The wrong use of John 1:12 has to do with the use of the word “receive” which is taken to mean that an unconverted person is to “ask Jesus into his heart” as the invitation of the gospel. The wrong use of this word, in tandem with Revelation 3:20 (“Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man opens the door . . .”, a plea to errant professing believers who must open their hearts to more true fellowship with Christ) has shaped modern Western evangelism (and beyond), making our evangelism look a lot different than the apostles’.
Is it useful to critique any person’s or ministry’s method of evangelism? For one thing, there are not enough people calling on others to follow Christ. Should I attempt to cripple anyone’s efforts in the slightest way, even for the few who might listen to me? I hope I will not. I would rather think that I’m improving our evangelism. And it does need improving.
The apparent results of the method of evangelistic appeal built upon the verse in question (John 1:12, along with Rev. 3:20) surely cannot be argued with. I think I could say with ease that almost all the evangelistic results coming out of America, and even around the world, are rooted in a method that emerges from a problematic view of John 1:12 which I will unfold. One campus organization whose workers almost always use this verse, with what I believe is an errant understanding of it, claims that tens of thousands are won to Christ each year through its multiple worldwide ministries. I’ve known many involved in this ministry, and can attest to the sincerity of these workers, and their willingness to be bold for Christ. Surely the majority of evangelistic workers cannot be wrong. And surely pastors who have taught this particular view cannot be in error. At least from the ad hominem side of the argument, I’m going to look pretty silly if I’m opposing such faithful people and am in error myself. So, I’ll tread gently. I’m talking to friends who care as strongly as I do about good evangelism.
Since I have, in the past, made much use of John 1:12 with what I consider a wrong interpretation of it, I think I have the right to speak openly about how I see it now. I have watched as scores of people have responded positively to my wrong use of this verse over several years of my earlier ministry. There is something haunting about that. I asked them to do what I assumed this verse was calling for, and they did it. In earlier days, one motivation for abandoning this concept had to do with observing that so many of my converts coming through the wrong use of John 1:12 appeared to be false converts. Several changes occurred when I decided I could not live comfortably with that.
I hope you understand me when I say that I also “miss” this verse as a mainstay evangelistic tool. The old way was easier, produced what appeared to be more instant results, received the approbation of almost all my friends, and called forth many colorful illustrations to support it. As soon as I understood the verse in another light, I lost my main conceptual weapon. It took some time to work out how I was going to present a response to the gospel from then on.
A Look at the Verse in Context
I haven’t told you the concept many wrongly derive from this verse. I’ll do so after I quote the verse in its context (1:11-13).
He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
What is the wrong use of John 1:12 that I’ve been alluding to? It has to do with the use of the word “receive” which is taken to mean that an unconverted person is to “ask Jesus into his heart” as the invitation of the gospel. The wrong use of this word, in tandem with Revelation 3:20 (“Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man opens the door . . .”, a plea to errant professing believers who must open their hearts to more true fellowship with Christ) has shaped modern Western evangelism (and beyond), making our evangelism look a lot different than the apostles’.
What then is this verse, with its surrounding context, actually saying?
1. First, it declares that the world, and Jews in particular, were blind to Jesus. They did not understand who He was. They did not know Him even though He created them all. On their own, they were incapable of perceiving who Christ was. They did not “receive” or “welcome” or “accept” or “properly acknowledge” Him. Although a full blown doctrine of depravity as characteristic of every person is not taught here, it is implied because of the universality of their rejection of Christ apart from the special case John will mention.
2. Second, it teaches us that some people, regardless of their general blindness, do have the power (or actual right) to become children of God. It is those who receive Him. That is, it is those who welcome, accept, or favorably acknowledge Him. So, in the midst of general rejection there are some who receive Him. This word “receive” does not mean “those who invite Christ into their hearts” but rather those who welcome Him for who He is — truly God. A simple comparison with the word “receive” in verse 11 and in verse 12 will yield that this word could not possibly have the meaning of inviting Christ in, as is commonly used by Western evangelism. Here is the error that has spawned much confusion in evangelism.
3. Third, it teaches that reception of Jesus must be qualified further. In other words, not mere welcoming of Christ is enough, but those who receive must believe, “even to those who believe in His name.” There are two ways to take this. John might mean that this “receiving” is the same as “believing.” In other words, the two words could be used interchangeably. Or, John may be saying that reception of Christ must include faith. It would be as if John is saying, “Those who receive him have the right to become his children, but I mean receiving plus true believing or faith.” Either nuance leads us ultimately to faith. We know that faith is more than the mere reception of Christ in truth, or as He is actually. That is its beginning. But it is more. It is reliance upon the Christ who came into the world on His intended mission, to die for us. Those who believe (which starts with their welcoming of Him) have the right of sonship.
4. Fourth, the child of God experiences something beyond (and I contend, before) his faith. God, in other words, is doing something to make him a child of His that could not be done simply on man’s initiative. In fact, these people’s sonship has nothing to do with bloodline, human decision, or the will of others on his behalf. When John says that a person must receive and believe, yet his birth into the family has nothing to do with blood, human decision or the will of another, then he is acknowledging something mysterious and profound. Salvation, as much as we would like to say otherwise, cannot be ultimately attributed to man in any way even in his believing, but is an act of God first of all.
Verse 13 may convey the idea that the order for attaining sonship begins with the birth (“who were born,” emphasis mine) which results in the faith that is said to be necessary for sonship. (“those who believe in His name, who were born . . . of God”). If this order is correct, we can say that regeneration, at least in a kind of philosophical order, precedes faith. If we do not say this, we would have to say John is teaching that it is at least concurrent to a man’s faith. While the man is believing, he is being born; while he is being born, he is believing. But since John asserts that “human decision” could not initiate this birth necessary to be a child, it appears that placing it before the exercise of the will in belief is the right way to view the chronology.