What does it mean for Christ to dwell in our hearts by faith? This epistle is to a church, and so the apostle is praying for believers. Thus, in a real sense, these believers already have Christ dwelling in them. Remember what the apostle has already written to the Romans: “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have no the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:9-10). According to Paul, there are only two states a person can be in: you are either “in the flesh” or “in the Spirit.” And to be “in the Spirit” is to have the Spirit dwelling in you and to have the Spirit dwelling in you is for Christ to be in you, since the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. So if you are a saved person, you already have Christ dwelling in you through the Spirit (note the connection in Eph. 3:16-17 between the Spirit strengthening us and Christ indwelling us).
But if Christ dwelling in us is inseparable from salvation, why then is Paul praying for it? The answer is that he is praying for it because the indwelling of Christ is a thing of degrees. Now there are some things in our salvation that are not things of degrees. Justification is not a thing of degrees. Those who are justified in Christ are no longer under condemnation (cf. Rom. 8:1). Regeneration (the new birth) is not a thing of degrees. You are either born again or not. You are either in the Spirit or in the flesh; there is no halfway point between these two poles.
However, there are other things in our salvation that are things of degrees. Sanctification is a thing of degrees. It is a progressive experience, begun in the initial giving of spiritual life in the new birth and continued throughout our life until Christ finishes his work in us at the last day (cf. Phil. 1:6). What the apostle is praying for here is also a progressive experience. There is a sense in which Christ already dwells in us through the Spirit, but there is a laying hold of this reality through faith that is also very important for the Christian walk, and it is this that the apostle is praying for here.
There are two texts which can enlighten us as to the apostle’s meaning. The first is found in Rev. 3:20 in our Lord’s expostulations with the Laodiceans. We noted last time that they had this fundamentally wrong attitude of self-sufficiency and spiritual pride. They thought they were strong when in reality they were weak. They needed to be praying for God to strengthen them with might by the Spirit, but they were not in a position to pray this because they were blind to their need. And as a result, they were also lacking the very thing the apostle prays for next: for Christ to dwell in them by faith. Thus, our Lord approaches the Laodiceans and says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”
This may be one of the most misapplied verses in all the Bible. It is often used in an evangelistic context, where Christ is portrayed standing outside the hearts of unbelievers and begging entrance. However, this verse was not written to unbelievers. It was written to believers. And therefore it was written to people who on one level were indwelt by Christ already. However, because of their sin they were strangers to any real personal fellowship with Christ. In a real sense, he was a stranger to them and so there he is on the outside of the door of their hearts, knocking, desiring entrance and fellowship.
And that is what I think the apostle is praying for here in Ephesians 3:17. He is praying that they would know the reality of fellowship with Christ on a deeper level than they already had experienced before. Commentators have noted the significance of the word that the apostle chose to use here. The word for “dwell” means to “settle down, to be at home with.” He is praying that Christ would be able to be at home in their hearts. He does not want their experience of Christ to be that of welcoming a stranger into their homes from time to time. Rather, he wants their experience of fellowship with the Lord to one of continued, growing, never-ending communion.
Another passage that can enlighten the apostle’s words is found in John 14:16-21. There he promises the apostles that he is leaving, but in leaving them he will not leave them “comfortless” (or “orphans,” ver. 18). He will “come to them.” They will see him (19). “At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you. He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (20-21). Note the connection between Christ dwelling in his people (20) and his manifesting himself to them (21). This suggests that the indwelling that our Lord promises here has to do with the experience of Christ’s fellowship with his people.
And, just as we see in our text, there is a connection between this indwelling and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In John 14, our Lord indicates to his apostles that it is through the Spirit that he will return to them: “And I will pray to the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; even the Spirit of truth: whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (16-17).
This text is also misunderstood, as it is often pointed to as proof that the Spirit never indwelt anyone until after Pentecost. But that cannot be. The apostles were clearly born again, and the new birth is a work of the Spirit (cf. Jn. 3:5-8). Instead, what our Lord is referring to here is the ministry of the Spirit of God mediating the presence and power of the risen Christ to his church. They didn’t need this particular ministry of the Spirit as long as Christ was present with them. But they would need it in his absence. And so the Spirit has come to bring the presence of the living Christ to his people. He is through his Spirit with us always, even to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20).
However, it is one thing to know what a text means, and it is another thing to desire it and to pray for it with intentionality and sincerity. Because the indwelling of Christ is a thing of degrees, and none of us are perfect, we all have room to grow in this area. At one extreme, you can be like the Laodiceans and have a heart that is in such a desperate condition that you know little of the reality of fellowship and communion with our Lord. On the other hand, you can be like the apostle John, who wrote of his experience and invited others to experience it as well: “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full” (1 Jn. 3:3-4). We ought to want to distance ourselves from the experience of the Laodiceans and to approach the experience of the apostle John.
And of course we need to be convinced that this is an experience that we can enjoy. We need to remember that Paul is not praying for super-saints. He is praying for ordinary Christians like you and me. This is a prayer for us to pray and an experience for us to reach for. It is not unattainable, and in fact it is something that ought to characterize our walk with the Lord. If it doesn’t, it’s not because our Lord is not willing to commune with you. The problem is entirely on our end. Remember the imagery of Rev. 3:20. Our Lord stands at the door and knocks, desiring to come in and fellowship with us. He desires our fellowship; why would we not desire his?
However, this does not mean that there are not obstacles, even if many of them are obstacles of our own making. This is indicated by Paul’s previous request in this prayer, that they would be “strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.” The fact that this prayer for strengthening precedes the prayer for Christ to dwell in their hearts by faith indicates that it is no easy thing for this to happen. It is something that requires the power of the Spirit of God working in us that makes it possible for us to experience the fellowship of Christ for which the apostle is praying.
What are some of these obstacles? Well, sin in general is a huge obstacle. I don’t think it was for no reason that the apostle John, right after he had issued this invitation for fellowship with God, immediately goes on to write: “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:5-7). God does not fellowship with people who do not live repentant lives. Recall that in John 14 Jesus connects keeping his commandments with his manifesting himself to us. You simply cannot walk with God if you are living in sin, if you your lusts are enjoying an open season in your heart.
This week, my family and I are experiencing a house that through flooding has become temporarily unlivable. There are boxes of things stacked everywhere, furniture in places where they aren’t supposed to be, floors torn up. It’s hard to get around in the house. It’s inconvenient. We would never think about asking someone over in this condition; we can’t even stay very long in our own house right now. Things are going to have to be fixed and put back together before our house is livable again. And yet how many of our hearts are just like that? How many of us have allowed our hearts to be flooded with sinful attitudes and desires and purposes and plans? The debris of sin is all over the place. And yet we have the audacity to think that Jesus would be just fine with our hearts. He can’t settle down in a place like that! We can’t even do it, if we are honest with ourselves. The selfishness that plagues so many of our hearts makes us miserable in ourselves, as well as being difficult to live with when it comes to others. Why would we think that our Lord would be okay with staying on when our heart is in that condition? No, he is on the outside, looking in, knocking at our door, and he will stay there until we are ready to get the junk out of our hearts.
Here is the simple truth: there is no fellowship with Christ when we are comfortable with the sin that is in our lives. There is no faith without repentance. And I will go a step further: if you have no desire to rid yourself of the sin that is in your heart, if you are okay with Jesus standing outside and looking in, then it could very well be evidence that you are not in fact born again at all. Our Lord told the Laodiceans that if they didn’t repent, he would vomit them out of his mouth (Rev. 3:16). It is only to those who overcome by fleeing from sin and clinging to Christ that he promises a throne in the age to come (21). There simply are no promises for those who refuse to repent of their sins. If you are happier in the darkness than you are in the light, it is very possible that you belong to the darkness and not the light.
We have to especially be careful about the sin that is in our hearts. The apostle James writes, “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” But how do we do this? James goes on to explain: “Cleanse your hand, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (Jam. 4:8-10). It is not enough to deal with external problems. We must deal with the heart. We must repent of the sin that no one else can see. It stands to reason that if we want Christ to dwell in our hearts, then our hearts have to be clean.
Now I want to be clear here. I realize that all of this must be done in the context of the gospel. I’m not talking about cleaning yourself up so that you can make yourself worthy for Christ. The only way we can walk in the light is if the blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God is constantly cleansing us from our sin (1 Jn. 1:7). Nor can we cleanse ourselves from our sins in our own power and strength. That is the point of the prayer for the strengthening of the Spirit of God. We need the power of God to give us the strength to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. It is the grace of God that teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live with self-control and godliness in this present world (Tit. 2:11-12). We are utterly and completely reliant upon the grace of God that comes to us through the merit and worthiness of Christ for us. And yet we need to reckon with the reality that grace does teach us to say no to sin and yet to godliness. Those who never raise a finger to the sin that is in their hearts just show that they know nothing at all of the reality of grace. Beware of those who turn the grace of our God into lasciviousness (Jude 4)!
Another reason why sin needs to be rooted out of the heart is because we will clearly not pray this prayer unless we from the heart desire to have the fellowship with the Lord that is held out for us here. So it’s not just that Christ will not have fellowship with us when we harbor sin in the heart and life. It’s that we will not want to have fellowship with him as long as we harbor sin in the heart and life. Sin blinds us to the beauty and power and sufficiency and desirability of the gospel. Therefore we need to rid the things in our hearts that compete with Christ for supremacy. Anything that vies with him for the supremacy of our hearts is an idol and therefore must be vanquished before we can have communion with him.
To try to have fellowship with Christ and hold on to our idols is like the Philistines with the ark of God. They tried to put it in front of their god Dagon. During the night, Dagon fell over. They didn’t get the message so they set him back up. The next night, not only did Dagon come tumbling down, but he shattered into a million pieces before the ark of God (cf. 1 Sam. 5:1-5). God will not compete with your idols. You will either have to give them up or give God up.
There are a million things tugging at your heart seeking to turn you away from the fellowship of Christ. But in those times, we need to pray that the Holy Spirit would strengthen us against those desires. And we need to remind ourselves that there is nothing that can take the place of Christ. No one else can give you eternal life and reverse the process of death that is already at work in your bodies. No one else can give you joy that will only grow and will never bring regret. If you have tasted that the Lord is gracious (1 Pet. 2:3), don’t turn from that to the plastic fruit that this world offers.
But we do not only make way for fellowship with the Lord by saying no to sin. Positively, we must lay hold of the truths of the gospel by faith. It is in this way that Christ comes to dwell in our hearts by faith. We must not only look away from sin, but we must look toward Christ. I’m not talking about a magical formula or incantation or mantra here. We make way for communion with the Savior by beholding him in the mirror of his word, in the Holy Scriptures. We need to meditate on the person and work of Jesus Christ as he shows up in the gospels and in the epistles. We need to consider how he was promised in the OT and how those promises were fulfilled in the NT.
And then we need to lay hold of God’s word by faith. This does not mean to take a leap of faith into some spiritual unknown. It means that we need to have absolute confidence that God’s word is true. There are all sorts of reasons to have this kind of confidence. The testimony of the apostles is both credible and believable. But historical research is not the only way we gain this confidence. The fact of the matter is that the word of God is unique because to those whose eyes have been opened, the word of God is its own witness. We hear God speaking to us in the Scriptures. Not an audible voice, but there is an inner certainty that the saints of God know as they hear or read the Bible. As our Lord himself said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:27-28). It is perhaps what John was referring to when he wrote, “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself” (1 Jn. 5:10). We need that witness, that certainty, if we are going to open up our hearts to Christ as we ought. You are not going to be seeking the kind of fellowship that Paul is praying for in Ephesians 3:17 if your attitude toward Jesus is to try him for a while and see if it works out. No, you will not seek this indwelling unless you are absolutely convinced that he is the only one who can fill your heart. And that is the attitude of faith, of confidence in the reliability and trustworthiness of God’s word.
Jesus Christ is worthy of your confidence. We are all aware of his competitors. But to put your trust in his competitors is like putting your trust in an idol. Why would you put your trust in something that ultimately owes its existence to Christ anyway? Why live for power when all power ultimately belongs to Christ? Any power we grasp from him and take unlawfully or as a way to gratify our desire for self-worship will have to be eventually surrendered under judgement anyway. And so with all his other competitors. Why live for pleasure apart from Christ when true pleasure is found only in Christ? Why live for fame when all fame justly and ultimately belongs to Jesus? Why live for philosophy when all truth is found in the Word of God, the Word made flesh?
And then the fellowship of Jesus Christ is far more to be desired than the possession of any earthly, temporary pleasure or accomplishment. Moreover, it is the testimony of millions of believers over the past 2,000 years in every part of the world that this is no shadow of a dream. It is spiritual reality. It is not a self-induced spiritual experience, but a real experience of fellowship with the risen Son of God, our Lord and Savior. If you belong to him, the fact of the matter is that he desires your fellowship. He stands at the door and knocks; those who open and invite him in will enjoy the company of our living Savior.
How does it stand with you? Does Christ dwell in your heart by faith?