If there were a world record for the "number of times asking Jesus into your heart," I'm pretty sure I would hold it. I've probably "prayed the prayer" more than five thousand times. Every time was sincere, but I was never quite sure I had gotten it right. Had I really been sorry enough for my sin that time around? Some wept rivers of tears when they got saved, but I hadn't done that. Was I really sorry? Was that prayer a moment of total surrender? Did I really "get" grace?
So I would pray the sinner's prayer again. And again. And again. And maybe get baptized again. Every student camp, every spring revival. Rinse and repeat.
I used to think I was alone in this, that I was just a neurotic oddball. But when I began to talk about this, I would have such a slew of people tell me they had the same experience that I concluded the problem was endemic. Countless people in our churches today are genuinely saved, but they just can't seem to gain any assurance about their salvation.
The opposite is the case, too. Because of some childhood prayer, tens of thousands of people are absolutely certain of a salvation they do not possess.
Both problems are exacerbated by the clichéd, truncated, and often sloppy ways we present the gospel in shorthand. Now, shorthand is fine insofar as everyone knows what the shorthand refers to. It is obvious, however, that in the case of "the sinner's prayer," most people don't anymore. Surveys show that more than 50 percent 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.
On this issue—the most important issue on earth—we have to be absolutely clear. 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.
This does not mean that we stop pressing for a decision when we preach the gospel. The greatest Reformed evangelists in history—such as George Whitefield, C.H. Spurgeon, and John Bunyan—pressed urgently for immediate decisions and even urged hearers to pray a prayer along with them. Each time the gospel is preached, that invitation ought to be extended and a decision should be called for (Matt. 11:28; John 1:12; Rev. 22:17). In fact, if we do not urge the hearer to respond personally to God's offer in Christ, we have not fully preached the gospel.
Furthermore, repentance and faith in Christ are in themselves a cry to God for salvation. The sinner's prayer is not wrong in itself—after all, salvation is essentially a cry for mercy to God: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). In Scripture, those who call on God's name will be saved. I'm not even categorically opposed to the language of asking Jesus into your heart, because—if understood correctly—it is a biblical concept (Rom. 8:9–11; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 3:17).
For many, however, the sinner's prayer has become a Protestant ritual they go through without considering what the prayer is supposed to embody. God doesn't give salvation in response to mere words; faith is the instrument that lays hold of salvation. You can express faith in a prayer, but it is possible to repent and believe without a formal prayer, and it is possible to pray a sinner's prayer without repenting and believing.
This finally clicked for me when, almost in desperation, I read Martin Luther's commentary on Romans. Luther points out that salvation comes by resting on the facts God revealed about the death of Christ. Just as Abraham was counted righteous when he believed that God would keep His promise, we are saved by believing that He has done so in Christ.
The gospel is the declaration that Jesus is Lord and has made an end to our sins. We are saved by submitting to those two truths. Conversion is a posture we take toward the declarations that Scripture makes about Jesus. The point is not how we felt or what we said at the moment of conversion; the point is the posture we are in now.
Think of conversion like sitting down in a chair. If you are seated right now, there was a time at which you transferred the weight of your body from your legs to the chair. You may not remember making that decision, but the fact you are seated now proves that you did. Your decision was necessary, but when trying to discern where your physical trust is— legs or chair—present posture is better proof than past memory.
Does this mean that backsliding Christians are not saved? No, believers can still backslide. Technically, any time you sin you are backsliding. As a believer, you will struggle with indwelling sin for the rest of your life. You will fall often, and sometimes you will fall hard.
But each time you fall, you get up again, looking heavenward. A person in the midst of a backslide may be saved, but assurance is only the possession of those in a present posture of repentance and faith (Heb. 6:9–10).
Ultimately, the world is divided into two categories: many are "standing" in rebellion against the lordship of Jesus, standing in hopes of their own righteousness to merit favor with God; others are "seated" in submission, resting on His finished work. So when it comes to assurance, the only real question is: Where is the weight of your soul resting? Are you still standing in rebellion, or have you sat down in the finished work of Christ?