I used to go to a Christian camp every summer when I was a kid. Almost every year I would be encouraged to “let Jesus into my heart.” I was already a Christian, so this invitation confused me. I know others who always felt pressured and guilty that maybe they sent the invitation to the wrong place or forgot the stamp? Maybe Jesus only visited their heart last year, and this year they hope he chooses to stay. It’s a confusing invitation: letting Jesus into your heart.
What’s that even mean, really? Is it a one-time invitation, and then we’re set for life? Or is it a habitual invitation that we need to keep on issueing so he doesn’t leave?
What Does the Bible Mean by “The Heart”
Loving Jesus with your heart isn’t about having warm fuzzies about Jesus. In the Ancient Near East (Egypt, Israel, and the general Mesopotamia region), the heart was treated as the center of a person’s identity. If you want to understand what it means to have God in your heart, you need to know what the Bible means when it talks about your heart.
The heart was the center of people’s mind and thoughts.
“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)
“Wisdom rests in the heart of a man of understanding, but it makes itself known even in the midst of fools.” (Proverbs 14:33)
The heart drove their desires, decision-making and how they lived their lives (the will).
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)
“Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me.” (Exodus 25:2)
It also directed people’s feelings and emotions.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1)
“Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:17)
“You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.” (Song of Songs 4:9)
To summarize: the heart is way more than butterflies in your stomach. To love Jesus with your heart is to love him with your whole being – with your mind, your desires, your feelings, and with your decisions. Feelings and emotions are not bad, but there’s a problem when they are in the driver’s seat of faith.
Whom Are You Inviting: Jesus or the Holy Spirit?
“Letting Jesus into your heart” would be a really strange idea to the apostles. Jesus Christ is God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity in human flesh. He is fully God, but since he’s also fully human, he could only be in one place at one time… that’s what Scripture means when it says he “humbled” himself and “emptied” himself in Philippians 2:6-8. How could Jesus enter someone’s heart!?
When a person places their faith in Jesus and prays for God to rescue him from sin and guide him into godliness it is not Jesus who “moves in” to the heart. God the Father sends the Holy Spirit to moves in when the heart places its faith in Jesus.
“And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:27)
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever”(John 14:15–16)
“By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” (2 Timothy 1:14)
“In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:22)
How We Should Use This Phrase (if you choose to use it at all)
When talking with nonChristians, inviting them to “let Jesus into their heart” is really confusing. It even sounds a bit creepy if you think about it. If you do use this phrase, please remember how the Bible talks about “the heart,” and resist the temptation to make this a sentimental and mushy invitation to become a Christian.
Christianity shouldn’t be built on an emotional high where we cry, pray a “sinner’s prayer,” invite Jesus into our heart, and then we move on like nothing happened. Unfortunately, that’s what often happens when people use this phrase as an explanation of what it means to be a Christian.
Instead, consider the biblical teaching about the heart, described above. Invite nonbelievers to know and experience the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ our Savior. Receiving that grace drives us to love the Lord with all our heart, because living for the glory of God changes us. Encourage new believers (and those who are considering faith, but not yet believers) to remember the call to faith is more than a call to respond to emotional moments.
When we love Jesus we will do what he says, and he will give us the Holy Spirit to strengthen us so we’re able to carry out his teachings (John 14:15-16, quoted above). We are not left on our own to figure out our faith. When we place our faith in Christ we discover that not only does God move in, he gives us a new heart!
It is not Jesus who indwells the believer, but the Holy Spirit. May we all be strengthened to remember the authority and glory of the Holy Spirit, who is active at work in the life of the Christian. May we all resist the emotionalism that sometimes comes with this phrase, and instead, embrace the incredible reality that God is actively working out his plan of salvation from the inside-out in the lives of his people.
(note: this article first appeared on my former blog in January, 2016. This version has been slightly edited to better fit here at Living Theologically.)