standards, this is only a half-truth if Jesus is still sitting at the right hand of God and has not come according to His promise. But if He has not come, then we are beyond the bounds He gave for His coming (e.g. Matt 10:23; 16:28; 24:34), and he is positioned on the wrong side of Deut 18:15-22.

I submit for your consideration that 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 was fulfilled on schedule, sometime after 70 AD but before the end of the century. Thus He came to be glorified IN His saints.

Mike, I think AD 70 is pertinent but it does not fulfil the parousia expectation, which has to encompass also the day when God judges and comes to rule over the nations. Jesus is raised to the right hand of God for the sake of this consummation of his rule, but that doesn’t bring his rule to an end. He then reigns with the martyrs throughout the coming ages until the last enemy, death, has been destroyed—that is, until there is a new heaven and a new earth. In other words, in effect the parousia is the beginning (or the end of the beginning) of Christ’s rule at the right hand of God, not the end of it.

Andrew, I am arguing that the new heavens and new earth have come (as the Scriptures were promising a spiritual cataclysm, not a physical one), that death was destroyed (for if death is still not destroyed then the dead - all the dead, good and bad - are still descending to Sheol [Hades] at death, that the day when God judges the secrets of men through Christ Jesus - that is, the day or the Lord, or the day of Christ - has begun, and that Jesus Christ is thus ruling the nations through the kingdom of God, and of the increase of that government there shall be no end.

The work of God - that is, the reclamation and redemption of His creation - includes as a central aspect His purifying a people for His own possession. The final stage of that purifying process - from a heaven’s standpoint - is not the church but rather the kingdom of God, the church being the transitional stage between ancient Israel and the kingdom, much like the cocoon is a transitional stage between the caterpillar and the butterfly.

I recognize that this portrayal of reality - at least in total - may seem radical to you. However, please ask yourself if the Protestant Reformation ever reached its logical conclusion, or if it stalled out, and thus ended up largely replicating the anachronistic, failed, and corrupted system from which it had first bolted. Did God really intend the cocoon to last two millennia, and was NT church’s sense of urgency and imminence about the return of Christ in the coming of the kingdom just a waste of energy?

When you start talking about the spirit (or pneumas) I don’t think you can get very far without looking at what the word meant in the first century day. It was primarily defined by Stoic philsophers (the Hebrews didn’t seem to have a very technical definition of it, and Paul uses it with Gentiles in ways that they would understand through their default cosmology) who thought of pneumas as the physical, though invisible, cosmic energy glue that held all of physical matter together according to the plan of the logos (in their vocabulary, vaguely like god). Pneumas was the invisible, physical, part of matter that provided for order in creation and could also be seen as a sort of life force. They expected that the pneumas of a person would have been a distinctly lower quality than that which made up God. Paul’s application of it in the passages you quoted as well as 1st Cor. 15 is that God’s pneumas has touched, maybe infected in a way, our own if we become believers. His pneumas is growing in us until we take on his mind is the definition of spiritual growth. I agree 100% that taking this in the direction of Christ as our cosmic invisible boyfriend is completely out of line. However, there was a sense in which God had come to indwell us in a way that woud provide for sanctification, and provide the power to resist sin. If you are interested in further reading on Stoicism and how Paul might have used their imagery (though modified) to describe the gospel to his generation I highly recomment Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s books on the topic.

Regarding your reference to Rev. 20:4, keep in mind that if you are stipulating that this ruling function is ongoing then you are declaring that the crisis that kicks it off from Daniel 7:18 has happened as well. This approach severely limits which scriptures we believe might be fulfilled in the future.

Doug

I generally agree with Doug Wilkinson’s comments on the word spirit or pneuma, and verses like “…the last Adam [Christ] became life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45), “But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit” (1 Cor. 6:17), and “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:10) are especially appropriate to this point.

So I’d suggest that in New Testament “God,” “Christ,” and the “Spirit” or their variants are used almost interchangeably to denote who indwells the believers–that is, that God who is spirit (John 4:24), Christ who became a life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45), and the Holy Spirit do not constitute three separate or divisible spirits or pneumas, and the different words are used to give distinct emphases to the one fact of God indwelling the believers. The passages that speak of Christ being in the believers show that even as the New Testament presents the resurrected Christ as seated in the heavens, so also it presents the resurrected Christ as being truly in the believers, as predicted in John 14:17-20, not simply His words or the Spirit as a proxy for a Christ who is located exclusively in heaven. As such, “Christ in you” shouldn’t be reduced to cruciform behavior outwardly; it’s how a cruciform life is possible in the first place as it is propagated in the life of the believers.

I think that where modern evangelicism misaims is in 1) presenting Christ’s entrance into the believer as a one-time event that takes place in the heart rather than firstly a birth in spirit followed by a process of growth in which the heart is then sanctified and transformed (Eph. 3:17), and 2) taking scriptural passages out of context to support this idea, as you pointed out, such as Ephesians 3:17 (which refers to an ongoing process), or Rev. 3:20 (in which Jesus is knocking at the door of a local church, not the door of the individual’s heart).

The passages that speak of Christ being in the believers show that even as the New Testament presents the resurrected Christ as seated in the heavens, so also it presents the resurrected Christ as being truly in the believers, as predicted in John 14:17-20, not simply His words or the Spirit as a proxy for a Christ who is located exclusively in heaven.

Brandon, my point was not that the New Testament does not speak of Christ being in the believer, but that the argument has to do with discipleship rather than conversion.

Also, it seems to me that the language of mutual indwelling in John serves a particular rhetorical purpose. When Jesus says that he is in the Father and the Father is in him (Jn. 14:10-11, 20), it has to do with the fact that his words and actions genuinely reveal and have the authority of the Father.

Similarly, when he says “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn. 14:20), it has to do with the demonstrable reality of their relationship with him, particularly given that the world will not see what they see and will reject them (14:17, 22).

This is all part of a narrative in which Jesus talks about the need to leave the disciples and go to be with the Father, but he will come back to be with them and eventually bring them to the place that he has prepared for them. He also says that he and the Father will come and make their home with the disciple who loves Jesus and keeps his commandments (14:23). The reason this is important is that the disciples will have to suffer in the same way that Jesus suffered—they will have to “follow afterward”, they will have to lay down their lives (13:36-37).

I don’t think we can just take the Jesus-in-you part out of this narrative and turn it into a general statement about what it means to be a Christian. It is Jesus’ highly rhetorical way of saying that he will be with his disciples in the power of the Comforter when they walk the same path of suffering.

Hi Andrew, thanks for responding.

I acknowledge that your point was “not that the New Testament does not speak of Christ being in the believer, but that the argument has to do with discipleship rather than conversion.” However, it did seem to me that you’re saying that when the New Testament speaks of Christ being in the believer it probably really only means, in passage after passage, that Christ’s word or the Spirit indwells the believers (as a proxy or in the stead of a Christ who actually resides exclusively in heaven), or that it denotes a Christ-like path of suffering, or else it’s highly rhetorical, etc. (If I am misunderstanding you, please correct me.) I find that some interpreters are comfortable enough with the idea that God or the Spirit really indwells the believers (without explaining such an indwelling away in terms of its effects), but tend to interpret passages that speak of Christ being in the believers as if there is something inconceivable or impermissable that Christ should be simultaneously in heaven and truly in the believers. Insofar as your post is meant to be a corrective to modern evangelicalism, I brought this issue up to expand upon Doug Wilkinson’s comments on pneumatology, as it may have impact on how much “Jesus lives in the heart of the believer” gets right.

Regarding John 14, to me it seems couched not only in the language of discipleship but of presence, relationship, that is, revelatory description of changing conditions with respect to Christ’s leaving/coming and the relations between Christ + the Spirit + the Father and the disciples, in which certain things are said about the believing disciples, e.g., that the Spirit “abides with you and shall be in you” and that “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” That is, there is an argument not only about discipleship but about the sending of the Spirit and where Christ will be in relation to the disciples after He is no longer physically, visibly walking the earth: “that day” in which the disciples will know the mutual indwelling of Jesus and them is linked most directly in the passage to the event of the sending of the Spirit and Christ’s coming to them (also, cf. John 20:22). So as far as whether we can say something about Jesus-in-you being part of what it means to be a believer from this passage, I’d suppose I’d ask, Why not? Should we conclude that the sending of another Comforter/the Spirit of truth to be with and in the disciples is primarily a rhetorical flourish, and nothing can be said in general about the Spirit from this passage, because there is a point being made about discipleship?

And so concerning the numerous passages that speak of Christ being in the believers following His resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit: I think it is quite fair to say that “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor. 13:5) is a “what it means to be a Christian” passage. Similarly, in passages like “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not of Him. But if Christ is in you…” (Rom. 8:9-10), “Christ in you” (Col. 1:27), “He who is in you” (1 John 4:4) etc., the logic is that this is something generally true of believers but not of the unconverted. While a moment of conversion may not be explicitly mentioned, conversion seems to be a dividing line between Christ-in-you and not Christ-in-you, or rather that Christ-in-you is a dividing line between conversion and non-conversion.

I think that the matter of Christ indwelling believers isn’t an either/or dichotomy between an event/conversion and a process/discipleship. Christ can be in the believers and yet still have to make His home there (Eph. 3:17). A person who “receives” Christ may thus become a child of God (John 1:12-13, Rom. 8:15-16), but as children they still have to grow unto maturity (1 Pet. 2:2-3; Rom. 8:17; Col. 2:19). A believer may be already fixedly “in Christ” (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 3:26-28), but still need to abide in Him practically. As Doug Wilkinson said, His pneumas may have already touched or “infected” our own if we have become believers, but then Hs pneumas is growing in us to transform our mind, will, etc. Or, to use an illustration, electricity may be first installed in a house but then of course it needs to operate. I think the problem with modern evangelicalism’s “inviting Jesus into your heart” is that it places a lopsided emphasis on conversion moment to the neglect and exclusion of how the emphasis/argument in criticial biblical passages is upon a process of sanctification. Thanks.