Christ in the Heart

In this article Andrew Young helps us think about what it means to have Christ dwelling within us. This is the first of a three part series on this subject.


Like many others, my spiritual development has been greatly influenced by the late Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. His published expositions of Scripture have been my constant companions since I was first introduced to them in the early 1970s. They are an unfailing source of inspiration, instruction and encouragement and have been largely instrumental in shaping my understanding of the Christian life.

Dr Lloyd-Jones, a Welshman by birth, was one of the outstanding preachers of the 20th century. Crowds flocked to Westminster Chapel in London to hear his stirring expositions of the Bible for nearly 25 years. He was a thorough, analytical student of the Scriptures, yet was never dull or academic. He believed that the only proper way to teach the Bible was to preach it – that is, to explain its message in a way that affected the heart and addressed practical life issues.

Many of his sermons have been preserved in written form, among them his monumental series on Paul’s letters to the Romans and Ephesians. These two series have been of great help to me, especially the 24 sermons on Ephesians 3:1-21 published in the volume called The Unsearchable Riches of Christ.[1] They contain the finest explanation I know of the indwelling presence of Christ in the Christian’s heart.

Like Lloyd-Jones, I believe that this reality – the indwelling of Christ in the believer’s heart – is the high-point of Christian experience. And like him also, I believe that Christians today don’t appreciate it as they should. As a result of this many are failing to enjoy the abundant life that Jesus came to give.

In what follows I have attempted to summarize and develop Lloyd-Jones’ insights on this important doctrine. I have not tried to be exhaustive, presenting every point that he makes about Christ’s presence with the believer. Nor have I organized his ideas in exactly the same way that he did. Instead, I have tried to grasp the core of his understanding and express it in a way that can be easily followed and remembered. In doing so I sincerely hope that others will be stirred to seek a deeper experience of the reality of Christ’s indwelling presence in their lives.

The Nature of Christ's Indwelling

Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus (and others for whom this letter might have been written), that he prays for them in the following way:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14-19).

This seemingly complex prayer has three main parts. The first is Paul’s specific request – that God would strengthen the Ephesian Christians in their inner being through his Spirit. The second describes the purpose he has in mind in making this request – so that Christ might dwell in their hearts through faith. Then thirdly, he outlines the ultimate results that will follow from this – they would come to comprehend and know the love of Christ and so be “filled with all the fullness of God.”

Christ Dwelling in the Heart

Although the idea of Christ dwelling in the heart doesn’t come first in the prayer, it is central to what the apostle has in mind. It is for this reason that Paul asks God to strengthen the Ephesians and it is through this that believers in general come to understand and experience the love of Christ. And in this way they rise to the highest peak of Christian experience, namely, they are filled with the fullness of God.

What, then, does Paul mean when he prays that his readers might know Christ “dwelling in their hearts”? They were true Christians already, after all, and as such were united to the Lord Jesus and had him dwelling in their hearts. Jesus had promised that this would be true of all his followers. Before leaving his disciples he told them that if they loved him and kept his commands, both he and the Father would come and make their home with them (John 14:21, 23). This had been fulfilled at Pentecost when he returned to them through the Holy Spirit. And the Ephesian Christians, living as they were after that event, had also received the gift of the Spirit and been sealed with him when they believed (Ephesians 1: 13). What more, then, could they experience?

Lloyd-Jones says that what Paul is asking for them here is not something entirely new, but a deeper experience of what they already had. Christ was already dwelling in them, but Paul longed that they might know this more fully and that Jesus might have a more profound influence in their lives. To use Lloyd-Jones’ words,

He seems to say: I know that you are Christians, I know that there is a sense in which Christ is in you, for you cannot be Christians without being united with Him as your Head. I know that you are in Him and that He is in you; but beyond that, do you know Him? Is Christ himself at the centre of your life; is He actually real to you and known to you? Or is He someone who is vaguely in the distance, someone whom you approach only in terms of belief? Has He really manifested Himself to you?[2]

This is the real point at issue. Christ might be in the heart, but is he – the living, personal, glorious Lord Jesus – actually “manifesting himself” in us (see John 14:21)? Is he making his presence known? Is he a living, powerful reality within us who is influencing everything we say and do? Is he, as Lloyd-Jones emphasizes, actually “dwelling” in our hearts?

Two things are especially important here. The first is the place where Jesus is said to dwell – the “heart.” The Bible typically uses this term to speak of our innermost being, the seat of our life and actions. People dispute whether this approximates the human soul or spirit, but we need not be distracted by such uncertainties. What matters most is that biblically-speaking, the heart is the core of our lives. It is from the heart that our thoughts, words and actions proceed (Mark 7: 21, 22). To say that Jesus dwells there is to say that he resides in the inner control centre of our being.

Second, he said to “dwell” there. Lloyd-Jones understands this in two senses. “Dwelling,” he says, carries the idea of permanence. In this context, it means that Jesus settles down and takes up residence in our hearts.[3] The “dwelling” in view is not some fleeting sensation, but a permanent, personal presence of the risen Lord Jesus within us.

But more than that, the term “dwelling” also points to the active nature of his presence in the heart. Jesus is said to “dwell” in us in the sense of exerting influence. To use his own words, he promised to “manifest” himself to those he dwelt within (John 14:21). This, as Lloyd-Jones points out, is more than a concept; it is a real, personal, active presence.

When Christ manifests himself to us it is not merely a figure of speech, it is real, it is actual. It is so definite that there is not doubt at all about it… He becomes real to us as a person. We get to know him in a personal sense… It means that He himself in some mystical sense that we cannot begin to understand really does dwell in us.[4]

The way in which Jesus’ active presence shows, Lloyd-Jones argues, is in the way he controls and influences what we do. He so influences our thoughts, feelings and actions that his life within actually becomes the source of our own life. It is not that he takes over every function so that we no longer think of choose or desire ourselves. But he so influences us that our thoughts and our desires bear the stamp of his own character (see Phil. 2:12, 13). We become increasingly like Christ and increasingly devote ourselves to doing what he would have us do.[5] Or as Paul puts it elsewhere, we begin to display the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, 23).

Lloyd-Jones describes it this way:

You can have Christ in your mind and in your intellect and still not be able to say ‘I live, yet not I…’ Paul’s desire is that Christ may also dwell in their affections, that Christ may dwell in their will, that Christ may be the dominating factor in the whole of their life, controlling it and directing it. Christ is to be the very heart of their hearts, He is to be at the very centre of their lives.[6]

The point is that although all true Christians have the Lord Jesus dwelling within them, not all are controlled and dominated by him in every part of their life. It is possible to know the Lord Jesus in one sense, and yet not know him in another. We can know we are in a relationship with him and that we have been saved by him, but we may not know him as a constant presence controlling or influencing us. Many Christians, Lloyd-Jones says,

…are certainly in the position where they have dealings with Him; but He is not at the centre of their lives. He is not really in their hearts, He is not ‘dwelling’ there, He is not ‘settled down’ there, He has not ‘taken up his abode’ there.[7]

It is this constant, settled, controlling presence of Christ in the heart that Paul prays might be true of the Ephesian Christians. He wants them to realize the possibilities that still lie before them and to experience greater intimacy with the indwelling Christ. To do so will mean a conscious sense of fellowship with the Lord and greater enjoyment of him. It will mean that they, like Paul, will be able to say truthfully, “I live, yet not I”, and “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me” (Galatians 2:20; Philippians 4:13).[8]

By Faith

Given this is the experience that Paul wants Christians to enjoy, how is it to be attained? He says in his prayer that it is something we experience “through faith”. He prays that the Ephesian Christians might be strengthened inwardly “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17, italics added).

Again, how are we to understand this expression? It seems so simple, so basic to our Christian experience that we wonder how it can explain the radically deeper experience of Christ that Paul has in view.

Lloyd-Jones is careful to remove a false understanding of what this “faith” involves. There is, he says, a common understanding that it means, “take-it-by-faith.” This teaches, he says,

…concerning this or any other experience in the Christian life, that it is ‘quite simple’, you just ‘take it by faith’; you just ‘open the door to Christ’, and He is in the heart immediately. Though you may feel nothing at all, you must convince yourself that because the word says that if you open the door He will enter in, therefore if you have opened the door, He must have entered! That you feel nothing is quite immaterial. They say you must go on ‘reckoning’ and assuming that He has entered because He says He will do so.[9]

This viewpoint, he argues, is wrong. It is based on the psychological principle of auto-persuasion. Something may not, in fact, be true, but you go on telling yourself it is until you believe it.

This, however, is surely not what Paul means by Christ dwelling in the heart “through faith.” He is not thinking of people convincing themselves that Christ is in their hearts whether it is true or not, or whether they are conscious of it being so. Rather, what he means is that we are to be constantly exercising faith in all that we know about the Lord Jesus Christ, and particularly in the fact that he dwells in our hearts. Paul was well aware that it is possible to live day after day without giving the Lord Jesus so much as a thought, let alone deliberately exercising trust in him. It is this particular failure that he is addressing in this prayer. He wants the Ephesians to live in constant, trusting belief in all that Jesus is and in all that he is able to do and to experience the fruit of that as he lives in them through his Spirit.

In doing so, they are to set their minds on him constantly and rely on him in everything. They are to look to him as the source of their life (Colossians 3:4). Like branches in a vine, they are to draw their life and sustenance from him (John 15:1-8). As they do this, the risen Lord Jesus will “dwell” within them. It is not that their faith makes him dwell in them; he is already there in the Christian’s heart. Rather, to use a theological term, it actualizes or makes real his already existing presence. Christ responds to our faith by manifesting himself in our hearts.

If I am living such a life, for example, Jesus Christ will be at the center of all that I do. I will consult him in everything; I will tell him about my fears and weaknesses; I will seek his help in every activity, and I will constantly give him the praise for everything he enables me to do. This is the kind of life the apostle Paul was speaking of when he said that he lived he lived “by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20).

It is through this kind of life that Jesus manifests his presence. While he is almighty and fully capable of overpowering us and bending us to do his will, that is not the way in which he or the Father or the Holy Spirit work. During his life on earth, Jesus demonstrated that clearly. He didn’t dominate and crush people but lived among them as one who was gentle and humble of heart (Matthew 11: 27; 12:15-21). He was ever ready to help those who genuinely sought him, but never forced himself upon anyone. Repeatedly he taught that it was faith that formed the link between his presence with people and their experience of his power in their lives.

So it is in our continuing relationship with Christ today. His presence is actualised in our experience as we exercise faith in him. As we consciously think about him, keep him before our minds, and express our trusting dependence upon him, the Lord Jesus’ through his Spirit makes his presence within us a dynamic reality. This is the kind of life that Paul wanted for the Ephesian Christians, and indeed for all Christians everywhere.

In the next installment we will consider the Means and Results of Christ's indwelling and following that the hindrances that stop us experiencing the true fruit of this reality.


[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ: An Exposition of Ephesians 3:1-21 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979).

[2] Ibid, 149.

[3] Ibid, 144.

[4] Ibid, 148. 150.

[5] Lloyd-Jones describes this as a mystical relationship in the sense that we cannot fully understand it. He describes the experience in the following way: “…it means that Christ dominates the life, it means that he rules over the whole of our activities. He is the Lord of our life in a real, practical sense. We are dominated by Him; it is some kind of Christ-intoxication.” Ibid, 162.

[6] Ibid, 147, 148.

[7] Ibid, 145.

[8] Ibid, 150.

[9] Ibid, 170.

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