Robbie was a young man who grew up in the first church I pastored. His name has been changed but his story is true. Robbie came forward to “give his life to Jesus” and be baptized for the first time during a fall revival service when he was 10 years old. At first, he began to show spiritual fruit and experience the joy of his salvation. But within six months, Robbie started to wonder whether he was really saved.
The next spring, Robbie again came forward to “ask Jesus into His heart.” Once again he showed some initial change, but eventually began to doubt his salvation. When he came to me ask me what to do, I did what I had been taught to do since I was a kid: I shared the Gospel with him and asked if he wanted to pray the sinner’s prayer to be saved. Robbie said yes, and the next week we baptized him.
This cycle continued for the 10 years that I was his pastor. Does this sound familiar?
The sad reality is that Robbie was not the only person going through this cycle in our church. In fact, it’s being repeated in churches all across the Southern Baptist Convention, and has become so familiar that we almost think it’s normal and just part of being a believer. But in his new book, “Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart,” J.D. Greear writes the problem may actually be the unbiblical language we use in describing how people should respond to the Gospel.
Specifically, Greear notes some ways we couch our response to the Gospel (using phrases like “ask Jesus into your heart,” or “accept Jesus as Lord and Savior,” or “give your heart to Jesus”) are not biblical. He writes, “These phrases may not be wrong in themselves, but the Bible never tells us, specifically, to seek salvation in those ways. The biblical summation of a saving response towards Christ is ‘repentance’ and ‘belief’ in the Gospel.”
Greear continues, “Repentance and faith are heart postures you take toward the finished work of Christ. You might express the beginning of that posture in a prayer. But don’t make the mistake of equating that prayer with the posture. The sinner’s prayer is not a magic incantation or a recipe you follow to get a salvation cake. The real stuff – that stuff that matters – is the posture of repentance and faith behind the words you speak. The prayer is good only insofar as it verbalizes the posture.”
Make no mistake, Greear is not telling us to stop doing evangelism. In fact, he is inviting us to return to a biblical approach of sharing the Gospel. He reminds us that how we invite people to respond to the Good News of Jesus must be firmly grounded in the Scripture, not in tradition or pragmatism. In doing so, Greear upholds the noblest aspirations of those who hold to the authority and inerrancy of the Bible.
After reading and thinking about this book, it has occurred to me that my presentation of the Gospel is largely at fault for Robbie’s struggles. My intentions were good, but I had inherited an unbiblical and unhelpful method of explaining the response to the Gospel. This is a difficult pill to swallow, but it can go along way toward returning our churches to a healthy method and mindset of evangelism.
If I were to counsel with Robbie today, I would want to make sure that his assurance of salvation is securely grounded in the Scripture. The best way I know to do this would be to take him to some of the Scriptures that demonstrate specific changes that occur as a result of salvation. Does he love the other members of Christ’s family (1 John 2:9 and 3:14-16)? Has he experienced the desire to stop sinful behavior and obey God (1 John 2:29 and 3:6)?
And I would urge him to ask other members of the church if they have witnessed these changes in his life. This combination – Scripture and the people of God – is the best way of helping Robbie and others like him to come to the full assurance of his salvation, or to see the need to repent and believe.
Dr. Joe Buchanan is pastor of First Baptist Church, Metropolis, and author of the upcoming book “Cultivating a Gospel-Shaped Attitude”.