One of the best known and most well-loved hymns concerning the resurrection of Christ is “He Lives” whose first line says, “I Serve a Risen Savior, He’s in the World Today.” Sadly, that hymn has come under a lot of criticism over the last fifty years because of the closing words of the refrain, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” The criticism is that the hymnist is saying that the only or chief way we know that Christ is risen is through an experience of Him in our hearts. Maybe that is what the hymnist meant, but that is not what the hymn says. Let us consider a few things about that hymn.
The real controversy over this hymn seems to have begun in the early 1970’s. I was then in college and my professors were always saying things like, “We believe in objective truth.” “Truth is objective.” There was a backlash of response in those days against the subjectivism of the theology of Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian. Barth and Barthianism (the theological movement he started) emphasized that God speaks to His people today through experiences of the heart. The Scripture was not the Word of God unless God spoke to you through some emotional experience. By the same token, if God spoke to you when you saw a dead dog, that also was the Word of God. Thus, the Word of God was always in a state of flux. The ridiculousness of such a position was made into a joke that goes like this: “Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth were looking at the clouds in the sky one day. Bultmann pointed to one cloud and said, ‘It looks like an elephant to me.’ Barth said, ‘I don’t think so. It looks like a giraffe to me.’ They continued to ponder the cloud and finally Bultmann said, ‘Well, whatever it is, it is changing.’” There can be no objective truth at all where there is an overemphasis on the subjective. Truth is unchanged and unchanging. The subjective experience of truth confirms the unchanging objective truth to the true believer. Subjectivism can never determine what is true, as Barth and so many others have erroneously taught. Thus, the objective and the subjective work together to teach the same truth—the truth that is written “once for all” in the Scripture. It is an error to deny either the objective or the subjective. It is true that a believer knows Christ lives because He lives within his heart. It is also true that we know Christ lives because the Scripture tells us so. Both are true. Neither can be denied.
While preaching the memorial service for his friend and former colleague, James Waddell Alexander, on October 9, 1859 (which was held in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City) the great Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, made the following statement:
A faith founded on argument may be shaken by arguments, but a conviction arising from religious experience, that is, from a state of consciousness produced by the Spirit of God, is not to be moved. (James M. Garretson. Pastors-Teachers of Old Princeton, Banner of Truth Trust:2012, 141).
Until the objective truths of Scripture are burned into our hearts by the saving work of the Holy Spirit, we do not have that religious experience, that state of consciousness produced by the Spirit, that gives us that conviction that cannot be moved. But, once we have that religious experience, our faith is unshakeable. That is how objective truth and subjective experience of the truth work together. They hang together and fall together.
When the chief priests arrested Peter and John, an amazing thing happened. Their threats had no impact on the two apostles. Thus, the Scripture reads: “Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13, italics added for emphasis). It was not simply that they had read certain things in the Bible about Jesus, but they had been with Jesus after His resurrection. Everyone knew that Peter and John were His disciples. Now it was evident even to the Sanhedrin that these men had had a religious experience that confirmed to them that He was risen from the dead. The Sanhedrin counseled them not to speak any longer in the name of Jesus, but Peter simply retorted: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
In Galatians 2:20, Paul wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Christ lives in me, so said Paul. That is the religious experience of the truth—not just words written in a book.
In Galatians 4:19, he wrote: “My children, with whom I am in labor until Christ is formed in you.”
And here is what Paul wrote concerning the Triune God dwelling within us: “However we are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Christ Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:9-11).
God dwells in believers. Christ dwells in believers. The Holy Spirit, who raised Christ from the dead, dwells in believers. True believers do know that Christ lives because they know He is living in them.
Someone can agree with the Scripture when it says that Christ rose from the dead and yet not be a Christian. Even the demons believe and tremble. But no one can have Christ living in his heart unless he is a Christian. Only true believers can be indwelt by the Spirit of God, by Christ and by the Spirit of Christ. When that happens a person is born again. His theology is transformed from the mind to the heart. He both knows and he experiences the truth. A regenerate person does not know different truths. He knows the truth of God in a different way. He knows it from the heart.
Romans 6:17 says: “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” There is both the objective and subjective aspects combined together in perfect harmony. There is an objective form of teaching to which every regenerate person is committed from the heart. One without the other is worthless. Both are essential.
So concerning the hymn, “He lives,” does Christ really live in the heart of a believer? Absolutely. Is that the only way we know that Christ has risen from the dead? Of course not. Both the Bible and Christian experience confirm the resurrection. Does Christ live in your heart? He is risen from the dead indeed. Does He live in you?
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
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