Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Should we use the Sinner's Prayer?

There is a growing population of Christians who feel that the “Sinner’s Prayer” should be done away with because they believe this prayer isn’t found in the Bible, it forces people into making an emotional decision on the spot, and that it can discourage true repentance and transformation. I want to share what I believe about this controversial topic from what I have learned in the Bible and what I have experienced personally.

I want to start by saying that there is nothing that sickens me more about the modern American church than the millions of people who believe and teach that one can be saved just by saying a simple prayer and totally ignore the rebirth and the transformation into a new creation that is clearly required by scripture. Without transformation, there is no rebirth, and without rebirth, there is no salvation. Anyone who believes that they are going to Heaven just because they said a prayer will be shocked on the Day of Judgment. This is where I am in complete agreement with people who say we should get rid of the Sinner’s Prayer. When the prayer itself is overemphasized, it takes the focus off of the change that must happen in the life of the believer.

I believe that this prayer should be viewed as a tool that spurs people toward salvation. This tool is obviously being used incorrectly in some cases, and it is obviously causing some major damage by causing people to believe in a false hope that just a prayer will save them. However, I feel that it is a huge mistake to want to throw away this tool just because some people are using it incorrectly.

So, what do some say we should do instead of the Sinner’s Prayer? Basically nothing! They say that we should tell people to trust, believe, and have faith in Christ, and then we should allow God alone to guide them through salvation at their own pace. They say that invitations encourage people to make emotional decisions without truly understanding what is happening. I believe that this goes against what we see in the Bible. Yes, it is true that salvation is only possible when the Father draws someone. And yes, it is bad to lead people to make commitments without full understanding. But to say that we shouldn’t have an invitation and encourage the lost to make a decision, or commitment, to follow Christ goes against what we see in the Bible.

We clearly see examples from messages delivered by Peter, John the Baptist, and Paul that end with an invitation to respond. Let’s look at what Peter said during his message on the Day of Pentecost. Acts 2:38 “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” There are many more examples like this in scripture. I firmly believe that the practice of giving an invitation at the end of sharing the Gospel is backed by the Bible. Actually, if we are doing anything that doesn’t line up with Biblical examples, it is that we aren’t offering to baptize new believers on the spot! It isn’t possible to make a Biblically sound argument against giving an invitation during evangelistic outreaches. The only question is how this invitation should be done. How does one become saved? What words, thoughts, beliefs, and actions must happen?

There are many passages in the Bible that describe HOW someone is saved, but one example sticks out to me as an example of someone actually BEING saved. Jesus even said himself that this man would go to paradise. Let’s examine what happened with the thief that was crucified next to Jesus.

Luke 23:39-42 “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

I believe this is the closest example we have in the Bible to a Sinner’s Prayer. This thief basically says: I have sinned, so I deserve this punishment. But Jesus has never sinned, and therefore doesn’t deserve it. Jesus please save me when you come back. And he was saved!

This example parallels Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” The thief states that he fears God. Fear is closely connected with reverence, and reverence is closely related to following, which is closely connected to Lordship. So, an argument can be made that this thief was stating that he was willing to be under the Lordship of God. Also, this man knew that Jesus was going to die on the cross, so he knew that Jesus wouldn’t be able to come into His kingdom unless he was raised from the dead! This thief said basically everything that is included in a Sinner’s Prayer.

This thief said this “prayer” out loud, and I believe other places in the Bible encourage us to cry out for salvation the same way. For example, Acts 2:21 says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

However, the Bible is clear that words aren’t enough for salvation. John 3:3 says that we must be born again. There must be a transformation; we must be changed into a new creation in order to attain eternal life.

Also, the Bible says that God will live in our hearts when we open up to Him. In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him.” So, this verse clearly supports inviting Jesus to come into your heart. This represents His blood coming in to wash away your sins, and the Holy Spirit coming in to guide you through life.

Basically, there are three parts of our life with Christ: justification, sanctification, and glorification. I could write pages on this, but I’ll keep it simple for now.

Justification- Removing the penalty of sin. This happens the instant we are born again and receive salvation.

Sanctification- Removing the power of sin. This is the life long process of being set apart from our sins. If this process hasn’t started, that person is probably not saved.

Glorification- Removal of the presence of sin. This is what will happen when we enter Heaven for eternity.

Finally, the primary reason I believe in the use of the Sinner’s Prayer draws from personal experience. I know that God uses many different ways to draw people to salvation. Some people see visions, some people are given tracts, and some read the Bible, but I was saved when I said the Sinner’s Prayer. On June 11, 1997, at about 8:30PM, in a room behind the stage, I was lead in a prayer by a camp counselor after coming down the aisle during the invitation after hearing a presentation of the Gospel. I walked into that room knowing that I had sinned and that I was on my way to Hell for those sins, and I left that room CHANGED. God came into my heart and forgave my sins the moment I said that Sinner’s Prayer! I have seen the power of this prayer in action around the world. I have seen tens of thousands of faces change from conviction of sin to the joy and hope of salvation in a matter of moments during that wonderful time of prayer.

After I share a complete presentation of the Gospel, that we all have sinned, that we deserve to go to Hell because of those sins, that Jesus is the only way that we are able to get into Heaven, and that we must be reborn by turning from our sins and putting all our trust in Christ, I use this version of the Sinner’s Prayer after clearly stating that it is not words that save us; it is the change that happens in our hearts when we turn our life over to Christ that saves us.

Father God-- I know that I am a sinner-- I know that I deserve to go to Hell-- But you love me so much-- That you were willing to take my place-- You died for me on the cross-- To pay for my sins-- And on the third day-- You rose from the grave-- To show power over death-- I accept your gift of salvation-- I could never earn it on my own-- Jesus come into my heart-- I give you my life-- Change me-- Forgive me-- Save me-- Thank you Jesus-- Thank you Lord-- For saving me-- I will follow you-- For the rest of my life-- Amen.

Then, I quote Romans 10:9, and say, “If you put Jesus in control of your life, and trust Him with all your heart, you will go to Heaven when you die.” I firmly believe that this is a Biblically sound way to lead people to Christ.

In conclusion, believing that simply repeating the words of a prayer will save you is foolish. But throwing out this prayer altogether because some people misuse it is also a mistake.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Parable of the Sower for the "Modern" American church

I have recently heard two sermons that combined to point out, describe, and show how to fix a major problem with the American church. I would love to share with you what I have learned from Kirk Cameron and Phil Count along with the Parable of The Sower. I want to closely examine a few things about the second type of soil, and then make a few observations about the parable as a whole.

Studies are showing that 80-90% of the people who are walking the aisles to make a decision for Christ end up falling away from their faith. This isn’t ok, and these fall-away rates have not always been common. What are we doing wrong? Why are so many of these people walking down the aisle to say a prayer during the 23rd verse of “I Surrender All” not being changed? I’m convinced that the Bible clearly shows us what we are doing wrong, and clearly shows us how to fix it.

Let’s take a look at what Jesus says in the Parable of The Sower in Matthew 13:3-8, 19-23.

“A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.  Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty… When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy,  yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.  As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the worries of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

We should all be familiar with this parable, and we realize that some people who receive the Word will fall away. However, I believe many churches are doing something that causes countless people to “back-slide.”

First, I want to look at what too many churches ARE doing. Most people in church are taught that there is a God-shaped hole in their hearts that can’t be filled by anything else. Therefore, they should say a short prayer to let Jesus come into their hearts. They are told that this will lead to love, joy, peace, and other fruit of the Spirit. Basically, Americans are being taught that life will be unfulfilling, if not miserable, if they don’t have Jesus, and that they will be prosperous and happy if they do have Him in their hearts.

Now, let’s look at what this leads to. People examine their lives and decide whether they believe Jesus will make them happier or not. Some will not believe. But some will give Jesus a try, to see if what they have been told is true or not. They will come to church, walk the aisle, and say a “sinner’s prayer.” However, just as Jesus stated in the Parable of The Sower, many of these people will be discouraged and fall away from Christ when the trials, tribulations, and persecutions of this world come on them, because they don’t have strong roots. Too often, American churches teach people that God will give them eternal joy and prosperity, and then wonder why these people fall away from the faith when the troubles come that Jesus promised His followers would have to face!

The problem is that the American church isn’t doing an adequate job of strengthening people’s roots so that they can stand firm in their faith. It is absolutely true that God loves us and has a plan for our lives. It is true that the fruit of having the Holy Spirit in our lives is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. However, these things are the RESULT of salvation. We are doing things completely backwards when we use the fruit of salvation AS A REASON for people to be saved.

I want to share an allegory from Kirk Cameron that perfectly illustrates what the church is frequently doing wrong.

Two men are seated in a plane. The first is given a parachute by the flight attendant and told to put it on because it will improve his flight. He’s a little skeptical at first because he can’t see how wearing a parachute in a plane could possibly improve the flight. After a time, he decides to experiment and see if the claim is true. As he puts it on, he notices the weight on his shoulders and he finds that he has difficulty in sitting upright. However, he consoles himself with the fact that he was told the parachute would improve the flight. So, he decides to give the thing a little time. As he waits, he notices that some of the other passengers are laughing at him because he’s wearing a parachute in a plane. As his shoulders begin to cramp due to the weight, he begins to feel somewhat humiliated. As the rest of the passengers begin to point and laugh at him, and he can stand it no longer, he slinks in his seat, unstraps the parachute, and throws it to the floor. Disillusionment and bitterness fill his heart, because, as far as he was concerned, he was told an outright lie.

The second man is also given a parachute. However, he is told to put it on because the plane had been struck by lightning, rendering all the instrumentation and steering mechanisms completely useless. He is told that at any moment the plane would lose control and he would have to jump from an elevation of 25,000 feet out of the plane. There is no way to know when the plane will crash, but there is a 0% chance of survival unless he uses the parachute to save his life from the fall. He gratefully puts on the parachute. He doesn’t notice the weight of it on his shoulders and he doesn’t care that he can’t sit upright in his chair. His mind is consumed with the thought of what would happen to him if he jumped without that parachute. In fact, when he notices that many of the passengers around him are not wearing their parachutes, he pleads with them to consider the facts and wear the parachute because it is the only way they can be saved from the fall. He doesn’t care that they are mocking him for wearing the parachute, because he knows that it is the only thing that can save him.

Let’s analyze the motive and the result of each passenger’s experience. The first man’s motive for putting on the parachute was solely to improve his flight. The result of his experience was that he was humiliated by the passengers; he was disillusioned and embittered against those who gave him the parachute. As far as he’s concerned, it’ll be a long time before anyone gets one of those things on his back again. The second man put on the parachute solely to escape the jump to come, and because of his knowledge of what would happen to him without it, he has a deep-rooted joy and peace in his heart knowing that he’s saved from sure death. This knowledge gives him the ability to withstand the mockery of the other passengers. His attitude towards those who gave him the parachute is one of heart-felt gratitude.

Now listen to what the “modern” Gospel says: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. He’ll give you love, joy, peace, fulfillment, and lasting happiness.” In other words, “Jesus will improve your flight.” So the sinner responds, and in an experimental fashion, “puts on” the Savior to see if the claims are true. Soon, the temptation, tribulation, and persecution that are promised to all believers begin to come into his life. So what does he do? He takes off the Lord Jesus Christ, he’s disillusioned and embittered, and quite rightly so. He was promised peace, joy, love, fulfillment, and lasting happiness, and all he got were trials and humiliation. His bitterness is directed toward those who gave him the so-called “Good News.” He ends up further from God than he was at first. He ends up as another bitter backslider who is angry at the church.

What should we do? The Gospel truly is the Good News. However, we can’t understand the Good News without first understanding the bad news. How can someone be “saved” when they don’t even know that they need saving!? We must show people that they have sinned greatly against a perfectly holy and perfectly just God. We must show them that these sins make us deserve nothing better than to be cast into Hell for all eternity. Basically, we need to till the soil to prepare it to receive the seed of how to be saved. Then, and only then, are people able to understand what it was that Jesus did for us on the cross: that He gave His life to take our place; that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; that no one is able to get to Heaven except through Him; that we are saved by grace, through faith, not by works; that we must turn from our sin and trust Him with all our heart as our only means of salvation.

Then we can have the hope of salvation, the joy of eternal life, the peace of forgiveness, and the love of a God who was willing to take on our punishment so that we can be free. It is only after we understand the bad news that we can truly appreciate the Good News. Jesus knew what would happen to a person who would try to benefit from the fruit of salvation without first being firmly grounded in knowing that they need to be saved.

As for the plant in the third soil, the other plant that received the Word yet failed to bear fruit, I want to quickly examine what went wrong there as well. Jesus clearly states that two things which prevent this person from producing fruit: the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of wealth. Basically, it boils down to faith. Too often, we allow our concern over the future to prevent us from making a difference for the Kingdom of God. Should I go on that mission project? No, we just had to refinance the house. Should I financially support that ministry? No, I have to save so my kids can go to college. God wants to use each and every believer to impact this world, but so many people seem to be convinced by the enemy that they can’t.

One of my favorite quotes perfectly explains how I feel about this: “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.” The truth is that on our own, none of us has what it takes to make a difference, but all of us are called to do something to benefit the Kingdom of God. When we have faith to attempt what God calls us to do, He always gives us everything we need in order to accomplish it.

The plant in the fourth soil is the one that is strongly rooted in the knowledge of the need for salvation, and had the faith to put its trust in God even when times were difficult. This one multiplied what was sown into a fruitful harvest.

In summary, there are 4 kinds of people in this story. Those who…

Don’t believe.
Receive the Word but fall away.
Receive the Word but don’t bear fruit.
Receive the Word and bear fruit.

The question this raises is, “Which one am I?” This parable shows us that hearing the Gospel isn’t enough, and even receiving the Gospel isn’t enough. The true believer is the one who bears fruit. Be a Christian that bears good fruit, or else…

Matthew 7:15-20 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

Thank you so much for reading. My sincere hope is that this has been an encouragement as you labor in the harvest. God bless!

In Christ,
Steven Stockwell

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