Thirty-nine-year-old J.D. Greear pastors The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., which has been named one of the top 25 fast-growing churches in America for several years by Outreach magazine. Here Greear discusses his new book, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart (B&H Publishing, February 2013), which unpacks the sticky questions surrounding Christian salvation and the sometimes-misleading presentation of it in the church today.
JM: Author and pastor David Platt drew much controversy when he called the sinner’s prayer “superstitious” and “unbiblical.” Do you agree with that perspective?
JG: For what it’s worth, I think David’s words have been taken out of context. What David meant was that securing salvation has become for many evangelicals something like a Protestant ritual or sacrament, which if you do correctly punches your ticket.
But God never promises to give salvation in response to a prayer or because you went through a ceremony at the altar of your church. God gives salvation to those who repent and believe the gospel. The prayer is only good insofar as it expresses repentance and faith. Belief in the finished work of Christ is in itself a cry to God for salvation. You can repent and believe without “praying the prayer,” per se, and you can pray the prayer without being in the posture. Salvation comes by surrendering to Christ’s lordship and believing in his finished work, whether or not you pray a prayer “asking Jesus into your heart.”
JM: In the same vein, does praying the sinner’s prayer give false assurance of salvation? Do you think those who do it should take a second look and question whether they’re really saved?
JG: My main thesis in this book is that reducing salvation to a sinner’s prayer gives assurance to some who shouldn’t have it, and keeps assurance from some who should. I am not trying to say that the sinner’s prayer is wrong in itself—after all, as I mentioned above, salvation is essentially a cry for mercy to God: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). I’m not even against the language of asking Jesus into your heart, because—if understood correctly—this is a biblical concept (cf. Rom. 8:9–11; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 3:17).
I am saying that the sinner’s prayer has become a cliché, a ritual that people often go through without considering what stands behind the ritual. Shorthand phrases for the gospel can serve a good purpose—as long as everyone knows what the clichés mean. It is obvious, however, that in the case of the sinner’s prayer, most people don’t anymore. Surveys show that more than 50% of people in the U.S. have prayed a sinner’s prayer and think they’re going to heaven because of it, even though there is no detectable difference in their lifestyles from those outside of the church.
Thus, since so many people are assured of salvation simply because they “prayed a prayer”–despite lives that argue to the contrary–I believe it is time to put the shorthand aside. We need to preach salvation by repentance before God and faith in the finished work of Christ. At the very least, when inviting people to pray the prayer, as I often do, we need to be careful to explain exactly what we mean.