I used to think I was alone in my doubts, but whenever I talked about this I would have such a slew of people tell me they shared this experience that I concluded it was endemic. So I wrote Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart for the many people in our churches struggling with assurance.
Part of the problem comes from the shorthand, clichéd ways we speak of the gospel. The usual evangelical shorthand for the gospel is to “ask Jesus into your heart” or to pray the “sinner’s prayer.” Shorthand is fine insofar as everyone knows what the shorthand refers to. But in our day “the sinner’s prayer” has often become a substitute for repentance and belief.
Biblical Concept or Protestant Ritual?
To be clear: I am not saying that the sinner’s prayer is wrong in itself. After all, repentance and belief are in themselves a cry to God for mercy. Jesus presents the repentant tax collector being converted through the prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). If you do not press for a decision when you preach the gospel, you haven’t fully preached the gospel, because the gospel in its very essence calls for a response. 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)!
I am saying that the sinner’s prayer has become a Protestant ritual that people often go through without considering what the prayer is supposed to embody. God doesn’t give salvation in response to a prayer; he gives it through the instruments of repentance and faith. Faith can be present without the prayer, and the prayer without the faith.
We must get this right, because our spiritual lives will never take off until we have the assurance of our salvation. How can we let go of everything for Jesus until we know that Jesus really belongs to us? How will we ever embrace the pain of the cross if we are not assured of the joy of resurrection? Many of our people can’t surrender it all simply because they don’t have the joy of assurance.
False Assurance from Mere Verbal Confession
On the other hand, I am concerned for a lot of people in our churches that are falsely assured of their salvation based on a prayer someone told them would punch their ticket for heaven. The group in Matthew 7 turned away from heaven with the terrifying words, “Depart from me; I never knew you,” will all have prayed a prayer. This group must be woken up with the commands to repent and believe.
So I wrote Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, you might say, to comfort the unnecessarily troubled and trouble the unjustifiably comforted.