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Should we stop asking Jesus into our hearts?

J. D. Greear says “yes,” if we think that continually asking Jesus into our hearts is the way we make sure we’re saved. He has written a short and accessible book called Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved. If you’ve ever counseled people who are constantly questioning the sincerity of their faith or the legitimacy of their salvation, you’ll want to read and recommend this book. It’s one of the best books on assurance I’ve come across.

J.D. is pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh, NC and the author of Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary. He joins me today for a discussion about the central thesis of his book.

Trevin Wax: There’s been a lot of conversation about the legitimacy of the sinner’s prayer in how we lead people to put their faith in Christ. What concerns do you have about this conversation and its implications in evangelism and outreach?

J. D. Greear: A lot of the controversy concerning the sinner’s prayer began following some comments by David Platt, who was reported to say the sinner’s prayer was superstitious and unbiblical. I would not agree with that statement on the surface of it, as a sinner’s prayer is very biblical. But what David meant, I believe, was that for many evangelicals, securing salvation has become something like a Protestant ritual or sacrament, which if you do correctly punches your ticket for heaven. It functions something like a “Southern Baptist Confirmation.” I agree that this is not a biblical view of true conversion.

God never promises to give salvation to someone because they pray some magical words or because they went through a ceremony at the altar of their church. God gives salvation to those who repent and believe the gospel. It is natural to express repentance and faith in a prayer, but you can repent and believe without “praying the prayer,” per se, and you can pray the prayer without repenting and believing.

It’s not the prayer that saves; it’s the repentance and faith behind the prayer that lays hold of salvation. My concern is that over-emphasizing the prayer has often (though unintentionally) obscured the primary instruments for laying hold of salvation: repentance and faith.

I did not write this book to engage in that controversy, however – the subject and title were chosen long before the controversy sprang up. I wrote this book to help people find assurance – to tell people like me who ask Jesus into their hearts over and over they can stop doing that and start resting in the promises of the gospel. I wrote this book because there are a lot of people who can’t seem to find assurance no matter how many times they pray the prayer, and others who have a false assurance based on the fact that they went through a ritual with their pastor. I wrote the book to bring comfort to the unnecessarily troubled, and to trouble the unjustifiably comforted.

Trevin Wax: You tell people to “stop asking Jesus into their hearts” and yet almost weekly you lead people in a sinner’s prayer. How do you reconcile this? Are you referring to the moment of salvation or to life after conversion?

J. D. Greear: I certainly do not want to discourage people from pressing for a decision when the gospel is preached. Each time the gospel is preached, that invitation ought to be extended and a decision should be called for (John 1:12; Matthew 11:28; Revelation 22:17). In fact, if we do not urge the hearer to respond personally to God’s offer in Christ, we have not fully preached the gospel.

It makes sense to express these things in a prayer, as repentance and faith in Christ are in themselves a cry to God for salvation. I am not trying to say that the sinner’s prayer is wrong in itself. After all, salvation is essentially a cry for mercy to God: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Paul says that those who call on God’s name will be saved.

I’m not even against the language of asking Jesus into your heart, because – if understood correctly – this is a biblical concept (cf. Rom 8:9-11; Gal 2:20; Eph 3:17).

The point is that these prayers merely verbalize the posture of repentance and faith. That is what must be clear.

Trevin Wax: Why is it that we seem to have “assurance issues” in evangelical churches? On the one hand, there are lots of people who never wonder about their salvation, although they probably should. On the other hand, there are lots of people who wonder about their salvation, although they probably shouldn’t. Why is this? 

J. D. Greear: Yes, that’s a perfect summation of the problem. I think it’s exacerbated by the clichéd, truncated, and often sloppy ways we present the gospel. On this issue, the most important issue on earth, we have to be absolutely clear.

Shorthand phrases for the gospel can serve a good purpose, as long as everyone knows what the shorthand means. It is obvious, however, that in the case of the sinner’s prayer, most people don’t anymore. Surveys show that more than 50% of people in the U.S. have prayed a sinner’s prayer and think they’re going to heaven because of it, even though there is no detectable difference in their lifestyles from those outside of the church.

Thus, since so many people are assured of a salvation they give no evidence of possessing on the basis of a prayer ritual they didn’t understand, I believe it is time to put the shorthand aside, or at least make sure we go to great pains to clarify what we mean by the shorthand. We need to preach salvation by repentance before God and faith in the finished work of Christ. At the very least, when inviting people to pray the prayer, as I often do, we need to be careful to explain exactly what we mean.

Trevin Wax: You claim that evangelicals have sometimes been so focused on the moment of salvation that we downplay the posture of repentance and faith that should be always characteristic of a Christian’s life. Do you think there’s the possibility we will swing the pendulum to the other side, downplaying the moment of salvation and dampening our evangelistic fervor?

J. D. Greear: Certainly, and you can see it happen in many circles which are otherwise scrupulous about doctrinal correctness.

Again, I’ll say that if you do not make the gospel’s invitation clear when you preach the gospel, you haven’t really preached the gospel. The gospel in its very essence demands a response. And if you don’t press for a decision when you preach the gospel, you have violated the spirit of the gospel, I believe. The gospel is an invitation. How can you preach it without urging your hearer’s to accept the invitation?

Thus, as I noted above, I try to press for a decision every time I preach the gospel. The greatest evangelists in history (even the Reformed ones, like Whitefield, Spurgeon and Bunyan) pressed urgently for immediate decisions and even urged hearers to pray a prayer along with them.

In the book I compare the moment of conversion to 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. That should not diminish the fact that people who are standing should be pressed to decide to sit down (if the situation demanded it). The point is that the resulting posture matters, not the moment of decision.

The world is divided into two categories: some are “standing” in rebellion against the lordship of Jesus, standing in hopes of their own righteousness to merit favor with God; others are “seated” in submission, resting on his finished work. How does pointing that out diminish the call for those standing to be seated? It certainly shouldn’t.

In fact, if we stop stressing about getting the initial moment absolutely perfect, we can be freed up to evangelize without the fear of messing up the “magic moment.” Don’t get me wrong: there is a moment when a person goes from not believing to believing, and this is a crucial moment. But by placing so much weight on the experience of that moment, we can be tempted to manipulate people into having emotional responses that are insincere.

You see, when we see faith as only a prayer, we don’t take the need for discipleship seriously. In our haste to boast about the numbers of people who prayed the prayer and got baptized, we fail to consider the number that really matters – the number of disciples we create. Disciples of Jesus are the ones who are saved; not those who go through a ritual. I’m not against reporting numbers, but we should make sure we are celebrating the right ones!

Trevin Wax: What circumstances brought about the writing of this book? What do you hope it will accomplish?

J. D. Greear: A large motivation behind this book was the need I felt from many in my church who consistently ask questions about being certain of their salvation. And this is not some foreign concept to me personally: I was once one of those people constantly unsure of my own salvation. I prayed the sinner’s prayer hundreds of times. Every time there was an altar call, I was down front. I even got baptized on four separate occasions. Honestly, it got more than a little embarrassing for everyone involved. (“Does anyone besides J.D. want to get saved today?”)

Because we have reduced conversion to a ceremonial prayer, many Christians are obsessed over whether they did it right:

  • “Was I really sorry enough?”
  • “Was that prayer a moment of total surrender?”
  • “Did I understand enough about grace?”

Like I did, many of those people secretly pray the prayer again and again. They feel better for a little while, but then the questions come back. Rinse and repeat.

The good news is that God wants us to know. Many people think that God does not want us to have assurance of salvation, as if uncertainty is a kind of carrot that he holds out in front of us to keep us acting right. Desire for heaven or fear of hell may compel some kinds of obedience, but not the kind of obedience God wants. God wants obedience that grows from love, and love can only grow in security (1 John 4:19; 5:13).

That assurance we long for comes from properly understanding the gospel. When we get that right, assurance will soon follow.

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16 thoughts on “Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart? A Conversation with J. D. Greear”

  1. Rick Patrick says:

    Based on the interview, the title is unfortunate and misleading. This is apparently the book:

    “Repent and Believe: Truly Ask Jesus Into Your Heart”

  2. J.D. Greear says:

    Patrick, thanks for the suggestion. I did not write the book to engage in the controversy. In fact, the book title was chosen and locked in a long time before the controversy emerged. I wrote this book to help people find assurance—to tell people like me who ask Jesus into their hearts over and over they can stop doing that and start resting in the promises of the gospel.

    1. Chris Tolbert says:

      Seems like you had already stated that in the interview. Those with an ax to grind will always find a stone to grind it on.

      I’m grateful for your desire to teach on biblical assurance. I’ve been the one who “asked Jesus into my heart” each week in case it didn’t stick the week before. I didn’t understand that part of repenting and believing is to repent of my unbelief and believe that God’s promises are true whether I feel it or not.

      Now, I don’t have to turn to the front of my Bible where I wrote the date when I prayed “the prayer” to find assurance. Instead I can turn to my Bible and know that “to all those who did receive Him, who believed in His name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

      Grace and peace to you, Brother.

  3. theoldadam says:

    Sounds like a very interesting book.

    We like to say that the last place we need to go for our assurance is inward.

    We look to the external Word that comes to us from outside of ourselves and has nothing to do with what we do, say, feel, or think.

    Thanks, so much.

  4. Josh says:

    God’s own child, I gladly say it!
    I am baptized into Christ!
    He because I could not pay it
    Gave my full redemption price!
    Do I need earth’s treasures many?
    I have one worth more than any
    That gave me salvation free
    Lasting to eternity!

  5. Beau Bredow says:

    I agree with everything you have said and others have said on the topic. The thing that I am having a hard time understanding is when someone responds to the invitation in a church service that is trusting in a prayer for salvation what to you share with them that is different from when they first prayed a prayer of salvation. If in the end they pray another prayer of salvation how do you help them to have assurance in a second prayer. I believe like me you would agree just because in the prayer of salvation a person says I repent and believe does not mean they have or do.

  6. dreiher2 says:

    I think I agree, although I have not read this book yet. Jesus never asked people to let Him into their hearts.

    I evangelize the way that Jesus evangelized in the John’s Gospel. He simply provided evidence (i.e. 8 signs) leading people to believe he was the Christ, the Messiah, and to believe in Him for everlasting life. (see John 11:25-27 and John 20:30,31). No prayer is necessary. At the moment of being convinced of the truth of Jesus’ promise, on the basis of who He was, and what He did, they have everlasting life. It is a simple matter of a moment of intellectual persuasion. . . that is, being persuaded that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the granter and guarantor of everlasting life, which can never be lost. Jesus never led people in a prayer for everlasting life.

    You cannot believe in Jesus for everlasting life, without 100% assurance that you have it! Otherwise you do not really believe Jesus. You can’t believe in His promise and not believe in His promise at the same time. John 6:47 does not say you can think you have eternal life, it says that at that moment that you believe in Him you HAVE everlasting life. If a person does not really believe in the promise Jesus makes, they do not believe in Jesus. If you believe in Jesus’ promise of everlasting life that cannot be lost, then you have that eternal life. There is nothing complicated about that.

    No 100% assurance, no belief, no eternal life.

    They all come together at the same moment, or you really don’t believe in Jesus’ promise. No sinner’s prayer is necessary.

    1. Miranda says:

      I think some of us are like the man in Mark 9:24 (“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief”). We repent and believe Jesus’ promise, but we do not “feel” like we’re saved, see growth that we think we should have, become confused by false doctrine and/or worldly philosophies, compare our “salvation experience” with every other person’s testimony that we’ve heard, etc. Praise God; our salvation is based on His sure word and not our feelings! This post was a blessing to me; I’d like to read the book, Bro Greear.

  7. If Jesus literally entered my heart, I would explode! This is because he has a human body. haha

    I get the premise, pretty much agree with it and want to read the book.

    I think a big problem is when profound things get ‘lingo-ized’ into a trite phrase or custom.

  8. Clint Adams says:

    Could references be given from someone to where Bunyan, Whitefield, and Spurgeon “urged hearers to pray a prayer along with them” so I could try to find and read these? This part may only be a reference to Spurgeon, if so I think I have a good idea where this reference is from (I think it would be multiple references from Spurgeon, if I am thinking correctly about where these references are from. If I am right, I do think that Spurgeon’s telling of people to repeat a prayer would be different than how it is used today.) You said some good things in this interview, though I do have some disagreement on some things, especially making it a practice of leading people to repeat a prayer for salvation. Thanks.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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