So I began to read Stott's book over the Christmas break. And a few days later, I found myself on my knees late in the evening in prayer. In the terminology I might have used then, "I asked Jesus into my heart." And he came.
These words of Derek Thomas’s, recently posted on the e-magazine Reformation 21, pinpoint an interesting and important question about the language we use in describing our faith, and its relation to our understanding of that faith. The language that we use in turn affects our formation as Christians and churches. For it is not just that (as Jesus explicitly teaches) as a man thinks in his heart so is he, but how a man thinks in his heart so is he. But the general question of the relation between spoken language and doctrinal understanding is scarcely ever discussed.
Given the importance of spoken language in the life of the church it is surprising that little seems to have been thought of its connection with or disconnection from sound doctrine. So I thought we might give it an airing. But because of the closeness of language to thought, and of thought to a person’s self, this can be a delicate matter. Pontificating is certainly to be avoided. So I am going to try to bear in mind another teaching of Jesus to help me. When he warned against causing the little ones who believe in him to stumble, I am assuming that he had in mind what these little ones say, as well as what they do in other ways. In what I say, I shall then try to avid causing users of such language to stumble.
I assume that when someone makes the bona fide request such as Derek Thomas did to ask Jesus into their heart they are not making a category mistake. They are using words and phrases that bear a positive relation to the language in which the faith has been officially as preached and confessed by the church through the centuries, but a rather loose relation, though perhaps such speakers do not realise that. The language is not reductionistic, intended to bear no direct relationship to the meaning, say, of the creeds.
Materialists typically think that the language of consciousness and especially of intentionality that we use everyday is eliminable, that it’s going nowhere, that we could adopt the language of brain states, neural firings and the like and lose nothing of cognitive importance thereby. T.H. Huxley referred to consciousness as an epiphenomenon, a bye-product of neural activity, like froth on the surface of beer, an effect without being itself a cause of further effects. It is not the froth on the beer that has cheering effects, but the beer itself. In the aftermath of Logical Positivism in the 1950’s and 1960’s there were attempts by R. B. Braithwaite and others, to translate/reduce the language of Christian theology into emotive language.
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.
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.