I’m moving more & more to answer “no” on this question. It’s not that I think children are unable to genuinely respond to the gospel but that that particular expression is ambiguous–sometimes dangerously so–on a point where clarity is essential. If you’re a parent whose child has already “asked Jesus into his/her heart”–praise the Lord! Press on in wisdom as you disciple them and exercise discernment as you affirm evidence of their conversion. What I offer here is simply a brief explanation for a shift in my thinking as a parent which is starting to shape my ministry as a pastor.
A little background. My wife and I were talking about baptism for a couple of our kids. She was confident that their profession of faith represented a genuine conversion. I was more hesitant. As a pastor’s kid myself I grew up in the church & have seen firsthand how social conditioning can be erroneously interpreted as conversion. I didn’t want to make that mistake with my kids. Still, I’ve come to recognize that my wife has exceptional insight into the lives of our children so I was a bit perplexed at our differing assessments. Her sage advice: talk to them. Brilliant!
I’ll spare you all the talking points but I found that when I asked our kids questions like “What is a Christian?” or “How is a person saved?” almost inevitably the answer had something to do with asking Jesus into one’s heart. Pressed further, the explanations varied greatly in terms of why someone should/would ask Jesus in or how that invitation secured salvation. Following on these family interactions here are some of the reasons that I think the “ask Jesus into your heart” lingo needs to be retired:
- It lacks a “biblical pedigree” (i.e. chapter & verse).
- It requires no real grasp of the gospel message.
- It fails to articulate our need of a wholesale exchange–His righteousness for our unrighteousness.
- It says nothing of repentance.
- It emphasizes the (subjective) sincerity of the heart rather than the (objective) certainty of Christ’s work.
I don’t doubt that the phrase has been & will be used by genuine converts. Further, I wouldn’t argue with the claim that the expression need not signify ignorance of the gospel message or an inability to articulate it. But when it comes to the salvation of a soul surely we want to do more than give someone the benefit of the doubt. In light of eternity that may be no benefit at all.