Should we stop asking Jesus into our hearts?

J. D. Greear says “yes,” if we think that continually asking Jesus into our hearts is the way we make sure we’re saved. He has written a short and accessible book called Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved. If you’ve ever counseled people who are constantly questioning the sincerity of their faith or the legitimacy of their salvation, you’ll want to read and recommend this book. It’s one of the best books on assurance I’ve come across.

J.D. is pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh, NC and the author of Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary. He joins me today for a discussion about the central thesis of his book.

Trevin Wax: There’s been a lot of conversation about the legitimacy of the sinner’s prayer in how we lead people to put their faith in Christ. What concerns do you have about this conversation and its implications in evangelism and outreach?

J. D. Greear: A lot of the controversy concerning the sinner’s prayer began following some comments by David Platt, who was reported to say the sinner’s prayer was superstitious and unbiblical. I would not agree with that statement on the surface of it, as a sinner’s prayer is very biblical. But what David meant, I believe, was that for many evangelicals, securing salvation has become something like a Protestant ritual or sacrament, which if you do correctly punches your ticket for heaven. It functions something like a “Southern Baptist Confirmation.” I agree that this is not a biblical view of true conversion.

God never promises to give salvation to someone because they pray some magical words or because they went through a ceremony at the altar of their church. God gives salvation to those who repent and believe the gospel. It is natural to express repentance and faith in a prayer, but you can repent and believe without “praying the prayer,” per se, and you can pray the prayer without repenting and believing.

It’s not the prayer that saves; it’s the repentance and faith behind the prayer that lays hold of salvation. My concern is that over-emphasizing the prayer has often (though unintentionally) obscured the primary instruments for laying hold of salvation: repentance and faith.

I did not write this book to engage in that controversy, however – the subject and title were chosen long before the controversy sprang up. I wrote this book to help people find assurance – to tell people like me who ask Jesus into their hearts over and over they can stop doing that and start resting in the promises of the gospel. I wrote this book because there are a lot of people who can’t seem to find assurance no matter how many times they pray the prayer, and others who have a false assurance based on the fact that they went through a ritual with their pastor. I wrote the book to bring comfort to the unnecessarily troubled, and to trouble the unjustifiably comforted.

Trevin Wax: You tell people to “stop asking Jesus into their hearts” and yet almost weekly you lead people in a sinner’s prayer. How do you reconcile this? Are you referring to the moment of salvation or to life after conversion?

J. D. Greear: I certainly do not want to discourage people from pressing for a decision when the gospel is preached. Each time the gospel is preached, that invitation ought to be extended and a decision should be called for (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, we have not fully preached the gospel.

It makes sense to express these things in a prayer, as repentance and faith in Christ are in themselves a cry to God for salvation. I am not trying to say that the sinner’s prayer is wrong in itself. After all, salvation is essentially a cry for mercy to God: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Paul says that those who call on God’s name will be saved.

I’m not even against the language of asking Jesus into your heart, because – if understood correctly – this is a biblical concept (cf. Rom 8:9-11; Gal 2:20; Eph 3:17).

The point is that these prayers merely verbalize the posture of repentance and faith. That is what must be clear.

Trevin Wax: Why is it that we seem to have “assurance issues” in evangelical churches? On the one hand, there are lots of people who never wonder about their salvation, although they probably should. On the other hand, there are lots of people who wonder about their salvation, although they probably shouldn’t. Why is this? 

J. D. Greear: Yes, that’s a perfect summation of the problem. I think it’s exacerbated by the clichéd, truncated, and often sloppy ways we present the gospel. On this issue, the most important issue on earth, we have to be absolutely clear.

Shorthand phrases for the gospel can serve a good purpose, as long as everyone knows what the shorthand means. It is obvious, however, that in the case of the sinner’s prayer, most people don’t anymore. Surveys show that more than 50% of people in the U.S. have prayed a sinner’s prayer and think they’re going to heaven because of it, even though there is no detectable difference in their lifestyles from those outside of the church.

Thus, since so many people are assured of a salvation they give no evidence of possessing on the basis of a prayer ritual they didn’t understand, I believe it is time to put the shorthand aside, or at least make sure we go to great pains to clarify what we mean by the shorthand. We need to preach salvation by repentance before God and faith in the finished work of Christ. At the very least, when inviting people to pray the prayer, as I often do, we need to be careful to explain exactly what we mean.

Trevin Wax: You claim that evangelicals have sometimes been so focused on the moment of salvation that we downplay the posture of repentance and faith that should be always characteristic of a Christian’s life. Do you think there’s the possibility we will swing the pendulum to the other side, downplaying the moment of salvation and dampening our evangelistic fervor?

J. D. Greear: Certainly, and you can see it happen in many circles which are otherwise scrupulous about doctrinal correctness.

Again, I’ll say that if you do not make the gospel’s invitation clear when you preach the gospel, you haven’t really preached the gospel. The gospel in its very essence demands a response. And if you don’t press for a decision when you preach the gospel, you have violated the spirit of the gospel, I believe. The gospel is an invitation. How can you preach it without urging your hearer’s to accept the invitation?

Thus, as I noted above, I try to press for a decision every time I preach the gospel. The greatest evangelists in history (even the Reformed ones, like Whitefield, Spurgeon and Bunyan) pressed urgently for immediate decisions and even urged hearers to pray a prayer along with them.

In the book I compare the moment of conversion to 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. That should not diminish the fact that people who are standing should be pressed to decide to sit down (if the situation demanded it). The point is that the resulting posture matters, not the moment of decision.

The world is divided into two categories: some are “standing” in rebellion against the lordship of Jesus, standing in hopes of their own righteousness to merit favor with God; others are “seated” in submission, resting on his finished work. How does pointing that out diminish the call for those standing to be seated? It certainly shouldn’t.

In fact, if we stop stressing about getting the initial moment absolutely perfect, we can be freed up to evangelize without the fear of messing up the “magic moment.” Don’t get me wrong: there is a moment when a person goes from not believing to believing, and this is a crucial moment. But by placing so much weight on the experience of that moment, we can be tempted to manipulate people into having emotional responses that are insincere.

You see, when we see faith as only a prayer, we don’t take the need for discipleship seriously. In our haste to boast about the numbers of people who prayed the prayer and got baptized, we fail to consider the number that really matters – the number of disciples we create. Disciples of Jesus are the ones who are saved; not those who go through a ritual. I’m not against reporting numbers, but we should make sure we are celebrating the right ones!

Trevin Wax: What circumstances brought about the writing of this book? What do you hope it will accomplish?

J. D. Greear: A large motivation behind this book was the need I felt from many in my church who consistently ask questions about being certain of their salvation. And this is not some foreign concept to me personally: I was once one of those people constantly unsure of my own salvation. I prayed the sinner’s prayer hundreds of times. Every time there was an altar call, I was down front. I even got baptized on four separate occasions. Honestly, it got more than a little embarrassing for everyone involved. (“Does anyone besides J.D. want to get saved today?”)

Because we have reduced conversion to a ceremonial prayer, many Christians are obsessed over whether they did it right:

  • “Was I really sorry enough?”
  • “Was that prayer a moment of total surrender?”
  • “Did I understand enough about grace?”

Like I did, many of those people secretly pray the prayer again and again. They feel better for a little while, but then the questions come back. Rinse and repeat.

The good news is that God wants us to know. Many people think that God does not want us to have assurance of salvation, as if uncertainty is a kind of carrot that he holds out in front of us to keep us acting right. Desire for heaven or fear of hell may compel some kinds of obedience, but not the kind of obedience God wants. God wants obedience that grows from love, and love can only grow in security (1 John 4:19; 5:13).

That assurance we long for comes from properly understanding the gospel. When we get that right, assurance will soon follow.