“Ask Jesus into Your Heart”: A 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 some version of what some call the “sinner’s prayer.” But some evangelicals, including Baptist pastor David Platt of Birmingham, Alabama, have begun to criticize the sinner’s prayer as unbiblical and superstitious. Surely, he 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 recent 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 very 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.”

 

See also Platt’s “What I Really Think About the Sinner’s Prayer” Christianity Today

  • http://robertkreed.thoughts.com Bear Reed

    I am still holding to the definition of a sinner’s prayer from Luke 18 … v 13 & 14 pretty much clinches it.

    • Brent

      Amen, this man who was a Jew (part of God’s people) realized he was a sinner and asked God to be merciful to him. An excellent verse to explain that those who are already Christians should still be humble enough to ask for mercy when they realize their sin (Acts 8:24 is another one). But what about those who are not yet part of God’s people, I think that is the question, right? What does God expect from those who are not yet in Christ so that they will become someone who is in Christ?

  • http://uncpress.unc.edu/browse/book_detail?title_id=3056 Edward J. Blum

    Great post Tommy! I always assumed this came from Revelations 3:20 – Jesus standing at the door and knocking. That’s the passage which inspired the stained-glass window in Birmingham, Alabama, that was blown out in 1963 in the church bombing.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      Thanks–I am sure that is also one of the scriptural influences, Ed.

  • Philip Jenkins

    I was wondering if the whole phenomenon was reinforced by the vast popularity of Holman Hunt’s painting LIGHT OF THE WORLD (1853-54), which also uses the text “I stand at the door and knock”, and which appeared on countless tracts, prayer cards, etc? I don’t know this – would that have been the basis of the destroyed window in the Birmingham church? The Hunt painting certainly became a mainstay of Protestant visual culture. Hunt himself was in no sense a straightforward evangelical, or any kind of orthodox Christian.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      Yes, that is clearly another facet of the prayer’s history–but more on the “invite him in” side than asking him “into your heart.”

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  • http://www.feastingonthedeepthingsofgod.com Neil

    My Dear Mr. Kidd,

    You made your point more forcefully than you knew.

    I uncovered a minor error of fact in your post — but the point you make is stronger when the minor error is corrected. You attribute the wonderful hymn at the end to George Whitefield. That is totally plausible; it is filled with the Calvinistic emphasis on human inability and divine sovereignty for which Whitefield was well known. But when I went to find the rest of the hymn, Google showed me many, many sites in which this very hymn is attributed to Charles Wesley — The Arminian!

    Consider the implications of this fact. Eighteenth century Arminianism had a better grasp of the work of God in the salvation of men than do many ostensibly “Reformed” churches today. Men who profess themselves to be sons of the Westminster Assembly, devotees of a monergistic doctrine of salvation, five point Calvinists, find that they are in practice LESS REFORMED than Charles Wesley.

    How is the gold become dim?

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      Yes, the hymn appeared in publications by the Wesleys and other evangelicals, though not always under the title “A Sinner’s Prayer.” If Charles was the original author (which I do not doubt), he deserves credit. However, what I suggest above is true– Whitefield published the hymn in his oft-published A Collection of Hymns (p. 208 of the 1772 edition), without attribution to Wesley, as far as I can tell. This sort of thing was standard practice in 18c publishing.

    • Bob Greer

      Remember, however that the Whitefields and the Wesley were quite closely linked–John Wesley, Charles’ brother, did George Whitefield’s funeral service! They were inseparable at Oxford during school.

  • Alex Anvari

    Revelation 3:20 is addressed to believers, and from my understanding and the teachings I have found on the topic it implies lack of biblical fellowship when you arn’t following God’s commandments, which seems clear when linked to the verses before it. Thus the verse is not inherently regarding evangelism, technically the verse would be something current Christians need to work on regularly, to make sure they are not leaving Christ out of their lives.

  • Scot McKnight

    Tom,
    I was thinking not so much of Finney but Moody, Sunday and then Billy Graham, flanked as always by Bill
    Bright and the 4SL … which means 19th Century somewhat but esp the first half of the 20th Century’s version of revivalism.

    Thanks for your post; this topic interests me immensely so I’m glad you made the connection to the Puritans. I suspect the Catholics too had some “receive Christ” language.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      Thank you Scot–you’re certainly right, and there’s a much longer story here than one can tell in a single post!

  • Ron Kidd

    Thomas,
    Thanks for treating this. I’m fearful that for too long we have been guilty of getting both young and old to “pray a prayer” without a proper understanding of repentance that comes from truly comprehending the depth of our sin. And I should add, the incredible Grace that IS greater than all our sin! Ron

  • Dan

    We are told that if we “call on the name of the Lord” that we will be saved (Acts 2, Rom 10). How do we do that? Acts 22:16 “Arise and be baptized, washing away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”

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  • http://www.all-things-reformed.com Timothy G. Muse

    Your article makes some good points and ends on a good note, but readers should keep in mind the grounds of salvation depends on Christ’s work not man’s commitment. (Commitment as faith or “trust” can serve as as the instrument of salvation but not the grounds. Likewise, commitment on the part of the individual is a natural response to or fruit of salvation, but not it’s root.) Often, people can be misled or think themselves as though salvation ultimately depends on their “choice” rather than God’s choice of them as an object of His mercy. http://allthingsreformeddotcom.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/sinners-prayer/

    • Bill Tummons

      As always as soon as someone puts out a middle of the ground, balanced article, some reformed person just cant hold it in and feels the need to “educate all in the ways of Calvin” So sick of this.

  • http://michaelrjones.wordpress.com Michael

    Thanks, Thomas, for the great post. I must point out, however, that some of us have been criticizing the sinner’s prayer as “unbiblical and superstitious” for years. It is nice to hear others echoing the same sentiment.

  • http://www.colorofchrist.com Edward Blum

    Phil, good point about Hunt’s Light of the World. Birmingham’s white Jesus did have similarities to that one … and some important differences of apparel and posture. But definitely a model.

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  • http://www.dahlfred.com Karl Dahlfred

    Good post. I did my Th.M thesis research (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0082MOYDM/) on the nature and means of conversion in the theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin. I thought I might find Finney using the sinner’s prayer but he practiced something closer to today’s altar call. As Scot pointed out, it was late 19th & 20th century evangelists, etc. who developed it to its current form. David Bennett’s “The Altar Call: It’s Origin & Present Usage” (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0761818391/) is very helpful on this topic, and his follow-up book “The Sinner’s Prayer: It’s Origins and Dangers” (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1921633670/) also looks to be very good. The sinner’s prayer is THE way to become a Christian for 99.9% of Thai Christians, which presents an ever present challenge as I minister here in Thailand.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      excellent perspective and nice references, Karl. Thanks!

  • CMCaufman

    As a children’s minister I was chatting with a 10 or 11 year old who wanted to be baptized. She referred to having asked Jesus into her heart. I pointed out that of course that did not mean the muscle in her chest. Her reply: “It doesn’t?” Though the phrase is linked to work with children, it has been pointed out for years that they are very literal and the term can be misleading, as in that case it was.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      yes, I think the phrase is often used to help children, but it can also cause this kind of theological (even bodily!) confusion.

  • Mary

    This is very important to know. The devil doesn’t have to demonstrate in a profound ways a message or statement that will dilute the message of the gospel. He just needs to make a nice sounding statement like “Ask Christ into you heart” and you will be saved. Asking Jesus into any part of your body doesn’t save anyone. In Romans 1:16…gospel is the power of God for salvation. In 1 Cor 15: 3-4, Christ died for our sins accounding to the scripture, he was buried and raised on the 3rd day accounding to the scripture…was the gospel Paul preached. This is what saves people, Christ Died for our sins. Our faith that Jesus is God and died for our sins is what saves. Total trust in him and him alone. My heavens, we do need to make our message clear.

  • http://www.lutherwasnotbornagain.com Gary

    Isn’t it odd that if the Baptists and evangelicals are correct that their “born again experience” is the true and ONLY means of salvation, the term “born again” is only mentioned three times in the King James Bible? If “making a decision for Christ” is the only means of salvation, why doesn’t God mention it more often in his Word? Why only THREE times? Isn’t that REALLY, REALLY odd?

    Why is it that the Apostle Paul, the author of much of the New Testament, NEVER uses this term? Why is this term never used in the Book of Acts to describe the many mentioned Christian conversions? Why is this term only used by Jesus in a late night conversation with Nicodemus, and by Peter once in just one letter to Christians in Asia Minor?

    If you attend a Baptist/evangelical worship service what will you hear? You will hear this: “You must be born again: you must make a decision for Christ. You must ask Jesus into your heart. You must pray to God and ask him to forgive you of your sins, come into your heart, and be your Lord and Savior (the Sinner’s Prayer). You must be an older child or adult who has the mental capacity to make a decision to believe, to make a decision to repent, and to make a decision to ask Jesus into your heart.”

    It is very strange, however, that other than “you must be born again” none of this terminology is anywhere to be found in the Bible! Why do Baptists and evangelicals use this non-biblical terminology when discussing salvation?

    Gary

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

    • Lee

      Down on Baptists are we? I don’t think it’s prudent to paint with such a broad brush Gary. The term “born again” is a very powerful and enigmatic description of the change that takes place in the life of one who sincerely calls upon God for mercy and forgiveness. Not to be confused, this is not about the “experience” but about a loving and merciful God seeking His lost sheep. These are those who see a need for the Savior and He has mercy upon them. Other words used in the NT are “repent and be baptized”, and “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ”. Being born again is a description of the new life started in Christ because we were once dead in our sins. It’s not, nor should it be used as a quick cure all with a few mumbled words as an insincere prayer. If the true gospel is preached, these words will be understood by the unbeliever who earnestly and sincerely seeks God. Aside from all of this, if Jesus only said it once, just one time, wouldn’t that be enough to deem it important? Yes, I am a Baptist, but I am first and foremost a Christian.

  • Samuel Rhinehart

    thanks a lot!

  • Thomas Ross

    In my view, the study of Romans 10:9-14 here:

    http://faithsaves.net/exegesis-application-romans-109-14-soulwinning-churches-christians-passage-teach-sinners-prayer/

    and the testimony of the Baptist pastor here:

    http://faithsaves.net/the-other-jesus-the-gospel-perverted-by-asking-jesus-into-your-heart-ovid-need/

    who was unconverted because he had asked Jesus into his heart illustrate the great spiritual danger in a sinner’s prayer methodology and in asking Jesus into one’s heart. There are good resources here:

    http://faithsaves.net/soteriology/

    on how to evangelize without the sinner’s prayer methodology.

    Thank you,

    Thomas Ross, Th. M.

  • http://NehrHaOlam.weebly.com/ Hillel Ben Yochanan

    If “The Sinner’s Prayer” is unbiblically founded, then why is it that you do not consider it to be an incantation? The Oxford English Dictionary defines an incantation as “a series of words said as a magic spell (i.e., a sequential order of things) or charm (i.e., an act of saying something believed to have power)” (OED 2012). In your article, your explanation does seem to support the idea that “The Sinner’s Prayer” is a spiritual incantation of some sort. Why not call “The Sinner’s Prayer” for what it really is?

  • http://www.lutherwasnotbornagain.com Gary

    The Back-Slidden Baptist’s Salvation Check List

    Just as there are many orthodox Christians, including Lutherans, who, to their eternal damnation, rely on their infant Baptism as their “Get-into-heaven Free Card”, I believe that there are many Baptists and evangelicals who rely on their one time “Decision for Christ” as their automatic ticket into heaven.

    Just to be clear, I am sure that there are many, many Baptists and evangelicals who are much better Christians than I am. As Paul, I am the first among sinners. But I believe that the teaching of Decision Theology accompanied with the horrific teaching of “Once Saved, Always Saved”, has damned just as many Baptists and evangelicals to hell as “Once Baptized, Always Saved” has damned many poorly catechized orthodox Christians.

    I was taught growing up fundamentalist Baptist that a born-again Christian who stops going to church, reading the Bible, praying, etc. is a “back-slider”. He has back-slidden into sin.

    So let’s review the “Back-Slidden” Baptist’s and (Baptistic) Evangelical’s Salvation Check-list:

    1. Have I attended church in the last twenty years: No.
    2. Have I partaken of the Lord’s Supper in the last twenty years: No.
    3. Have I read my Bible in the last twenty years: No.
    4. Have I prayed (other than, “Lord please help me win the Powerball!”) in the last twenty years? No.
    5. Have I shared the Gospel with a non-believer in the last twenty years. No.
    6. Did I pray the Sinner’s Prayer twenty-one years ago in a Baptist altar call. Yes.

    Conclusion: SAVED!

    Now, if you present this to a Baptist or evangelical of the Baptist persuasion, he or she will say that the person above was never saved. That is why we do not see any “fruit of the Spirit”.

    They have a much harder time, however, using that explanation when the “back-slider” is a prominent conservative Baptist or evangelical pastor or evangelist who has “won many souls to Christ” and has preached great moving sermons for years. “How could the person who led me to Christ have been a non-believer??” Situations such as these really rattle these “Once Saved, Always Saved” Christians.

    Listen to this Southern Baptist pastor light the pants on fire of back-slidden Baptists who believe their recitation of the Sinner’s Prayer twenty years ago is their “ticket” into heaven:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wftJVYoORug

    Gary
    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    an orthodox Lutheran blog


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