Editor’s Note: Sharing the gospel with our children is an extremely critical task and the language we use to communicate the good news to them is also vitally important. This article offers an alternative view to a very traditional method of evangelism. We encourage you to share your thoughts and insights in the comment section below to help create a valuable discussion on this kingdom issue.
Your child lies in her snuggly, warm bed and says, “Yes, Daddy. I want to ask Jesus into my heart.” You lead her in “the prayer” and hope that it sticks. You spend the next 10 years questioning if she really, really meant it. Puberty hits, and you only have more questions. She turns away from faith. You spend the next 10 years praying that she will come to her senses. What went wrong?
Of course, there is no way to guarantee that an early acceptance of the gospel will stick, and parents should not feel defeated when their adolescents question or even rebel against what they have been taught from a young age. However, we can be careful to avoid language that would give our children a false understanding of the gospel or a false impression about their own condition. If you’ve grown up in a church setting, you have probably heard the phrase “ask Jesus into your heart” a thousand times—at evangelistic meetings or at the end of impassioned sermons. Perhaps you have seen it modeled as part of a gospel presentation. I have come to believe that the phrase “ask Jesus into your heart” can be a dangerous way of calling someone to faith. Here are a few reasons why:
1. This kind of figurative language is not appropriate for most children.
Little children think literally, and they can be confused (or even frightened) at the prospect of asking Jesus into their hearts. Does Jesus reside in my blood-pumping organ? Does he live in the upper or lower ventricle?
2. Salvation does not result from our asking, but from what Jesus has done.
We must encourage children to look away from themselves to Jesus Christ. Jesus took the punishment for our sin by bearing the punishment we deserve to the cross (Galatians 3:13). He makes us right with God because he lives to speak to the Father on our behalf (Romans 4:25; 1 John 2:1). His doing is the only thing worth trusting, because it alone saves.
3. The gospel is NOT primarily about Jesus’ work in our hearts, but about Jesus’ work in history.
When speaking about the gospel to children, our temptation is to focus on the child’s inner condition—their personal struggles with sin and obedience. Language like “asking Jesus into your heart” tempts children to see the gospel more as what God is doing in me now, rather than what God did for me then. While it is a biblical truth that Christ is present with the Christian by his Spirit (Colossians 1:27; Ephesians 3:17), the work in our hearts is secondary. When talking to a child about the gospel, you must put your emphasis on the gospel as an historical fact.
4. The gospel appeals to more than our emotions.
The phrase “ask Jesus into your heart” comes from a movement in the church called revivalism. This movement was very adept at reaching people on an emotional level, but our personal faith is more than an emotion. While it is not wrong for faith to move us on an emotional level, it is not as right as it could be. Salvation is not just saying yes to a relationship with Jesus. Rather, it is finally resting in Christ. It is trusting that God is true and faithful, and he has fulfilled his promises to save humanity in Jesus Christ.