Is it useful to critique any person’s or ministry’s method of evangelism? For one thing, there are not enough people calling on others to follow Christ. Should I attempt to cripple anyone’s efforts in the slightest way, even for the few who might listen to me? I hope I will not. I would rather think that I’m improving our evangelism. And it does need improving.
The apparent results of the method of evangelistic appeal built upon the verse in question (John 1:12, along with Rev. 3:20) surely cannot be argued with. I think I could say with ease that almost all the evangelistic results coming out of America, and even around the world, are rooted in a method that emerges from a problematic view of John 1:12 which I will unfold. One campus organization whose workers almost always use this verse, with what I believe is an errant understanding of it, claims that tens of thousands are won to Christ each year through its multiple worldwide ministries. I’ve known many involved in this ministry, and can attest to the sincerity of these workers, and their willingness to be bold for Christ. Surely the majority of evangelistic workers cannot be wrong. And surely pastors who have taught this particular view cannot be in error. At least from the ad hominem side of the argument, I’m going to look pretty silly if I’m opposing such faithful people and am in error myself. So, I’ll tread gently. I’m talking to friends who care as strongly as I do about good evangelism.
Since I have, in the past, made much use of John 1:12 with what I consider a wrong interpretation of it, I think I have the right to speak openly about how I see it now. I have watched as scores of people have responded positively to my wrong use of this verse over several years of my earlier ministry. There is something haunting about that. I asked them to do what I assumed this verse was calling for, and they did it. In earlier days, one motivation for abandoning this concept had to do with observing that so many of my converts coming through the wrong use of John 1:12 appeared to be false converts. Several changes occurred when I decided I could not live comfortably with that.
I hope you understand me when I say that I also “miss” this verse as a mainstay evangelistic tool. The old way was easier, produced what appeared to be more instant results, received the approbation of almost all my friends, and called forth many colorful illustrations to support it. As soon as I understood the verse in another light, I lost my main conceptual weapon. It took some time to work out how I was going to present a response to the gospel from then on.
A Look at the Verse in Context
I haven’t told you the concept many wrongly derive from this verse. I’ll do so after I quote the verse in its context (1:11-13).
He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
What is the wrong use of John 1:12 that I’ve been alluding to? It has to do with the use of the word “receive” which is taken to mean that an unconverted person is to “ask Jesus into his heart” as the invitation of the gospel. The wrong use of this word, in tandem with Revelation 3:20 (“Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man opens the door . . .”, a plea to errant professing believers who must open their hearts to more true fellowship with Christ) has shaped modern Western evangelism (and beyond), making our evangelism look a lot different than the apostles’.
What then is this verse, with its surrounding context, actually saying?
1. First, it declares that the world, and Jews in particular, were blind to Jesus. They did not understand who He was. They did not know Him even though He created them all. On their own, they were incapable of perceiving who Christ was. They did not “receive” or “welcome” or “accept” or “properly acknowledge” Him. Although a full blown doctrine of depravity as characteristic of every person is not taught here, it is implied because of the universality of their rejection of Christ apart from the special case John will mention.
2. Second, it teaches us that some people, regardless of their general blindness, do have the power (or actual right) to become children of God. It is those who receive Him. That is, it is those who welcome, accept, or favorably acknowledge Him. So, in the midst of general rejection there are some who receive Him. This word “receive” does not mean “those who invite Christ into their hearts” but rather those who welcome Him for who He is — truly God. A simple comparison with the word “receive” in verse 11 and in verse 12 will yield that this word could not possibly have the meaning of inviting Christ in, as is commonly used by Western evangelism. Here is the error that has spawned much confusion in evangelism.
3. Third, it teaches that reception of Jesus must be qualified further. In other words, not mere welcoming of Christ is enough, but those who receive must believe, “even to those who believe in His name.” There are two ways to take this. John might mean that this “receiving” is the same as “believing.” In other words, the two words could be used interchangeably. Or, John may be saying that reception of Christ must include faith. It would be as if John is saying, “Those who receive him have the right to become his children, but I mean receiving plus true believing or faith.” Either nuance leads us ultimately to faith. We know that faith is more than the mere reception of Christ in truth, or as He is actually. That is its beginning. But it is more. It is reliance upon the Christ who came into the world on His intended mission, to die for us. Those who believe (which starts with their welcoming of Him) have the right of sonship.
4. Fourth, the child of God experiences something beyond (and I contend, before) his faith. God, in other words, is doing something to make him a child of His that could not be done simply on man’s initiative. In fact, these people’s sonship has nothing to do with bloodline, human decision, or the will of others on his behalf. When John says that a person must receive and believe, yet his birth into the family has nothing to do with blood, human decision or the will of another, then he is acknowledging something mysterious and profound. Salvation, as much as we would like to say otherwise, cannot be ultimately attributed to man in any way even in his believing, but is an act of God first of all.
Verse 13 may convey the idea that the order for attaining sonship begins with the birth (“who were born,” emphasis mine) which results in the faith that is said to be necessary for sonship. (“those who believe in His name, who were born . . . of God”). If this order is correct, we can say that regeneration, at least in a kind of philosophical order, precedes faith. If we do not say this, we would have to say John is teaching that it is at least concurrent to a man’s faith. While the man is believing, he is being born; while he is being born, he is believing. But since John asserts that “human decision” could not initiate this birth necessary to be a child, it appears that placing it before the exercise of the will in belief is the right way to view the chronology.
Where Does This Leave Us?
Modern evangelism almost never recognizes verse 11 and verse 13 of the passage, and therefore uses verse 12 persistently and wrongly. By not recognizing verse 11, it fails to understand “receive” correctly, leading to all kinds of problems. Because modern evangelism fails to think of verse 13, we see less than adequate dependence on God and acknowledgment of God as the author of salvation. That may explain, in part, why so much pride can be found in evangelism.
The idea that receiving means “inviting Christ into the heart” causes huge problems for us. It is an easy concept to convey, granted. I used to say that I would never talk to people about believing in Christ, which has difficulties in explanation because of varied levels of meaning, but would only use the idea of “inviting Christ in.” Even a child can get that. But, when the Scriptures as a whole do not support this idea, am I free to make my wrong concept the centerpiece of the response to the gospel? Other than Revelation 3:20, also misunderstood, no place in the Bible appears to promote this idea of “inviting Christ into the heart.” Over 500 times the idea of belief in Christ is expressed in the New Testament, but no mention is made of “inviting Christ in.” Ninety-eight times “belief” and its various forms are used in the evangelistic book of John. We grant that many times the idea of faith is spoken of in the light of the Christian’s walk, but many other times faith is discussed in terms of the entrance into God’s family.
When we use the concept of “inviting Christ into the heart” we are robbing faith of its richness. Salvation is reduced to an act more than a life. There is no formulaic prayer (“I now invite you into my heart”) that automatically saves. A man can only be saved through faith. Though we talk about something called “the sinner’s prayer,” it is not found in the Bible. You will have to go to the booklets that promote the idea of “inviting Christ in” to find such a prayer. Think of how much evangelism you have been exposed to rests on the idea that such a prayer be prayed before a person could be saved.
When the Bible speaks of calling on the name of the Lord, it might mean something like evoking Christ’s name in order to be received by God—a sound concept. But regardless what you might think about the wisdom of using a prayer for becoming a child of God, it could not be ultimately necessary. It is certainly only ancillary at best. It is “belief in Christ” that is held out to be the link between the lost man and Christ as seen in so many commands and experiences in the Bible. Paul and Peter did not say, “repeat this prayer after me” at the end of their messages. Rather, people heard and believed, most often during their preaching of the gospel. Granted, some may have prayed as a way to express their faith (though we don’t have records of such outside of Luke 18:13, a prayer unlike the typical “sinner’s prayer”), but such a prayer could not be said to be required by the apostles or God.
Some who doubt their salvation have stated that they must surely not be a true Christian because “I did not ask Jesus into my heart.” They would do far better by examining the faith they say they have. They would do better than that by examining for the evidence of life within the soul; and perhaps better than that by looking away from themselves to Christ first, then figuring out when they first believed.
Here is what we should do:
1. We should forever bury the idea of “inviting Christ into the life.” Even if two verses could be interpreted to say that this is a possibility, the sheer number of other verses plainly stating that belief in Christ is the gospel invitation, should lead us to abandon the concept in almost every case. I know that Christ is in the believer, but the believer is also in Christ. The second concept may be mentioned in the New Testament more than the first, but we don’t have people pray to get in Christ? No, we must tell them to believe. We mean a repenting (turning away and turning to) belief and a belief that affects our life from then on.
2. We should abandon the “praying the prayer” method for our appeal. You may pray for people, and even with people, but do not even intimate that praying a certain prayer saves. It does not. No prayer automatically forces God to receive a sinner. God is personal and is sought and talked to, I grant. But when we are asked what He expects, it is to be stated that God demands that we believe. “Do so and live!” Again, by “believe” we are meaning more than just acknowledgment of Christ; no, we mean adherence to Christ and his words, his promises, his future hope, and trust in what He has done for sinners by His life, death, resurrection, ascension and intercession that could not be done by any human, a transfer of trust that affects our lives and behavior forever.
3. We should use the biblical terminology of “belief” in Christ. There are other ways of expressing this found in the NT, but “belief” is consistently displayed as the essence of our response. I will not list verses here, but nothing could be easier to find in the New Testament. Read John to see this repeated scores of times. Or read through Acts with this in mind. Ask, “What did the apostles expect people to do in response to their message?” Remember that the booklets give you verse after verse about belief, and then, at the end of the presentation, make a bee-line to John 1:12 and Revelation 3:20, wrongly interpreted. They finalize the deal with a formulaic prayer. Don’t follow that pattern any longer. It is enough to instruct people to believe in Christ, with a sound repenting faith.
4. We should also spend far more time talking about the awfulness of sin and the work of Christ for sinners. Our main work is not so much to explain the sinner’s response to Christ (that is important mainly for pretending believers), but to labor on the gospel itself. When we are brutally honest with people about their sin, and lucid about the only answer being in Christ, His death and resurrection, then we have preached the gospel. We have done what is necessary to cooperate with the Spirit in their conversion. We will actually work against the Spirit when we get caught up in a formulaic approach to the gospel as opposed to a content-filled proclamation. Get the message right and depend on God to convict and convert. You will know someone is saved, not when they “pray the prayer,” but when they repent and believe in Christ, with the evidence of truly following Him. Ask, “Do you believe?”
If We Continue
If we continue with the current pattern of evangelism, we will persist in seeing the results that such a pattern automatically brings. That is, we will see people who sincerely pray a little prayer who have, for the most part, not really believed in Christ. Now, we will always experience fallout on some level even if we are true to the biblical words, for even Jesus had his false converts, as did Paul and the others. This explains why so often the New Testament says, “Do not be deceived.” Yet, when we promote the idea that praying a prayer, inviting Christ in, or receiving Christ, is what God requires, we augment the problem, producing massive numbers of unbelieving “believers.” We will continue to have far more tares than wheat. Who would not want to change that sad reality?
I’m embarrassed at my paltry manner of explaining what I’m trying to help us see. But perhaps you will be able to take these concepts further. At a minimum, I’m calling for a purer evangelism, regulated by the Bible and not by ease or history or practicality. Do not back down in your fervor, but use the right method. It stands to reason, even if numbers are smaller, that more true converts will come from good methodology. I know that God ultimately saves, and that He can use anything He wishes to do, but surely we are right to continually purify our evangelism for His glory.
Jim Elliff © 2008