Sense and Nonsense of the Sinner's Prayer

The Waterhole Blog

"How do you become a Christian?"

This is no secret to most evangelicals. Practically any of them can tell you, that, since God doesn't have any grandchildren, each person has to get to know Him for himself and come to his own decision about God.

How one goes about it usually happens in this way:

  • After perhaps a long process of investigation, the person comes to the point of being able to say, "I believe in God" (or in Jesus Christ as God's Son and my savior).
  • He then prays the sinner's prayer
  • This person has now become a Christian! He will be congratulated and encouraged to share his new faith with others.

The "Sinner's Prayer" has many forms and its content varies. Usually it looks somewhat similar to the following prayer: "Father in heaven, I confess that I am a sinner and need a savior. I believe that Jesus Christ was crucified for me and rose from the dead to take away my sin, so that I might live forever with him. I take him today as my savior and Lord. Thank you, that I am now your Child. Amen."

Generally no one ever questions whether the person praying such a prayer - whether formulated on their own or led in the prayer by an evangelist - has truly become a Christian. It is assumed that God has heard the prayer, and he now has a ticket to live forever with God. Nor is it questioned, whether the prayer itself truly is part of the biblical way of salvation.

A Magic Prayer, a Secure Ticket to Heaven! - or perhaps not?

Is a person really saved and automatically a citizen of heaven merely through believing and then praying this prayer? My experience suggests otherwise.

Over the years I have taken part in many evangelistic events. What I have often observed, is that the majority of people who come forward in response to the invitation to salvation have very little idea of what they are doing. They knew little of the death and resurrection of Jesus and what it means. They were rarely prepared to lay down their lives in obedience to his Lordship. There was no sign of repentance. The most that could be said, was that these people had been touched by the message of the preacher and were sending God a signal that they would like to know him better.

In itself that is a fantastic step. This firing off of a signal to God can truly be a key experience on the way to true conversion and being saved. But is the person truly saved, merely because he or she has repeated a prayer and shaken the preacher's hand? Especially when there is no change of heart and mind or commitment to Jesus' Lordship?

Every time that I had the opportunity to follow up such people in the months that followed, it quickly became clear that their true conversion experience happened a good bit later.

Well, one could say, at least it came out all right in the end! But what about the many who never become part of a caring fellowship or Bible believing church, who have no one to help them along or even confront them?

Could it be that there are many today who believe they are Christians because they once prayed the sinner's prayer and possibly started attending church? Some who have prayed the prayer yet later doubted that they are truly saved (because they themselves sense that something is missing) have been assured that they must be saved and have a place in heaven because they prayed that prayer!

"Can you tell me the date, that you prayed to receive Jesus into your heart? Yes? Write it into your Bible so that if you should ever doubt your salvation again, you will be able to open your Bible and see it written there: the date that you prayed the prayer and so became a Christian!"

If there is no confirming change of life, if Jesus has not become Lord of their life, if there is no recognizable sign of a true and growing relationship with the living God, how can it still be maintained, that the person is truly saved? What about the words of John the Baptist: "Produce fruit that is consistent with repentance!"?

Is the Sinner's Prayer Biblical?

The fact is, that neither a command nor an example of such a prayer can be found in the Bible. The closest that one can get is Jesus story of the two men praying: the one was very religious and proud of his piety. To the other it was clear that he had nothing to offer God. He prayed simply, "God be merciful to me, a sinner.!"

Jesus was not trying to show us how we get saved, but rather to make clear, that humility gets us further with God than a false and hypocritical religiosity.

I have often thought that Jesus seemingly blew a fantastic evangelistic opportunity when the rich young ruler came running up to him and practically begged him to tell him how he could be saved! What did Jesus do? He placed such impossible demands on the man, that he turned and walked away sad. Jesus had the audacity to tell the man that he had to give away his entire portfolio and then come and follow him!

Quite possibly Jesus has a different set of values, priorities and goals than the typical evangelist today.

My question for us now is: are we making it too easy for people because we hope to save as many as possible? Or because success in ministry has become far too important to us? My feeling is that we have lowered the bar too far - and we aren't doing seekers any true favors in the process.

Many people grow gradually into faith. It's not necessarily an event, though the point of realizing that, "Yes, I do believe now!" may come suddenly. Each person must count the cost before taking the step of faith, because life will change dramatically when one becomes united with Jesus Christ. We aren't doing anyone any service when we pressure seekers to pray the sinner's prayer with us before they are truly ready to join themselves to Jesus Christ.

We do it, because we hope thereby to save yet another soul from hell. Yet we may be fooling them into believing that something has changed, when nothing has.

Origins of the Sinner's Prayer

It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to suggest that most evangelical Christians take the validity of the Sinner's Prayer for granted. Perhaps they never found it in the Bible, but everyone considers it to be "the" way for a person to take the step of starting their life with God. I know that for decades I never thought twice about it.

It has become important for me to recognize when a practice began, especially when it is not so easy to find or confirm through the Bible. Was this typical during the first couple hundred years after Pentecost, or did it start much later? If later, what was the reason for its spread?

The development of the Sinner's Prayer came about like this:

The Sinner's Prayer was an invention of the revival preachers of the 18th and 19th centuries, men like John Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Finney and Dwight Moody. The question confronting these men was, "how do we get a seeker to the point of recognizing that he needs to make a decision for Christ, when he belongs to a 'Christian culture' and therefore already considers himself a christian. How should this new beginning take place, so that the convert recognizes, 'before I was separated from God, from this point on I belong to him?'"

A method that was developed by Charles Finney, an American revival preacher in the middle of the 19th century, was called "the Anxious Seat." He reserved the first row of pews for new converts, so that each person who responded to the salvation call could come forward and sit there while the preacher exhorted them to repent or while they themselves attempted to break through into salvation in prayer.

This method, which Finney himself did not originate, but rather adapted for his purposes, was soon decried as being emotionally manipulative. D.L. Moody substituted prayer rooms for the Anxious Seat, separate rooms to which trained prayer counselors would bring seekers who would then talk with them and lead them in a prayer for salvation.

For them the main goal was that at the end of an explanation of the gospel, the counselor would lead the person to speak out a prayer asking for salvation. Since the 18th century this concept of a prayer to mark the point of salvation has become common practice worldwide. Before the end of the 19th century this "Sinner's Prayer" was recognized throughout the UK and America as the standard technique through which a person received Jesus into his heart.

Billy Graham and Bill Bright carried these ideas further in the 20th century. They attempted to portray the need for salvation and God's answer to it in a short and concise manner. The description of this method was eventually published in the widely distributed "Four Spiritual Laws" booklet. In it, the explanation of God's plan of salvation ends with the prayer that is today familiar as the Sinner's Prayer.

May I make clear at this point that I deeply respect and admire the motivations and work of these men. What I regret, is that they departed from the pattern and command of the early church in order to make their work easier, in the hopes of reaching as many as possible. Again, I respect their fervor to see as many as possible saved.

Yet Jesus himself, as we saw earlier, did not consider reaching as many as possible as important as what was happening in their hearts. To him, there was no magic formula of belief or words uttered in prayer that would make a person safe for eternity, but rather, that their hearts were captured by the love and person of God, with the result that they were forever transformed. He looked for men like Zaccheus, who would respond from the heart, and let men like the rich young ruler walk away from him, who, although he was ready to say and confess anything at all, had a heart that was still married to his wealth.

The Sinner's Prayer a Substitute?

May I ask a provocative question?

Could it be that this prayer has become a substitute for believer's baptism? Finney himself admitted it. As he stated it, the apostles used the baptism as the sign for conversion. He, in contrast, felt it better to use the Anxious Seat for his evangelistic campaigns.

Nowhere in the Bible can a prayer be found, that a person can say in order to gain salvation. The Acts of the Apostles gives no example of a person or persons, who signaled their conversion by praying a prayer. Instead, what is found again and again is that as soon as a person was convicted of sin and bowed the knee to Jesus as King, he or she immediately took the step of baptism, followed by being added to the church.

"Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Acts 2:37-38

"And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name." Acts 22:16

In England and in America at the time of the great revivals most people were still baptized as children. If these people had been told to be baptized as the sign of complete life surrender to Jesus, most of them would have been offended, because they had been baptized as babies and the churches had declared re-baptism to be taboo. Many would have been thrown out of the churches that they attended, as most at that time attended church, if only out of tradition. The price would have seemed too to pay high for most, even if in reality it wouldn't be.

Even today, evangelists who recognize that in the scriptures the point of salvation is tightly connected to a conscious change of life and baptism, consider baptizing converts immediately to be far too inconvenient and problematic. That may well be, but the biblical model consists of believing, turning from sin and as a sign of this change of life: the physical theater piece depicting this change, baptism.

Baptism is not what saves, but it sets a clear signal that the old life is now over and done with, a new life has begun.

Isn't the Sinner's Prayer a symptom of our all-to-often theoretical belief systems? We bring people to accept the truth about Jesus and the cross. Then we are eager to hear this new belief expressed verbally through a prayer that flows over the lips of the person. But too often it remains simply a mind-game without really becoming a life-changing experience.

Jesus and the apostles as well as the entire hebrew-mindset of the Bible speak of salvation as a complete re-structuring of the entire life. It does NOT remain merely theory, in the mind, but is lived day by day, in a new relationship with Jesus Christ lived out in obedience to him.

I find it therefore appropriate that the act which biblically signals this change of life requires the participation of the entire body. The entire body is immersed in water (which is the translation of the greek word baptizo - immerse) in the sense of a scene in a play: I go with Christ into the grave (under water) and am raised up (out of the water) with him again to new life and leave my old behind me, dead, in the grave. It is not theoretical, it encompasses my entire life!

So, in summary, does it really matter how a person displays the choice to follow Jesus, whether through a prayer or through being baptized?

Yes, it does.

  • Too often there is no price to be paid in becoming a follower of Jesus. Many evangelists even practice secret conversions, where everyone is told to close their eyes, so that no one will see the person raise their hand. A hand is raised, a prayer is repeated (sometimes with every person present encouraged to speak it aloud, so that those praying will not be embarrassed) and the seeker is told: now you can go home assured that you are saved.
  • Baptism requires taking a visible step before the eyes of all present, possibly with far reaching consequences.
  • Too often the person is not told that this is a decision that requires leaving the past and attaching himself to Jesus for the future.
  • Baptism makes this choice clearly visible.
  • The Sinner's Prayer is almost impossible to support biblically.
  • Baptism is the way that, through teaching and through example, the early church marked the step of faith resulting in salvation. It is the visible and bold way that they took their life in their hands, "not loving their lives, even unto death," and visibly proclaimed before the world, "I am hereby calling on the name of the Lord!"

So, how does a person become a Christian? Through turning from my old life to Christ and living out a faith that sets everything on him. Not through a magical prayer.

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