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