Editor’s note: This piece originally ran on CoreyFarr.com. It was republished here with permission.
“All you have to do is ask Jesus into your heart.” I’m sure you’ve heard it before. It’s the classic evangelism tagline, and it makes me think of those ads on Facebook: Learning guitar doesn’t have to be complicated anymore! Learn how to play amazing solos in just 15 minutes with my new method! Here’s how I learned to make a million dollars a month working 10 hours a week! Learn how to achieve mindfulness and live an integrated life in three lessons!
Or for my personal favorite, check out this gem that popped up in my newsfeed yesterday:
Now, please, don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that making a decision to follow Christ has any prerequisites, as though you had to qualify for it like taking out a mortgage or a car loan. But I think there are a few very problematic things with this worn-out cliché.
Jesus doesn’t live in your heart
Jesus still has a human body, and that body has ascended as King to be seated “at the right hand of the Father.” And whatever that metaphorical language means (since the Father is not human and does not have a physical body, as far as we know), at the very least it means Jesus is still living and breathing, not setting up a campsite in your pulmonary valve. This isn’t some weird spin-off series of the Magic School Bus, where he shrinks himself down to move into your arteries.
Now, Paul does say that we are filled with the “Spirit of Christ,” and many times over we hear that we are filled with the third person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself promised that he would be “with us always,” but he said this in the context of saying that the Father would send the Holy Spirit to fill us and work through us.
I don’t want to split hairs, here. I don’t think anyone in their right mind thinks that any of my caricatures above are true. People who talk about asking Jesus into their hearts would pretty much all agree (I hope) that being filled with the “Spirit of Christ” or the Holy Spirit is what they’re actually talking about—and I don’t have a problem with that. But when we use that language, it can be tempting to forget one of the most crucial, radical, surprising, and utterly unprecedented doctrines: that God became human and is still human in the body of Jesus of Nazareth.
God-in-Jesus stooped from his place of “otherness” to become completely united with humanity, and in so doing he paved the way for all of humanity to be re-united with God. There is already one human in the throne-room of God, and as the “new Adam” he opened the door for the rest of us. As Athanasius wrote, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.” And we would do well to think carefully about our use of language, lest we forget or diminish that marvelous truth.
Jesus didn’t ask us to ask him into our hearts
We have plenty of examples of Jesus himself calling people to be disciples, and he never used the Sinner’s Prayer or the “just ask me into your heart” lingo. He said things like follow me, take up your cross, and leave everything behind. I don’t think I need to explain how significant the difference is between these two on-ramps into a life of discipleship.
The idea of “salvation” (another thing Jesus described with totally different language than we do) being reduced to a simple ask is pitiful. This isn’t because I think we need to try to make people do more to “get saved.” It’s because I think we are betraying the very heart of the Kingdom of God when we reduce “salvation” to a couple cookie-cutter sentences.
I’m not advocating that we need to earn God’s forgiveness and acceptance. It’s that I think we need to offer people more and call them to more if we want “salvation” to have any real meaning at all. In my mind, the offer/call to pledge my allegiance to the Kingdom of God is compelling, whereas “just ask Jesus into your heart and get your sins forgiven” feels like talking to a Cutco knife salesman or a guy in a trench coat selling me a knockoff Rolodex.
What does it even mean anyway?
When we use language as vague as “ask Jesus into your heart,” we have to play a whole lot of catchup after the bait and switch. To me, it doesn’t seem fair to sell someone a product and only later explain what they’re buying. This doesn’t mean we need to lay out the entire story of Scripture, all the teachings of Christ, and all the theology of the Kingdom of God before someone can become a Jesus-follower (although, incidentally, the early church did exactly that by requiring at least two years of attendance and learning before allowing people to be baptized). But we also can’t make all of this stuff into a “terms of service” that we don’t explain—and nobody reads—before we ask them to check the box and install the product, so to speak. There has to be a happy middle ground here.
As I say in every post in this series: I don’t think that every person who uses one of these cliché phrases is falling into all of the negative side effects that I point out. But as always, I think it’s important to critically consider the language we are using, because our language shapes our understanding of reality. Grace and peace, everyone.
Corey Farr is a graduate of Northern Seminary. He is currently located in the Middle East in Lebanon, a tiny country next to war-torn Syria, where he lives and works onsite at a residential facility and elementary school for both Syrian and Lebanese orphans and children at risk. A singer-songwriter and wannabe author, Corey blogs about faith, spirituality, poetry at www.coreyfarr.com. He also runs a podcast called "A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching".