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”?