My Personal Jesus: The Evangelical Heresy
Restricting God to private space was the great heresy of twentieth-century American evangelicalism.
~What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?, Martin Thielen
“All you have to do is ask Jesus into your heart, and you’re good for all eternity.” It’s the great lie of modern evangelical Christian faith.
“Wait a minute,” I can hear you object, “Aren’t you a pastor?” Yes. Yes, I am. I’m a pastor that has read the Bible several times, studied it in the original languages, translated portions of it in my own study time, read hundreds of commentaries, and preached close to 1,000 sermons/devotions/meditations in all kinds of settings. In all of that, I’ve never once seen where Jesus said all we had to do was ask him into our hearts, and then we’ll be set for all eternity. And neither have you. Because it’s not in there.
And yet, so many people have made this the defining moment of the Christian faith in the life of the faithful. Some people go so far as to argue that if you haven’t said those exact words — as if it’s some kind of magical formula — then you aren’t really “saved”.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I do believe there is a personal aspect to our faith as followers of Jesus. I just don’t think that’s the endgame. I don’t think that’s the reason why Jesus did what he did so long ago. I think there’s more. There has to be more. If Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was only about punching a ticket to heaven — as if heaven is some kind of destination to which we need to travel — then that’s too small an objective.
Several times in Scripture, God speaks of doing something new. God speaks of new creation. God speaks of the kingdom of heaven. It’s a total and radical transformation of everything, all creation. It’s not just about individuals escaping the broken down world that we’ve created around us, especially since the days of the Industrial Revolution. It’s about transforming that world into something else.
It’s a world of peace. It’s a world where healing doesn’t take place because it’s not needed. “God himself will be with them. He will wipe ever tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (Rev. 21:3b–4).
Individuals receive salvation, but the work and ministry of Jesus was not about individual salvation. It never was.
It was about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming the release of captives, setting free the oppressed, allowing the blind to see (Isaiah 61 & Luke 4). It was a call to repent and believe, and a proclamation of the coming kingdom (Mark 1). It was about bringing light and life to a word in desperate need, in spite of what it may think (John 1). In none of this, do we see any language about asking Jesus into our hearts.
I know what the criticism is going to be. “What’s the alternative? Progressive Christianity? Progressive Christianity is not Christianity! It’s just a bunch of liberal, SJWs trying to twist the words of the Bible.” If that’s your gut reaction, then, please, show me where Jesus says we just need to ask him into our hearts. If you think the ministry of Jesus is just about our personal salvation, then, please, tell me what Jesus was talking about with all of this talk about the kingdom of heaven.
Our faith, while personal, has never just been about ourselves. Of course, it would be a whole lot easier if that were the case, wouldn’t it? We wouldn’t have to worry about the systemic problems that our world is facing. We wouldn’t have to worry about actually living out the words of Jesus. We could just do whatever we wanted.
We could hold others to impossible standards that we don’t even meet ourselves, and then simply call them out as sinners who haven’t “accepted Jesus into their hearts”. It would be easier that way. It’s a whole lot easier to deflect criticism by not listening and processing it. We’ve certainly seen that over the last few years in evangelical circles — the whataboutism, the distractions, the faux outrage.
You don’t get to have a personal Jesus. That’s not how this works. As a follower of Jesus, you get to submit your life to the life and teachings of Jesus — and not just the ones that are easy or the ones that fit best into your worldview either. That’s what it means to be a disciple.