Some of us grew up in churches where it seemed every Sunday included an atlar call. Congregants were invited to walk the aisle and to make a “decision” for Christ.
During these occasions, very specific language would be used to explain how a person becomes a Christian. “Just ask Jesus into your heart,” was the common refrain, usually followed by an appeal to Rev 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him.”
Thus, we come to the next installment in the “Taking Back Christianese” series. Our purpose here is to evaluate the phrase, “Just ask Jesus into your heart.” Like most of the phrases in this series, it can have both positive and negative aspects, depending on how it is used.
Why Do People Use This Phrase?
Despite the association with modern day revival-style churches, this phrase actually has a long pedigree, even in Reformed circles. As some have pointed out, even certain Puritans used language that was similar.
And the reason for the usage of this phrase is not hard to find. Concerned about the prevalence of false conversions, many pastors were keen to emphasize that salvation is not something attained just by attending church or being born into a Christian home. Salvation is personal and individual. Each sinner has to respond to Christ for themselves.
There is a bit of irony however to this motivation. Although this phrase might have been used to prevent false conversions, its misuse can, in fact, heighten the problem of false conversions. More on this below.
What is Correct or Helpful about This Phrase?
No doubt the Puritans embraced a version of this phrase precisely because it emphasized the personal, heartfelt response that needed to be true of every converted individual. The Gospel has both corporate and individual aspects to it, and the latter cannot be forgotten.
Indeed, this is plainly laid out in Scripture. Familial and corporate ties are not enough to be saved, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
Thus, this phrase rightly reminds us that the Gospel requires a response from individuals. It is not something that can be assumed or taken for granted. Christ must be believed upon and embraced.
In this way, this phrase is a very helpful reminder of the importance of conversion. And this reminder is seriously needed in Reformed circles today. We talk about a lot of things as Reformed believers–justification, sanctification, adoption.
But, we talk very little about conversion. We talk to people about Christ. But, we don’t talk as much about the state of their heart. And whether they have really believed on Christ.
This was a major theme in the Puritans and one that we should take note of in the modern day.
What is Problematic about This Phrase?
Even with these positives, this phase can be (and has been) seriously misused. Let me mention three false impressions this phrase can give, if not properly qualified.
1. It can imply we are the initiators in salvation. Most concerning is that this phrase can give the impression that God is passively waiting for us to make the first move. He is willing to save us, but we must initiate with him. This impression is driven, no doubt, by a common misunderstanding of Rev 3:20 where Jesus is waiting for us to open the door.
Of course, the biblical witness is that God is the great initiator. He sought us, even when we didn’t seek him. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
2. It can imply that our “decision” is the cause of our salvation. Another concern is that this phrase can unduly give the impression that the sinner is in the driver’s seat when it comes to their salvation. It is all up to our choice. It is our will that is decisive.
While the Bible indeed requires a response to Christ, we cannot forget that our salvation is actually due to God’s will not man’s. Paul says the opposite of what most people think, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16).
3. It can set up a culture of “easy-believism.” Perhaps this final concern is one of the most problematic. This phrase can be used in such a way that salvation becomes formulaic, mechanical, almost automatic. You walk an aisle, utter a prayer, and all is good.
In this way, as noted above, this phrase can actually backfire on itself. While intended to prevent false conversions, it can (if misused) actually lead to false conversions. People can think they are saved because they “asked Jesus into their heart” with no awareness of how to evaluate their own spiritual condition.
For a good antidote to this third problem, see the helpful book by J.D. Greear, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart.
In the end, this phrase, like most the phrases is in this series, has the potential to be really helpful or really problematic, depending on how one understands it and uses it.
Regardless, it does provide a much-needed reminder of the importance of personal conversion. And that is an essential theme for the church to recover today.