When we teach and translate in the Pal language, we have to be very careful as we choose the words to use. A deep understanding of the language is necessary because a simple transfer of words from English to Pal will sometimes result in unintended meanings. We often remind ourselves that it doesn’t matter what we meant to say—what the listener heard us say is what is important. Sometimes a perfectly innocent phrase when translated literally from English will have scandalous connotations in the mind of a Pal neighbor. In the early days of translation, this was a big problem. Thankfully, we can now rely on our translation helpers to tell us, “Don’t write that—it will make people think _______________.”
Sadly, the failure to convey intended meaning is not restricted to communication across languages. I have heard several Gospel presentations lately in churches here in the US that have reminded me that what we say is not always as important as what people hear when we say it. Of course I don’t mean that when people misunderstand us it’s always our fault, but I do think that the things we say—especially the things we say over and over again until we don’t even think about them anymore—could do with some careful consideration.
The phrase that I want to consider today is this one: “Invite Jesus into your life.” I hear this phrase repeatedly as an encouragement to respond to the Gospel. (“Ask Jesus into your heart” is similar and is, I think, mostly geared toward children.) As American Christians, we hear these phrases so much that we automatically apply our general understanding of what they mean, and we don’t even really think about them anymore. But what are non-Christians hearing when we say them? What do they mean to someone who has just heard the Gospel and is being asked to respond?
When we say, “invite Jesus into your life,” we mean “become a Christian.” And what does that mean? I would venture to guess that most American Christians would define being a Christian like this: You believe that Jesus died for your sins, you go to church on Sunday, and you try to be a good person. Many churches paint a picture of how much better your life will be with Jesus in it—how you will experience peace and love and maybe even blessings. Therefore, when people are asked if they want to invite Jesus into their lives, that is what they are signing up for—an objectively better life in exchange for a murmured agreement and perhaps a repeated prayer. If that is the case, then my problem with “invite Jesus into your life” is that it is, at best, vague and, at worst, misleading.
If you read the New Testament, you should find that its authors are not vague when it comes to what it means to follow Jesus. And when Jesus was telling people what it looked like to follow him, he wasn’t vague:
- You must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24)
- You must hold to my teaching (John 8:31)
- You must love each other (John 13:34-35)
- You must humble yourselves and serve each other (John 13:12-17)
- You must be willing to give up everything (Luke 14:25-33)
The first thing we should notice is that there are expectations when following Jesus. This is true of any relationship, professional or personal, in which we might invite someone to participate. And, just like these worldly relationships, you will not experience all the benefits or the full satisfaction of your relationship with God through Christ unless the expectations are met. So if people are not aware of what the expectations are, how can they enjoy what Jesus calls an abundant life?
Why is it that we take so much more care to understand and express the expectations of these worldly relationships and institutions, which can only benefit us imperfectly and temporarily, than we do the expectations of following Jesus? When it comes to the only relationship that matters from an eternal perspective, we cannot rely on “invite Jesus into your life” and then hope that they will figure it out if they keep coming to church. Don’t be vague. Tell them what they’re signing up for. And if you don’t know, for their sake and yours, take the time to find out.
The possibility that we are being vague as we share the Gospel is far less alarming than the possibility that we are being misleading. This is where it may come down to semantics. If I say, “Invite Jesus into your life,” what am I implying? That your life is something over which you have total control, and you can invite Jesus to accompany you if you so choose. As the inviter, you maintain some level of ownership of the situation, and Jesus, as the guest, is expected to enrich your experience without making unreasonable demands.
We can say to ourselves, “But that’s not what I mean when I tell someone they should invite Jesus into their life!” But I would say that if we take an honest look at the lives of the Christians living around us, what we meant is not as apparent as what they thought we meant–they are missing out on a life of abundance because they are fuzzy on the details, and people are walking away from what they think is Christianity because their knowledge of the expectations is so far from correct.
When Paul introduces himself at the beginning of his epistles, he often says he is the bondservant or slave of Christ. This means that he considered himself to be owned by Jesus as a slave is owned by its master. He tells us why in Galatians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, glorify God with your body.” If you follow Jesus, you don’t belong to you anymore. You are not the boss of you anymore. Jesus himself set the example for us when he said, “…the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19) Even when Jesus wanted to go a different direction, he prayed, “not my will, but your will be done.” So it should never be left unsaid that when someone “invites Jesus into their life” Jesus moves in and takes over. He is not the guest; he is the landlord, and what he says goes. Always. We don’t invite him to join what we’ve already got going on in our lives; we give our lives entirely to him, and we get to keep no part of them back for ourselves. Our mindset should shift completely to one that acknowledges that, far from being the center of the universe, we owe a debt that we can never pay to a God who is the owner of everything we have and everything we are. If that shift happens, our lives should look very different than they did before. It’s not really an invitation—more like complete and total surrender. That is the only way we can experience “life to the full”; if we try to maintain full control we will hinder what God intends for us.
At this time in history, we cannot afford to be a Church that merely repeats the phrases and goes through the motions without bothering to think. Our culture throws around words that get retweeted and repeated and sound really convincing when heard on TikTok at 2 am, but nobody thinks about what they mean, and they soon become empty. The words of the Gospel must not be handled in the same way. We must think about what they mean, we must think about what we say, and we must teach others to do the same. We must commit ourselves to understanding clearly what the Gospel is and what it isn’t and then to communicating it clearly to others. If you regularly use the phrase “invite Jesus into your life,” I’m not saying that you are an ineffectual minister of the Gospel. But I am saying that words are important.