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.