Why do so many Christians say, “Ask Jesus into your heart”?
I understand what this refers to—a relationship with God through Christ—and when people who loved me used that language when I was a child, God used it to draw me to himself. However, I find it curious, even troubling, that for many evangelical Christians this non-biblical and potentially misleading language is the most commonly used in evangelism. In a blog post from some years ago, Evangelical New Testament scholar 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.” They simply don’t talk about relationship with God through Christ that way. He explains,
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 (I think he is), wouldn’t it be more consistent with Scripture to say something like, “Give your heart to Jesus” rather than asking Jesus into yours? Doesn’t asking Jesus into your heart shift the gravitational center of the relationship away from the priority and centrality of Jesus, and put that focus onto you? Doesn’t “Ask Jesus into your heart” subtly communicate that Jesus becomes an add-on to your life, rather than your life shifting at its deepest center (the heart) away from yourself and into Jesus?
Being attached to Jesus by faith, adopted into the family of God, or actually transferred into Christ are the images Jesus and other New Testament authors most often use to describe our relationship with God through Christ. Shouldn’t our language in evangelism resonate with those dominant images? I believe that we can be creative enough to develop child-friendly ways of talking about Jesus that are more guided by what the Scriptures actually say—ways other than “Ask Jesus into your heart”. [Yet, years after posting this, I still hear that old phrase in the various evangelical churches I visit and in the testimonies from my evangelical college students]
For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus the issue specifically on children. I think this is helpful for three reasons.
- [At the time that I wrote this] 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.
- The ability to explain something to children is a good test of our theology. Even though children won’t be able to understand the full depths of more complicated concepts such as the Trinity, 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. I believe we shouldn’t be afraid of concepts if (big if) we are willing to use them in such a way that they remain transparent to the Scriptures. The concepts shouldn’t take the place of Scripture, but help us understand that to which the Scriptures refer.
- 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. (Since posting this, some time ago, many good books have been published on children’s spirituality).
Go ahead, throw some ideas our way or tell me you think I’m off my rocker!