The last couple of weeks we’ve been thinking about “The Sinner’s Prayer”. I started with a definition of what I mean by the term, and then suggested that it led to at least three serious spiritual maladies.
Sometimes, because “The Sinner’s Prayer” has become so much a part of our furniture, we wonder if – in its absence – people will know how to respond to our preaching. What will they do, we wonder, if we don’t give them a prayer to pray? Won’t they just walk away and do nothing?
No, not if our evangelistic preaching clearly tells them what they must do.
And what they must do is repent. As far as I can see, there is no evidence of “The Sinner’s Prayer” being used in Scripture, but there is plenty of calling people to repent.
Not only is repentance what Jesus calls for in his first recorded sermon (Mark 1:15), it’s also the first command Peter gave to those who wanted to be saved after his first sermon (Acts 2:38); and what Paul said God had commanded all men everywhere to do now that Jesus had been resurrected (Acts 17:30).
I would like to suggest that if our evangelistic writing/preaching/teaching is following the biblical model, the sinner’s prayer is made redundant.
But Isn’t There a “Sinner’s Prayer” in Hosea?
Doesn’t Hosea tell his hearers which words to use as they come to God? Isn’t that just the same as an evangelistic preacher saying, “If you’d like to come to God now, why not pray this prayer?”
Here’s what Hosea says:
Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
2 Take with you words
and return to the Lord;
say to him,
“Take away all iniquity;
accept what is good,
and we will pay with bulls
the vows of our lips.
3 Assyria shall not save us;
we will not ride on horses;
and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’
to the work of our hands.
In you the orphan finds mercy.” (Hosea 14:1-3, ESV)
But is this really a “Sinner’s Prayer”? No, not in any customary sense of the term. For three reasons:
a) This is not evangelistic preaching to people who do not know God. The call here is aimed squarely at God’s people. It is a call to “return to the Lord”, not come to him for the first time. As a result, Hosea’s hearers are not ignorant of how they should respond (ie repent) or what that means. This is confirmed by…
b) …the end of verse 2, which contains the explicit reminder that the words themselves are nothing. It is their action which will confirm whether or not their vows have any weight: “…we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips.”
c) There is no hint, either in Hosea’s preamble or in his postscript, that the sincere recitation of words will be the grounds of their acceptance. Instead, as the Israelites well knew (see Hosea 6:6), God was interested in the state of their hearts. And that, of course, will be revealed by their subsequent obedience, or disobedience – not by the utterance of the words suggested by Hosea.
What we never see in Scripture, then, is a prayer suggested by evangelistic preachers, the utterance of which is seen to be a way into the Christian life.
Is this absence of “The Sinner’s Prayer” in Scripture merely an argument from silence? Well, as D. A. Carson puts it, “If there is silence where you would expect to hear noise, then the argument from silence is worth hearing.”
“Repent and believe” is the Bible’s clear and simple answer to the question, “What must I do be saved?”
It’s natural and appropriate, of course, that such repentance and belief will be subsequently expressed by praying. But the very real danger of imposing the “sinner’s prayer” methodology is that the prayer itself is mistaken for repentance and belief. It is looked to as the beginning of repentance and belief, rather than being the result of it.
When we preach/write our evangelistic appeals, isn’t it better simply to do as the biblical preachers/writers do, and stress the necessity of ongoing repentance and belief in Christ?
If we dropped “The Sinner’s Prayer”, what would our preaching sound like? It would begin to sound… well, it would begin to sound a lot like the evangelistic appeals we hear in Scripture. It would ring with the simple call to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. No need for any additional closing of the deal. No need for “repeat after me.” No need for close your eyes or bow your head or walk the aisle or raise your hand.
What else could be more final, more pressing, more unmistakable than “repent and believe”?
That picture is awesome. haha. Good stuff BC.
Excellent blog. Completely agree.
Thank you for this. Agree completely, and appreciated the reminder as I prepare a sermon.
For the sake of clarifying, rather than disagreeing… on Hosea 14:
a. The logical implication of your point (a) is that it’s perfectly legitimate to call backslidden Christians to pray a prayer which makes verbal their heart’s desire to live repentantly, but it isn’t for non-Christians.
b. What about a scenario in which a preacher has clearly explained what repentance is, and invites people to verbalise their repentance, which has begun and will be ongoing, through a prayer, and the prayer itself commits to and asks for help with ongoing living under Christ’s Lordship? That scenario would then be pretty close to Hosea 14, wouldn’t it?
c. Again, if we take Hosea 6 as coming earlier in the prophet’s “sermon”, then you’re absolutely right that those listening to the call to verbalise their desire to live in repentance and faith already know that the heart is what counts. But how is this not the same as an evangelistic talk in which the speaker makes clear it’s the heart that is what counts, and that our lips must just be the overflow of our hearts?
I completely agree that there is a danger that repentance is not included in so-called evangelism, and/or that saying a prayer is presented as a once-for-all silver bullet. But… in Hosea 14, the preacher has carefully prepared people (who may be part of Israel, but are pretty far gone from any knowledge of faith, 4 v 1-6) by warning them about one-off acts of “repentance”, or merely outward shows of it. Then he calls them to speak to God and tells them what to say. I’m not very sure how that is different in any significant way to proper, careful evangelistic preaching…
Hi Barry, thanks for your thoughts on “The Sinners Prayer.” I completely agree with you. Just wonder if you’ve read the short book “Theology Drives Methodology” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Theology-Drives-Methodology-Conversion-Charles/dp/1481994220/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1369481853&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=theology+frives+methodolgy)? It explores Finney’s theology and shows why he came up with “The Sinners Prayer,” and contrasts it with the Calvinistic practice of Nevin.
Sounds interesting James – thank you. Also worth a read is Iain Murray’s little booklet on “The Invitation System”.
Thank you for this stimulating series of posts. I know I’m late to the party, but some countries don’t like blogs like this.
I had the same experience of praying the Sinner’s Prayer again and again as a child. But I wonder whether your comments on repentance reflect changes in society as much as better theology, and whether the critique of false assurance is more radical than you realize.
We live in a Postmodern era that sits light to belief and cares more about belonging and authenticity. (I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but that is the default for younger Brits – including us). However, that was not the case when the Sinner’s Prayer came into use and had its heyday.
Those Modern people really cared about what was right and wrong. People got off their backside and went on marches and organized societies to start the Revolution / stop the Bolsheviks / celebrate the Empire, etc. Belief was important. Changing belief was a trauma. The Sinner’s Prayer was effective because it marked the transition in changing belief.
Let’s take a relatively clear-cut example from your own patch. In about 1949, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones went to King’s College London to lead a mission. The meeting was chaired by R.V.G. Tasker, one of the theological professors at King’s. Tasker opened the meeting by telling the story of a man who had come to the previous mission, about four years previously. This man had sat at the back, curious but not expecting to be convinced by an over-enthusiastic Welshman. But listening to Lloyd-Jones, he realized for the first time that Christ had died for his sins and he needed to do something about it. Tasker concluded, “That man is your chairman tonight”.
What did it mean for Tasker to repent and believe? If he was like other liberal theology professors of his era, he probably wasn’t spending his weekends sleeping around and getting sozzled (that was the philosophy professors!). He was basically a nice man, having grown up in a gospel-influenced society. He may perhaps have occasionally gone dancing or seen a Bernard Shaw play at the theatre – and you would expect him to repent of those sins, wouldn’t you, being a good evangelical?! And, of course, there would have been the hidden sins of pride and lust, as well as the reality that all our righteous deeds are like used tampons compared to the awesome holiness of our God. And Tasker did carry out some public repentance – he switched his publishing contract from the (liberal) SCM to the (unfashionably evangelical) IVF.*
However, for Tasker, the trauma of conversion would have been more about belief than repentance. And in those days, belief *mattered*. Praying the Sinner’s Prayer would be a moment when a Modern person admitted to themselves and to the newfound Christian friends that their old belief system was wrong. Their old self died. Their old friends might have looked at them the way we now look at Stuart Hall, because in the 1930s belief was as important as behaviour. Yes, people of all eras need to repent, but in the 21st century we may miss the significance of a change in belief to those in the recent past.
Turning to assurance, I’d like to respectfully suggest that your comments may be less than Evangelical. Perhaps Biblical, but not Evangelical in the sense of ‘an heir of Edwards, Whitefield, Wesley, Grimshaw et al’. A quick detour to the 18th century will help explain why.
When the Great Awakening happened, why were the awakened people called methodists or enthusiasts or evangelicals? 1735, the start of the Awakening, was only 50 years after the Great Ejection.But people didn’t say, “Ah, we know what these guys are, they’re Puritans (and they killed the king last time round!)”. If fascism made a comeback now, I’m sure we’d noticed. No, there was something different about Evangelical theology.
I have read** that the key difference is in the area of assurance. If you went to a Puritan with doubts about your salvation, they would encourage you to wrestle with them and look at your life for the fruit of repentance. You had to wait for a while before you knew whether you were saved. The Evangelicals would ask whether you trusted in Christ’s saving work on the cross. If the answer was “yes”, there was no room for doubt – Christ had done it all.
The Sinner’s Prayer obviously reflects that Evangelical theology. And I’m not sure that there’s anything shameful about saying “I’m a Christian and a Puritan, but not an Evangelical”. However, I wonder whether laying an axe to the root of that particular tree (assurance) might cause branches to come unexpectedly crashing down into other parts of your theology.
*I should confess that my account of Tasker’s conversion is given from memory, and may have grown slightly in the telling. I think I first read it in Oliver Barclay’s ‘Evangelicalism in Britain, 1935-95: A Personal Sketch’.
**I think in Bebbington ‘Evangelicalism in Modern Britain’, but it might be R.T. Kendall’s ‘Calvin and English Calvinism’ or something completely different.
The Back-Slidden Baptist’s Salvation Check List:
Just as there are many orthodox Christians, including Lutherans, who, to their eternal damnation, rely on their infant Baptism as their “Get-into-heaven Free Card”, I believe that there are many Baptists and evangelicals who rely on their one time “Decision for Christ” as their automatic ticket into heaven.
Just to be clear, I am sure that there are many, many Baptists and evangelicals who are much better Christians than I am. As Paul, I am the first among sinners. But I believe that the teaching of Decision Theology accompanied with the horrific teaching of “Once Saved, Always Saved”, has damned just as many Baptists and evangelicals to hell as “Once Baptized, Always Saved” has damned many poorly catechized orthodox Christians.
I was taught growing up fundamentalist Baptist that a born-again Christian who stops going to church, reading the Bible, praying, etc. is a “back-slider”. He has back-slidden into sin.
So let’s review the “Back-Slidden” Baptist’s and (Baptistic) Evangelical’s Salvation Check-list:
1. Have I attended church in the last twenty years: No.
2. Have I partaken of the Lord’s Supper in the last twenty years: No.
3. Have I read my Bible in the last twenty years: No.
4. Have I prayed (other than, “Lord please help me win the Powerball!”) in the last twenty years? No.
5. Have I shared the Gospel with a non-believer in the last twenty years. No.
6. Did I pray the Sinner’s Prayer twenty-one years ago in a Baptist altar call. Yes.
Now, if you present this to a Baptist or evangelical of the Baptist persuasion, he or she will say that the person above was never saved. That is why we do not see any “fruit of the Spirit”.
They have a much harder time, however, using that explanation when the “back-slider” is a prominent conservative Baptist or evangelical pastor or evangelist who has “won many souls to Christ” and has preached great moving sermons for years. “How could the person who led me to Christ have been a non-believer??” Situations such as these really rattle these “Once Saved, Always Saved” Christians.
Listen to this Southern Baptist pastor light the pants on fire of back-slidden Baptists who believe their recitation of the Sinner’s Prayer twenty years ago is their “ticket” into heaven:
Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
an orthodox Lutheran blog