I’m guilty of blasphemy and heresy. Or at least, that is how it might sound. Why? Because I hate the sinners’ prayer.
For about a century or so, it has been the commonly accepted doctrine and practice in Evangelical Christian circles that part of leading people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, and sealing the deal with sinners, is to lead them in the famous “sinners’ prayer.” Though I know of no statistic that says the percentage of Christians that have done this, I would say the vast majority of born-again Christians today at some point were led to “pray that prayer,” and accept Jesus into their heart at a point in time. This was done either in response to an altar call at a Church service, or through the one on one witnessing of a friend.
But did you know that nowhere in the Bible do we find such a doctrine taught, or such a practice practiced? If you were to look for the sinners’ prayer in the Scriptures, you could look from cover to cover, and do in depth word searches with the latest computer software, and still find nothing. Yet in spite of the total absence of teaching on the subject in Scripture, and lack of apostolic precedent, and being only a recent part of Church history, every major book I’ve read on the topic of evangelism today encourages us to lead people into the sinners’ prayer.
Which of course, bothers me greatly.
And truth be told, it’s not the lack of Scriptural, apostolic, or historical precedent that bothers me the most regarding the teaching and practice of the sinners’ prayer. Though, that’s certainly enough to raise a major red flag with me, as it should with any Christian. Rather, the thing that disturbs me the most about the teaching and practice of the sinners’ prayer, that drives me to the point where it causes me to say that I “hate” it, is all the garbage that has become associated with the sinners’ prayer.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it is a perfectly appropriate for a newly converted person, as one of the initial steps they take in their Christian journey, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, is to pray. I have no beef with that whatsoever, and in fact, would encourage it. But what I do have a problem with is the exalted significance we as Evangelicals have given to praying that prayer. Indeed, the prayer has become so exalted that we have led people to believe that means by which they came into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, and were made right with Him, is because you prayed a prayer.
And in fact, many people base the personal assurance of their salvation on the fact that once upon a time, they said a prayer and invited Jesus into their hearts. And that is why they believe they are going to heaven. All because they prayed a prayer. Biblically speaking, however, that is heresy, and such a person may in fact be in danger of going to hell.
For we as Evangelical Christians believe that one is not saved because one said the sinners’ prayer. Rather, we believe we are made right with God and justified on the basis of faith in Christ alone, and not because of anything we have actually done (Ephesians 2:8-9). I am personally assured of my salvation, not because I prayed a prayer and meant it, but rather, because I actually have faith in Jesus Christ and what He did for me on the cross and in His resurrection.
If my assurance of salvation is based on the belief that I am saved because once upon a time I said the sinners’ prayer, then I am no different than a Judiazer who says they are saved because they were circumcised and keeps the Law of Moses; nor am I any different than the Roman Catholic who says they are saved because they were water baptized as a child; nor am I any different than somebody who says they are saved because they were confirmed when they were thirteen. At the end of the day, all of these things are simply the manifestation of the damnable doctrine of a works-based salvation doctrine, of which the sinners’ prayer has become but a contemporary variation of this ancient theme.
So, what do I propose we do in the absence of a sinners’ prayer in our evangelistic tool-box? I propose instead of making it our goal to lead people to the point that they desire to say the sinners’ prayer, that through the faithful preaching of the word of God and ministry of the Holy Spirit, we try to lead people into an actual saving faith. We need to preach the gospel so faithfully, radically, and compellingly, that a supernatural revelation is made known to our hearer, so that Jesus Christ seizes and arrests them in the preaching of the gospel, and discloses Himself to them. The aim of our preaching is to give our hearer an “aha” moment, whereby they actually come to see the light of the gospel, of who Jesus is, and what He has done, so that having their eyes opened, they would believe.
And once we have done all that, and the person has so responded, then I believe it is okay to pray with them.