In our third installment, we took time to address a question raised by one of the students in the class and that namely was what the purpose is for the so-called, “Sinner’s Prayer.” We took some time in class to begin discussing this and unfortunately ran out of time to cover all of it. I’ll make use of this blog post to discuss it further.
What is the Sinner’s Prayer? You can go online and find various prayers that are called such, but will differ some in their content. The basic idea of a “sinner’s prayer” is that it is a prayer of faith, whereby the sinner confesses they are such, makes a resolution to repent from said sins, and then asks God to save them. Where this type of a prayer is certainly benign, from what I can tell, it does tend to put an over emphasis on the believer “doing something” in order to turn God’s favor in their direction.
Furthermore, there are some who would suggest that a ‘false conversion’ can be the result of this prayer. A false conversion is being defined as making a confession for Christ but not really believing it in one’s heart – the old “head knowledge vs heart knowledge”. (…a phrase found nowhere in scripture, by the way.)
There are actually two spectra of thought – that if the prayer is not said, then someone may profess they are saved, but really aren’t, and on the other hand, if the prayer is said, then someone may not be saved because they are relying upon a prayer to save them rather than Christ. All this sure sounds like a lot of Holy Spirit-helping fruit inspection, no?
Let’s look at the motivation for the sinner’s prayer, then look at the idea of false conversions. Where do some get the idea that they must say a sinner’s prayer in order to be saved? Romans 10:9-10 is usually the culprit:
Romans 10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10:10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
It is put forth that “confess with thy mouth” is the recitation of this sinner’s prayer. But, we should take note that the scripture does not say that if thou shalt confess a sinner’s prayer, but rather it says to confess the Lord Jesus. It is an acknowledgment that Jesus Christ is Lord, which emanates from a belief that His resurrection makes Him so. In the posts where I’m going through the book of Romans, we covered this in Chapter 10. I do not necessarily want to rehash it here, so I’ll put a few links below. Suffice it to say that the confession of the mouth is not “I am a sinner”, for the scripture reveals what the confession is – The Lord Jesus.
In Romans 10, Paul is describing his desire for his kinsmen after the flesh (Israel) that they would be saved. This would be accomplished should they yield to Salvation Himself – Jehovah Saves, Jesus Christ. The Jew would have a tough time confessing with his mouth the LORD JESUS and a tough time believing from his heart that the LORD JESUS is likewise raised from the dead. Why? Because, as John records,
John 1:11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
All throughout the book of Acts, we see the Jews struggling with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, yet Gentiles respond positively over and over again.
Acts 28:17 And it came to pass, that after three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, he said unto them, Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.
Acts 28:25 And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers, 28:26 Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive: 28:27 For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. 28:28 Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it. 28:29 And when he had said these words, the Jews departed, and had great reasoning among themselves.
(To read more, here is the link to the study of Chapter 10 – Romans Chapter 10.)
So, when it comes to the validity of the “sinner’s prayer”, we certainly cannot appeal to Romans 10:9-10 as the context just doesn’t hold it. As I said above, it seems to be of a benign nature that folks wish to pray and ask God to save them and as I’ll talk about below, I have no evidence to suggest that God doesn’t honor their faith nonetheless. However, I think we should be very careful to predicate salvation upon the recitation of a prayer. Salvation should not be viewed as a status one attains after sufficiently rubbing the genie’s lamp and saying the magic words. For, salvation is the eternal blessing of God that one is bestowed with after expressing faith in HIS SUFFICIENCY to not only have dealt away with the issue of sin, but also to have risen to abundant life to give to all.
Let’s recall a few areas of scripture where we see folks expressing faith without reciting a scripted prayer.
When the Philippian Jailer witnesses Paul and Silas singing in prison and then an earthquake happens, such that it broke down the fortifications, allowing the prisoners to escape (and yet, they did not choose to escape), the Jailer immediately wanted what Paul and Silas had:
Acts 16:30 And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? 16:31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.
The Jailer asked about something he must perform but Paul and Silas simply told him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s faith.
How about the thief on the cross?
Luke 23:39 And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. 23:40 But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? 23:41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. 23:42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. 23:43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.
This thief feared God and simply asked the Lord to remember him. Upon that statement, Jesus tells him that he will be with Him in paradise. Sounds like Christ responding to simple faith, no?
In Mark 5, the woman with the issue of blood is healed but not because she “asked” for it – the physiology of Christ simply responds to faith. It doesn’t make a conscious choice to do so, it just does.
We tend to tie a bunch of religious baggage to the good news of Christ and it seems to be primarily for one of two purposes: either we want to be satisfied in our minds that someone is saved (therefore, WE NEED certain evidence); or, the religious organization requires certain evidence before they accept it.
If it is faith that pleases God and if we see folks in scripture pleasing God by faith (without ‘asking’ God for it or without reciting a scripted prayer), what should that teach us regarding God’s response to faith? (I’ll let you consider this.)
Now, the scriptures liken the salvation of God unto a free gift. The nature of the gift is determined by the Giver; purchased by the Giver; packaged by the Giver; and delivered by the Giver. The recipient simply receives the gift and a polite recipient expresses thanks. A pure gift is usually at the surprise of the recipient, for it isn’t something asked for or demanded. But yet, often with salvation (a gift), we approach it as it is something to be asked for – that God must make a decision about whether or not to give it to us. We see salvation as the gizmo on grandpa’s shelf that we better not touch without asking first. But, salvation is not some closely-guarded object, but is a gift that has been purchased, packaged and delivered to each of us. Whether or not we receive the gift is certainly up to us, but that does not negate the fact the gift has already been supplied. We receive the gift by faith because has already promised it to those of faith – we are not expected to ask for something He’s already promised.
Does this mean that if folks say the sinner’s prayer that they aren’t saved? No, not at all. Again, God responds to faith – regardless of the baggage that often gets attached. Does God hold the hearer of the gospel accountable for the presentation of the presenter? No, how absurd! Does it mean that the would-be believer must understand all that Christ accomplished in order for God to make the nod in their favor? Again, no! Paul writes that God would have all men to be saved AND to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Does saying or not saying the prayer make a false conversion? Again, no – God responds to faith. But, what we should be cautious with is tying the reality of someone’s faith back to something they did (whether a prayer or otherwise). The reality of our faith is in Christ alone. Many doubt their salvation because of what they believe was the catalyst to their faith – a prayer, water baptism, good works, church attendance, etc. They wonder, “Maybe I didn’t pray the right words? Maybe I didn’t pray sincere enough?” But, none of these are the anchor of faith. This is what I meant when I mentioned earlier that we should be cautious to not tell ourselves nor someone else that the reality of their salvation is rooted in a prayer. The reality of our salvation is rooted in Salvation Himself, Jesus Christ!
If the sinner’s prayer is the only thing someone knows (because it is what they are told), then God will gladly welcome them into the family, by responding to their faith. However, I think as believers, we should strive to be as clear and pure in our understanding of the gospel and simply present Christ and allow Him to do the saving.