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Whenever you talk about a sentimental Christian tradition not found in the Bible, you run the risk of offending people. Speaking the truth in love should always be more than Christian-speak (Ephesians 4:15); it should be a way of life. My hope in this piece is to be both loving and theological.
Recently, a supporting member asked my opinion on the Christian cliche of “asking Jesus into your heart” as the way of becoming a Christian. This “saying” has been around for a few centuries now, though its popularity grew during the last part of the 20th century.
This formula is not found in the Bible as far as an evangelistic approach. Paul does tell the Ephesians that Christ should dwell in their hearts, but that is not an evangelistic appeal. He’s talking to Christians (Ephesians 3:17). John gives us the word picture in Revelation 3:20 that Christ is knocking at the door, and if you open it, He will come in and eat with you. John does not say, “Ask Him into your heart.”
I’m not sure how or why some Christians trimmed the Ordo Salutis down to asking Jesus into your heart. Perhaps, in our evangelistic desires to simplify Christianity so a five-year-old could understand it, we popularized this formula.
There is always a danger when we codify ideas in that, after a while, the idea loses its original meaning or intention. We saw this with the popularization of the W.W.J.D. bracelets at the end of the last century.
I doubt many of the bracelet-wearing believers knew the saying came from 1 Peter 2:21, where Peter said that Christians are called to suffer. W.W.J.D is about dying by taking up your cross and following Jesus into persecution.
Though some Christians understood this, most did not. It was a fad that disappeared, though the “call to die” is never a fad; it’s a sober reminder for you to self-assess to see if you’re a counter-cultural alien living for another King and you’re willing to die for the little and big things for His sake.
The presentation of the gospel shifted last century from the proclamation of the gospel to a personal invitation. The gospel presentation became Jesus and the believer sitting in a salvific silo, with the asker leading the conversation.
It’s analogous to walking up to your fast-food counter and the person standing behind the register asks you what you would like today. You choose according to your current craving. “I will take one Jesus to go, please.”
The New Testament never presents the gospel this way. Believers proclaim the gospel, and unbelievers repent (Acts 3:19). Rather than an inverted gospel, the analogy should be like a person walking up to the cash register, and the person behind the counter proclaims, “Marvel not that I said to you that you must be born again” (John 3:7). And the power of the gospel sweeps over you, and you’re compelled to repent and believe (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
There is no question that an unbeliever can become a believer by “asking Jesus into his heart.” In such cases, the petitioner knows he’s a sinner bound for hell (Romans 6:23; Revelation 20:15), Christ is the only one who can save him (John 14:6), and there is nothing he can do–apart from Christ–to earn salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9).
More than likely, this kind of young convert is not as clear as he will be later when he understands the Bible in a fuller way. But even in his infantile theological understanding, he must know more than, “Jesus, will you come into my heart.”
I probably asked Jesus into my heart in 1984, though I don’t remember any longer because I’m old, and that was a long time ago. But because I live at the epicenter of cultural Christianity, I’m sure that phrase was part of my understanding, if not my practice.
What I do remember is that I knew I was hopeless and Jesus was the Savior. I knew if He did not save me, I would go to hell after living a miserable life on earth. I wanted a new way to live and believed Jesus was the way. I wanted to follow Him for the rest of my life.
I did not know John 3:16 when God saved me and did not use Bible words to become a Christian. Things like repenting, confessing, adoption, regeneration, and justification were just as foreign as the Russian language is to me today.
On the one hand, it’s not about the words, and on the other hand, it’s about what you know (Romans 10:17). Salvation is never a formula, as in, repeat after me. You may pack your prayer with the biggest and best words in the theological dictionary and die in your sins and go to a Christless eternity.
The inverted “Jesus come into my heart” method implies, “It is my believing that makes Jesus my Savior.” This kind of introverted individualism flips the gospel on its head where you make Jesus Lord of your life. “I asked Jesus to be my Lord.” Jesus is your Lord whether you ask Him or not. He is the Lord of the universe. You may accept or reject Him, but He is Lord of all.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
You don’t make Jesus Lord, but He makes you a believer. It is no longer about you asking Him into your heart, but it’s Him entering your heart by His power and making you a believer by the same gospel power. The beginning of your salvation is His decision to make you alive in Him (Ephesians 1:3-5, 2:1-5). This discussion is more than a tussle over starting points: did God initiate my salvation, or did I? This is a worldview.
Perhaps in your “newborn babe” spiritual state (1 Peter 2:2; Hebrews 5:12-14), you thought you made Him your personal Savior, but as you have matured in the faith, you learned that it was Him all along who knocked down the doors of your heart. He was Lord of all before He saved you, and He continues to be Lord of all creation. You never tell Him what to do.
To believe you asked Jesus into your heart in a formulaic way to salvation is like wearing blinders. Christ is small to this person. Jesus’s role is to respond to the individual’s requests rather than the dead soul being made alive and submitting to His will.
Too often these believers are disappointed with God because they “let Jesus into their hearts” and their lives did not go according to their expectations. They “tried Jesus,” and He did not meet their predetermined notion of how He should respond to them.
Asking the “formulaic Jesus” into your heart diminishes Him who holds all things together by His power (Colossians 1:16). It makes Him your errand boy. And though you may reduce Jesus to a formula and even coerce a “salvation experience” out of someone because they said the magic words, that is not how salvation works.
When the Lord comes, He overwhelms you as He gives you the faith to believe. You say “yes” to Him because you cannot do otherwise (2 Timothy 2:24-25). It is precisely because of this “inverting problem” that I don’t say, “I got saved.” I typically say, “God regenerated me” or “God saved me.” The point of focus is always on the one doing the saving, not the one who receives salvation. God is the subject, and I’m the object of His love: God saved me (John 3:16).
It is possible a person will read this and question their salvation because they did not say the right words. There are no right words if you think the words save you. Christ saves you. The better questions to ask are, “Did God save you?” And “What is the basis of your salvation?”
If you are questioning your salvation, please talk to your pastor, small group leader, or some other competent Christian.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).