Stop Telling People to Ask the Lord to Save Them
by Michael J. Penfold
An American author wrote a book a while ago called “Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart”. Allow me to make a slightly different plea: stop telling people to “ask the Lord to save them”.
This 6-word-sentence is a favourite cliché of many a preacher, Sunday School teacher and Bible Camp leader. Closing a gospel presentation the audience is told how to be saved. The recommended method? “Ask the Lord to save you.” Yet when Paul was asked “What must I do to be saved”, he did not reply “Ask the Lord to save you” (Acts 16:31). When Peter was asked “What shall we do?” he did not answer “Ask the Lord to save you” (Acts 2:37). When the Lord Jesus was asked, “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” He did not reply “Ask Me to save you” (Mark 10:17). Indeed no apostle, evangelist or preacher in the Bible ever told anyone to “ask the Lord to save them”.1 Furthermore, the epistles that explain the gospel in depth – Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians – never once instruct us to tell people to “ask the Lord to save them”.2
Note carefully how salvation is actually described in the historical record of the book of Acts:
2:41 – They gladly received his word
6:7 – Many priests were obedient to the faith
8:12 – They believed Philip preaching…the name of Jesus Christ
11:1 – The Gentiles received the word of God
11:21 – A great number believed and turned to the Lord
13:12 – Then the deputy…believed
13:48 – When the Gentiles heard this they…believed
16:1 – A Jewish woman who believed
16:34 – The jailer believed in God with all his house
17:4 – Some of those in Thessalonica believed
17:12 – Many of those in Berea believed
17:34 – Certain Athenians believed
18:8 – Many of the Corinthians hearing believed
19:18 – Many Ephesians believed
28:24 – Some Romans believed
Note well – no mention of people asking the Lord to save them! It is clear that New Testament evangelism did not affix a method, action or ritual to ‘believing’. It never reduced the grand and glorious truth of “believing on the Lord Jesus Christ” to an instruction to “get down by the side of your bed and ask the Lord to save you”.
If you tell someone to ask the Lord to save them, they will take it to mean, “I am to pray for my salvation”. But that’s the very last advice you should be giving. Firstly, you do not know the exact condition of the person’s heart. You cannot, with 100% accuracy, read their motives nor discern their true level of understanding. Telling them to do anything like “asking the Lord to save them” is jumping the gun and trying to do the Holy Spirit’s work for Him. Secondly, at the critical point where a sinner may be anxious to get this salvation matter settled once and for all, why give him exactly what his flesh wants: something to do. “Get on your knees”, “make Jesus your Lord”, “forsake your sin”, “ask Christ to save you”, “make a commitment”. This subtly turns salvation into a work – a ritual – after which the sinner can say, “I’ve done it”. Remember, fallen human nature is naturally self reliant. Telling even an awakened sinner that he needs to “get right with God and do it now” will most likely lead to him fastening on what he needs to do, rather than on what Christ has done. And since sinners naturally assume they are able to ‘do what is needed’ – even if that ‘doing’ means ‘believing’ – telling them to “do it now” only reinforces their innate but erroneous assumption that salvation somehow centres in themselves – in an act they need to perform to make salvation their own.
John Kennedy (1819–1884) Scottish author and preacher said that, “Faith [by some evangelists] is represented as something to be done, in order to [gain] salvation; and pains are taken to show that it is an easy thing. Better far than this would it be to see it, that those with whom they deal are truly convinced of sin, and to labour to set forth Christ before them, in his glorious completeness as a Saviour. To explain faith to them, that they may do it, is to set them still to work, though setting an easier task before them. I know well the tendency there is, at a certain stage of anxious inquiry, to ask, ‘What is faith, that I may do it?’ It is a legalist’s work to satisfy that craving; but this is what is done in the ‘inquiry-room’…Explanations of what faith is are but trifling with souls. How different is the Scripture way! The great aim there is to ‘set forth’ the object, not to explain the act, of faith.”
We must not play with souls. Yes, tell a man from the Bible of his lost, miserable and sinful condition by nature. Let him say, as did J.N. Darby, “I see in the Word, and I recognise in myself, the total ruin of man”. Tell him he justly deserves the eternal wrath of God in hell. Do not move on unless this fact is owned and bowed to lest you cast pearls before swine. Point the sinner to the person and finished work of Christ. Point him to his Bible and urge him to take God at His word. And leave it there. Do not give him a prayer to pray, an action to perform, a request to make. Do not give him anything to do. In both personal work and in preaching, the aim is not to get the sinner to ‘make a decision’, or ‘make a confession’ or ‘pray a prayer’. It is to set the truth before the sinner and leave God the Holy Spirit to accomplish the work of enlightenment and regeneration. The preacher’s aim is to enable the sinner “see something” – his need and Christ’s fitness to meet it – not “do something” (pray, ask, commit etc.). Beware of talking people into salvation and exerting pressure for a ‘decision’. Spurgeon warned: “It very often happens that the converts that are born in excitement die when the excitement is over…Some of the most glaring sinners known to me were once members of a church; and were, as I believe, led to make a profession by undue pressure, well-meant but ill-judged.”
But don’t sinners do have to ‘do something’ in order to be saved? Don’t they have to repent and believe? What’s the difference between telling someone to “ask Christ to save them” and telling them to “believe in Christ”, or “receive Christ”, or “come to Christ”? Surely it’s all the same thing. No; believing, receiving and coming are spiritual movements in the heart. “Asking” is a physical act of the lips. No doubt it’s much easier for everyone if it all comes down to “all you have to do is ask”, but the miracle of saving faith is not reduceable to this catchphrase. Mark it well; the most humbling thing for a sinner is to discover that they are completely lost and can do absolutely nothing to save themselves. The sinner may want to play his part, but it is only lost sinners, who have discovered that they have absolutely no resources, that get saved.
Confess with your mouth
But doesn’t the Bible tell sinners to “confess with your mouth”. “I’ve done that” so I must be saved! But what is the context of that particular expression and what does it mean? Here it is:
Romans 10:9-10: “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
First, this is not confession of sin. It is confession of Christ as Lord.
Second, it is not a prayer.
Third, the confession is made to one’s fellow men after being justified, not to God in order to be justified.
So, “confessing Jesus as Lord” cannot remotely mean “asking the Lord to save you”. The words ‘confess’ and ‘ask’ signify very different actions.
Have you ever noticed that ‘confession’ and ‘believing’ are reversed in v10, as compared to v9? Why is that? Because in v9 Paul is following the order of his quotation from Deuteronomy which appears in the previous verse, v8: “The word is near you, in your 1. mouth and in your 2. heart.” But when Paul comes to v10, he puts “believing in the heart” first, followed by confession with the mouth. Why? Because this is the actual order when a person comes to Christ. A person is declared righteous – justified – when they “believe in the heart”. And to that nothing can or needs to be added. The confession before men that follows – and the word signifies “public confession of allegiance” (BDAG 4.) – is the proof of a person’s justification, not its cause.
But doesn’t the text imply that confession is required to be saved? Doesn’t it say, “With the mouth confession is made unto salvation“. But salvation in this verse is wider than the immediate salvation of the soul. It is complete and final salvation. The verse is saying that those who are justified – one evidence of which is confession before men – will be fully and finally saved. Let me quote a few commentators on this point:
James Stiffler: “If one believes with the heart, that belief brings him into righteousness, right standing before God, and if now he confesses openly in his life his adherence to Jesus, that confession leads on to final salvation”.3
William Hendricksen: “Next he follows the natural order, according to which a person confesses with his lips that which is already present in the heart.”4
Robert Haldane: “A man becomes righteous, perfectly righteous, through believing God’s record concerning His Son. But the evidence that this faith is genuine is found in the open confession of the Lord with the mouth in everything in which His will is known. Confession of Christ is as necessary as faith in Him, but necessary for a different purpose. Faith is necessary to obtain the gift of righteousness. Confession is necessary to prove that this gift is received…In saying, then, that confession is made unto salvation, the apostle does not mean that it is the cause of salvation, or that without it the title to salvation is incomplete. When a man believes in his heart, he is justified. But confession of Christ is the effect of faith, and will be evidence of it at the last day.”5
William MacDonald: “Then with the mouth confession is made unto salvation; that is, the believer publicly confesses the salvation he has already received. Confession is not a condition of salvation but the inevitable outward expression of what has happened…when a person is genuinely born again, it is too good to keep secret. He confesses Christ.”6
So, Romans 10:9 is not saying “if you have asked the Lord to save you, you are saved”. From the age of 5 onwards, I asked the Lord to save me numerous times before I was truly saved. This is what I thought I needed to do. On one particular occasion, at the age of 9, I remember being on my knees alone in my room, earnestly asking the Lord to “save me, save me, save me” with tears running down my face. I even felt the burden roll away. But I was not saved. Terrified the Lord might come and leave me behind, and fearful of being in hell when I died, I went through the catharsis of “asking the Lord to save me” several times without ever having remotely understood the guilt of my sin, nor my utter helplessness, nor how the person and work of Christ met my need. So I never had peace. I was plagued with ‘doubts’. How glad I am that no authority figure in my life put me to sleep by saying. “You were saved the first time you asked. Rom 10:9 says ‘if you confess’. You’ve done that, so you are saved”.
While on the subjects of fear and conviction, let me quote John Dennison who wisely explains the difference: “Adam said they [he and Eve] hid in the trees because he was afraid and embarrassed. This was much different than the conviction of his sin when God spoke to him. His fear of consequences was different than his understanding of God’s holiness and his need. This problem of fear, rather than conviction, is most predominant in children. They are afraid of events such as death, hell, or the rapture and yet have not grasped what sin is and their personal accountability. Focussing them on their sin and God’s holiness is essential. The Lord spoke of the punishment of [Adam and Eve’s] sins after He spoke of what sin is and their own responsibility. Fear is emotion based. Conviction is Scripture based.”7
Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord
But what about the verse “Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom 10:13, Joel 2:32, Acts 2:21)? Is that not “asking the Lord to save you”. Let’s look at the passage in its Romans context:
“For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon Him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?”
A.W. Pink asks: “Now, does this [Rom 10:13] mean that all who have, with their lips, cried unto the Lord, who have in the name of Christ besought God to have mercy on them, have been saved by Him?…The writer well remembers being on a ship in a terrible storm off the coast of Newfoundland. All the hatches were battened down, and for three days no passenger was allowed on the decks. Reports from the stewards were disquieting. Strong men paled. As the winds increased and the ship rolled worse and worse, scores of men and women were heard calling upon the name of the Lord. Did He save them? A day or two later, when the weather changed, those same men and women were drinking, cursing, and card-playing!” Clearly Romans 10:13 is not a blank cheque to anyone to ‘call’ and claim to be saved.
Notice what comes with the ‘call’. Believing. This verse is talking about a believing call, an understanding call – a call from the heart. To frame it in terms of “asking the Lord to save you” is to cheapen it. Such a ‘believing call’ may be verbal, as with the dying thief, or it may not. I remember once hearing the evangelist Harold Paisley telling how he was saved. When the Holy Spirit dealt with him in his sins and brought him to an end of himself, he came to rest on the person and work of Christ. He wisely reflected years later, “I came with words, but you don’t have to come with words”. To somehow make ‘asking’ the key that brings salvation to the sinner is to step outside of the Bible and risk giving a sinner a false hope. Pink again: “At no point does Satan use his cunning and power more tenaciously, and more successfully, than in getting people to believe that they have a saving faith when they have not. The Devil deceives more souls by this one thing than by all his other devices put together.”
This section in Romans 10 – the only one in the whole Bible that mentions ‘calling’ in connection with salvation – cannot be understood in a way that negates the unified testimony of Scripture that salvation is through repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. To insist or recommend that salvation must involve some kind of ‘verbal act’ is to tread on very thin ice. The ‘call’ of Romans 10:13 is simply the believing heart (“how shall they call unless they have believed”) going out in faith – reaching out in faith – to Christ when the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of a sinner’s understanding. Such is what the Bible means by a ‘call’.
But what about Peter, didn’t he “ask the Lord to save Him” on the Sea of Galilee? Use it as a picture of faith if you will, but remember Peter was already a believer and the passage is not giving us a formula for how to be saved by “asking the Lord to save you”, nor is it outlining the doctrine of justification by faith.
Are any readers struggling with the matter of salvation? Perhaps you have asked the Lord to save you many times, but you have never found peace. Have a read of Revelation 22:17. These are words to seeking souls.”Let him that is thirsty come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” God doesn’t tell you to ask – He tells you to freely take what He has provided for you. Do not look to your asking – look to Christ and what He has accomplished at the cross.
To those who preach the gospel, learn the chasm that yawns between a weak gospel and a sound one. A weak gospel focuses on decisions and results. It does not take the time to faithfully, clearly and thoroughly warn sinners of their need and danger. This is the great lack in our day. No penetrating, conscience-stirring presentation of man’s lost and sinful condition. When the Lord dealt with Nicodemus (John 3) and the woman at the well (John 4), He spent much more time exposing their ruin than presenting the remedy. When Paul preached “the faith in Christ” to Felix, what were his points? “Righteousness, temperance and judgment to come” (Acts 24:24-25). The whole thrust of a weak gospel is simply to get someone to the point of decision – to get them to “do something” – to confess, to ask, to commit, to ‘make Jesus Lord of your life’, whereas the whole thrust of a sound gospel is to so convince the hearer that he is altogether lost and undone that he will see he can do nothing. He is not only a sinner; he is a helpless sinner. A sound gospel reveals a God “who tells me words by which I’m saved, and points to something done, accomplished on Mount Calvary by God’s beloved Son, in which no works of mine have place – else grace with works is no more grace.” When you ask souls ‘converted’ under a weak gospel how they know they are saved they will often reply “Because I prayed”, “Because I asked”, “Because I meant it”, “Because I felt different”. Souls converted under a sound gospel will reply along the lines of, “Because the Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me”. The day in my teens when by the workings of the Holy Spirit I was finally saved, I was not thinking about what I needed to do. Agreeing with what God said about me as a lost and helpless sinner (repentance) I simply took it in that Christ had died for me and I rested there (faith).
These are solemn matters. Handling souls is a serious and weighty responsibility. It is not to be taken lightly nor to be reduced to formulas and decisions. It’s not hard to get someone to “ask the Lord to save them”. Anyone can do that. Anyone can produce an Ishmael, but only God can produce an Isaac. Let us stick to scriptural terminology and methods, and let God bring souls to Himself in His way.
I close this article by appending the content of a tract that came across my pathway a few years ago. It is the testimony of a lady called Yvonne Hess from Livonia, Michican, USA. It is called My 33-Year Search for Peace and encapsulates, in story form, everything I have outlined above.
Says Yvonne, “I was 12 years old when I earnestly began to think about God. It happened when I read some religious literature that someone had stuffed between books at the public library. Some of the booklets discussed sin and warned that God will someday return to judge sinners. That was a scary thought. I didn’t have to be a genius to know that the lies, occasional cheating, stealing things, and mouthing off to my parents were all classified as ‘sin’. It was clear that God wouldn’t be holy if He compromised on the issue of sin and allowed anyone contaminated with it into His presence, so I was uncomfortably aware that, as a sinner, I was heading towards hell.
“My response? I decided that I needed to solve my sin problem if I were to escape facing God’s wrath some day. ‘It should be quite easy to obey God’s commandments once I know what they are,’ I surmised. Was I mistaken! As I listed every commandment that I encountered in the Bible and added it to my to-do-list, I was frustrated to find that I couldn’t get through even part of a day, let alone an entire day, without sinning in some way! So, living an entire life without sinning was hopeless. The most impossible commandment of all was Deut 6:5, ‘And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.’ How could I ever love God with ALL my heart and ALL my soul and ALL my might, as He commands? With a sinking feeling in my heart, I knew deep down that I could never reach the perfection that God seemed to require of people; yet I felt it was a swim-or-sink issue. After all, who wants to face an angry God when he dies? So I kept looking for an elusive peace; and, although many people now considered me to be a serious, devout girl, I felt that the chasm between God and me seemed only to grow wider.
“When I was in my late teens, I began to attend a Baptist church with my family. My Sunday school teacher, Mrs. J., told me that all I had to do was to confess that I was a sinner, believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sin, and ask Jesus into my heart. Admiring her own bright assurance and hoping that I might learn the secret of her confidence, one day I agreed to meet with her after the Sunday evening service to discuss salvation.
“That Sunday night, in spite of my intense desire for peace, I found myself strangely resistant to her urgings to be saved, but she was persistent. She pursued a series of verses, known as ‘The Roman Road’, and when she reached Rom 10:13, ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’, she encouraged me to ask Jesus to come into my heart. At first I resisted her prompting but, with tears of embarrassment for initially displaying such defiant opposition, I finally knelt beside her and followed her in prayer.
“At that point Mrs. J. joyfully hugged me, pronounced me saved and told me to tell everyone I knew about it. I did exactly that. But within two days I was filled with doubts again. Had I repented ENOUGH? Had I said the right words in my prayer? Had I really MEANT what I had prayed?
“When I confessed my doubts to Mrs. J., she told me, ‘The devil is just trying to ruin your joy and confidence. Just remember what you did last Sunday night and write that date in your Bible.’ She urged me to go forward at the next altar call [in church] and then be baptised. I did. But nothing Mrs. J. said could ease those nagging doubts that seemed to mock my deepest concerns about my soul. My assurance swung like a pendulum: some days I thought I was saved, but on other days I knew I was lost.
“In a desperate search for peace, I read dozens of tracts that contained pre-written prayers and dotted lines on their last page for a seeker to sign to supposedly receive salvation. I signed those tracts and I prayed the sinner’s prayers that they listed, but I still couldn’t escape the hopeless feeling that I was spiritually lost.
“Years passed, then decades. Finally, one summer day in 1989, when I was randomly flipping through a Bible looking for something interesting to read, I glanced at the last couple of verses of Isaiah 52. Strange verses, yet compelling. I continued into Isaiah 53, and I was suddenly transfixed by verses five and six. I had read them in the past, but suddenly they made sense! ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.’
“I knew at once that the chapter was speaking of the punishment that the Lord Jesus bore on the cross for my sins. He was bruised for MY sin; the punishment that He willingly endured made it possible for ME to have peace with God instead of the hell that I deserved. The puzzle pieces finally were coming together.
“I knew that a fair and holy God couldn’t punish both Jesus AND me for my sin, so in one flash of understanding God gave me eternal peace that is based on what the LORD JESUS did, rather than on something that I did on a certain night. That’s the only peace that lasts.
“My abracadabra prayer that I had repeated with my Sunday school teacher had been as superstitious as if I had recited a magical incantation, and that’s why it never gave me peace. I was basing salvation on ME – my prayer, my tears, my feelings, my walk up the aisle, my baptism – ME, ME, ME. But now I understood that salvation depends on believing on what JESUS did. God will never share the credit for salvation with anyone but Him; my part was simply “to believe that my sin debt was paid, and to trust God to be true to His promises. It had taken me over thirty-three years to believe this simple truth. What indescribable peace!
My great concern for you is that you might be trusting something YOU did on a certain date instead of what HE did on that date in history when He hung on the cross. Are you trusting YOUR walk up an aisle rather than trusting HIS walk to the cross, and His death there on your behalf? And, if you believe that you are saved, do you really know what became of your sins? I once thought that they were simply ‘washed away’, but they WEREN’T washed away by a prayer, but by the Lord Jesus when he paid the debt that those sins had accrued.
“With the other Sunday school students, I used to sing: ‘Gone, gone, gone, gone, yes my sins are gone… buried in the deepest sea…etc.’ But the part of salvation that I never heard was that, before sins could be buried in that sea, the Lord Jesus had to bear the torrent of God’s wrath against them, as if He, Himself, had committed them! It was only AFTER the Lord Jesus, the innocent victim, paid the FULL penalty for every sin I ever sinned, and that I will ever commit, that He was able to shout victoriously, “IT IS FINISHED!” and God was willing to commit those sins to the bottom of the deepest sea. God proved His full satisfaction with Jesus’ death as our sin-bearer by raising Him from the dead – something He couldn’t have done if any trace of sin remained on Him. And, praise God, nothing can ever undo what the Lord Jesus has already accomplished!
“Now that is the basis of true peace! ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed’ (Isa 53:5).”
May God bless this testimony and the foregoing article to every reader.
Michael J. Penfold (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- In John 4:10 where the Lord says “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that says to you, Give me to drink; you would have asked of Him, and he would have given you living water”, He is answering the Samaritan’s question, “How is it that You, being a Jew, asks a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” The context of this one particular verse is not a platform for saying “Ask the Lord to save you”.
- The same goes for expressions like, “Ask Jesus to come into your heart”, “make a decision”, “make Jesus the Lord of your life” and “give your life to Christ”. None of these expressions pass the test of Scripture. Christians should stick to Biblical terminology when dealing with the salvation of souls and speak about “trusting Christ” (Eph 1:12), “receiving Christ” (John 1:12), “coming to Christ” (Matt 11:28), “believing on Christ” (Acts 16:31) and “fleeing for refuge” to Christ (Heb 6:18) and other cognate words such as “rest”, “rely” and “depend”.
- James Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), p. 140.
- William Hendricksen, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 344.
- William Haldane, Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (Database ©2006, WORDsearch Corp.)
- William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Nelson, 1980), p. 1721-1722
- John Dennison, Preaching the Gospel (Jackson MI: Truth and Tidings Inc., 2010), p.70-71