By J.D. Greear
By the time I reached the age of 18, I had probably “asked Jesus into my heart” 5,000 times.
I started somewhere around age 4 when I approached my parents one Saturday morning asking how someone could know they were going to heaven.
They carefully led me down the “Romans Road to Salvation,” and I gave Jesus His first invitation into my heart.
Both my parents and my pastor felt confident of my sincerity and my grasp on the details, and so I was baptized.
We wrote the date in my Bible, and I lived in peace about the matter for nearly a decade.
One Friday night during my 9th grade year, however, my Sunday school teacher told us that according to Matthew 7:21–23 many people who think they know Jesus will awaken on that final day to the reality that He never really knew them.
Though they had prayed a prayer to receive Jesus, they had never really been born again and never taken the lordship of Jesus seriously.
They would, my teacher explained, be turned away from heaven into everlasting punishment with the disastrous words, “I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!”
Would I be one of those ones turned away? Had I really been sorry for my sins? And could I really have known what I was doing at age four?
So I asked Jesus to come into my heart again, this time with a resolve to be much more intentional about my faith. I requested re-baptism, and gave a very moving testimony in front of our congregation about getting serious with God.
Not long after that I found myself asking again: Had I really been sorry enough for my sin this time around?
There were a few sins I seemed to fall back into over and over again, no matter how many resolutions I made to do better. Was I really sorry for those sins? Was that prayer a moment of total surrender?
So I prayed the sinner’s prayer again. And again. And again. Each time trying to get it right, each time really trying to mean it.
I walked a lot of aisles during those days. I think I’ve been saved at least once in every denomination. I’ve been baptized four times. Honestly, it got pretty embarrassing. I became a staple at our church’s baptism services. I got my own locker in the baptismal changing area.
It was a wretched experience. My spiritual life was characterized by cycles of doubt, aisle-walking and submersion in water. I could not find the assurance of salvation no matter how often, or how sincerely, I asked Jesus into my heart.
I used to think I was alone in this struggle, but as I’ve shared my story over the years so many have come forward to tell me that my experience was theirs (usually minus the baptisms and the OCD tendencies) that I’ve concluded this problem is epidemic in the church.
The Falsely Assured
On the other hand, Scripture indicates there are a vast number of people who seem assured of a salvation they don’t actually possess.
My Sunday school teacher was telling us the truth: according to Matthew 7, Jesus will turn away “many” on that last day who thought they belonged to Him. There’s no doubt that many of those will have prayed a sinner’s prayer.
In His parable about the different types of soil, Jesus spoke of a group who heard His word and made an initial, encouraging response of belief, only to fade away over time.
These are those, Jesus explained, who hear the gospel and respond positively to it—pray the prayer, walk the aisle, get baptized, or do whatever new converts in your church do.
They remain in the church for a period of time. But they do not endure when the sun of persecution comes out and will not in the end be saved (Luke 8:13).
These sobering stories teach us that many are headed into eternal judgment under the delusion of going to heaven. They were told that if they prayed the prayer, Jesus would save them, seal them, and never leave nor forsake them.
A 2011 Barna study shows that nearly half of all adults in America have prayed such a prayer, and subsequently believe they are going to heaven, though many of them rarely, if ever, attend a church, read the Bible personally, or have lifestyles that differ in any significant way from those outside the church.
If the groups described in Matthew 7 and Luke 8 are not referring to them, I don’t know to whom they could be referring.
An Unhelpful Gospel Cliché?
I have begun to wonder if both problems, needless doubting and false assurance, are exacerbated by the clichéd ways in which we (as evangelicals) speak about the gospel (i.e. “ask Jesus into your heart,” “accept Jesus as Lord and Savior” or “give your heart to Jesus.”)
These phrases may not be wrong, but the Bible never tells us, specifically, to seek salvation in those ways. The biblical summation of a saving response toward Christ is repentance and belief in the gospel.
Belief means acknowledging that God told the truth about Jesus, namely that He is Lord and that He has finished forever the work of our salvation. Repentance means acting on that belief—reversing your direction based on who you understand Jesus to be.
Repentance and faith are fundamentally postures of the heart toward God. You can “ask Jesus into your heart” without repenting and believing, and you can repent and believe without articulating such a prayer.
Salvation is not a prayer you pray in a one-time ceremony and then move on from; salvation is a posture of repentance and faith you begin in a moment and maintain for the rest of your life.
Conversion to Christ is like sitting down in a chair. If you are seated right now, there was a point in time in which you transferred the weight of your body from your legs to the chair. You may not even remember making that decision, but the fact you are seated now proves that you did.
When you first assume that position, you might express it in a prayer. Or you might not. The posture is itself a cry to God for salvation, whether you articulate it or not.
But just because you prayed the prayer doesn’t mean you assumed the posture, any more than telling a chair you’re about to sit in it equates to actually sitting down.
So, when it comes to assurance, the only real question is: Are you seated in repentance toward Jesus’ Lordship and faith in His finished work now?
Two Things I Am Not Saying
I’m not saying that asking Jesus into your heart is heretical. When we are “saved,” Jesus does indeed “come into our hearts,” at least in a manner of speaking (Romans 8:9–11; Ephesians 3:17; Colossians 1:27–28; Galatians 2:20).
“Asking Jesus into your heart” is among the more biblical summations of salvation, if the concepts behind the words are understood. “Heart” in the Bible (Proverbs 4:23) is the seat of the person.
Having Jesus come into your heart, in that sense, would mean that He fuses Himself into the deepest part of who you are—that you rest your hopes upon His righteousness, lean on Him for strength, and submit to His Lordship at your core.
I’m also not saying we should not press for a decision when we present the gospel. The gospel is indeed an invitation and each time it is preached that invitation ought to be extended in some form (e.g., John 1:12; Matthew 11:28; Revelation 22:17). In fact, if we do not urge the hearer to respond personally to God’s offer in Christ, I do not believe we have fully preached the gospel.
Ultimately, my concern is not on what words or actions we might use to express our faith in Christ but that we don’t substitute those words or actions for repentance and faith.
For many, “praying the sinner’s prayer” has become something like a Protestant ritual we have people go through to enter heaven. Above all else we must emphasize the absolute indispensability of repentance and faith for salvation.
I’d like to say to those who, like me, have asked Jesus into their hearts thousands of times, that they can “stop asking Jesus into their heart” and start resting in the finished work of Christ.
Salvation comes not because you prayed a prayer correctly, but because you have leaned the hopes of your soul on the finished work of Christ.
Shorthand phrases for the gospel can serve a good purpose, insofar as everyone knows exactly what they mean.
But in light of the fact that so many in our nation seem assured of a salvation they give no evidence of having because of a prayer they prayed, and so many others are unable to find assurance no matter how often they pray that prayer, I believe it is time to put the shorthand aside and preach simply salvation by repentance toward God and faith in the finished work of Christ.
Or, at least, to be careful to explain exactly what we mean when we call for a response to the gospel.
J.D. Greear is lead pastor at the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and author of the book Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (B&H) from which this article is excerpted.