It’s been the source of controversy at the Southern Baptist Convention, with David Platt calling it “superstitious”. And yet a recent Christianity Today editorial called it “a work of genius, as brilliant as the simple formulations of Martin Luther”.
It’s become known as “The Sinner’s Prayer”. In its various forms it has become the parting shot of many of our evangelistic sermons, tracts, books and courses. It’s what follows when the preacher says to the congregation, “If you want to begin following Christ/receive Jesus into your heart, you might like to pray this prayer for yourself…”
What It’s Not
Just to be clear, we’re not talking here about merely “putting words into the mouths of sinners”. Charles Spurgeon, at the conclusion of his sermon “A Free Grace Promise”, offers to do exactly that:
Before you leave this place, breathe an earnest prayer to God, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner. Lord, I need to be saved. Save me. I call upon your name.” Join with me in prayer at this moment, I entreat you. Join with me while I put words into your mouths, and speak them on your behalf—”Lord, I am guilty. I deserve your wrath. Lord, I cannot save myself … I cast myself wholly upon you, O Lord. I trust the blood and righteousness of your dear Son; I trust your mercy, and your love, and your power, as they are revealed in him. I dare to lay hold upon this word of yours, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Lord, save me tonight, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
Similarly, the barn-storming eighteenth century evangelist George Whitefield wrote a hymn called “The Sinner’s Prayer” in which he puts into words the heartfelt sentiment of a sinful soul before God:
God of my salvation, hear, and help me to believe:
Simply would I now draw near, thy blessings to receive.
Full of guilt, alas I am, but to thy wounds for refuge flee;
Friend of sinners, spotless lamb, thy blood was shed for me. . .
And in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Faithful tells Hopeful what to say to God:
God be merciful to me a sinner, and make me to know and believe in Jesus Christ; for I see, that if his righteousness had not been, or I have not faith in that righteousness, I am utterly cast away. Lord, I have heard that thou art a merciful God, and hast ordained that thy Son Jesus Christ should be the Saviour of the world; and moreover, that thou art willing to bestow him upon such a poor sinner as I am-and I am a sinner indeed. Lord, take therefore this opportunity, and magnify thy grace in the salvation of my soul, through thy Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
What It Is
What I’d like us to explore here is something different, something prevalent. It is the practise of putting words into the mouths of sinners, and implying (sometimes unintentionally) that the saying of those words assures salvation.
As far as I’ve been able to tell from my research, this latter practise is a relatively modern phenomenon, being popularised by Charles Finney and the Keswick movement in the 19th Century. But despite its recent provenance, it has become so much a part of the evangelical furniture that many of us wonder how we ever did without it.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to describe it as a modern Protestant sacrament. “Praying the prayer” is very often regarded as an outward and visible sign of divine grace.
Why So Popular?
How has “the prayer” come to seem so indispensable to us? For many good reasons, I think. We long for people to be reconciled to God. We don’t want people to put that reconciliation off. We want people people to feel the urgency of the moment, and act upon what they’ve just heard/read. We hope it will give helpful words to people who are worried about how to express genuine repentance and trust.
Christianity Today rightly comments:
if we recognize that the Sinner’s Prayer is…a heartfelt expression of faith in Christ, we needn’t quibble.
Amen. We all long to see “heartfelt expressions of faith in Christ”.
The question I’d like to pose, however, is this. Is the presentation of “The Sinner’s Prayer” necessary, or even desirable, if we wish to see heartfelt expressions of faith in Christ? Does it help, or does it hinder, genuine spiritual rebirth?
Stick around. I’ll give my thoughts on it next week. And I’d love to get your thoughts in the comments below.