Should We Lead Someone To Pray The Sinner’s Prayer?

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.  

 

14 thoughts on “Should We Lead Someone To Pray The Sinner’s Prayer?

  1. Pamela

    Thank you for articulating so well what I have believed for years.

    Being a disciple of Christ means making a decision to turn from our old life and ways of thinking and turning to God’s way of thinking. We become transformed or renewed by immersing ourselves in God’s Word and trusting
    God to lead us. We stop trusting in our own ways, methods, works, and, through the Holy Spirit, rely upon God for our path through life.

    Relying upon one prayer that I prayed is magical thinking. It is vending machine Christianity.

    Thanks again. You are an encouragement to me!

    Reply
  2. Ginny Foran

    don’t know how many times as a confused child/teen I tried to get the “words” right…this is an especially damning/damaging habit of fundamentalism. It produces way more confusion than benefit, I think.

    Reply
  3. dave

    if the gospel presentation is viewed as a sales pitch, this is the equivalent of closing the sale. i recently discussed this with some friends and one suggested that it seemed baptism was the proper outward response to conversion. thoughts?

    Reply
  4. Matt

    What are your thoughts on situations where we are calling people to faith in Christ? How should we do it? Does it many times/sometimes/never involve a prayer of repentance and faith? Should we point people to Scripture and leave the ball in their court? Should we ever help people with a prayer if they want to pray as they are turning to Christ and may not know how to articulate the words to pray? Do you believe that it is ever right for a speaker to lead in a sample prayer in a larger, evangelistic venue?

    Just a few thoughts. What do you think?

    Reply
  5. CharlieJ

    As both a church historian and a theologian, I’m interested in the why and when of the sinner’s prayer. That is, why do some groups of Christians (really only evangelicals with a baptistic flair) practice this, and when did it gain ground? The two questions normally clarify each other.

    The “Sinner’s Prayer” was never used in the patristic, medieval, or reformation periods, as far as I can tell. My readings in the 17th century have not revealed any instances. My readings in the 1st Great Awakening-era (around 1740s) similarly reveal no emphasis on this prayer accompanying faith. So, by process of elimination, unless I missed something (a possibility), it must have originated in the late 18th century or later, almost certainly within a North American (but perhaps British) context.

    It seems to me that the purpose of the Sinner’s Prayer is to provide some kind outward demonstration of the inward act of faith. The assumption is that such an inward act will naturally issue some kind of corresponding external signification. The appeal to Romans 10 (believe with heart…confess with mouth) is not entirely misguided here. Further, this outward act becomes a reminder of faith in times of doubt, something tangible to hold onto when the heart is stormy one’s perception of one’s own faith is unclear. But again, why a prayer, and why this time period?

    From the later evangelical revivals to the present day has been the low point of sacramental theology among Christians. In the New Testament, baptism is represented as actually conferring salvation, or at least the authors do not feel any great urgency to divide between faith in Christ and baptism into Christ. As such, a common appeal in the early church was, “Believe and be baptized.” At the very least, the early church felt comfortable expressing faith through baptism in a way that contemporary Christians feel comfortable expressing faith through the sinner’s prayer.

    Is it possible that the creation of the sinner’s prayer was a compensation for the loss of baptism as the outward sign of Christian belief? (Note: many NT scholars believe the passage from Romans 10 was an early baptismal confession.) Martin Luther, that great champion of justification by faith, also believed in a kind of baptismal regeneration and instructed doubting or tormented believers to “look to their baptism” as an empirical evidence of God’s love for them.

    In short, perhaps the very presence of the sinner’s prayer in evangelicalism is an attempt to fill a void, and merely discouraging people from employing it will not be effective, because the void remains.

    Reply
  6. Jonathan Krueger

    The word “call” in Romans 10:13 is the same Greek word used in Acts 7:59 “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” Obviously Stephen was verbally calling out to God (i.e. praying).

    Reply
  7. Tracey Pardington

    I do not know the day I was saved. I remember the feeling of being there when they crucified the LORD. I believed a long time, then I realized I never said a prayer, so I did. It was something like this: Dear LORD, thank you for sending Jesus to pay for my sins by dying on the cross. I know I’m a sinner and cannot earn life with you in
    heaven by my own efforts. Please help me live for you all of my life. I want to turn from sin.
    Since the day of my understanding (conversion from self will to God”s will for me), I’m growing in faith, and knowledge of God.
    Today I know Jesus, the perfect God-man, the last perfect blood sacrifice,was for me and my sin.

    Reply
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  9. William Kuiper

    As a pastor and also a jail chaplain on occasion I have opportunities to be with a person who comes to Christ. I do lead them in the sinner’s prayer. I realize that it is not the prayer that saves, but repentance and faith. I also have seen those who afterward show no real evidence of true salvation.
    I have had others come to me later and say that they had made it right with the Lord in their cell later. Still I enjoy the person with tears on their cheeks and with stammering words ask the Lord to come into theri heart and forgive their sins. It is a thrill to my heart and I believe the angel’s rejoice.

    Reply
  10. Pingback: Should We Lead Someone To Pray The Sinner's Prayer? | David … - christianfamiliesnetwork.com - christian families network

  11. Harold

    ———————————–
    Dave,

    Yes, it’s a sad fact: the “Sinner’s Prayer” is oftentimes used as “fire insurance” that not only misleads many lost souls with false assurance, but there are those that actually brag about how many “they” have saved by employing such sales tactics.

    Instead of pronouncing that someone is saved if they say a prayer, we should strive to be a genuine friend, telling them that if GOD has led them to his Word, He will be faithful to save all who truly believe that Jesus Christ died and was raised on the third day to save them according to God’s will for it to be done in their life.

    However, WE SHOULD STILL PRAY WITH, AND FOR THEM ALWAYS..! but we should allow the Lord to tell them that they are saved, and let them know it will happen according to God’s will and time for it to happen…. the Holy Spirit will quicken them and they will know they have life.

    That’s where true Christian friends are at work… we must be patient, and continue to help the ones which God has brought into our lives. Christ did not give up on the disciples when they failed… Peter denied Him, but Jesus still saved him.

    We do not know the plans that GOD has for everyone… we should not judge, if it’s God’s will for us to be used to lead someone to Him… then we must realize that the person that God put in our path is there according to His divine will also.

    If a person can say that they know for sure that their name was already written in the the book of life before they were even born, and believe it because the Word of GOD has told them, (by the power of the Holy Spirit) – that’s a saved person! Only GOD can raise up a dead sinner to be able to truly believe in such a miracle and gift of grace.

    I feel that if an invitation is made at the close of a sermon, that it should be an offer for anyone to see the pastor, an elder, or if the want – they can speak with any church member, (that’s where church’s need to instruct members on how to work with others regarding being saved by GOD, and/or how to refer them).

    When conversion does happen, then the new person in Christ can give their personal testimony to everyone of how the Lord saved them. Instead of “every eye closed”, all eyes can then be open as fellow-witnesses, rejoicing with their new brothers, and giving all praise to GOD in heaven!

    God’s will be done!
    ———————————–

    Reply
  12. Tim Zellers

    The Lord saved me about 5 years ago during a camp service at the Wilds. I fully believe that I was saved during the middle of the message – not as the result of a prayer I made to God. The “light came on,” so to speak, and I said in my soul, “I believe this!”

    Dave, I was reading through Firm Foundations: Creation to Christ, book 1 a few weeks ago and Trevor Mcilwain had some interesting things to say on this topic. It’s worth a read if you can get your hands on it.

    Reply
  13. Paul Ferguson

    I am a Pastor myself. I was a Youth Pastor for 27 years and more recently a Senior Pastor for 10 years.I don’t like people to think they’re saved just because of some “prayer” they said. Ephesians 2:8,9 is clear that we are saved by grace through faith period. And Acts 2:38 and elsewhere is clear that repentance from sin is a result of that faith. But Romans 10:9,10 indicates that this faith is expressed in words – “If you confess with your mouth…” So I do believe that a conversation with God is an important part of the salvation experience, even though uttering some sort of “sinner’s prayer” is not necessarily it. I also believe that Romans 10:9 indicates that part of that faith is submitting to the Lordship of Jesus as Master/slave owner with me as the slave! All of that is included in the faith that brings salvation.

    Reply
  14. David M. Doran, Jr.

    Despite God’s amazing grace to me through a Gospel presentation that lead to my conversion in praying the “sinner’s prayer” as a child–I appreciate this post and would steer people in a similar direction!

    thanks for the post bud

    Reply

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