Question: I was recently watching a pastor I respect a lot on YouTube and he mentioned that the language of “accepting” or “receiving” Jesus into my heart is unbiblical. I’ve always been taught that that is how you get saved, though. The only biblical phrase, according to him, is “repent and believe.” Have I been deceived?
This is an excellent question! Depending on which school of theology one asks, the individual either has some part to play in accepting the free gift of salvation (or, at least, to a part to play in ending your resistance to it) or they do not. Part of this gets into the question of Calvinism and Arminianism, which is something RZIM does not take an official stance on (see our statement on this contentious debate at https://www.rzim.org/page/faq-calvinism-or-arminianism).
While the language of accepting or receiving is not abundantly used, it is still used (in use more frequently now than in the New Testament), as are other words and concepts for salvation, some of which implying the believer’s responsibility in the matter, and others God’s initiating and sovereign role. It is true that accepting Christ “into my heart” is not language readily found, but the concept can be. Let’s look at a couple examples.
One could make the case that a phrase like “repent and believe” includes the notion of “accepting,” which is to say, accepting and having faith in something that you cannot see, while also accepting the fact that your old ways lead to death and knowing you need to stop them. The fact that God can become angry with those who do not follow these commands seems to carry with it the simple understanding that one had the ability to comply and yet did not (see, for instance, Matthew 11:20 where people could have repented, even should have repented, and yet did not). And to be renewed in heart and mind (Psalm 51:10; Romans 12:2) is something that one may desire – may “ask for” – when they become a Christian. I don’t know about you, but I certainly do want Jesus in my heart, which is to say I want him to speak to it, remake it, orient it towards Himself, and forever guide it.
One need not only apply to matters of implied concepts, though. First, in John 1:12, we read that “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Verse 13 then goes on to tell us that this is not by human decision, but by the will of God. This may show the paradox of this exchange between God and man, but it may also just be pointing out that while we may choose to receive or not receive, it is by God’s choice alone that we are accepted and born anew; it is God who judges the genuineness of our desire to receive His truth and, therefore, receive the rewards. Furthermore, it is by God’s work and initiative alone that salvation is available and possible. Overall, though, what we see is that to receive Jesus is to believe in him. Believing and receiving are somewhat synonymous here.
Secondly, in John 3:32-34 we read, “He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.” First, before there is confusion, this verse is discussing a group of people in the same stubborn place of disbelief that Jesus described earlier in 3:11 to Nicodemus. However, it is not saying that literally none accepted in verse 32, for in the very next verse John implies that some have already accepted the testimony. Secondly, it should be noted here that the verses I have cited from John, though from the same translation (the NIV), translate the same Greek word two different ways: the words for “accept” and “receive” are the same Greek word in this instance, one just appears to take a more passive tone than the other; yet, in the word itself, there is an implied activity. The voice used in these Greek verbs in John 1:12 and 3:33 is active, not passive. To give a good understanding of what this word is meant to convey, here are some other acceptable glosses found elsewhere in the Bible: take hold of , collect , grab, grasp, and acquire .
Regardless of what one makes of this in their theology, the plain truth is that an active participation (at least experientially) in believing in what Christ has said or done is explicitly stated. The instances stated above are in the context of those who wish to follow Christ and become children of God; in other words, they are salvific, of entering into Christ, and of him entering into us. Therefore, it is still appropriate for a Christian to refer to accepting or receiving Christ, among the other ways that the Bible refers to responding to the call of God in Christ.
I can’t speak for the pastor in question, but perhaps he or she was meaning to challenge the notion of the “easy believism” Christianity that many today lament; the type of faith that comes with no obligations of obedience. The words “repent and believe” do at least capture the seriousness of following Christ more than some of the other phrases that are used today. Nevertheless, if understood correctly, accept and receive are also accurate words to use because the Bible uses them. And let us hope and pray that Christ does penetrate our hearts and minds and make them anew.