When Shouldn’t We Use “The Sinner’s Prayer”?

Last week, I gave a bit of background on “The Sinner’s Prayer”, exploring what it is, and what it isn’t.

Just to be clear, then, I’m not about to argue that sinners shouldn’t cry out for God’s mercy. Neither am I about to argue that it is always wrong to suggest words for the mouths of our hearers (which is something Spurgeon, Whitefield and Bunyan did on occasion).

What I’m about to argue is that the customary presentation or framing of “the sinner’s prayer” is deeply problematic. More often than not in my experience, the sinner’s prayer is presented with the message (either implicit or explicit) that “praying a prayer” is the entry point into the Christian life.

When this happens, it is catastrophic. For the following reason.

“The Sinner’s Prayer” encourages people to place their faith in a prayer, rather than in Christ.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had a conversation like this:

You: “Would you call yourself a Christian?”

Friend: “Well, I prayed the prayer when I was younger.”

Because of the use of “The Sinner’s Prayer”, your friend’s focus is not on whether he has led a life of repentance and faith in Christ, but on whether he has said a prayer at some point in the past.

When the parting shot of an evangelistic presentation is the moment when a sinner prays a prayer (or doesn’t), it is all too easy (unless we are extremely careful) for our hearers to perceive the prayer as the determining factor in whether or not a person is a Christian.

At least three unhappy results are likely to follow.

1. Lack of Assurance

If my praying the prayer reveals whether I’m in or out, I’m going to pray that prayer like an overweight tween scoffs Smarties. This is why we very often see serial pray-ers of the sinner’s prayer.

I’m going to pray it every single time I doubt my salvation, which will be a lot, because I’ve subliminally (or explicitly) been made to understand that the saying of my prayer is everything.

Rather than looking to Christ and thinking to myself, “He is my Lord, I am in Him, I have his righteousness, therefore there is now no condemnation for me”, I am going to look to myself, and my performance in praying the prayer. Dead works have overruled living faith.

As a 14 year old, I had already “prayed the prayer” on multiple occasions. I went to the front at a Billy Graham rally and said the prayer. I went to the front at a Luis Palau meeting, and said the prayer. I sat with head bowed at numerous churches, in numerous denominations over the years, and said the prayer. I said it ever more fervently, ever more anxiously, and often with tears. “I’m so sorry, Lord. I’m so sorry. I know I’ve said it before, but this time I mean it. I really want to follow you this time. Please accept me.”

The use of the sinner’s prayer at evangelistic meetings had led me to believe that the prayer (and especially the sincerity of the prayer) was what made me a Christian. It was almost inevitable, really. Everything in the service led up to it. It was the climax of the presentation, the preacher’s last words. If you said the prayer, it demonstrated that you agreed with what the preacher had said, and wanted to follow Christ; if you hadn’t said it, then you didn’t.

Rather than saying, “I’m putting my trust in Christ from now on”, I remember telling my parents (on numerous occasions), “I prayed the prayer tonight.” The past tense (what I had done because of what Christ had done) was all important; the present tense (what I am doing as a result) was irrelevant.

Some might say, well, the preacher should have made it clear that the prayer itself was nothing. He should have made it clear that what matters is being born again, a transformed life.

The problem is, the preacher often did say exactly that.

But no matter how clearly and faithfully the gospel had been preached, the structure and emphasis of the service – not to mention the preamble (“If you want to begin following Christ / if you want to invite Jesus into your heart…”) – led the congregation to believe that “praying the prayer” was what it was all about.

No-one came to the Father except by it.

2. False Assurance

If it’s not lack of assurance, then it’s false assurance. I’ve prayed the prayer, and that is all that is necessary.

I think back to an old edition of a book I once wrote. It ended with a “sinner’s prayer”, and then the regrettable sentence, “You are about to explore an amazing new life!” “Well,” if I may address my former self rather sternly, “Not necessarily.”

How do we know if someone has embarked on an amazing new life with Jesus? As Jesus warns us in Mark 4, only time will tell whether a person truly belongs to him. Time – and the visible fruit that emerges from repentance and faith.

For me, the most chilling words in Scripture are recorded in Matthew 7 and Luke 8, where we learn that on the day of judgement, Jesus will say to many who thought they knew him, “Away from me you evil-doers. I never knew you.” Are we, by continuing to employ “The Sinner’s Prayer”, helping to swell their ranks?

How many have been told over the years that if they “prayed the prayer”, they would be saved? As J. D. Greear pointed out recently:

A 2011 Barna study shows that nearly half of all adults in America have prayed such a prayer, and subsequently believe they are going to heaven, though many of them rarely, if ever, attend a church, read the Bible personally, or have lifestyles that differ in any significant way from those outside the church. If the groups described in Matthew 7 and Luke 8 are not referring to them, I don’t know who they could be referring to.

3. Lack of Repentance

According to Scripture, the hallmark of genuine spiritual rebirth is repentance and faith. One devastating outcome of using “The Sinner’s Prayer” methodology is its implicit suggestion that the hallmark of spiritual rebirth is the recitation of a prayer. If that is felt to be true, then there is no need for repentance; in fact, it becomes an irrelevance.

By the time I reached university, having re-prayed “the prayer” countless times, I was still troubled by my lack of assurance. Yes, I was pretty sure I had been sincere in my prayer. And yet my life seemed the same as it ever was. Yes, I called myself a Christian. But there was no evidence of new birth, of a life transformed.

Why? Because of the emphasis on praying the prayer, the call to repent and believe had been forgotten. I believed that the way one “repented and believed” was to say the prayer. I had not understood that the way one “repented and believed” was to look to Christ every day, to live as he would have me live, not look back at a prayer once prayed.

When I grasped this, it was revolutionary. I understood that the “one thing I lacked” was trusting (and therefore obeying) Christ, rather than trusting my own prayers. When I stopped looking to them, and looked to him, I began to joyfully obey him. And of course, with that changed behaviour (courtesy of the Holy Spirit) came the assurance I had so long craved.

All of this had come about because, for the first time, I was looking to Christ, and he was calling me to repent. Why had I not repented before? Because I was looking to “the prayer” as evidence that I was saved.

Conclusion

For the reasons above, then, I would much rather err on the side of caution. I can think of few evangelistic presentations that would not be improved by the omission of “the prayer”, and the careful inclusion/explanation of Christ’s simple evangelistic call to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15).

Next week: is there any Scriptural warrant for employing “The Sinner’s Prayer”? And if not, what does Scripture tell us about how we should be calling people to Christ? As always, I’d value your thoughts in the comments section below.

6 thoughts on “When Shouldn’t We Use “The Sinner’s Prayer”?

  1. Barry this is really good food for thought. I too have been disturbed by the conversations I have heard from others or heard relayed from others with the “well I’ve prayed ‘the prayer’ answer when I am looking on at someone years later with no evidence of being born again. I feel even more of a jerk cynic when someone I know is rejoicing at the prayer being prayed and I am sitting back skeptical thinking.. do they know what they are saying? Awkward for someone who works for Campus Crusade for Christ and we have seen millions of people come to faith through such prayers. I might be a bad staff member or just a skeptic who wants to see real genuine conversion and faith and not artificial. I worry, like you of all the people who pray and are left with doubt, lack of assurance, or what I have seen over the years.. not being convinced that everyone who has prayed such a prayer is indeed born again.

    Now, I am happy with some of our basic follow up bible studies on assurance, repentance, the Spirit filled life clarify a great deal with a person and do what you are suggesting and pointing people to the ongoing work of trusting in Christ. But this is interesting enough I am going to send your blog as a round-robin to our team leaders to discuss. 🙂

    On a related subject, I had an interesting discussion with a church worker in Ireland recently who blamed the church’s programs and for lack of for a better word.. an adult youth group for much of the lack of continuation of people once they leave high school. I mentioned that maybe those people weren’t actually converted and that is why everything else was more appealing than Jesus and Christian fellowship. They were a bit taken aback by that thought. I thought it was worth thinking about and fairly reasonable of a question. 🙂

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    • Thanks Christy – some great comments there!

      Yes, we’ve always got to have Mark 4 in our minds as we do evangelism. Sometimes, even when we’ve faithfully taught the gospel, there will be a lack of perseverance in some hearers. It’s just what we should expect, according to Jesus. Having said that, we should be careful not to contribute to the problem by the way we present the gospel.

      And I think I’d want to say that people don’t “come to faith through the sinner’s prayer”. They come to faith when Christ enables them to. It’s not as if Jesus first needs our permission – expressed by our “praying the prayer” – to save someone.

      Always good to hear your thoughts, Christy, and I hope the round robin kicks off some helpful thinking!

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  2. Thank you for this! I’ve wondered about the prayer for a while now and but didn’t know there was any debate about it. As a child, I prayed “the prayer” on a few occasions until my mother told me that once was enough. I came to live as if I had Jesus as my ticket to heaven, regardless of what I got up to during the week, as long as I was “good” and kept attending church every Sunday. I continued under this delusion until age 31 when I realized I had only ever lived for myself, not Jesus.

    While I had known I was “supposed to” say I was a sinner, it wasn’t until that moment that I truly understood that I actually was one. Hence, I had never repented. I have a strong recollection of being out drinking with co-workers around that same time, and suddenly thinking, “This is my old life now.” Shortly after came a prayer asking God to help me to leave my old life behind.

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  3. Do you have a book out about asking Jesus into your heart over and over? I have prayed more simners prayers than I can remember. Now I struggle with assurance. I think in my mind that a need the prayer that I prayed, or the place that I was at, or the time, or the date, or an experience to go back to in order to have assurance. Could you let me know where I can find your book.
    …. ………….Sharon

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