A missionary friend of mine and I were recently talking about the “sinner’s prayer.” Even before discussing it with him, I realized some time ago that I don’t like the sinner’s prayer. Basically, I’ve come to the conclusion that I will no longer use the sinner’s prayer in my ministry and I’d like to tell you why.
First, let’s clarify what I mean.
What I’m not talking about
I am not talking about Luke 18:13b when the publican says “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Or any variation of a prayer a “sinner” might pray to God.
I am also not referring to the actual prayer a man may pray to God shortly following His conversion. This is not to be confused with what I do mean, and that is the use of said prayer as the means of salvation.
What is it and why is it so bad?
The so-called “sinner’s prayer” is an evangelism tool used in modern churches to get a “sinner” to accept Christ. It goes something like this:
“God, I know that I have sinned and I know that because of that sin I deserve to die. I believe Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sin and that He rose again. I am now trusting you for salvation. Amen.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with a sinner praying to God asking for salvation. And let me be clear, just because you or anyone you know “prayed the sinner’s prayer” does not mean you aren’t saved. The problem comes when that prayer is used as the means of salvation.
I’m sure you’ve heard someone (or possibly yourself) use this prayer to “lead someone to the Lord.” I don’t like it, and here’s why:
- This prayer tends to be all that people rely on to confirm they have “accepted Christ.” The emphasis, then, is that it is the prayer that saved them.
- It is usually followed up with “if you really meant that, then you’re saved,” which devalues the doctrine of the Assurance of Salvation.
The major problem with this is that salvation is not based on a prayer, but very clearly based on belief in Scripture. Jesus never once “led a person” to Himself by asking them to recite some rote prayer.
Jesus specifically told Nicomedus in John 3 that eternal life is given to anyone who believes. He told the lame man his sins were forgiven based on his belief. He told the thief of the cross he would be in paradise because he believed.
No one doubts the salvation of the disciples (besides Judas), yet none of them are seen quoting some verbatim phrase to receive salvation.
The problem becomes more obvious overseas. In many countries, it is a grievous sin to offend someone. Because of this, lying is common and culturally acceptable. People in those countries will lie to you so they don’t offend you. They tell you what they think you want to hear.
They may “pray the prayer” because they know the missionary wants them to and they don’t want to offend him. Then he begins treating that person like they’re saved and expecting them to act like it, and they aren’t. It leads to frustrations for the missionary and a misunderstanding of the gospel to the individual.
Again, just to be clear, I abandoned the sinner’s prayer because it can cause confusion. It is belief that saves, not the prayer. Why then does the modern church use the sinner’s prayer?
So why do we use the sinner’s prayer?
We use it because we feel some need in a substantial way to “know for sure” the person we witnessed to accepted Jesus Christ. Another reason might be because it seems more appropriate to end the conversation rather than saying “okay, that’s it.”
In some instances, people are using the sinner’s prayer to get someone saved to mark it down in their resume, to claim another soul for their reports, to boast about the great numbers of people they’ve led to the Lord without much care for that person’s soul or emotional well-being.
Yes, I said emotional well-being, because when you tell a person that that prayer saved them if they “really meant it” then you set them up to wonder and doubt in their heart for the rest of their life whether they really meant it. “I remember praying that prayer, am I really saved? Did I really mean it? Maybe I didn’t mean it, I’ll pray it again, maybe it will mean more this time.”
A book I read in Bible college as part of our assigned reading for a class about being a “successful preacher” said something I’ll never forget. I’ve changed the quote to protect the author’s identity, but you can message me privately if you’d like to know. It said this: “An effective evangelist taught me the best way is to get them to pray and ask God to save them right away, then afterwards, explain what they did and give them a few verses on assurance.”
What!?! Really? Is that what we’re doing? Are we so consumed about our “numbers” and our “reports” that we just want to shove some prayer on a person, slap a couple of Bible verses on it after the fact and call them saved?
I know this is probably an extreme scenario, but I would imagine it’s more common than we might think.
In the future, let’s purpose to be more intentional with our evangelism efforts. Let’s emphasize that it is belief that saves us, and not prayer or any other action on our part. We shouldn’t discourage a prayer, but neither should we force it on the individual.
Whatever you do, please do not tell them if they really meant it then they’re saved. Rather, show them clear Scripture verses. Doing this one simple thing removes assurance from the shaky shoulders of their feelings and places it on the rock that is God’s Word.