“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?

    • 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?

    • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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.


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