If there were a Guinness Book of World Records record for "amount of times having asked Jesus into your heart," I'm pretty sure I would hold it.
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 that 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 terrifying words, "Depart from me, you workers of iniquity. I never knew you."
I'll never forget the impact those words had on me. 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 4?
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, however, I found myself asking again: Had I really been sorry enough for my sin this time around? I'd see some people weep rivers of tears when they got saved, but I hadn't done that. Did that mean I was not really sorry? And 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? Would I have died for Jesus at that moment if he'd asked?
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 would have a moment when I felt like I got it right and experienced a temporary euphoria. But it would fade quickly and I'd question it all again. And so I'd pray again.
I walked a lot of aisles during those days. I think I've been saved at least once in every denomination.
Because I understood baptism to be a post-salvation confession of faith, each time I gained a little assurance, I felt like I should get re-baptized. Four times, total. 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 Other Side of the Problem: The Falsely Assured
On the other hand, Scripture indicates that 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.