Editor’s Note: Sharing the gospel with our children is an extremely critical task. The language we use to communicate the good news is also vitally important. This article offers an alternate view to a very traditional method of evangelism, a prayer to accept Jesus into your heart. Please share your thoughts in the comments below to 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 it sticks. You spend the next 10 years questioning if she really meant it. Puberty hits, and you only have more questions. Your daughter turns away from faith. You spend the next 10 years praying she will come to her senses. What went wrong?
Of course, there’s no way to guarantee that an early acceptance of the gospel will stick. Parents shouldn’t feel defeated when adolescents question or even rebel against what they’ve heard 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’ve probably heard about the prayer to accept Jesus into your heart a thousand times. It’s common at evangelistic meetings and at the end of impassioned sermons. Perhaps you’ve seen it modeled as part of a gospel presentation.
I’ve come to believe that the concept of a prayer to accept Jesus into your heart can be a dangerous way to call someone to faith. Read on to discover why.
Accept Jesus Into Your Heart: 9 Obstacles to Avoid
1. Figurative language isn’t appropriate for most children.
Little children think literally. So they can be confused (or even frightened) by a prayer to accept Jesus into your heart. Does Jesus reside in my blood-pumping organ? Does he live in the upper or lower ventricle?
2. Salvation results not from our asking but from what Jesus has done.
We must encourage children to look away from themselves to Jesus Christ. He took the punishment for our sin by bearing the punishment we deserve to the cross (Galatians 3:13). Jesus 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 “accept 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.
Although it’s 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 emphasize the gospel as a historical fact.
4. The gospel appeals to more than our emotions.
The idea of a prayer to accept Jesus into your heart comes from a movement in the church called revivalism. It was very adept at reaching people on an emotional level, but our personal faith is more than an emotion. Though it isn’t wrong for faith to move us on an emotional level, it isn’t as right as it could be.
Salvation isn’t 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.