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Interview: J.D. Greear on "Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart"

sajiyhYou will be hard pressed to find a book with a more compelling, if not controversial, title than J.D. Greear’s new book, “Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart.” For those of you who may not know J.D., he is the Lead Pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina. J.D. has pastored The Summit since 2002, when he led the church to relaunch itself (formerly known as Homestead Heights). At the time of the relaunch they were running close to 300 people, and now are exceeding 6,000 regularly. For the past few years they have been recognized by Outreach Magazine as one of the 25 fastest growing churches in the country.

J.D. is kind enough to stop by the blog today to speak with us about his new book. I am thankful for his willingness to give us a bit the inside story behind the book, and to help us understand the content of the book a bit more.

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1. J.D., thanks for stopping by the blog today. I appreciate the effort. Your new book has a provocative title. I am confident that it is stirring interest in those who are reading it. So, give us a quick synopsis. What is the book all about?

My main thesis in this book is that reducing salvation to a sinner’s prayer gives assurance to some who shouldn’t have it, and keeps assurance from some who should. I wrote this book because there are a lot of people who can’t seem to find assurance no matter how many times they pray “the prayer,” and others who have a false assurance based on the fact that they went through a ritual with their pastor.

You could say I wrote the book to bring comfort to the unnecessarily troubled, and to trouble the unjustifiably comforted.

2. Your story is similar to mine, though I haven’t been baptized as many times as you. However, you talk about your struggle with assurance and the fact that you have been baptized four times. You also point out that false assurance, which is the flip side of the coin, is a serious danger. Of the two, which do you think is a bigger plague in the church?

Based on statistics that those like the Barna Group have run, the larger numerical problem is probably the falsely assured: 51% of all American adults believe they are going to heaven, even though most of that group never attends church, reads the Bible, or lives in any recognizably Christian manner. But the flip side of the problem is a huge issue that I have encountered repeatedly in my time as a pastor.

In the end, it’s less important to figure out which side of the coin is the “bigger” plague, but to focus on the remedy. And I believe that part of the problem comes from the shorthand, clichéd ways we speak of the gospel. The usual evangelical shorthand for the gospel is to “ask Jesus into your heart” or to pray the “sinner’s prayer.” Shorthand is fine insofar as everyone knows what the shorthand refers to. But in our day “the sinner’s prayer” has often become a substitute for repentance and belief.

To be clear—I am not trying to say that the sinner’s prayer is wrong in itself—after all, repentance and belief are in themselves a cry to God for mercy. Jesus presents the repentant tax collector being converted through the prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Some of the greatest evangelists in history—even Reformed ones—used a sinner’s prayer, including John Bunyan, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon would plead with people to pray the words of a sinner’s prayer after him as part of the conclusion to his sermons. I would go so far as to say that if you do not press for a decision when you preach the gospel, you haven’t fully preached the gospel, because the gospel in its very essence calls for a response. I’m not even against the language of asking Jesus into your heart, because—if understood correctly—this is a biblical concept (cf. Rom 8:9–11; Gal 2:20; Eph 3:17)!

I am saying that the sinner’s prayer has become a Protestant ritual that people often go through without considering what the prayer is supposed to embody. God doesn’t give salvation in response to a prayer; repentance and faith are the instruments that lay hold of salvation. You can express repentance and 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.

3. In chapter 2 you mention that every religion in the world, except for Christianity, uses doubt to compel one to obey. However, in my experience, doubt is one of the most often used reasons for many Christians to obey. Instead, you suggest that the gospel of God’s grace creates a desire to obey. What’s the difference? As long as we are obeying, that’s all that should matter, right?

God is not simply after obedience; He’s after a whole new kind of obedience, the obedience that grows from desire. He wants the intimacy of sons, not just the service of slaves. Unfortunately, far too many Christians use doubt as a catalyst for obedience. The Roman Catholic Church of Martin Luther’s day, for instance, believed that people would only obey when threatened with harsh consequences for rebellion. Luther did not mince words when he called this the “damnable doctrine of doubt.”

We are supposed to relate to God as a father, not as a strict task-master. A faithful father does not leave his kids wondering whether or not he knows and loves them. When I go away on a trip, I don’t say to my kids, “Daddy will be back soon . . . or maybe he won’t. Maybe I’m not really your daddy at all. Maybe my real family lives somewhere else. You’ll just have to wait and see if I come back. Sit around and think about that while I’m gone, and let that compel you to become better children.”

That would not produce love and loyalty in my children. It might produce a little fear-based obedience, but it’s only a matter of time until fear-based obedience turns into father-loathing bitterness and rebellion. I don’t want my children feeling like orphans, and neither does God.

4. At the beginning of chapter 3 you suggest that assurance, in one sense, is as easy as asking the question, do you believe in Christ? Your rationale is supported by John 3:36. However, many who worry over assurance will, with great fear, point back to Matthew 7:21-23 that says:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’

How do you balance the simple truth of John 3:36 with the fearful tone of Matthew 7?

The verses from Matthew 7 were part of what threw me into the first of my many spirals of doubt. I remember during my 9th grade year, when my Sunday school teacher told us that according to Matt 7, many people who think they know Jesus would awaken on the last day to the reality that he never knew them. I was terrified. How could I know I wasn’t going to be in that group?

My advice to those who fear that they will be among those to whom Christ says, “Depart from Me, I never knew you,” is this: rest in His promise to receive all who hope in His finished work. Jesus’ warning often makes us look inward and find plenty of reasons for God to reject us. But for every one look we take at our sinful heart, we should take 10 looks at Christ. Once Charles Spurgeon, reflecting on those whom Christ turns away in Matthew 7:21–23, said (and I paraphrase), “Never knew me, Lord? How could you say that? When I had no hope of salvation, I rested all my hope on you. When I despaired in my struggle against sin, I looked to you for strength. Jesus could never say to me, ‘I never knew you.’”

None who lean the weight of their soul on the truth of the testimony God gave about Jesus as their hope of salvation will ever hear the words, “Depart from Me, I never knew you.” To rest in Christ’s finished work is, you see, to be known by Jesus.

5. I love the statement you make in chapter 4, in reference to our own assurance. You say, “Present posture is better proof than a past memory.” In other words, your present position before God is more important than whether or not you can remember the time, date, location of your conversion. I’ve said it this way, “The question is not so much, have you believed, but rather are you believing?” Having said that, are you suggesting that salvation does not have to be tied to a “moment?”

Certainly not. Salvation does indeed happen in a moment, and once you are saved you are always saved. My point is that conversion is not a ceremony you go through but a posture of repentance and faith that you assume. The posture does indeed begin in a moment, but it continues for a lifetime.

Salvation happens in a moment: I don’t want to confuse or downplay that. But in that moment, you merely enter a posture of submission to the lordship of Christ and trust in his finished work. That is a posture you maintain for the rest of your life. And the way you know you made the decision to get into that posture is that you are there now.

In the book I compare conversion to sitting down in a chair. If you are seated right now, then you know that at some point in the past you made a decision to sit down—your posture proves it. If you are right now trusting in Christ’s finished work and submitting to his Lordship, that proves you are saved. If you are not, then it doesn’t matter what “ceremony” you went through. Assurance doesn’t come through a memory of a past event, but through our present posture. “Believing,” as it relates to assurance, is almost always presented in the present tense (e.g. 1 John 5:13).

6. Further along in this chapter you speak about helping your children to know Christ. You mention the tension parents feel about not pushing their children to make a hasty decision. I know I have greatly struggled with this. However, you encourage parents to begin appealing to their children to respond to Christ at an early age. How do you do that, and not encourage what would become your testimony, and mine, that of multiple “conversion stories,” multiple baptisms, etc.?

As a father of 4 young children, I have often reflected on the best way to lead them to faith. I want their decision to follow Jesus to be significant, but I also don’t want them to go through what I went through, constantly questioning my previous religious experiences. I know that when you present kids with a “don’t you want to be a good girl and make daddy happy and accept Jesus and not go to a fiery hell?” of course they say, “Yes.” “Praying the prayer” in such a situation may have little do with actual faith in Christ and have more to do with making daddy happy.

For that reason, many parents don’t want to push their child to make a decision for Christ. What if we coerce them into praying a prayer they don’t understand, and that keeps them from really dealing with the issues later when they really understand it? Might having them pray the prayer too early on inoculate them from really coming to Jesus later, giving them false assurance that keeps them from dealing with their need to be saved?

I understand that fear. At the same time, I know that children are capable of faith. (In fact, Jesus tells adults that for them to be saved they must become like children, not visa versa!) And Jesus says that those of us who make it difficult for little kids to put faith in Him ought to have a millstone tied around our necks and be thrown into the sea (Matt 18:1–6). So I don’t ever want to discourage my kids from faith.

The dilemma is resolved, however, by seeing salvation as a posture toward Christ and not as a ceremony. There is only one posture ever appropriate to Christ: surrendered to His Lordship, and believing that He did what He said He did. From the very beginning of their lives, I want my kids to assume that posture! So I explain to them often what Christ has done and encourage them to pin their hopes of righteousness on His work and not theirs. Whenever they think about their hopes for heaven, I want their minds to go to what Jesus did on Calvary. And when I encourage them to walk in holiness, I want the motivation—from day one—to be the finished work of Christ on their behalf.

Again, it’s like sitting down in a chair. If you’re sitting down now, that is proof that at some point you made the decision to sit down even if you don’t remember the moment. There was a moment you sat down, but the proof is in the present posture, not the past memory. The same is true with my kids and the Lordship of Jesus and his finished work. They can only be in one of two postures with him. So whenever I talk to them about Jesus, I encourage them to assume the posture of repentance and faith. Why would I ever want them to have a different posture in relationship to Jesus? Whether they can explain later the exact moment they sat down in repentance and faith is less important than the fact that they do it.

7. In chapter 6 you speak about the doctrine of eternal security. You say, “It’s not incorrect to say ‘once saved, always saved.’ It’s just incomplete.” What do you mean by that?

I do believe in eternal security, the idea usually summed up with the phrase you mention here: “once saved, always saved.” But the way that I heard eternal security described in Baptist churches growing up is not the way it is described in the Bible. It’s not even the way that some of the great Baptists of the past—I’m thinking of Charles Spurgeon and John Bunyan, among others—described eternal security.

Neither the great Baptists of the past nor the Bible describes eternal security as a one-time ritual that produces a guarantee of salvation no matter how you live your life. They described it as the knowledge that if God had started a true work in you, he would complete it. And the way that you show your salvation is genuine is by persevering for the rest of your life.

Persevering in the faith is proof that you have the salvation you could never lose; failing to persevere shows that you never had it to begin with.

8. In chapter 7 you address the biblical signs of genuine faith. You even go so far as to say, “the presence of the struggle [with sin] itself can be affirmation that God’s Spirit is at work within you.” I know many will find this difficult to believe. Can you elaborate on this point?

Struggling with sin or its consequences isn’t proof by itself that a person knows God. But I have known a lot of believers who live on the brink of despair because of the presence of sin in their lives. They know the attitude of their hearts, and they recognize strong undercurrents of selfishness, idolatry, apathy, and unbelief. And they begin to wonder, “Can I really be saved and still have these sinful desires?”

The simple answer is, “Yes.” The Apostles all testify to a never-ending and intense struggle they had with sin (cf. Paul’s words in Rom 7:21, and John’s in 1 John 1:8). James says that we sin (even as believers) because we are “drawn away by our own lusts and enticed” (James 1:14). I assume he says that from experience. And I find my own heart prone to unforgiveness, resentment, jealousy, and selfishness more often than I care to admit.

Believers can and do struggle with just about any kind of sinful lust. This is why the struggle is so affirming. Before God’s Spirit came into you, you didn’t struggle with sin—you ran toward it eagerly! But now God’s Spirit lives in you, and you feel the tension of that struggle every day. The strongest evidence of my growth in grace is not absence of struggle, but the growing recognition of my need of grace.

9. As we close this up, if you had 30 seconds to speak to a believer who was greatly struggling with assurance. What would you say to them?

It would, of course, depend on the situation of the person I was talking to, as a wayward believer needs to be treated differently than a humble seeker, but essentially I would ask them if their present posture is one of submission to Christ’s Lordship and trust in his finished work. If so, they are saved, even if they don’t remember the prayer or the moment they got into that posture. If not, then it doesn’t matter what prayer they prayed.

Second, I would ask them to consider whether the signs of eternal life are present in them. As John explains so thoroughly in 1 John, conversion does not bring sinless perfection, but it does begin to make fundamental changes in the human heart.

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If you would like to purchase “Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart” click here.

If you would like to see other books by J.D. Greear, click here.

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Cross-posted from Micah’s personal blog.