Many evangelical pastors conclude sermons by urging non-Christians to “ask, receive or invite Jesus into their heart,” or to pray a version of what some call the “sinner’s prayer.”
Some evangelicals, including Baptist pastor David Platt of Birmingham, Ala., in recent years have 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” (Colossians 2.6).
So where did this prayer come from?
Anglo-American Puritans and evangelicals in the 17th and 18th centuries used the phrase “receive Christ into your heart” 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.”
However, it was just as common for pastors of that era to use the phrase to describe a Christian act of devotion.
For example, 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 18th century, wrote explicitly that Christians should “receive Christ into their hearts, and hold him forth in their lives.”
“Receiving Christ into your heart” became more formalized as a non-Christian’s prayer of conversion during the great missionary movement of the 19th century.
The terminology was 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.
This was, perhaps, the result of children’s ministry becoming more established and leaders looking for very simple ways to explain to children what a decision for Christ would entail.
Even today, in some congregations you might see “decisions” for Christ that appear suspect in children’s ministries and Vacation Bible Schools.
In these situations, children “ask Jesus into their heart” but it seems unclear if they understand fully the decision they are making.
The sinner’s prayer, when placed in complete theological context, is not a vacuous incantation.
But Platt and others are 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 even dangerous – reduction of the message of the gospel.
If potential converts, whether 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, along with Christ’s offer of forgiveness and call to discipleship.
George Whitefield, the great 18th 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.” Christians should never make the gospel more complex than it needs to be, but we don’t want to make it trite, either.
Thomas Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University and is a senior fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter: @ThomasSKidd.