Is “receive Christ” terminology proper to use in presenting the gospel?
It is of paramount importance that anyone who seeks to articulate the Gospel of Jesus Christ does so in terms that are understandable to the one or ones with whom the evangelist is attempting to communicate. This means that the evangelist will need to take several things into his or her consideration, and defining or explaining terms that may be unclear is a great way to ensure that the desired message is being heard. Therefore, concerning the two-word phrase in focus here, “receive Christ,” an explanation of both may make the phrase not only proper but desirable in evangelistic encounters.
The phrases “I received” or “You received” as they are attached to “mercy,” “grace,” “gift,” “salvation,” or even “Christ” are found in more New Testament passages than I could count in a short time. For the sake of our discussion, let us examine a few. The Apostle Paul says, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain [or receive (NIV)] salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9). So, those of whom Paul speaks – those who are not destined for wrath, but instead for salvation – are recipients of their destiny through the Lord Jesus Christ. There is certainly much more that could be said here, but it is no tangential matter that salvation comes through the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the mediator of such salvation; He is the provider of the saving work; He is the bringer of the gift. It is clear that salvation is through the Lord Jesus Christ, and anyone who receives this great salvation has no less received the embodiment of it.
Elsewhere Paul says, “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17). Again Paul speaks of recipients of salvation, but this time in terms of grace and the gift of righteousness. Though the details of this saving work are described distinctly here, Paul remains sure that these gifts come through Jesus Christ. Here, however, we are given a bit more information as to the specifics of what exactly Christ brings to those who are beneficiaries of His salvation, namely abundant grace and foreign righteousness. We may find a better explanation of just how abundant this grace is in the context of the passage, but the righteousness of which Paul speaks we know is foreign precisely because it is a gift. If the righteousness were inherent in the recipient, it may have been said to be enabled, reinforced, or motivated by Christ. Yet this righteousness is a gift brought to the hopelessly unrighteous inheritor to be received from another who does inherently possess such virtue.
On a separate occasion Paul chastised the Galatian Christians for their ridiculous posture of false human holiness before the judgment of God. Paul points out the definition of grace as unmerited favor in his question posed to them, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:2). The thing being received in this passage is ‘the Spirit.’ Paul is reminding the Galatian believers that God is the giver of His Spirit and all Christians are receivers of the Holy Spirit, not because of their meritorious effort, but ‘by faith.’ There is not the space necessary here to expound on a theological statement concerning the biblical doctrine of the Godhead as Trinity, but it is pertinent to note that the Spirit of God is one in the same as the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9). Therefore, it is not wrong to say that Paul’s explicit statement here is that all those who hear the Gospel with faith in the person and work of that good message are also recipients of the Spirit of Christ – they have received Christ by His Spirit, the Spirit of God.
It is not new to turn to Romans chapter 3 for the purpose of evangelizing. The oft-memorized “Romans Road” begins right on this terrain. While verses 23 through 25 of Romans chapter 3 may or may not be familiar, they lend a great deal of help to our discussion here. Again we read the words of the Apostle Paul, “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23-25). If one unpacks the meaning of this text, the substance of it carries tremendous power.
First, it is clearly stated that ‘all’ are sinners who have failed to live up to the holy demands of God. This is especially disheartening when one considers the absolute power, perfect justice, and unique eternality of God. He has enough power to do whatever He desires to do, always justly punishes sin, and He will never ever cease to be exactly what He is now. This is not good news to the sinner, who finds him or herself under the righteous judgment of that same God.
Second, those sinners to whom Paul referred are also said to be ‘justified’ by a gift of grace. To be justified means to be made or proven right, righteous, or commendable. This is almost too incredible to be true! The same person who is clearly guilty and sinful may be proven to be righteous and commendable?! Wait… If we pause for a moment and consider the logic of such a statement, it doesn’t make sense. Either a person is sinful and guilty or one is righteous and commendable, but he or she cannot be both at the same time and in the same way. How can Paul say that God proves sinners commendable? Has God forgotten about their sin? Is He no longer concerned with His righteous demands? Is God no longer just? Has He lost His power to condemn? No! God remains just, sin remains abhorrent to Him, and He is always utterly resolute in His judgment against it.
Third, the reason that sinners may be proven righteous is explained in the statement that this justification comes ‘through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.’ Two demonstrative terms are used in the Romans passage that point to the work performed by Christ on behalf of sinners. (1) Redemption is a monetary term, carrying the idea of buying back, or exchanging something for an award or something else of monetary value. (2) Propitiation is a term of satisfaction, carrying the idea of a gift given to a conquering king in order to appease his anger towards the offending or rebellious king who has been overcome. When we see these terms in the light of what Christ has done for sinners, then the justification spoken of earlier becomes clearer.
Jesus Christ offers His own life as a substitute for the sinner before God’s bar of justice. This accomplishes two things. One, Christ propitiates or appeases God wrath against sin by absorbing the wrath due sin on the sinner’s behalf. Jesus redirects God judgment from the sinner and towards Himself. This is why it is rightly said that God made Christ to be sin even though Jesus had not sinned Himself (2 Cor. 5:21). Two, Jesus redeems sinners by offering His own righteousness, obedience and goodness to all those who trust Him for it. God requires a life of holiness from all humans. Jesus Christ lived the life of obedient righteousness before God that is required of all humanity, and He offers His earned righteousness to sinners as a gift to be received (Rom. 5:19).
Fourth and finally, this gift of justification (proven right and commendable) is to be received by faith. That is, one must put down all his or her own effort to achieve a goodness of their own, and he or she must simply trust in the effort of another – namely in the person and work of Jesus Christ. When we visualize this transaction as a dirty-clothed sinner exchanging his guilt-stained garb for the beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness, it would not be hard at all to see why one might describe it as “putting on” a “new self” (Eph. 4:24).
Therefore, we are to understand that sinful humans are ‘proven righteous’ because of the righteousness of Christ. Furthermore, we may also consider that Christ is not merely the ticket to an eternal reward greater than Himself. Certainly this is not the case at all! In spite of contemporary jargon that might suggest, or explicitly claim, otherwise (which is often just a recapitulation of past error), Christ is Himself the prize. He is the destination! His presence, His glory, His eminent majesty is what we long to behold! If we are looking for Christ to take us to a reward that is something other than Himself, then we have set our aim far too low. He is both our transport and our station, and there is no greater reward than the triune God of our salvation.
Praise be to God! If we have received Christ’s righteousness, then we have most certainly received Him. If we are heirs to Christ’s sonship, then we share in His loving relationship with God our Father. If we are beneficiaries of Christ’s redeeming and propitiating work, then we have exchanged ourselves for Him, our sorrow for His joy, our sin for His obedience, our idolatry for His genuine worship, and our deserved penalty for His earned reward! With the Apostle Paul, we may indeed say to one another “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20) by receiving Christ – all that He is and all that He has done for you – and “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6).
All terms may be used erroneously or mischievously. The terms used in articulating the Gospel are most important because of the message they communicate; therefore to twist and mangle them is supremely egregious regardless of intent. This should drive us to a reverent and diligent commitment to communicate this message and its implications as accurately as we are capable. So, is it proper to use the phrase “receive Christ” in an evangelistic exchange? Yes. If it is explained well then it is not merely proper, it can be wholly advantageous.
 All Biblical citations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless noted otherwise.
 The Romans Road refers to several passages in the book of Romans that may be sited for evangelistic purposes. Seeking to present the Gospel in biblical terms, the evangelist would begin with chapter 3 and verse 23, then move to chapter 6 and verse 23, then cite chapter 5 and verse 8, and finally land in chapter 10 and verse 13.