No, really. Stay with me for a few moments, and feel free to leave a comment at the end. Also remember that the point is not just to deconstruct an idea that's bad for us, but to replace the lie with something true (i.e. biblical and orthodox).
First, I’d like to make some generalizing remarks about ideas of conversion in the Scriptures. They are simplified and they are debatable, but I think they could be well supported if you push me.
In the Old Testament, the prophets of YHWH talk about turning away from idolatry, cultic pollution, and injustices against one’s neighbor and turning toward himself, seeking to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with [one’s] God.” Oh, and some stuff about orphans, widows and strangers.
In the synoptic gospels, Jesus and the Baptizer call people to believe the Good News of the Kingdom, which I’ll argue (but not right now) meant that the coming Reign of God was breaking into the present in and through the work of Jesus. The call seems to be something like, “believe, repent, be baptized to identify with the remnant of Israel, follow Jesus, and adjust your ethics accordingly” for the disciples, and “believe, repent, and get ready for your ethics to be adjusted” for others. In John, Jesus calls people to place faith and trust in himself.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the thrust appears to be, “Jesus was and is the Reign of God, and has been exalted as his viceroy over the earth. Repent (turn around) and be baptized for initiation into the community of that Reign.” Israel has been redefined not by a particular way of obedience to the Torah and the temple cult, but rather identification with Jesus. Paul talks about an identification with Jesus and union with God’s work in him through baptism, and enactment of Christ’s death and resurrection.
One popular contemporary notion that is conspicuously absent from any of this is that Jesus might want us to “ask him into our hearts,” whether “by faith” or any other way. It is biblically unfounded, and I maintain that it is at best pastorally inconvenient, and at worst, dangerously misleading.
There is one occurrence of a similar phrase in the New Testament when Paul prays that "Christ [might] dwell in [our] hearts through faith,” but this is shaky ground for the language of conversion and discipleship. It can even be harmful because it a) fails to do any justice to the richness of Christian faith and b) lacks the content of biblical notions of conversion.
One metaphorical motif that Paul is much more fond of is the idea of “putting on Christ,” or being “baptized into Christ,” “being found in Christ,” etc. The believer is safely seated with and in Christ, according to the New Testament, and is even sealed by the Holy Spirit. The “personal decision for Christ” is still implicit, but while “asking Jesus into my heart” and an over reliance on the idea of “Christ in me (which has a little more biblical support) places one’s security in Christ upon one’s subjective feelings about Jesus, being placed into Christ builds one’s identity on theological reality that one is clearly incapable of critiquing on the basis of feelings.
The language of being “in Christ” is far healthier emotionally, and better grounded biblically.
Finally, the language of “asking Jesus into my heart” is devoid of biblical concepts of repentance and union with the Christian Church and so necessarily a workable concept of discipleship. Any individualistic language in religion is inherently anti-Christian (but we’ll talk about that next time).
I suggest, therefore, that Jesus does not want to come into our hearts to live. He rather calls us to believe, to repent, to identify with him and join the Christian Community in baptism, then sends the Holy Spirit to catch us up in the life of Holy Trinity for our transformation and abundant life.
I'm a library paraprofessional and occasional theology instructor at a liberal arts college. I teach folks how to do academic research efficiently and throughly, and I teach Christian theology at the college level and in churches. I hold the Master of Applied Theology from the University of Oxford.