A Critique of the "Sinner's Prayer"

Introduction

I remember the first time I was told that Santa wasn't real. It was a disorienting feeling to my young mind. Questions raced through my mind: "Who puts the presents under the tree, then? Is Christmas a sham?" All of these thoughts passed through my naive mind. But I came to learn that Christmas wasn't dependent upon Santa coming down the chimney. My young selfish mind was eased to find that the gifts were still there every year. As far as I was concerned, the arrangement was satisfactory because I still received my gifts annually.

To some readers, this article will feel like an assault on their faith. But before dismissing this article as an attack, please consider the words of someone who is just like you. I was raised with the "sinner's prayer." Every summer there would be an evening of "consecration" where we would all be encouraged (at times pressured) into saying "the sinner's prayer." Kids would be pressured to come forward and recite the "sinner's prayer" and receive Jesus into their hearts. There were many good things about those weeks at summer camp. However, this article aims to address some of the shortcomings of this approach.

Problems with the "Sinner's Prayer"

The sinner's prayer is typically something like this:

"Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior." 
(This was found in Wikipedia)

Many people have been told, "If you pray this prayer, then you're a Christian!" The problem is this prayer is not found anywhere in Scripture. Not only is this prayer not found in Scripture, it has only recently been used in Church history. The words themselves are fine. There is nothing wrong with the words. The problem is that people begin to trust in the words. I have met an untold number of college students who have "prayed the sinner's prayer" and they think they are "Christians" because a pastor, parent, or summer camp worker has told them they are. But when pressed, these same students admit that they are not following Jesus. I want to highlight two main problems with the "Sinner's Prayer" and present one main solution to this problem. 

Our Misconceptions of the Prayer

A misconception is a misunderstanding of an idea, such as "the sinner's prayer." The primary misconception regarding this prayer is their trust in the prayer itself. It's a fine prayer to pray. It's not fine to trust in fact that you prayed it correctly or that the words themselves make you right before God. Often when asked if a person is a Christian or not, they will cite, "I said the sinner's prayer when I was 12" or "I was saved on October 15, 1955." The issue is not that people know the day they were saved. The problem is that people begin to trust the words as though they have some power in themselves. The sinner's prayer can morph into a sort of "Christian" superstitious ritual that we all pray to enter the fold. Some may even repeat it multiple times on different occasions until they feel it "worked." Let me give you an example.

College students love strange facts. The campus I did ministry on was no exception. At one point, a bizarre fact circulated (though it was later debunked): the majority of sloths die annually because they mistake their arm for a branch, causing them to fall to the ground and die. They let go of the branch thinking they have a hold of another one when in fact they are holding onto their arm. Picture this with me: a sloth is hanging in a tree, moving slowly to grab its arm (thinking that it is a branch) only to find how incorrect it is. Though this fact was later debunked, it stands as a powerful analogy for how we sometimes trust rituals like the sinner's prayer, similar to those unfortunate sloths.  A person who is trusting in their confession of faith is like one of those sloths mistaking their arm for a branch. When Christians are instructed to hold on to a confession they made, they will discover how shaky it is. The vast majority of Christians I meet in college ministry have struggled with their faith at some point. I would wager 90% of them because of the misconception of the "sinner's prayer."

Our Misgivings of the Prayer

A misgiving is a faulty assurance that a person holds. The Bible gives great assurance to the Christian. But what happens if a person has assurance in the wrong thing? What happens when a person's confidence rests in a prayer that the Bible doesn't say should be a firm foundation? Answer: deception or lack of assurance.

Deception. Some who are completely deceived to think they are Christians because they "prayed the prayer." They prayed the prayer as their "get out of jail free card" or "fire insurance" but they had no interest in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. As Tim Keller has mentioned, they see Jesus Christ as "useful rather than beautiful" They see Him as useful to get them out of hell, useful to make their life better, useful to make them better people, useful to a better life, useful to make them rich, or even useful to make them feel better about themselves. Is this where Christians find assurance? No. As Paul Washer chillingly says of the person who is deceived into thinking they're a Christian because of the prayer, "When someone comes along later and tries to preach the Gospel to them because they’re living in the world, they won’t listen."

Lack of Assurance. Then some lack assurance. They lack assurance because they were told to say a prayer, walk an aisle, raise their hand, and sign a card. Despite of this, they have trusted Christ. They are thus saved according to Scripture alone by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone to God's glory alone. They see Jesus Christ as beautiful. They see Jesus Christ as beautiful to bear the wrath of God in the place of sinners (Romans 5:6-11). They see Jesus Christ as beautiful when compared to their sin before a Holy God (Psalm 51:4). In short, our assurance doesn't rest in our flabby confession. It rests in the crucified and risen Savior, who is ruling and reigning at the Father's side. It rests in the grace of our heavenly Father to justify sinners in the death of His Son applied to them by the Holy Spirit. As John says, "In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (1 John 4:10-12). I would contend that many do not love one another because they have not experienced the love of God in Christ Jesus. This leads me to the solution. 

Behold Christ Today

There are many "sinner's prayers" in Scripture. The blind man in Luke 19 cries out for Jesus to heal him. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 19:38). Or the thief on the cross crying out to Jesus in his last moments of life, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42). Now imagine if you will, one of these characters living another fifty years. Take the man born blind who can now see. Would he just continue to say, "Man, I am so grateful that I prayed that prayer, and Jesus healed me. I know Jesus changed me, but my life is the same as before except for the blindness."  It would be nonsensical to think of one of these examples of Scripture not being radically changed forever. When a person comes to faith they are a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:17-18) and this new creation radiates all of life. Their right standing with God in Christ now radiates outward to a transformed life in the Spirit.

In the book of Hebrews, the writer continually urges his readers to not revert to their former faith or abandon Christ. And he encourages the believers in Hebrews 3:12-13, "Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." We're commanded to exhort one another about the deceitfulness of sin. The person who has truly trusted Christ will flee from the deceitfulness of sin. The person who truly has been convicted of their sin will keep on repenting and keep on trusting. We are not called to trust in our yesterday decision. We are called to warn one another today. The person who has truly come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ does not need to be dragged to heaven. No. We are saved by grace alone (Eph 2:1-10) through faith alone (Rom 3:19-26) in Christ alone (Heb 1:1-4), not by a prayer expressing that faith. We are saved upon the righteous declaration of God for sinners, and not by the flabby expression of that faith.  

He goes on to tell us how we know if we are in Christ, "For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end" (Hebrews 3:14). A person knows that they have shared in Christ when they continue to hold the confession of "Jesus, is Lord!" with a life lived for His glory to the end. The way we know that we are in Christ, is trusting Christ today, and keep on trusting Christ as long as it is called "today." As J. C. Ryle once said (with slight addition), "Tomorrow [and yesterday] is the devil’s day, but today is God’s. Satan does not care how spiritual your intentions are, or how holy your resolutions [past or future] if only they are determined to be done tomorrow [or relied on yesterday]." We are called to cling to Christ today. We behold Him as beautiful and our sin as ugly, today. If you find yourself relying more on a past confession than on a living relationship with Christ, may your experience be similar to my realization about Santa Claus: may your old system of belief be shattered, but may you discover a newfound clarity and confidence in the gift of salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ, today. 

Daniel Sisler


Pastor of Preaching and Teaching

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