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With the recent dust-up over whether Donald Trump prayed for salvation with prosperity gospel preacher Paula White, it is a good time to revisit the history of the “sinner’s prayer.”

Many an evangelical pastor has concluded a sermon by asking non-Christians to "ask [or receive, or invite] Jesus into their heart," or to pray a version of what some call the "sinner's prayer." But some evangelicals, including Baptist pastor David Platt (president of the SBC's International Mission Board), have in recent years criticized the sinner's prayer as unbiblical and superstitious. Surely, Platt argued in a controversial March 2012 sermon, there must be more to salvation than saying a formulaic prayer.

Platt's comments helped precipitate a debate at the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans. In a voice vote, a majority of delegates, including Platt, affirmed the sinner's prayer as "a biblical expression of repentance and faith."

The phrase "ask Jesus into your heart" is not in the Bible, although there are similar phrases there ("ye have received Christ Jesus the Lord," Col. 2.6 KJV). So where did this prayer come from?

It turns out that Anglo-American Puritans and evangelicals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used the phrase "receive Christ into your heart," or something like it, with some regularity. The great Puritan devotional writer John Flavel, for example, spoke of those who had heard the gospel but who would "receive not Christ into their hearts."

But it was just as common for pastors of that era to use the phrase to describe a Christian act of devotion. Thomas Boston, a Scottish Calvinist pastor, encouraged Christians taking communion to receive "Christ into their hearts." Benjamin Colman, the leading evangelical pastor in Boston in the early eighteenth century, wrote explicitly that Christians should "receive Christ into their hearts, and hold him forth in their lives."

The terminology of "receiving Christ into your heart" became more formalized as a non-Christian's prayer of conversion during the great missionary movement of the nineteenth century. The terminology became a useful way to explain to proselytes that they needed to make a personal decision to follow Christ.

Then there was a major uptick in the use of the actual phrase "ask Jesus into your heart" in the 1970s, perhaps as children's ministry became more formalized and leaders looked for simple ways to explain to children what a decision for Christ would entail. (And it may be in children's ministries and vacation Bible schools that one most commonly sees suspect "decisions" for Christ.)

The sinner's prayer, when placed in complete theological context, is not a vacuous incantation. But Platt is undoubtedly correct that if all someone understands is that they are "asking Jesus into their heart" so they can go to heaven, that's a pretty paltry -- perhaps dangerous -- reduction of the message of the gospel.

If potential converts (children or adults) are so unfamiliar with basic Bible doctrine that they can understand nothing more than "asking Jesus into their heart," they probably should wait to make a commitment, until they understand the gravity of sin, and Christ's offer of forgiveness. Of course, Christians should never make the gospel more complex than it needs to be, but we don't want to make it trite, either.

George Whitefield, the great eighteenth century revivalist, once published a hymn titled "A Sinner's Prayer," which reflects the kind of gravity involved in an authentic response to the gospel:

God of my salvation, hear, and help me to believe:

Simply would I now draw near, thy blessings to receive.

Full of guilt, alas I am, but to thy wounds for refuge flee;

Friend of sinners, spotless lamb, thy blood was shed for me. . .

That's a pretty good start to a mature "sinner's prayer."

 

This post comes from my archives at the Anxious Bench, Patheos.

*See also Platt's "What I Really Think About the Sinner's Prayer," Christianity Today


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16 thoughts on ““Ask Jesus into Your Heart”: A History of the Sinner’s Prayer”

  1. David says:

    How would you translate Ephesians 3:16 “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
    It seems Paul is praying that Christ would dwell in those who are already in Christ. It almost seems that this “dwelling” is what produces power by the Spirit within us to live out our faith and to walk in the fullness of God’s love (vs 19). Again, something that is for those who already believe. It seems that asking for Christ to dwell in our hearts is not a salvation prayer, but a prayer that all believers should be praying as they pursue Christ’s strength and fullness as they walk in Him. It is because we are in Him that He then dwells in us.

  2. Lewis O'Neal says:

    Good history and also Hopeful’s prayer from the Pilgrim’s Progress is pretty good. “And he bid say to this effect: God be merciful to me a sinner, and make me to know and believe in Jesus Christ; for I see, that if his righteousness had not been, or I have not faith in that righteousness, I am utterly cast away. Lord, I have heard that thou art a merciful God, and hast ordained that thy Son Jesus Christ should be the Saviour of the world; and moreover, that thou art willing to bestow him upon such a poor sinner as I am-and I am a sinner indeed. Lord, take therefore this opportunity, and magnify thy grace in the salvation of my soul, through thy Son Jesus Christ. Amen.”

  3. Rone says:

    When you see how to be born again, you have to go to the book of Acts. You cannot go to the Gospels because Jesus had not been glorified and the Holy Spirit had not been poured out. Peter did NOT stand up on the day of Pentecost and tell the crowd: “bow your heads, close your eyes and repeat after me this prayer”. In Acts 2:37 they asked what we must do to be saved? Peter replies, “REPENT and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
    Today we have complicated and compromised the gospel of Jesus Christ…it’s time to go back to what Jesus has commanded us to do….repent to the Father, believe (NOT RECEIVE HIM) in the Son and what he has done for us, be baptised in water (to wash away our sins and make us a new creation) and receive the Holy Spirit (to give us power to live the life as a disciple of Jesus).

  4. Ron says:

    “They should probably wait until they understand the gravity of sin”. Before they make a commitment? Kinda like the thief on the cross did? I thought the Holy Spirit leads us and guides and even compels us to Jesus Christ apart from a formal or informal class or indoctrination as to my understanding of sin to the degree you suggest.

    1. Ben says:

      Ah, but it appears the thief did understand the gravity of his sin; note carefully his words in Luke 23:40-41,
      40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?

      41 And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
      What a beautiful statement of repentance and faith; if there ever was a heart struck with the gravity and seriousness of sin, it’s that one.

  5. Nancy Green says:

    From your description of the vote at the SBC meeting, I understood that all the delegates including Platt, voted to approve the continued use of the so-called sinner’s prayer. That really brought me up short. The linked article stated, however, that “Since the delegates (called messengers) voted by a show of ballot, no official count was taken. Baptist Press reported that “perhaps 10-20 percent of messengers voted against it.” One delegate said he thought the percentage was more than that—perhaps as high as 40 percent.”

  6. Nancy Green says:

    Here is Platt’s article in Christianity Today (2012) detailing his position on the prayer: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/juneweb-only/david-platt-sinners-prayer.html

  7. Michael Lok says:

    I think the more dangerous and spurious phrase used to invite a person to receive Christ is ‘give your heart to Jesus’. What can that mean? If our unregenerate heart is deceitful above all things it would be like offering a thoroughly rotten tomato to a king. Where would that get you?

    1. Cédric says:

      Huh? that’s exactly how I see the conversion: I give my unregenerate rotten heart to Jesus, and in exchange he gives me a new heart…

  8. John Fairless says:

    The hymn text you quote is by Charles Wesley, not George Whitefield. Still powerful, just thought you’d like to be accurate, too!

  9. Michael LaCasse says:

    John Flavel would have given much gospel content along with the phrase you mentioned from his writings. Some invitations have so little content to them that even a JW might use it if it fits the desired purpose. The sentence is not the problem, nor the decision, but is the Holy Spirit regenerating the individual, and as time goes on there are Biblical fruit tests that will show if Jesus is really in the persons heart? Point taken that we could use more Biblical terms along with Biblical explanations.

  10. bondservant says:

    “Follow Me” seems to solve a lot of questions.

  11. Bobby Sadler says:

    Please read Matthew 16:18?

  12. Bobby Sadler says:

    Plus, No church should have a man to tell them what to do, Like SBC.

  13. chuck says:

    I like the way that George Mueller of Bristol England did it, he would speak and give an invitation for folks to meet with him and see if they really understood the decision they were going to make. It was said that it was not uncommon for him to send people away to study more and come back when they were really ready. Don’t know if that would work in every situation but it would have been neat to do a study of how his converts fared over time in their following Christ.

  14. Tom parsons says:

    I’m 70 at age 9 at Methodist church we sang:”into my heart, into my heart come into my heart Lord Jesus. Come in today,come in to stay come into my heart Lord Jesus “

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ThomasSKidd

Thomas S. Kidd, PhD


Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father  (Yale, 2017); George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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