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.
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; Matt. 5:13; John 15:6).
These sobering stories teach us that many are headed into eternal judgment under the delusion of going to heaven. Many believe their eternal destiny has been settled because of a time when they invited Jesus into their life. 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 who they could be referring to.
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) have learned to speak about the gospel. Evangelical shorthand for the gospel is to "ask Jesus into your heart," or "accept Jesus as Lord and Savior," or "give your heart to Jesus." These phrases may not be wrong in themselves, 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.
"'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' … (And Paul said) 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:30-31).
"To the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Rom. 4:5).
"Whoever believes in the Son has everlasting life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (John 3:36).
Repentance means acting on that belief. Repentance is not subsequent to belief; it is part of saving belief, like two sides of the same coin. Repentance literally means "a change of mind" (in Greek, metanoia: meta—new; noia—mind) about Jesus. Repentance means understanding that Jesus is Lord and that you have lived in cosmic treason to him and reversing your direction based on that. Repentance was the first response Jesus called for in his preaching of the gospel (Mark 1:15); the first command Peter gave to those who wanted to be saved after his first sermon (Acts 2:38); and what Paul said God had commanded all men everywhere to do now that Jesus had been resurrected (Acts 17:30). (See also Acts 3:19 and 26:20.)
Belief and repentance are the only prescribed biblical instruments for laying hold of salvation. They might be expressed in a "sinner's prayer," but they are fundamentally postures of the heart toward God. It is possible to pray a sinner's prayer and not have repented and believed. It is also possible to repent and believe without articulating such a prayer.
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.
Salvation is a posture of repentance and faith toward the finished work of Christ in which you transfer the weight of your hopes of heaven off of your own righteousness and onto Jesus Christ. It does begin in a moment, but it persists for the rest of your life. The way to know you made the decision is by the posture you are currently in. The apostle John almost always talks about "believing" in the present tense because it is something we do continually, not something we did once in the past (e.g. John 3:36; 20:27-28; 9:36-38; 1 John 5:13). The posture begins at a moment, but it persists for a lifetime.
The book of Leviticus provides a wonderful picture of this. Once a year each Jewish father would appear on behalf of the family to offer a sacrifice for sin. When the moment of sacrifice came, the father would lay his hand on the head of the sacrificial lamb and the priest would slit its throat. The resting of the hand of the man on the head of the lamb symbolized the transference of the guilt of the family onto the head of the sacrifice. As the lamb bled out, the guilt of the family was removed.
Faith is placing our hand upon the sacrificial head of Jesus. When we do so, Paul says, "our faith is counted for righteousness" (Rom. 4:5). There is a moment when we first lay our hand on the head of Jesus. It is to rest there for the rest of our lives. When we want to know if we are saved, we should look at where our "hand," our hope for heaven, is currently resting.
The Moment It Made Sense to Me
I remember the moment this finally all made sense to me. I had begun to despair that I could ever find assurance, that I could ever experience a moment that would establish once and for all that I was born again. A friend directed me to Martin Luther, whom he said had gone through his own bitter struggle with assurance. I went to the library and checked out Luther's commentary on the book of Romans. I'll never forget that night reading his words on Romans 10:9:
Paul says, "If thou … shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." That is true, for, as we read in 4:25, "Christ was delivered for our offenses, and raised again for our justification." Whoever believes these two facts will be saved. … We obtain the true righteousness of God by believing sincerely the promises of God, as we read in 4:3, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness."
In that moment, at last, it all made sense. Salvation was obtained by simply resting on the two "facts" God had promised about Jesus: he was crucified as the payment for our sins; he was resurrected as proof that God accepted the payment. Just as Abraham was saved by believing God would keep his word, I was saved by believing he had.
Those two facts were true whether I believed them or not, but when I rested my weight upon them—that is, when I placed my hopes for heaven on his finished work—they became mine.
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 actually sitting down.
So, when it comes to assurance, the only real question is: Is your hand resting on Jesus' head now?
Clarifying Two Things I Am Not Saying
I am 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 (see, for example, Romans 8:9-11; Ephesians 3:17; Colossians 1:27-28; Galatians 2:20). But there are lots of other things that happen at the moment of salvation, too: we are washed in Jesus' blood, sealed by his Spirit, guaranteed a dwelling place in the new heaven, grafted into the vine, have our names written in the Lamb's Book of Life, Satan's claims against us are nullified, etc. Asking Jesus to do any one of these for us at the moment of salvation is not heretical, but by focusing on any one of them we run the risk of obscuring the one thing necessary for salvation—a posture of repentance toward and faith in his finished work (Mark 1:15; John 3:36; Rom. 4:5; 10:9-10).
For example, if we go around telling people that if they want to be saved they should ask Jesus to "begin construction on their home in heaven," or "put my name in the Lamb's Book of Life," that would not be wrong, per se (John 14:1-3), but it could be misleading. People with no remorse for their sin might still be excited about Jesus providing them with an eternal vacation home or getting their name onto some heavenly honor-roll list. By highlighting one or two of the things Jesus said he'd do for us at salvation we might obscure the one thing Jesus said we must do to be saved: repent and believe.
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. "Praying the sinner's prayer" has become something like a Protestant "ritual" we have people go through to gain entry into heaven. As "gospel shorthand," it presents salvation as a transaction one conducts with Jesus and moves on from rather than the beginning of a posture we take toward the finished work of Christ and maintain for the rest of our lives.
I'm also not saying that we should not press for a decision when we preach the gospel. Preachers in the revivalist traditions called for sinners to respond immediately to the gospel. That response often took the form of walking an aisle or asking Jesus into one's heart. While this may not be my preferred technique, 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; Matt. 11:28; Rev. 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.
Calling on sinners to seek salvation on the spot is not something invented by the Finney-revivalist tradition. Throughout history, even some of the most Reformed evangelists have invited hearers to pray a sinner's prayer. Charles Spurgeon said at the conclusion of one of his sermons:
Before you leave this place, breathe an earnest prayer to God, saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner. Lord, I need to be saved. Save me. I call upon your name." Join with me in prayer at this moment, I entreat you. Join with me while I put words into your mouths, and speak them on your behalf—"Lord, I am guilty. I deserve your wrath. Lord, I cannot save myself … I cast myself wholly upon you, O Lord. I trust the blood and righteousness of your dear Son; I trust your mercy, and your love, and your power, as they are revealed in him. I dare to lay hold upon this word of yours, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Lord, save me tonight, for Jesus' sake. Amen."
So did George Whitefield. John Bunyan described one of his characters, "Hopeful," being led through a sinner's prayer by another, "Faithful." The apostle Peter invited 3,000 people to come forward for baptism in response to his first sermon. Ananias led Paul to call on God's name for forgiveness of sins after their first conversation (Acts 22:16).
So I am not, in any way, trying to discourage calling for a decision when we present the gospel. I am saying that above all else we must emphasize the absolute indispensability of repentance and faith for salvation.
I am also saying 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 is not given because you prayed a prayer correctly, but because you have leaned the hopes of your soul on the finished work of Christ. When and how you began the posture of repentance and faith is less important than that you are in that posture now.
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 country seem assured of a salvation they give no evidence of having, and so many others are unable to find assurance no matter how often they pray the 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.
The apostle John described a large group of people who "believed in Jesus" but to whom Jesus would not commit himself because he knew "what was in them" (John 2:23-25). He knew their belief was a temporary fad and not something that would endure the test of time and trial.
Scripture teaches that salvation happens at a moment. We are born again (John 3:1-3); our sins are forgiven (Acts 22:16); Christ's righteousness is credited to us (Rom. 4:5); and we are filled with God's Spirit and baptized into his body (Acts 10:44; 1 Cor. 12:13). There was a moment that you made the decision to sit down in the chair. The way that you know made the decision, however, is not by remembering with absolute clarity the moment you made it, but because you are seated there now.
J.D. Greear is lead pastor at the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and author of the forthcoming book Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (B&H, February 2013).