Anxious about whether he was really saved, North Carolina pastor J. D. Greear kept asking Jesus into his heart—it must have been several thousand times, he says—until he came to put his faith in the truth of the gospel instead. The difference is subtle but fundamental, and Greear does a real service by getting it across clearly in Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (B&H Books).
Asking Jesus into your heart by praying some version of the Sinner's Prayer, in which you acknowledge your sin and need of salvation and then accept Jesus as your Savior, has become something of an evangelical ritual. It can mark the moment of salvation—"the hour I first believed," as the great hymn says. But like any ritual, we can wonder whether we've done it right—whether we were sincere enough and really meant it. At that point it becomes a kind of good work, something we do to get saved. And like every good work, it's not good enough to assure us of salvation.
Greear is not saying it's wrong to ask Jesus into your heart. He's saying it's not the same thing as believing the gospel. And if we want to be assured of salvation, it's believing the gospel that actually counts. We are saved by faith alone, not by doing a good enough job praying the Sinner's Prayer.
The Heart's Posture
It was reading Martin Luther that brought the difference into focus for him. Greear speaks in very Lutheran terms when he says, "Saving faith looks outside of itself to what Christ has done, not back onto itself at what it has done." For the gospel is not about us and the decisions we make—not even our decision to choose Christ—but ...1
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