“Everybody bow your heads and close your eyes. Nobody looking around (que the soft music and dim the lights). Repeat these words after me….”
Every evangelical born in western culture since the turn of the 19th century should be quite familiar with what is commonly known as the “sinner’s prayer”. I have personally prayed this prayer on more than one occasion, the first of which occurred on Easter Sunday when I was 9 years old. I can’t say that I remember exactly what led me to repeat this prayer, but I can testify today with absolute certainty that at 9 years old I had yet to come to a full understanding of the true meaning of repentance or salvation. For the next 25 years, whenever someone would ask me if I was “saved” I would always answer by making reference to the fact that I had prayed the sinner’s prayer. Unfortunately most evangelicals today do the same thing.
The point I want to make in this discussion is not about whether or not people who have ever prayed this prayer were “sincere” or that people can actually be saved during the prayer, because I believe they certainly can if God so chooses to do it that way. The issue presented here deals with whether or not the Bible actually teaches this practice in evangelism. If it doesn’t, then we need to examine the motives on why so many in the church are making it part of our ritual today. More importantly, we need to consider how using the prayer may be doing more harm than good by giving people a false hope in the genuineness of their faith.
It is very common in today’s culture to allow our traditions to overshadow what the Bible actually teaches. Many people (including myself) have been guilty of taking everything that is said from the pulpit, or that the church regularly practices for granted without ever questioning its Biblical soundness or authority. If the Bereans were considered “noble” for their diligence in testing the Apostle Paul’s teachings for validity (Acts 17:11), how much more should we continue this mindset today?
The Bible is very clear about what is necessary in order for a person to be saved. John 3:16 tells us that everyone who believes in God’s only begotten Son “will never perish and will have everlasting life”. In Acts 16:31 we read that if we “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” we will “be saved” and finally Mark 1:15 tells us that we must “repent and believe the gospel“. The word “repent” is used 34 times in the New Testament and “believe” is used 244 times. Nowhere do we ever see anyone teaching that in order to solidify these two acts and make them “official” they must first recite a prescribed prayer.
Many proponents of the prayer cite the parable of the “Pharisee and Tax Collector” (Luke 18:9-14), and in defense of the sinner’s prayer. Let’s take a look at what this passage is really teaching:
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (emphasis added)
While this parable does bring forgiveness and justification into view, it is clear that the focus of the context is toward the attitude in the heart of the individual, and the difference between true repentance and self-righteousness, rather than on a particular method.
Another well-known passage that is used in support of the practice is Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”.
Again, we see nothing here regarding a prescriptive method of “prayer”, but rather a distinction between works righteousness and faith. The context in Romans 10 is very clear, that righteousness does not come from the law, but only by faith in Christ, and those who (like many Israelites) try to become righteous by the works of the law will fail miserably. To suggest that this passage is making prayer a requirement for salvation is to force man-made tradition upon the scriptures.
In addition, the first 1800 years of church history remains virtually vacant of any evidence of the sinner’s prayer being practiced throughout Christianity. The very first public sermon ever preached by the Apostle’s was on the day of Pentecost, where 3,000 people were added to the church. In it, we never see Peter standing up towards the end and telling them to repeat a prayer in order to be saved, instead we read the words “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38) Then it says “those who accepted his message were baptized” (v.39), it doesn’t say anything about them “walking the aisle” and repeating a prayer to ask Jesus into their heart!
It wasn’t until the days of Finney’s “mourners bench” in the early 1800’s and D.L. Moody’s “back-room sessions” with potential converts that we see the prayer begin to make its appearance in the church.
What’s potentially much worse is that people nowadays are told to just “give Jesus a try….it will only take a minute and we won’t embarrass you“. As if God offers some sort of return policy if you aren’t satisfied with eternal life. Furthermore, Jesus tells us: “if anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him”. (Luke 9:26) Romans 1:16 says “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ”…..So where did we ever get the idea that it was necessary to dim the lights and make everyone close their eyes?
Then people are told that if they simply “call upon the name of the Lord” (Romans 10:13) by repeating this “simple prayer” then they are saved. They don’t bother to explain to them the rich theological meaning behind the words “call upon” and that it literally requires a person to “renounce all they have” (Luke 14:33)and “take up their cross daily” (Matt 16:24). They don’t tell them how the life of a true Christian means being hated by the world (John 15:18; 1 John 3:13), and suffering many afflictions and trials (John 16:33; Acts 14:22) in order to inherit a much greater reward in Heaven (1 Peter 1:3-8). In fact, most churches today tell them the exact opposite. They spend 45 minutes tickling their ears by telling them that God has a “wonderful plan for your life” right now, and how Jesus not only died to forgive sins and save His people from the coming judgment, but also to promises them better health, an abundance of material blessings and great success in this life…… “Sure, everyone knows Heaven is going to be great, but why wait for Heaven when you can have YOUR BEST LIFE NOW!” By this time, they can’t wait to walk down the aisle so they can give Jesus a “test drive”.
I hope you can see the tremendous danger with the above illustration. What happens, is that once these people find that their circumstances in life haven’t improved as promised, they either fall away totally (Matthew 13:1-23) or they begrudgingly continue to wear the label of “christian”, but never bear fruit. Years later, when someone asks them if they are a follower of Christ, they will enthusiastically respond in the affirmative, not because they really love God, but because once upon a time they “prayed the sinner’s prayer”.