“Ask Jesus into Your Heart”: A History of the Sinner’s Prayer

[This week's post comes from my Patheos archives.]

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 of Birmingham, Alabama, 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 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

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  • Bob Kaylor

    “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.” I would also add understanding the demands of discipleship. That’s the other thing the sinners’ prayer is missing–the command of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him.

    • Joe

      I would also add understanding the demands of discipleship.

      Yeah understanding the demands of discipleship first before avoiding burning in hell.

      1) Be born.
      2) Learn basic Bible doctrine.
      3) Understand the demands of discipleship.
      4) Yay! Now avoid burning in hell for being born!

  • Tom Tanquary

    Are we not contrasting the “sinner’s prayer” as it is and the “sinner’s prayer” as it ought to be? Incantational regeneration, though false in its self, seems to continue to reign.

  • rothbriele

    Henry Whitefield, the great 18th millennium revivalist, once released a hymn named “A Sinner’s Prayer,” which shows the type of severity engaged in an genuine reaction to the gospel:

    Die Alle Zwei Tage Diät

  • Thin-ice

    Sorry to butt in here, but as a non-believer (was an evangelical 46 years and a missionary, and used the phrase many times myself) I have to take issue with the phrase you used: “until they understand the gravity of sin, and Christ’s offer of forgiveness”.

    According to my old discarded theology, one single sin was enough to prevent a person from receiving salvation and getting into heaven, because God required perfection. Do you evangelicals REALLY believe that eternal torment (or separation from God, if you want to water it down – which the Bible does NOT warrant) is an equivalent punishment? How can you guys live with yourselves, believing such nonsense? And don’t give me the old canard, “God’s ways are far beyond our understanding”. If anyone cares to answer, I’ll read your answer, although in my previous life in ministry I am sure that I myself would have also given your same answer to skeptics.)

    • BT

      That, in short, is partly (only partly) why I’m drifting more and more toward universalism as one who still believes but shares the skepticisms of most agnostics and atheists.

    • buildamoat

      I’m not sure. I hope for what people call “universal reconciliation,” but I can’t be sure. “I don’t know” is the best answer that I can give you, since I tend to look at Christ’s teachings for our lives more than what the NT says about sin and death.

      Also, what are your thoughts on the Sinner’s Prayer?

      • Thin-ice

        Thoughts on the Sinner’s Prayer? First, I don’t believe that human beings have a “sinful nature” to repent of (Ref. Ray Comfort: “Have you ever told a lie?”). The vast majority of human beings are extremely decent, kind and caring. They don’t deserve eternal, infinite torture for that. Who is to judge what a “sin” is anyway? Is telling a lie to save someone’s life wrong? Anyway, I think the “sinner’s prayer” is a terrible, terrible thing to ask a child to say or do. You guys are so locked into this evangelical “4 spiritual laws” kind of thinking (which didn’t actually exist until the 1700′s) that you can’t see the woods for the trees… you can’t see how utterly ridiculous and laughable it is to those outside the faith. Even though you’ll always find emotionally needy souls who are so desperate for acceptance that they will utter this silly little prayer.

    • Nemo

      The Bible explicitly states that Hell is a torture chamber where one is made into a vessel of wrath and actively tortured by Jesus for all eternity. If the Bible doesn’t pull any punches, neither should you. Spare everyone the “separation” political correctness.

      • Andrew Dowling

        “The Bible explicitly states that Hell is a torture chamber where one is
        made into a vessel of wrath and actively tortured by Jesus for all
        eternity.”

        LOL and what Bible verse is that stated?

    • Dan Dosch

      You’ve probably heard this already (having spent more years in the church than I am old) but I appreciate C.S Lewis (I think it was him) on the subject: at the end of the day, for an unconverted person to be with God’s family in Paradise would feel like hell; he/she would hate it. It’s the inward-turned soul, the self-absorbed person who would find the generosity, social justice, interdependence of the Kingdom unpalatable.

      What I’m trying to get at:
      Not so much God smiting otherwise little innocent kids who committed one little sin, but God letting people have what they want, letting their hearts finally flesh out: for some, it’s a humble yet rich existence with him in the fully healed world; for others, it’s the icy cool of isolation via selfishness, greed, stubborn independence.

      God doesn’t get some kind of sick pleasure out of condemning people. When he does judge, I think we’re gonna be pretty convinced that those people had it coming and sadly refused to change.

      I hope this was helpful, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      • Thin-ice

        Again, Dan, I’ve used your words almost exactly back when I was a Christian. Your thoughts only make sense if one is convinced of the existence of heaven, and of a Christian God. (Because if there is a God, and he is a Hindu god, or Mormon God, or Islamic Allah, or even a pre-Christian Jewish god, then YOU are in deep doo-doo!) You unfairly describe the situation of unbelievers as selfish, greedy, stubborn, independent isolation. But I’m not like that with my fellow human beings, only towards a Christian God that I believed in for 46 years. And since I don’t believe he exists, then your description can’t apply to me. It’s a logical fallacy.

        Give me empirical, verifiable evidence of miracles and God’s existence, and I will certainly change my mind. But if all you have to offer me is a feeling in one’s heart (Mormons say “burning in the bosom”) and your ancient sacred scriptures (which is FULL of contradictions and scientific inaccuracies) then I’ve got waay better things to do with my time.

      • Thin-ice

        (BTW, CS Lewis used to be my hero. Without the rose-colored glasses, I now see the logical errors that his writing is filled with, first and foremost being his “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument. It fails totally.)

    • MHMC

      Perfection comes when one believes through faith in the grace of God given by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS imputed to us. Once one receives the faith to believe in Christ and all he has done for us, our sins become white as snow. God is a just God. He has given us all a way to avoid what we all deserve. He has provided, because of HIS GREAT LOVE, freedom from the death brought to us by sin. If we allow that sin to dwell in us, hardening our hearts, and feeding our desires, we will go to hell. Whether it be “small” or “great”, sin is sin and will lead to spiritual death.

      • Thin-ice

        blah, blah. I’ve said these words myself a thousand times before I deconverted. They are empty words. They are jargon. Christian-ese. I don’t believe sin is sin, and will lead to spiritual death. If it’s like you say, I don’t want any part of a God who hates me so much that one single sin will mean eternal torture. Can’t you understand that? (I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” at 14, and went to Bible College. I now consider it all BS, finally, at 63 years old!)

        • Erik Charter

          I don’t get atheists who devote time to debunking religion. Time is short. Just live and let live and go have fun if you’re just going to be worm food soon. If religion comforts some, who are you to rain on their parade?

          • Thin-ice

            You’re right, time is short. And because I lived 46 years in a delusion, I don’t want others to waste decades of their life like that, the same way you think they SHOULD live in a delusion. If Christians didn’t feel the need to convert others, I wouldn’t feel a need to de-convert them.

          • Erik Charter

            What do you suggest people spend decades of their life doing instead?

          • Thin-ice

            Living to your potential, instead of sucking up to an imaginary supernatural character. One example: I’ve learned more science in the last 5 years as an unbeliever, than in 46 years as a believer.
            Also, I don’t view people as either believers or unbelievers, simply as fellow human beings. So much more reasonable, don’t you think?

          • Erik Charter

            That’s just what floats your boat. If I’m an atheist and I choose to live drinking, drugging, and womanizing, that’s no less valid than you studying science. No rules in an atheistic universe. If people seek after God because it makes them happy, more power to them. Who are you to judge?

          • Thin-ice

            Your caricature of atheist character is total bullshit. I know several born-again christians who drink, do drugs, and commit adultery (don’t even start talking about TV evangelists), but not a single atheist who does. If I lived by the commandments laid down by God in your Old Testament, I’d be in prison in 5 minutes.

            Our rules don’t come from an ancient book (thank the “gods”!) but from naturally evolved ethical system that basically is: be kind and generous to others, and when/if you need help, others will reciprocate. Field studies have shown that this same rule predominates in all mammalian species.

          • Erik Charter

            You don’t get it. I’m not saying atheists are bad people and Christians are good people. I am saying that in an atheistic universe there is no such thing as “good” or “bad”. If you’re good and I’m bad, how is our fate any different after the short time that our neurons are firing? There is no reward for being good and no sanction for being bad. We’re both just dead.
            What was your church affiliation when you were a Christian?

          • Thin-ice

            “No reward for being good and no sanction for being bad. We’re both just dead.” EXACTLY! And do you think I NEED a reward for being decent, kind and generous to my fellow humans? Or punishment to stop me being violent to them? NO! NO! NO! I just want to be a nice person. PERIOD. And my guess is that you are just the same.

            And you missed the point I made previously: there IS good and bad in an atheist’s world, provided by a naturally evolved ethical system. They’re not written down on paper, but they are innate in my being. Even the apostle Paul says that.

            Non-denominational evangelical, post-trib, mid-calvinist/arminian, but can’t lose your salvation except by grieving the H.S.

          • Erik Charter

            “provided by a naturally evolved ethical system. They’re not written down on paper, but they are innate in my being. Even the apostle Paul says that.”

            Not quite. What Paul says in Romans 1 is:

            “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,7 in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

            In other words, everyone knows there is a God, but some deny it because of their own unrighteousness.

          • Thin-ice

            So, if I read you right, you would say that no one can deny the existence of God as a result of genuine examination of evidence and intellectual inquiry, but because they are morally bankrupt and unrigheousness? If that is so, I need to terminate this fruitless discussion, because you live in christianese bubble which is impenetrable to anyone outside of the faith. Goodbye.

          • Erik Charter

            You brought up Paul, not me.

        • Kintillius

          Thin-ice, my understanding is that God does not wish to send anyone to hell (for example, (For example, 2 Peter 3:9 says, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”) Unfortunately, some people refuse to follow him, and so because God is a holy God and cannot allow sin to come into his presence, he must send unrepentant sinners to hell. But because of his great love for us, God sent his one and only Son, Jesus, to die for us so that we can receive his gift of forgiveness and eternal life.

          I realize you’ve heard this a million times, but I just want to remind you what the message is, and to point out that sin grieves God’s heart (for example, see Genesis 6:6, which says, “The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”) So this idea that God delights in sending people to hell just isn’t true. Each person who goes to hell is someone who has been created by God in his own image, and it grieves God to have to send them to hell.

          Finally, I would add that while it is theoretically possible that someone could commit “only one sin” during their entire lifetime, the reality is that the vast majority of us (if not all of us) have committed far, far more sins than just one. This is why Paul writes in Romans 3:10-11, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” In the following seven verses, Paul goes on to describe how we humans are in fact habitual sinners.

          • Thin-ice

            Why do you think repeating a story that I myself told other people a thousand times over, could have the slightest effect on me? Christian theology, as you go on about above, has no relation to the real world. It’s make-believe.

          • Andrew Dowling

            The whole idea that “holiness mandates judgement of those not on the team” is a Medieval idea about the “honor” of kings transposed onto God. It’s what Anselm was pointing to in his “Satisfaction” theory of the Atonement because being a man of his time, he considered God to be like a king would be.
            It’s not a bad thing to concede that idea is metamorphosing God and does not align with the God taught/unveiled by Jesus.

    • Erik Charter

      So you’re saying you’re a hopeless case? What will become of you when you die?

    • Emitt

      Hello,

      I’ve got a possible answer for you. I hope it helps. Just to tee this thing up, I want to say that I personally don’t believe that God does NOT see some sins “bigger” or more grave than other sins. People say that…”there’s no big or little sin in God’s eyes”. I think that’s an oversimplification of the idea that there is no sin so small that a person, outside of Christ, can’t be condemned for nor is there any sin too “big” for which a person cannot be forgiven.

      Which leads to your question…how can God condemn a person for a “small” sin. I think of it this way…Rape is a pretty grave sin, yes? Okay, we’ll how about (and please forgive the ugliness of this, I take no pleasure in it) raping a young girl…maybe 6 yrs old? In the eyes of many people (as well as mine) this is even more grave of a sin. Why? Because the purity of the little girl.

      Now when we sin, we sin against God. And as your old discarded theology used to suggest…Jesus died for your sin. So, let me ask you, how pure is/was Christ? Is He not the most pure? You sinned against Christ, the pure and spotless Lamb, and He bore your sin. Your sin against Him is “big”, not b/c it is “big” in the eyes of the world, but because He was so pure. Your problem is, you look at sin through own eyes instead of through God’s eyes (His are the ones that count by the way). And you judge according to what you think is good, but there’s only one who judges righteously. You’ve essentially made yourself God unto yourself. And now you crucify Him again by dismissing His promises and calling Him a liar. I hope you are able to come to repentance. I’ll say a quick prayer and then move on. God doesn’t wish for anyone to perish, but for all men to be saved. God bless.

    • Lagosunshine

      I am not bible scholar or anything like it. I’ve only read parts and still reading.

      “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”. I thought ‘perfect’ means to be made whole – complete in something.

      As God is Love – to be made whole by Love.

      When Jesus is lifted up – He is the fullness of love, perfected in and through suffering – the lack of it in and through us some way. Full of the Father’s Love – He draws all to Himself – when lifted up.

      A dying man once said to me, “You will never get to Heaven walking backwards out of hell…. ” Worked with many dying people and they tend to say it as they see it.

      Do we know anyone in life who does not respond to real love ? Some act of kindness to the stranger – the ‘angel’ walking unawares amongst us.

      “Whatever you do to the least of these you to to Me. ” It’s not easy – sugary love either. It’s difficult when you want to hit back for being or feeling hurt or insulted – to respond with love. “Father, forgive him/her – for she/he knows not what she/he (truly) does.”

      Does hell exist ? I believe so. Look at what happens daily in parts of the world. In our own lives. As children – abused and raped.

      “The Kingdom of God is within….. ” Jesus said this I believe or something similar. It’s not here or there or in outer space – but within. Even good psychology/psychiatry says as much in different language.

      “Thy will be done on earth – as it is in Heaven.”

      Like my friend said when he was preparing to leave this world, “You will never get to heaven walking backwards out of hell.”

      Love – and God is Love – is the way. I believe this anyway.

      ” He drew a circle that shut me out – Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.But love (Jesus/God) and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in.”

      I left the beauty of Jesus for a long time ’cause the men who spoke on His behalf traumatised me – blinded me to that same Beauty.

      Quite ravishing really – only we don’t often ‘see’ it as many could not see in that poor ‘man of sorrows’ back in the day.

      I do believe if we think/believe another are in or are going to hell – it’s bringing judgement upon ourselves. We reap what we sow.

      We are to love the other as the self. Wish for him/her what we wish for ourselves. I sure hope people are delivered from hell in this world as much as might be in any other.

      You are just being honest and maybe it is honest and true what you say. But I am sure you believe in Love – at whatever level/capacity we have to receive and give it. Though when Love really ravishes us – I believe it really can be better to give than to receive.

      Take care of yourself ‘thin ice’ and everyone here.

      Enjoy the journey.

      Nemo I feel sorrow that you believe Jesus actively tortures people in hell.

      You have been deeply spiritually abused and maybe should look into that.

  • Joe

    Thank you dear Jesus, for forgiving me for being born. That is so nice of you Jesus. I must learn basic Bible doctrine first of course.

    1) Be born.
    2) Learn Bible doctrine.
    3) Jesus forgives me for being born.
    4) Yay thanks Jesus!

  • BHG

    What has always struck me about the Sinner’s prayer is that is doesn’t conform all that well with the Great Commission: Go forth, make disciples, baptizing in My name….distinct actions in the journey of faith and “asking Jesus into your heart” isn’t among them, important as it is.

  • steve burdan

    Good article! But is it good to use Church practice or teaching as the primary benchmark, without first looking at Scripture – 1. NT practices and 2. NT teaching on the dynamics of salvation? Words of course are essential to communicate, but the also frame the way a person thinks and acts on a particular spiritual impulse or understanding…

  • Erik Charter

    Understanding our guilt before a holy God, the grace that God has shown sinners in Christ, and the life of thankfulness we should live in light of God’s grace is a good start. “Receiving Christ” and joining a church are a good start.


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