Your child lies in her snuggly warm bed and says, “Yes, Daddy. I want to ask Jesus into my heart.” You lead her in “the prayer” and hope that it sticks. You spend the next ten years questioning if she really, really meant it. Puberty hits and you only have more questions. She turns away from faith. You spend the next ten years praying that she will come to her senses. What went wrong? Of course, there is no way to guarantee that an early acceptance of the gospel will stick, and parents should not feel defeated when their adolescents question or even rebel against what they have been taught from a young age. However, we can be careful to avoid language that would give our children a false understanding of the gospel or a false impression about their own condition. If you’ve grown up in church setting, you have probably heard the phrase “ask Jesus into your heart” a thousand times—at evangelistic meetings or at the end of impassioned sermons. Perhaps you have seen it modeled as part of a gospel presentation. I have come to believe that the phrase “ask Jesus into your heart” can be dangerous way of calling someone to faith. Here are a few reasons why:
1. This kind of figurative language is not appropriate for most children. Little children think literally, and they can be confused (or even frightened) at the prospect of asking Jesus into their heart. Does Jesus reside in my blood-pumping organ? Does he live in the upper or lower ventricle?
2. Salvation does not result from our asking but from what Jesus has done. We must encourage children to look away from themselves to Jesus Christ. Jesus took the punishment for our sin by bearing the punishment we deserve to the cross (Galatians 3:13). He makes us right with God because he lives to speak to the Father on our behalf (Romans 4:25; 1 John 2:1). His doing is the only thing worth trusting, because it alone saves.
3. The gospel is NOT primarily about Jesus’ work in our heart but about Jesus’ work in history. When speaking about the gospel to children, our temptation is to focus on the child’s inner condition—their personal struggles with sin and obedience. Language like “asking Jesus into your heart” tempts children to see the gospel more as what God is doing in me now, rather than what God did for me then. While it is a Biblical truth that Christ is present with the Christian by his Spirit (Colossians 1:27; Ephesians 3:17), the work in our hearts is secondary. When talking to a child about the gospel, you must put your emphasis on the gospel as an historical fact.
4. The gospel appeals to more than our emotions. The phrase “ask Jesus into your heart” comes from a movement in the church called revivalism. This movement was very adept at reaching people on an emotional level, but our personal faith is more than an emotion. While it is not wrong for faith to move us on an emotional level, it is not as right as it could be. Salvation is not just saying yes to a relationship with Jesus. Rather, it is finally resting in Christ. It is trusting that God is true and faithful, and he has fulfilled his promises to save humanity in Jesus Christ.
5. Over-emphasizing a change of heart can actually discourage a child. If we teach children only about the personal change that God does in hearts then we may inadvertently discourage them. When these children become aware of their sins, they may become introspective and worry, “How can Jesus live in my heart when I still get so angry?” Once again, children must be taught to look outside of themselves to the love and forgiveness that comes because of Christ’s death and resurrection (Galatians 2:20). As Octavius Winslow says, “One simple believing [look at] Christ will produce more light and peace and joy than a lifetime of looking within ourselves for evidences and signs of grace.”
6. The phrase “ask Jesus into your heart” is neither commanded in the Scriptures nor found as a description of conversion. Some may say, “But what about Revelation 3:20?” Many quote this verse and take it to mean that Jesus is standing at the door of our hearts begging to come in. Revelation 3:20 states, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.” The verse is used as a justification for the need to pray an “ask Jesus into your heart” prayer. The problem with this understanding of this verse is that it misses the larger context. When looking closely at this passage, the broader message of repentance and faith is clear (see number 7 in the next post). We misuse Revelation 3:20 if we lead children to pray a “sinner’s prayer” or “ask Jesus into their heart” without their fully understanding and owning the gospel’s demands for repentance and faith.
7. God only saves those who turn away from sin and delight in his Son. In Revelation 3:14-22, Jesus speaks to the church in Laodicea. He rebukes the church for being “lukewarm” in their love toward him (3:16). Drawing on imagery from the prophet Hosea, he compares this church to an adulterous young girl who pursued lovers because of their riches. She thinks herself to be wealthy and has no need for her Savior husband, but when her wealth runs out, she is exposed as pitiful, poor, and blind (Hosea 2:3; 3:1; 12:8; Revelation 3:17). As a scorned husband, Christ pleads with the church to repent from false lovers and delight in him again (Revelation 3:19-20). He knocks on the door of his bride’s bedchamber, the door of the church, (Song of Solomon 5:2-3), and he promises to renew their marriage by covering her shame and preparing a wedding feast (Revelation 3:18, 20). Jesus is calling the church and the individuals in it to turn away from their sinful pursuits and pursue him. He wants to be their delight, and he requires total repentance (3:17).
8. Leading a child in a “sinner’s prayer” may give the child false assurance. We must never give our children the impression that a prayer for mercy (a “sinner’s prayer”) guarantees their eternal destiny. It does not. Human hearts long to find assurance in things that we can manipulate – our own knowledge, emotional experiences, prayers, or our works. We must discourage children from seeking assurance in such things, and we must never give false assurances. False assurances can endanger a child’s soul (Matthew 25:31-46). Without true repentance and faith, there is not a true conversion, and “the last state is worse than the first if the ‘convert’ becomes disillusioned and hardened against the real gospel.”
9. Finally, this presentation robs God of his sovereignty. It presents God as a beggar hoping that the child will let him into her busy life. The Bible does not present God in this way. In the Scriptures, our God not only waits and watches, but he actively saves (Ephesians 2; John 14). We can trust God to work in the hearts of his children to bring them to himself through faith, in his time and in his ways. Our responsibility is to faithfully tell the gospel to them and leave the results to the Lord (John 1:12-13). We can trust that the Holy Spirit will assure those who are truly changed (Romans 8:16). Conversion is God’s work in the believer. It is not simply a decision on the believer’s part.
Resources: Title and opening story adapted from Todd Friel’s “Ten Reasons To Not Ask Jesus Into Your Heart” (April 15, 2005), GalatiansC4V16 Blog; Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, (IVP, 2006), 176-77; The Albert Mohler Radio Program (August 8, 2007); Octavius Winslow, Soul-Depths and Soul-Heights, (Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), 4; G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 304, 308; Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, (IVP, 2006), 177.