Should a person ‘receive Christ’?

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)[1].  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”[2] 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.


[1] All Biblical citations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless noted otherwise.

[2] 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.

God is both perfectly just & amazingly gracious

Justification is the doctrine upon which every Christian relies. It is the only way that sinners may live in the presence of the holy God; they must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and free from the stain of sin. Quoting the Westminster Confession, Hodge relays the doctrine of justification as follows: “The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.”[1] Justification is at the core of describing how God’s plan of redemption is effective for the salvation sinners. The word itself conjures up legal connotations, such as crime, law, judge, penalty and judicial declaration. There are numerous works, including the several used as resources here, which beautifully and profoundly extract the keenest observations from the biblical doctrine of Justification. The purpose of this work is to concisely communicate the wonderful work of Christ, both positive and negative, in justifying sinners by providing righteousness, expiation and propitiation.

The Apostle Paul expressively speaks of the Gospel in Romans 3:21-26 when he says, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for 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. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This phrase is a commonly memorized verse for anyone who has attempted to learn the Romans Road in order to evangelize. The purpose of reciting this text is to point out the reality of universal guilt. Every human sins. The implication is that sin is not only a horizontal offense, but vertical too. Human sin is against self, others and the Creator who made and governs humanity. Those who sin are guilty before God and under the penalty of sin, namely death.

Elsewhere in the same portion of Scripture, the stark pronouncement is declared, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death here refers, not only in the physical sense of human mortality, but also to the idea that God will distribute His ultimate judgment of wrath on all who have rebelled in sin against His righteousness. God has established the law, all humans have disobeyed it and the perfectly just Judge is obligated to deliver justice. This bleak situation is the common bond of all people. Sin yields death and judgment, everyone has sinned, and God’s righteousness demands that all sinners endure the due penalty.

In an essay on justification, the purpose of preliminarily establishing the sinner’s guilt and God’s immanent wrath is two-fold. First, the gospel is good news because of the converse situation in which the unregenerate person presently finds him or herself. Hodge explains that justification rests “on the principle that God is immutably just, i. e;, that his moral excellence, in the case of sin, demands punishment.”[2] Secondly, the redeeming work of Christ is a wonder without comparison because of the overwhelming holiness and justice of God.  Sinners may not realize and some may even choose not to acknowledge that they are hanging over a perilous pit of destruction.  God’s holy justice and consuming wrath is pointed at them every moment and God holds it back each second for reasons only known to Him. Dr. Sproul notes, “The Greek word Paul uses for ‘wrath’ is orgai. [Ro 3:18] The English word that derives from orgai is orgy… God’s anger is one of passion with paroxysms of rage and fury.”[3] God’s wrath toward sinners is no jovial or moderate thing. The gratitude felt by any sinner’s escape of such fury is beyond expression.

What reason would any sinner have for embracing a hopeful attitude, believing some escape may be found? The message of good news concerning the person and work of Christ appears all the more stunning in front of this abominable backdrop. We who believe are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation” (Ro 6:24-25a).  Jesus has given Himself as the sacrifice for sinners and suffered on behalf of all those who would trust in Him. The suffering life and excruciating death of Jesus Christ would be note worthy if only for the sake of uniqueness, especially in light of His deity. However, the biblical description of purpose behind such a work is that of representation.  Jesus is the representative of sinners before the bar of God’s judgment.  He is the one who absorbs the full wrath of God, which all sinners deserve.

Jesus atoning sacrifice is the work of expiation and propitiation. Expiation, according to Sproul, carries the idea that Christ “removes our sin from us and takes it away.” So then one aspect of Christ’s atoning work is that He removes the sin of sinners; He makes sinners clean. Sproul describes expiation is a horizontal work, washing human sinners, and propitiation is a vertical work, “satisfying the justice of God for us.”[4] God’s justice demands that sinners endure the due penalty for sin, namely His unbridled wrath. God is no just judge if He merely pardons the sinner and withholds punishment. Justice must be delivered, because God is the one and only perfect Judge. Therefore, the work of Christ includes enduring the wrath of God as a representative for sinners. Grudem explains that Christ’s passive obedience can be observed in several ways.[5] Jesus’ obedience was not passive in that He was inactive or unengaged during such a time, but passive in the sense that He was obedient to endure suffering that was inflicted upon Him. Christ’s suffering included the human suffering of mortal life, the physical pain of death by crucifixion, the psychological pain of bearing the sin of all those who would be recipients of His atoning work, the emotional pain of being abandoned by His friends, the unknown pain of mysterious abandonment by His Father, and finally the unimaginable pain of bearing the full wrath of God. Jesus was obedient in a life and death of suffering like no other human has ever or will ever endure.

This is one-half of the work, which Christ has accomplished, that elicits the expression that Paul makes of God, “He [is] just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro 3:26). This aspect of Jesus’ redeeming work on behalf of sinners may be considered the negative aspect. Negative, not because it is bad, quite the contrary; His work is incredibly good as He subtracts sin (expiation) from the sinner and places it on His own shoulders in order to bear the punishment thereof (propitiation).  The negative aspect of Christ’s work on behalf of sinners (the subtraction of sin from the sinner and the atonement of such before God) is astonishing even if unaccompanied, yet it alone does not fulfill the necessary conditions of God’s requirements imposed on corrupt humanity. One must be righteous in order to receive approval from the holy King of the universe and to enjoy restful communion with Him. Expiation and propitiation are tantamount to the taking away of the sinner’s debasement, but without a life of perfect obedience the sinner is still not righteous or worthy of the approval of the King.

As established above, in the passage cited, all humanity has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of perfection. The completed work of Christ is both the subtraction of sinful debauchery and the filthy stain of its vestige, as well as the addition of the perfect righteousness achieved in the life of obedience that Jesus lived as the incarnate God-man. Dr. Sproul comments, “Jesus not only had to die for our sins, but also had to live for our righteousness. If Jesus had only died for our sins, His sacrifice would have removed all of our guilt, but that would have left us merely sinless in the sight of God, not righteous.”[6] Calvin explains, “from the moment when [Jesus] assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance.”[7] Jesus was not only the representative of sinners in His sacrificial death; He was also their delegate in His impeccable life.

The Apostle Paul, elsewhere in the book of Romans, explains that Christ was the second “Adam” (Rom 5). The first Adam, Paul says, disobeyed as the representative of humanity and God’s declaration of guilt on the entire human race was the result. However, Christ is the second Adam who lives an obedient life before God and as a result the “many” are “made righteous” in the sight of God. It only takes a light consideration of the contrast here to begin to marvel at the incredible distinction between the two “Adams.” The first Adam was directly created by God and placed in a marvelous garden, which he was to enjoy along with his naked wife (Gen 1, 2). The ground and plant life thereon produced vegetation for food effortlessly. For some amount of time, there was absolutely no sin and Adam had immanent communion with God. On top of all this, there was only one rule to follow and even that was a negative rule rather than a positive one, Do not rather than You must Do. Avoiding this one error indefinitely meant blessed, sinless communion with God in perfect contentment forever.

However, Jesus, the second Adam, had much different circumstances.  In fact, the pinnacle of Christ’s obedient life was His time of fasting in the desert (Matt 4). Jesus had been fasting for forty days and was now in solitude in the desert when He experienced His temptation from the devil. This was no lush garden and He had no full belly. Jesus was seemingly all alone. Incredibly, His response was obedience rather than rebellion, even in obviously desolate conditions. The second Adam was a human representative, like the first, but His representation was one of perfect righteousness. Sinners, then, may rely on Jesus’ righteous obedience, as they understand their own lack thereof.

Salvation is wholly a work of the Lord. God supplies all we need and satisfies all of His demands in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God declares sinners righteous and provides the means by which He may declare them so. During the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther’s day, the defining call was the phrase “Justification by faith alone,” sola fide. Sproul says this phrase is “merely shorthand for ‘justification by the righteousness of Christ alone.’ His merit, and only his merit, is sufficient to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. It is precisely this merit that is given to us by faith. Christ is our righteousness. God clothes his filthy creatures with the coat of Christ’s righteousness.”[8]  This imagery of clothing is helpful for a more accurate understanding of the concept.  The sullied sinner who receives the blessed joy of eternal reward in the presence of God almighty does so, not based upon his or her renewed fervor to live well, but because he or she has been covered by the foreign righteousness of Another. Christ’s righteousness is alien to the sinner, but imputed (assigned or accredited) to him or her by God because of the work of Christ.

Every sinner who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit rests all his or her confidence in escaping God’s judgment on the completed work of Christ. Unlike most other religions and philosophies, Christianity is a worldview based on the inability of humanity to fix anything and a total reliance on God to reconcile whom He will to Himself. God demonstrates His own graciousness in granting sinners the gift of redemption, which can only be found in Christ Jesus. It is not hard to notice the legal notions in J. I. Packer’s comments on the matter when he says, “Whenever God fulfills his covenant commitment by acting to save his people, it is a gesture of ‘righteousness,’ that is, justice. When God justifies sinners through faith in Christ, he does so on the basis of justice done, that is, the punishment of our sins in the person of Christ our substitute; thus the form taken by his justifying mercy shows him to be utterly and totally just (Rom. 3:25-26), and our justification itself is shown to be judicially justified.”[9]

In summary, the whole of humanity is guilty before a righteous Judge. This Judge is like no other. He is omniscient and omnipotent. Added to these ominous capabilities is His attribute of aseity; that is, He is self-existent and will never cease to be. This dreadful combination to sinners means certain and unending punishment for their rebellion. There is no way of escape in them and no hope that the Judge will simply forget or become careless concerning their malfeasance. Holiness and righteousness is the requirement, but sinners are covered in the stinking filth of the opposite. In this miry and hopeless state, God does something most unexpected; He pronounces His declaration of righteousness upon sinners who are not. He does so without the slightest impugning of His own righteousness and this seems all the more conflicting. One may wonder, How can this be?

Indeed, it is a wonder. God declares the sinner righteous in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. This is possible only because Christ is the provision of God for expiation, propitiation and righteousness. The Apostle Paul describes God as the “Just” and the “Justifier.” God commands humans, “Be holy as I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Only because of the completed negative and positive work of Christ’s obedience can God and the sinner be thus.


[1] Hodge, C. (1997). Vol. 2: Systematic theology : 481–482. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sproul, R. C. Romans. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009: 38.

[4] Ibid: 103.

[5] Grudem, Wayne A., and Jeff Purswell. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999: 251.

[6] Sproul, R. C. The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2012: 71.

[7] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997.

[8] Sproul, R. C. What Is Reformed Theology?. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005: 67.

[9] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: A guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.