Asking Jesus into your Heart??

Why do many Christians say, “Ask Jesus into your heart”?

I understand what this refers to, a relationship with God through Christ, but find it curious that non-biblical and potentially misleading language is the most important language for evangelism among many evangelical Christians. In a recent blog post, Klyne Snodgrass reminds us that neither Jesus nor the other New Testament writers come even close to saying, “Invite Jesus into your heart so you can go to heaven.” He continues,

Paul rarely speaks of Christ in us-at most six times, but at least 164 times he has the Greek expression en Christō or its equivalent, which can express a variety of ideas. Clearly though, being in Christ is a much more powerful image than Christ being in us. Faith is not merely a mental activity. As Sanday and Headlam’s old ICC commentary on Romans put it, faith involves “enthusiastic adhesion” (p. 34). Faith is that which attaches you to Jesus. Nothing less is saving faith.

John’s language focuses too on attachment to Jesus. While he speaks both of Christ being in us and our being in him, he expresses both ideas with the word menein, “to remain.” Christians are people so attached to Jesus that he remains in them and they remain in him. (emphasis mine)

Assuming Snodgrass is right (and I think he is), how could we speak about life with God in ways more disciplined by the Scriptures – ways other than “Ask Jesus into your heart”? For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus the issue specifically on children for three reasons.

Why children?

  1. I have a three and a half year old daughter and a second on the way, so I am keenly interested to think creatively about ways to talk with them about Jesus that they won’t need to unlearn later.
  2. The ability to explain something to children is a good test of our theology. Even though children won’t be able to understand more complicated concepts such as the Trinity (or maybe even being ‘in Jesus’), our theology should create entry points for people of any age, or intellectual capacity, to engage with the concepts and the truth to which those concepts refer. We shouldn’t be afraid of concepts if (big if) we are willing to use them in such a manner that they remain transparent to the Scriptures.
  3. Finally, while I hear a good deal of fruitful discussion about framing evangelism and discipleship differently for adults, I hear nothing about the implications this might have for children’s ministry – in the home and in church.

Go ahead, throw some ideas our way or tell me you think I’m off my rocker!

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19 thoughts on “Asking Jesus into your Heart??

  1. Thanks Kent for your time and thoughts on this very timely issue – I also have a 2 year old boy and another one on the way.

    The significant comment that you make is in moving the salvation from us (Christ in me) back to Christ (me in Christ). In our other conversations on this, you connected the “Christ in us” nomenclature to the Revivalist tradition. While indeed beneficial and obviously efficacious, it centered salvation as an individual, personal, moment in time event rather than an activity by God the Father to reconcile us to Himself through the death and resurrection of the Son by the power of the Spirit. Also, the Revivalist language tends to isolate a person from the church community and does not dovetail in certain ecclesiastical components such as “being a part of the family of God” and “experiencing God through the worship and joy of the community of believers.” While I don’t mean to discount the crucial need for personal confessions of faith, I mean to simply crowbar back into our salvation language the concept that you elegantly pointed out, our remaining or being inexpressively attached to Christ.

    My second comment speaks specifically to your question regarding children. I believe it is naive to suggest that a prayer offered (or is some cases forced upon) by children always brings about a salvific work. Is our view of God and the power of the Holy Spirit so small that we feel the need to address the issue of salvation on our children at an early age? Does the fact that we feel the need to address this issue at an age where there is little cognitive understanding of what we are talking about more a commentary on our own lack of faith? Some questions to think about (as I am doing right now). According to Deut. 4, our task is to teach our children about the character, nature, and laws of God. Isn’t it better to model christ-likeness and to teach our children about God in such ways that they can understand. Kent has mentioned to me of conversations with his daughter about walking with God, since he walks with his daughter. This is an experience that her daughter enjoys with her dad, why not connect the action with God’s passion and desire to walk with her?

    I guess I might appear to come off pretty severe on this issue. But in reading the supplied link as well as in conversations with Kent, I have become convicted myself of my need to trust God that He will provide opportunities for my son to come to a personal belief in Him and His Son Christ, of which I play no doubt an integral part – but so will so many others within the church community.

    Hopefully this will provide some further dialogue on this subject. By the way Kent, great picture!

  2. I, too, think that is a great picture, Kent, though I don’t remember you having that much hair!

    You pose an interesting and practical question. The language of asking Jesus into one’s heart seems to have come from Revelation 3:20. Though that may be deemed poor exegesis and misapplication of the text, it is still language that has been helpful to many in making a faith response. In that sense, language is a tool that helps us do things. We need to keep this in mind even as we look for better language and constructs that, as you wisely say Kent, won’t have to be unlearned later.

    What can be misleading about that language is (1) the notion [understandable for children in pre-analytical or concrete stages of development] that Jesus somehow physically gets inside one’s heart. This may sound silly but this is actually how some children hear and process the language. (2) It does not contain even tacit notions of trusting or following Jesus. Somehow, the gospel for children should at least build in that direction; that Jesus is trustworthy and should be trusted.

    For years I have been intrigued by a comment J.B. Phillips made; something to the effect that he considered it more important that children be immersed in the experiential realities of Christian faith so that later on it would be normal and natural for them to confess and embrace that in a more formal manner. That’s not exactly the way he said it but it’s close to the heart of his point, I think. In light of the cognitive development of children, this makes a good bit of sense to me, though I think carefully chosen words about trusting God are important, too. I want children to grow up with a deep internal sense of God’s trustworthiness, the developed inclinations to respond trustingly to God, and with sensibilities that have been shaped by the love, forgiveness, hope, etc. that reside at the heart of the gospel. The incarnational gospel is vital with children. How formative is it to help a child take responsibility for wrongdoing, to receive forgiveness, and to forgive (e.g. when sister pokes him in the eye because she wants his pancake)?

    So, to one of Derek’s points above, I don’t know that we need to make many decisions one way or another about the particular efficacy of a child’s decision. Seems to me that God takes hold of those overtures and weaves them together in His own way to form relational bonds (to speak anthropomorphically) with a child over time. So, those prayers can be very significant without having to bear more soteriological weight than they can bear.

  3. Just brainstorming here:

    Being Jesus’s friend.
    Following Jesus, walking with God.
    Being an apprentice or student or pupil of Jesus.
    Letting God be in charge.
    Joining God’s team, joining in with God’s project to renew the whole world.

    I think all of these are true to Scripture and might be suitable for children, depending on their level of maturity. None of them are perfect, but I would probably see using an array of descriptions to refer to our life in Christ.

  4. Thanks Don and Jonathan for your thoughts. We need, as parents and members of a church community, to trust in God to utilize all means necessary, from prayers and language, to bring about His mighty work in the life of children. I guess my passion is that for many, the “salvation prayer” becomes a moment in time event by which they fall back on. Rather, as Don suggests, it is a process by which God reveals His presence more and more in our lives as we grow. I think the idea of connecting God to the concept of trustworthiness, love, grace, and forgiveness are key as children develop. It is a high call that God places on adults, who are the key revealers of God’s truth and character to children. I am convicted over and over again of my need for His love and grace in order to display God’s character to my son, as well as to the children of my community.

  5. It’s a language game issue. Asking Jesus into your heart is biblical at some level — Rev 3 — even if that is not exclusively evangelistic. But there are a host of metaphors for the proper response to Jesus, like following and abiding and believing and obeying. No one of these will do the job for all time; each needs to be used in the right moment.

    The obsession with asking Jesus into your heart, as if it alone measures a genuine prayer for salvation, is misguided.

    Good post Kent.

  6. Derek and Don, thank you both for raising the importance of the community for the development of the faith response and for reaffirming (with Scot) the detrimental affects that often attend over-weighting a “once-and-for-all” decision.

    Don, you’re right as well to remind us of God’s capacity to take, hold, and weave together our scattered overtures to him.

    Jonathan, good suggestions – for children especially I think the language of “following”, “walking with”, or “friendship” can take us a long way toward a more Scripturally disciplined approach, something that more affectively builds toward authentic notions of biblical faith.

    Scot, many thanks for stressing the availability of multiple metaphors and the necessity of using each of them in the “right moment.” I am not sure, on the other hand, that this is entirely just a “language game” if you are suggesting that because it hinges on our use of language that is carries less importance somehow. Regarding language, surely our desire should be to use it in such a way that it most effectively references its intended referent – in this case a relationship with God through Christ in faith. If we decide, then, that a particular bit of language – “ask Jesus into your heart” in this case – does a poor job of building individuals toward faith (as trust, adherence, allegiance, attachment, etc… ) then we should consider moving beyond it entirely shouldn’t we?

  7. I hear where all this is coming from, and at some level I’m on the same page. But here’s why, at another level, I think all this talk about being in Christ versus Christ being in us, etc., becomes misleading.

    Remember, the earliest Christians were not so much debating whether they were in Christ or whether Christ was in them as they were being eaten by lions and burnt at stakes.

    But I wouldn’t necessarily tell that to my 3 1/2 year old.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi

  8. i enjoy the language of coming into ones heart for a child. but not when it refers to Jesus, but rather to the Holy Spirit. I remember as a child being taught to invite Jesus into my heart, and then as an adult realizing that it was God’s Spirit who dwells within me…

    I like Jonathan’s walk with Jesus…or walk like Jesus walked. John’s Epistles seem to get at this language of walking/following Jesus in love/truth, etc.

    So maybe a good entry point for a young child is to invite them to live like Jesus lived (discipleship), and God’s Spirit will come into our hearts to help us along the way (life in Christ through the Spirit)?

  9. Paul and Raffi, thanks for your comments and yes, reference to the Spirit “in us” is certainly more faithful to the scriptures and yes, the faith of most Western Christians is certainly not framed by martyrdom or persecution.

    As I reflect on the discussion thus far: If we assume that our talking and living with children should “build toward” their understanding of and ultimately their allegience to Christ, then we should be intentional that whatever language we use (verbal, visual, tactile, communal, etc… ) is doing precisely that – building toward. My worry with the “ask Jesus into your heart” language is that it fails to adequately build toward anything beyond a one time commitment, specifically with children. Perhaps, integrating various metaphors and images taken from the scriptural witness will more effectively build children toward faith rather than a one-time decision.

    So, I suspect that “being Jesus’ friend” and “walking with Jesus” (along with a host of other similar metaphors) could more effecively reference our intended referent with children: relationship with God through Christ in faith. And beyond the language, of course, we live it out in the presence of children as people for whom God’s ways are “on our hearts” as we go about all aspects of our lives (Deut 6:6,7)

  10. I just had this conversation with my 5 year old the other night, when he told me he wanted to ask Jesus into his heart. In all our conversations with him, we have never once used that particular language and always focused on many of the things you’ve talked about here: trust, belief, faith, forgiveness, grace, friendship with God, following Jesus. But when he was ready to talk about it and wondering what to do with what he believed, he picked up that language that he had heard at Christian school and at church. I must confess I probed him a bit to see what he meant and was happy to see him make many of the connections we had talked about previously.

    There are two things I might add to the conversation so far. First, I think its important to recognize that if our children are involved in an evangelical subculture on any level, they are going to hear the gospel presented with this type of language. I was surprised at how strongly I wanted to react when I heard that language from him and I had to catch myself and make sure I allowed him to express and process what he was thinking and hearing from others without my “disapproval” of his or others’ language coming through to him. It actually turned out to be a great conversation and a significant step in his process of believing.

    Second, I think that along with talking about God/Jesus/salvation concepts with our children we need to make sure we model them also, and then explicitly connect the dots for them. E.g. model grace when they deserve punishment then connect that in some way to God’s grace. Point out current events or stories that model these concepts in some way, etc.

    Thanks for a great conversation….

  11. Greetings, Kent and Don…great blog. Kent, do I qualify for a response on the basis of being your “roomie” at the 2006 ETS meeting? A good Memorial Day to those on this side of the pond, from a retired USAF Lt. Col.

    I have two comments and welcome any input.

    1) To inject yet another ambiguous metaphor, “making a decision for Christ” at any age involves one’s “accountability for ‘light’ received,” and that in turn requires a “maturing” conscience (as Don implied in his comments on “preanalytic or concrete stages of development”). Hence, I would agree with those who hold that we need to consider the notion of “age of accountability.” This in turn would seem to be a somewhat “moving target” for any given child, depending on how soon one comes to “maturity of conscience” and how much “light” has been made available.

    From that standpoint, I guess it might be kind of “scary” to be Kent’s child or T. Moore’s child at their respective ages, considering the blazing sunlight to which they are exposed. (just kidding…) Derek’s comments touch on this.

    Having planted that “stake” in the ground, I would ask whether our concern with our children is more that we (a) make sure they populate heaven along with us, thereby discharging our parental responsibility for evangelism; or (b) rest in God’s sovereign ability to “weave all these things together” (thank’s Don) and concentrate on inviting our kids to be robust disciples in the Kingdom as their unique characters and giftedness begin to emerge. The latter alternative would then afford potentially countless opportunities for clarification and fine-tuning of evangelistic/atonement metaphors (yeah, it’s somewhat of a language game, Scot).

    My personal conviction is that Christ’s atoning work was/is/will be sufficient for all who have not reached the age of accountability, having “taken care of” our guilt in Adam (Rom 5:18); this in turn “takes the monkey off our parental backs” before the age of accountability. I realize Rom 5:12-21 is the subject of huge debate, but I hasten to clarify that I am not a universalist, except in the sense that Christ takes care of all our guilt in Adam until we truly have the ability to receive the free gift of grace for personal sin and guilt. In this light (no pun intended) I would have to second the comments of Derek and Kent re: Deut. as regards parental responsibility.

    2) With regard to Kent’s initial comments (with added emphasis) on Snodgrass’s blog, I would exercise great caution before assigning such specific soteriological significance to Johannine use of the verb menein. If Snodgrass means that we are not “saved” when we don’t menein, then “we have a problem, Houston.” The text really doesn’t support Johannine menein as the equivalent of Pauline en Christo.

    My conviction is that the injunctions John addressed to his teknia relate to ongoing fellowship and confession in response to “light” received as those who have already been purchased by Christ (1 Jn 2:1-2, 12-14). We continue to be exposed to God as light in our “walk” with Him throughout life (1 Jn 1:5-2:11). So according to John, it is not our “place in heaven” that is contingent on abiding but rather our fellowship with Christ (“attachment,” cf. John 15; 1 Jn 1:1-4) and our responsiveness to His Spirit.

    As relates to our own children, then, and the above discussion, John’s injunctions about abiding do not apply to our paidia until they are aware that they are also God’s teknia through faith. The real “monkey on our backs” as parents has to do with the way we abide (or don’t) as examples and “light” for our kids (again, with a nod to Derek and Kent on this).

    OK, I’m ready for the tomatoes, cat-calls, and heckling, such as there may be…

  12. T, James, and Jim – Having been without internet access (thankfully) while on holiday last week, this is my first chance to interact with your comments.

    T – I appreciate your candor recounting the story about your children. I have thought some about the inevitability that our children will be confronted with the many aspects of my evangelical Christian culture that I am not very excited about. In light of that, you are entirely right it seems to emphasis the dire importance to model our life with God in their presence. Have you ever had to “re-orient” your children related to something they encountered in church that you felt was unhelpful?

    James – Thanks for also emphasizing the place of Christian community. I found Steve Webber’s “Ancient Future Evangelism” helpful in rethinking the role catechesis might once again have for the church.

    Jim – Concerning the “parental responsibility” comment, I think you are right to put your finger on that. Derek and I were having a conversation offline and he wondered if the push to get children to “ask Jesus into their heart” isn’t only a product of our revivalist heritage (which it certainly is) but might also be related to the old rush to baptize infants. If we feel the pressure ensure that our children make a “decision” for Christ as early as possible then we will find many resistant to the language of “following Christ” or “walking with God” and continue to ask children at very young ages to ask Jesus into their hearts even though they will have very little comprehension of what that might mean. I find myself far more comfortable with the confidence exhibited by Don that we continually invite our children (and adults) to move toward God in whatever small or great ways they are capable and let God hold their responses.

    Regarding your comments on “menein”, I’m all out of tomatoes.

  13. I read the post a while back, but didn’t have enough time to give a thoughtful reply. Jonathan and Scott’s comments were really good. We all tend to hone in on one thing, at the expense of other pieces equally true or significant. I believe asking Jesus into your heart is like the calling of Matthew: it is both a one time event and a daily event. And we ask from God while also yielding to Him. So in essence suggesting to a child to ask Jesus into their heart is one side of the coin: “in me” one side, “in him” the other.

  14. Hey all,

    Just dropping a thought.

    I came here as I am working on a book which will be published in August called “The 21 Irritating Laws of ‘Followship’”. In the Introduction I am setting the scene for the book by sharing my thesis about why it is Christians have such a hard time really following Jesus.

    On of my points is what you guys are taling about here. That is, when we ‘ask Jesus into our heart’, what we are doing is asking Jesus up, over or into OUR turf. But, as you have pointed out here, Jesus, nor any of the teaching epistles, talk about doing this as all.

    Rather, Jesus and the teacing epistles use terminology such as ‘follow me’; ‘take up your cross and follow me’; ‘repent’; ‘come to me’; sell your possessions… give to the poor and come follow me’; ‘receive the Kingdom of God’; ‘enter in’; ‘enter through’; ‘be baptised into’; and ‘believe in’.

    Lets remember, Revelation 3 is not written to the unchurched. Jesus is speaking to the CHURCH (the Christians at Loadicea specifically) when He says “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” Mind you, no mention of heart is there. This is not an evengelism verse at all! In fact, Jesus need to ask this of a church might very well be because we have turned this verse into an evangelism verse!

    I think this is an important point because at the end of the day, we cross over onto Jesus’ turf. He might meet us on ours, but he draws us across into His Kingdom.

    With my kids, (6 and 8), I use that very terminology – that Jesus wants us to follow Him. When we understand the amazing thing it is that a Rabbi asks grown people to follow him (I won;t go into that here, Rob Bell has a whole chapter on this though in his book Velvet Elvis) and realise the true nature of what it is to be a follower, then it really doesn’t require us to create unhelpful, distracting and, in many ways, perverse terminology.

    I will pop back and see if anyone want to comment on this. I appreciate everyones comments above and love the fact that there are places where we can discourse this stuff. Especially as I work at getting what’s in my head onto paper!

    Cheers and Peace,

    Mark G

  15. Great comments Mark and thanks for stopping in!

    As an aside, if you want to get at some of the material behind Rob Bell’s portrayal in Velvet Elvis then check out Ray Vanderlaan (www.followtherabbi.com).

    Best wishes on the publishing of your book. Stop by anytime.

    Cheers.

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  17. Hi Kent and all,

    It’s been a few months now since I posted my post but I have finally finished my book – 17 Irritating Laws of Followship: Rediscovering what it means to follow the radical Jesus – and wanted to invite you all to interact with it if you choose to. The book is on the printer, but I will be posting on the blog I created for the book – 17irritatinglawsoffollowship.blogspot.com – in the lead up to it’s release.

    At the moment you will find the Foreword written by Australian Christian author, speaker, and social justice advocate, John Smith, on that blog. Feel free to go take a look…

    If you want to be kept up to date on the book release and the special pre-release offer i will be making in the next week or so, please feel free to e-mail me at markgladmancomedy@gmail.com and i will add you to the mailing list.

    Cheers, Peace and thank you for your support.

    All the best, Kent,

    Mark G

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  19. It is ok to ask Jesus into your heart

    The heart is important in the Bible [762 in KJV, 541 in NIV not including plurals] and in our salvation and our relationship with God. Although the exact words “Ask Jesus into your heart” may not be found in the Bible the concept certainly is.
    It is with our heart that we believe and are justified (Romans 10:10). Calling on the name of the Lord saves (Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13). Calling on the Lord can be as simple as thief on the cross: “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Paul had to be knocked off of a donkey and blinded by an extremely bright divine light before he called upon the Lord (Acts 22:6-16).
    Paul prayed that Christ would dwell in people’s hearts (Ephesians 3:16-17). So I see nothing wrong in a person asking that Jesus come into their heart. After all it isn’t the words a person says it is the intent of their heart. True confession, repentance and trust must accompany whatever words are spoken. “Anyone who trusts in him will not be put to shame” (Romans 10:13). “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

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