I was called on the carpet recently for using the term “receiving Jesus” — a term frequently used by those in the denominations to refer to finding grace, particularly in the absence of baptism or any other concrete act of obedience. I then caught myself saying it twice in the very next sermon I preached, so I suppose the observation is valid.
I trust that those who know me know where I stand on the necessity of baptism in the salvation process; for those who don’t, I stand with Jesus (Mark 16:16), Peter (Acts 2:38), Paul (Acts 22:16), and a host of examples in the text. Still, especially for the benefit of those who don’t know me as well or who may not have studied the concept thoroughly, it doesn’t hurt to define our terms.
The word “receiving” has a passive connotation, which may be seen in contrast to the repeated exhortations in the Scripture for people to take charge of their situation — i.e., “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). And it is certainly true that many in our society claim to have “received” Jesus by doing nothing or virtually nothing to bring themselves into compliance with His will. Clearly the Scripture will not support such an action. We have any number of general admonitions that urge us to spiritual activity (Romans 2:8-10, Matthew 7:21-27, Hebrews 4:11, etc.). We also have specific commands and direct statement of doctrinal fact, particularly regarding baptism (Galatians 3:27, 1 Peter 3:21, Romans 6:4, etc.). Clearly, any teaching that denies a specific and active role for us in the salvation process is unscriptural, and the one who preaches such a gospel, “he is to be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).
With all that in mind, is there any Scriptural foundation for the principle of “receiving Jesus”?
Consider is John 1:11-12. Those who “received” Jesus were given the right (or authority, or power) to be children of God. But clearly in that context, the believers chose to “receive” Him. It was not passive in the slightest. Also consider John 5:39-43. His detractors had been unwilling to “receive” Jesus despite the authority given Him by the Father; His implication is that searching the Scriptures, as they had done throughout history, should have been sufficient to create faith in their hearts. Again, specific spiritual activity is required to “receive” Him. There also is ample text referencing receiving the Holy Spirit, both with specific reference to the apostles (John 20:22) and more broadly (John 14:16-17). But since it is possible to “receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1), we have to believe the Spirit does not compel the believer outside his own choices.
Also, Romans 5:17 speaks of “those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness.” No mention is made of obedience here, but Romans is fraught with such references (Romans 6:1-4; 10:9-10, 17; 12:1-2; 13:12-14; etc.). Clearly Paul thought the idea of “receiving” blessings from God did not exclude our own activity. When he himself desired to “receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18), he consented to baptism (Acts 9:18).
It might be pointed out as well that the idea of “receiving” may not be as passive as we might think. The Roman saints were to “receive” Phoebe (Romans 16:2); the saints were to “receive edifying” in 1 Corinthians 14:5; believers are to “receive the word” (Acts 2:41; James 1:21). All of these passages emphasize the activity on our end, perhaps even more than the activity on God’s end.
To sum up: “receiving Jesus,” though certainly misunderstood and misapplied in our general society today, is a thoroughly Scriptural principle. If we are to receive mercy (Hebrews 4:16), a kingdom (Hebrews 12:28), and ultimately “the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4), we must receive Jesus — and do so deliberately, actively, and consistently.