This last week the Southern Baptist Convention debated the legitimacy of leading people to pray the sinner’s prayer for salvation. The scenario is a familiar one: at the end of a service every head is bowed, every eye is closed, and no one is looking around. Then the preacher will typically ask any who are not Christians to pray this simple pray after him: “Dear God, I know I’m a sinner. I know my sin deserves to be punished. I believe Christ died for me and rose from the grave. I trust Jesus alone as my Savior. Thank you for the forgiveness and everlasting life I now have. In Jesus’ name, amen.” The preacher says that if you prayed that prayer and really meant it, you are now saved.
Here are a few reasons why I think it’s generally unwise for churches and individual Christians to utilize the Sinner’s Prayer in evangelism:
(1) There’s no example of it anywhere in Scripture. We’re told conversion stories of individuals and stories of thousands coming to Christ at once, but are never given one example of someone praying the Sinner’s Prayer. Indeed, when asked what one must do to be saved, Peter answers “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). In other words, turn from your sin and follow Christ. We see lots of people getting saved in the Bible, but no Sinner’s Prayer.
(2) It is too easy for people to believe that the prayer saved them. We must be clear–the prayer does not save them. Christ saves them by faith alone. How many countless unregenerate people claim to be Christians because they “prayed a prayer” or “asked Jesus into their hearts?” Many modern evangelicals have come to the place where they sincerely believe that praying the prayer or saying certain words will save someone. Thus, the goal of evangelism becomes getting someone to “repeat after me” or “pray this simple prayer.” Perhaps David Platt is right–it’s almost superstitious. The words don’t save. Jesus saves through faith alone.
(3) We run the risk of communicating that those who have not prayed this type of prayer are not saved. The thief on the cross did not pray a prayer and yet Jesus assured him that he would be in paradise. In Acts 2 Peter tells the crowd not to “pray the sinners prayer,” but to turn from their sin and follow Christ. In Acts 16 Paul says the same. Do modern Christians believe there is such a thing as someone who is a Christian who did not pray this kind of prayer?
I recently heard the testimony of someone who freely admitted that he had never prayed this sort of prayer, but seemed to evidence being a true disciple of Christ. He recognized the sinfulness of his sin, he was trusting in Christ alone to save him from it, and the fruit of his life was evidencing his discipleship. Is this ok with modern Christians? To be clear–it seems that the vast majority of the time, conversion will be coupled with praying. Frankly this only makes sense. If there’s a conscience recognition of sin and a commitment to turn in faith to Christ for forgiveness, it’s natural that this will issue in prayer. Indeed, it’s a good thing to encourage people in this position to call out to God–to pray. And yet, sometimes, like the thief on the cross, people believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and there is no prayer. One thinks of C.S. Lewis’ testimony of conversion: ”I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade [Zoo} one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”
(4) The hope of our assurance does not lie in a prayer we prayed. If someone asks “how do you know you are saved?” we will admit our own sin and damnation before a holy God and yet testify of our dependence upon the gracious work of Christ in granting us forgiveness and reconciling us to our Father. But if someone asks how they can know for sure they are saved, we must not ask “Has there ever been a time in your life when you asked Jesus to come into your heart?” There may have been a time (or many times!) where they have done that, but that’s not the point. The point is, have they bowed their knee in repentant faith to King Jesus? How much better to ask a question like, “What are you trusting in right now to save you? Who are you trusting, treasuring, and relying on for eternity?”
In short, we are leading people to a Person, not a prayer.