By Denise Kohlmeyer, Crosswalk.com
The Sinner’s Prayer is a popular prayer employed by pastors, evangelists, televangelists, and laypersons, alike. It’s typically used at the conclusion of sermons, revival meetings, and Gospel witnessing presentations as a way of “inviting” proselytes to “accept/receive” Jesus into their hearts. The prayer is also be found in many Gospel-centric books, tracts, and on websites.
For many, saying the Sinner’s Prayer (or Prayer of Salvation) was (and continues to be) the “defining moment” when they can pinpoint the specific year, even the day, when they made a profession of faith. It gives the pray-er a sense of assurance, since they can readily say, “I prayed the prayer on such-and-such a date. That’s when I became a Christian.”
But have you ever wondered, as I have, if this prayer is biblical? Was it a required of Jesus with his followers? I wanted to know for myself—to be theologically accurate—whether this prayer is a necessary part of the conversion process, and if so, why? Or, if not, why not?
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Components of the Prayer
A thorough study of the Scriptures reveals the absence of such a prayer, although proponents of it cite several passages that support its use: Romans 10:13 and Acts 2:21, which both say, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
“Call” translates “to invoke, to cry out,” as in “needing deliverance, or for mercy.” Proponents claim that “call” equates to saying a sinner’s prayer.
Though the prayer’s verbiage may vary from pastor to tract to website, it typically includes at least three components, acknowledging 1) one’s sinfulness, 2) Jesus is the only Source of forgiveness, and 3) the desire to surrender one’s life to him.
Here are two of the most popular versions:
Four Spiritual Laws: “Lord Jesus, I need You. I believe you paid the penalty for my sins on the cross. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person you want me to be.”
Billy Graham: “Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner and need your forgiveness. I believe that you died for my sins. I want to turn form my sins. I now invite you to come into my hear and life. I want to trust you as Savior and follow you as Lord and live in the fellowship of your church.”
On close inspection, though, critics of these prayers cite two profound absences: 1) God’s sovereignty and holiness, and 2) an actual act of repentance and faith. They also say the prayer, in all its forms, is too “unhealthily formulaic” and can lead to a false assurance of salvation.
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Origins of the Prayer
From the time of Jesus’ ascension until the Protestant Reformation, the church experienced exponential growth and expansion through the disciples’ and subsequent generations’ evangelism. While the methods varied greatly, there was always included at some point a personal appeal (or call/invite) to repent and put one’s faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. However, there is no historical evidence that any prayer was employed when a convert made a salvation proclamation.
In fact, the earliest Sinner’s Prayer—although it wasn’t known as such then—did not originate until the Protestant Reformation in 1517, as a reaction against the Catholic’s belief that a person is justified by works. Still others say the prayer found its genesis later, in the1740s, when minister Eleazar Wheelock utilized a technique called the Mourner’s Seat. Wheelock would intentionally put a known sinner in the front pew, the better to hear and be convicted by his guilt-inducing sermons. Afterwards, it was said the sinner was so overcome, they could not help but be responsive to conversion.
Said Finney of the Anxious Seat, “The church has always felt it necessary to have something of this kind to answer this very purpose [people’s response to a Gospel presentation]. In the days of the apostles, baptism answered this purpose. The gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ, were called out to be baptized. [Baptism] held the place that the anxious seat does now, as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians.”
But critic, Protestant minister John Nevin, said the Anxious Seat was a manipulative tactic, going so far as to call it “heresy” and “quackery,” saying it only led to false conversions made under compulsion.
Regardless, Charles Wesley and Charles Finney, known as the “Father of Modern Evangelism,” adopted Wheelock’s technique. Finney renamed the technique the Anxious Seat, which was a predecessor to the altar call, when sinners, under conviction, would walk to the front of a church or meeting hall to give their lives to Christ.
The concept won further popularity with 19th and 20th century American preachers and evangelists, who upgraded the technique to include not a pew but a prayer, which became the normative practice at the conclusion of revival meetings and sermons.
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Proponents of the Prayer
Dwight Lyman Moody was one such preacher/evangelist. During the late 1800s, when he conducted revivals in Great Britain and America, he would close each meeting with an “invitation” to meet privately in what was called the Inquiry Room. Here, Moody’s trained counselors met with potential converts and read the Scriptures with them, answered their questions, then “engaged in prayer…in almost every case the inquirer is urged to pray for himself, and if unable to form the sentences, the teacher makes the prayer, which sentence by sentence is solemnly repeated.”
Former baseball-player-turned-preacher Billy Sunday took up the pray-a-prayer method, as well. After his own conversion in 1886 at Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission, Sunday began holding revival meetings. After an energetic and somewhat theatrical presentation of the Gospel, Sunday would invite people to walk the “sawdust trail” to the front to pray a salvation prayer and shake his hand.
The use of the Sinner’s Prayer saw an uptick with Billy Graham during his worldwide crusades in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Graham’s counselors used the prayer (mentioned above) from Graham’s Four Steps to Peace with God when leading people in making a profession of faith.
Also in the 1950s, Campus Crusade’s Bill Bright included a Sinner’s Prayer at the end of his popular witnessing tract, Four Spiritual Laws (mentioned above).
Other proponents of the prayer included William Booth of The Salvation Army, R.A. Torrey, Moody’s predecessor, and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The latter solidified its support and adoption of the prayer after it came under attack in 2012, stating: “We affirm that repentance and faith involve a crying out for mercy and a calling on the Lord (Rom. 10:13), often identified as a “Sinner’s Prayer,” as a biblical expression of repentance and faith. A “Sinner’s Prayer” is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the gospel (Matt. 6:7, Matt. 15:7–9).”
Critics of the Prayer
That 2012 attack came mainly from Baptist pastor David Platt, who wrote: “I have seen the ‘sinner’s prayer’ abused across the contemporary Christian landscape as people ‘pray the prayer’ apart from a biblical understanding of the gospel or ‘pray the prayer’ on multiple occasions to ensure their salvation or ‘pray the prayer’ without ever counting the cost of following Christ. I have experienced this abuse in my own life: I can remember laying in my bed at night as a child/teenager, wondering about whether or not I’m really saved, and then thinking, ‘Well, I just need to pray that prayer again … and really mean it this time … and then I’ll know I’m saved.’ I have seen this abuse in a variety of evangelistic settings (here and overseas, among children, youth, and adults).”
Platt argued that the prayer is “superstitious,” a false doctrine, and a “work,” which puts the onus of salvation on the pray-er, not on God, who initiates salvation in the hearts of men.
Sadly, Platt asserts, saying the prayer can lead people to a false sense of spiritual security. They may pray the prayer, be told they are now saved, but walk away still dead in their sins. In those instances, the prayer becomes more “insurance” than “assurance.”
[Note: Platt, a member of the SBC, eventually voted in favor of the adoption of the Sinner’s Prayer after making known his concerns and disclaimers were included.]
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So, is saying the Sinner’s Prayer wrong? No. There is nothing inherently wrong with praying this prayer. Praying to God is fundamental to the Christian faith, and if a true conversion involves a prayer of genuine repentance and acknowledging “Jesus is Lord” and believing that “God raised Jesus from the dead” (Romans 10:9-10), then all the better. But saying the Sinner’s Prayer does not save, and it should not be used (or taught) as evidence of salvation.
On the flip side, neither is it necessary to pray the prayer at the conclusion of a Gospel presentation, as an act of “cementing the deal,” so to speak.
Says Paul Chitwood in his dissertation on the Sinner’s Prayer, “Jesus only instructed the disciples to follow him. The Rich Young Ruler was commanded to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The Adulterous Woman was told to leave her life of sin. The gospel writers never suggest that repeating the words of a prayer was a part of coming to faith. Becoming a follower of Jesus was a matter of the will once the heart had experienced conversion through belief. Reciting a spoken prayer was not a necessary part of the process.”
Jesus’ model of evangelism was always a one-on-one encounter, when he would engage in conversation with a person, part of which was to challenge them regarding their sin. He would always, as well, make an appeal for some kind of personal response (i.e., repentance, faith, baptism, a change in behavior). That was it. Nothing more, nothing less.
In fact, regardless if the Sinner’s Prayer is prayed or not, we can know if we—and others—have experienced a genuine conversion; it will be evidenced by certain “works:” a changed life (becoming a new creature); an abiding love for and obedience to God, unconditional love for one’s “neighbor” (the two greatest commandments); continual growth in Christian character (sanctification); and a desire to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20).
So, whether you use the Sinner’s Prayer or not when leading a lost soul to Christ is a matter of personal discretion. It isn’t wrong to use it, but neither is it necessary.
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