Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer

In the last hundred years or so, the sinner’s prayer has become a popular tool in leading seekers to identify with Jesus. It is simple, to the point, and much less dramatic than the way I did it.

During the Second Great Awakening, the popular way of accepting God was to experience great conviction, go down to the mourner’s bench to pray and wrestle with God to save you from your sins until you prayed through and felt ‘saved’. This was often very emotional as people prayed loudly, cried, and begged God to save them.

This practice had diminished but was still current in some church circles when I experienced it in 1958. The sinner’s prayer is much simpler, quicker, and less dramatic; but I think it has problems.

The Sinners Prayer

What is the Sinner’s Prayer and Where Did it Come From?

After the American Civil War, the famous evangelist Dwight Moody instituted the inquiry room for seekers to go to after the sermon. There, personal workers spoke with them and led them in a prayer. Years later, evangelist Billy Graham introduced a sinner’s prayer for his personal workers to use with inquirers:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.

From that time the sinner’s prayer became widely used, though the text varied among users. It was further publicized by Campus Crusade for Christ in a tract called Four Spiritual Laws:

Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.

Those who pray this prayer are often told, ‘If you meant what you said, you are now saved and going to heaven.’ Versions of the prayer are now used at the end of sermons, by those sharing with individuals, and in gospel tracts.

Doesn’t this sound nice and well packaged? So where are the problems?

The Sinner’s Prayer Assumes Instant Salvation

It is not the words of the prayer, depending on what they are, or simply saying such a prayer that I find problematic. It is the theology often transmitted with the prayer that is at issue.

Those using the prayer usually assume that a person is either ‘unsaved’ (going to hell) or ‘saved’ (going to heaven); being ‘saved’ is an instant transition, and there is no in-between. Were you to hesitate for two minutes, and died during that time, it is eternal hell for you. This is a sign-on-the-dotted-line, seal the deal proposition.

Many believers ask other believers, ‘When did you get saved?’ If you can’t answer the question, they suggest that perhaps you aren’t saved (no matter how fervently you follow Jesus) and might further suggest that you say the sinner’s prayer right now just to be sure.

This is not the experience of those in the New Testament who became believers; they simply responded to the preaching of the good news of the kingdom. This did not require a plan-of-salvation or any sort of sinner’s prayer; it required only acceptance of the good news and a change of priorities and direction (repentance). And there is no indication that before responding to the good news they were ‘unsaved’ and on their way to hell.

Following Jesus is a process—not an event, though there may be a number of transitional points in that life-long process. Those who think they were ‘saved’ at a specific time probably went through a process of development prior to that.

The Sinner’s Prayer Usurps Baptism

When people in the New Testament heard the good news of the kingdom of God and wanted to identify with it, they didn’t say a prayer; they demonstrated their identification with the kingdom by being baptized. That was the signal—the universal identifying action.

**As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”…Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. Acts 8

**But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized. Acts 8

**Then Ananias went to the house…something like scales fell from Saul’s [Paul’s] eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. Acts 9

**One of those listening was a woman…named Lydia. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message…When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. Acts 16

**The jailer called for lights…They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house…then immediately he and all his household were baptized. Acts 16

No sinner’s prayer or any prayer is mentioned. Once they heard the good news they were baptized. This was the sign that they had aligned with the kingdom of God. Today the sinner’s prayer ritual serves this purpose and usurps baptism; it makes identification a two-step process—and the first step is totally unnecessary.

Children and the Sinners’ Prayer

‘When were you saved?’ is a common question. As an active personal witness, I asked this too. One day I encountered an elderly couple working in their yard, and I asked the question. They both replied that they never knew a time when they didn’t love Jesus. They attended church as young children and learned to love Jesus there. I was flabbergasted!

We spoke at length and I was convinced they were genuine believers, yet they never were ‘saved’ or repeated a sinner’s prayer. This drastically changed my mind; I no longer believed instant salvation was essential.

In many churches, leading children in saying the sinner’s prayer is a regular practice. It happens in Sunday school and it happens at home. But children don’t need to pray the sinner’s prayer; all they need is to learn to love and trust Jesus—that’s what matters.

The sinner’s prayer is unnecessary and teaches a mistaken concept of following Jesus in their tenderest years. As they grow up, many children trust in their ‘conversion’ experience when they ought to just trust in Jesus and follow him. And others say the prayer several times during their lives ‘just to make sure’.

The sinner’s prayer promotes the idea of ‘saved’ vs. ‘unsaved’, usurps baptism, and misinforms children about following Jesus. These are serious problems.

Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness

The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails

Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?

See also:

What Does Jesus Think of Sinners Today?

*****

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40 Responses to Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer

  1. cmgatlin53 says:

    It seems to me that the problems are not so much with the versions of the Sinner’s Prayer as with the idea that it should be universally applied. Not everyone comes to Jesus the same way. St Paul had a conversion experience on the road to Damascus, and the Good Thief appears to have been saved on the verge of death–but you would be hard put to point at a single moment in St Peter’s life before which he was “lost” and after which he was “saved.” His confession of Jesus as the Christ might appear to be such a moment, but his betrayal occurs afterward, for example.
    God is not restricted to our formulas in how He works.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree, Chuck. The versions aren’t the issue, it’s the basic assumptions about such a prayer itself. I like your examples of different experience of people in the New Testament. I think the common factor is that they all came to Jesus.

      Like

  2. sheila0405 says:

    Beautifully written. When I was still a Christian I prayed the prayer multiple times, “just to be sure”. Your description of how following Jesus happens is much deeper than a simple prayer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thank you Sheila. I prayed the prayer multiple times also–just to be sure. So do multiple thousands of others. To me, this doesn’t seem to provide much security in our relationship with God.

      Liked by 1 person

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  15. tonycutty says:

    Interestingly I’m in the midst of writing my ‘testimony’ for my blog. In it, I recount *two* ‘conversion experiences’. The first was when I responded to God’s call and went forward – actually it was more like He stood me up, plonked me on my feet and pushed me out to the front – but once there, nobody met me to lead me in the ‘sinner’s prayer’. I’d responded to God, but not said the ‘prayer’ until I met a ‘counsellor’ (actually quite an unwilling one!) and he led me in the prayer. By that time it was all a bit of an anticlimax. About two months later, a good friend of mine then led me in the ‘prayer’. I’ve always counted that latter date as being my ‘birthday’, but recently I’ve been more inclined to think of it as being the date I first responded to God’s call. Interesting and thought-provoking piece, Tim – thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tony, many people pray the sinner’s prayer repeatedly in their lives, not as you did, but ‘just in case’. I agree with you, if you want to consider a moment to be your spiritual birthday–I would choose the first one.

      Like

  16. omisarah says:

    Tim–I am impressed with your reasoning. I wonder if you have a place of worship that supports your perspective? Thanks for posting.
    Sarah

    Liked by 1 person

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  18. omisarah says:

    If you have kindle I recommend. The Life Elysian. It contains understandings similar to yours.
    Sarah

    Liked by 1 person

  19. rogerwolsey says:

    That prayer rather misses the point of Jesus and his Gospel. It is not primarily about individuals and their getting right with God by repenting from their personal sins, it’s about nations doing right by the poor and oppressed and converting away from the death inducing ways of empire and toward the life-giving ways of God. Salvation isn’t me going to heaven when I die. It’s all of us experiencing liberation and wholeness here and now.

    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Perry says:

    Wow! Never thought about the sinner’s prayer, as we know it, being so recent a human innovation. Had a former Southern Baptist Convention president in our church many years ago. The heart of the sermon was the sinner’s prayer and a laundry list of all the things you better have said when you first prayed, because if you didn’t, you weren’t saved. And if you weren’t sure, you should respond to the invitation today, just to be sure. “In case it turns out you’re already saved,” he said, God won’t get mad at you for making sure. Bunches of church members got “saved” again. Almost sounds like it’s more of a marketing ploy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Perry, I have seen so many people essentially ‘getting saved’ over and over again. Sometimes there would be a Sunday school teacher or a deacon; and like you said, I have seen lots of church members come down at one time.

      What the SBC President said is an extreme form of what I wrote about bad theology being transmitted by the prayer. It’s unbelievable to say that if one doesn’t say all the right words they are not saved. Some of us have gone from trusting Jesus to trusting an inerrant Bible to trusting an inerrant prayer. (Do you happen to remember the SBC President’s name?)

      I like what one person said recently about response to the good news of Jesus; the proper response is Yes!

      Like

  21. Chas says:

    All that I can contribute here is my own experience, which came through the Alpha course. In that, the presenter outlined the idea of us being separated from God, as He could not tolerate us in His Presence because of our sins, but that the purpose of Jesus was to bring us forgiveness for those sins, so then we would no longer be separated from God. My understanding from this was that to believe that Jesus was the Son of God was to pass through the gateway into God’s Presence. At the end of the presentation, we were invited to say to ourselves a version of the ‘sinners’ prayer, and I did so. From others parts of this series of presentations, I learned about the Holy Spirit and how we might be baptized in the Holy Spirit, so I did not believe that it was necessary to undergo baptism in water. However, I later did so, but only because I believed that God required it of me, not from what was said in the Bible, but from obedience to what I believe that He required of me personally. Without that personal requirement, I would not have been baptized in water, and still would not have been. From what I have learned since, I believe that my baptism was required to remain in favor with the pastors of the church and not give them anything from which they could disapprove of me (at that time).

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying a prayer such as this as long as it is not loaded with theological baggage. And I also don’t think baptism is absolutely essential, though I think it is very important if we understand its purpose. All people can do is the best they know. Of course my objective is to help them recognize the great harm of some of the worst Christian teachings.

      Like

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  23. michaeleeast says:

    The Sinner’s Prayer may be appropriate for some but I don’t think it should be a universal practice. There are many ways of coming to God. The Sinner’s Prayer may be one.

    Liked by 1 person

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  26. A blogging friend told me about your site. This is the first post I have read here. Very thought provoking.

    I have prayed various versions of the sinner’s prayer countless times in my life. Sometimes, depending on what I was going through at the time, on a daily basis. I have also been baptized four times; five if you count the christening.

    And yet somehow I have managed to live many years of my life as an agnostic, although for the past thirteen years I have been a Christ follower/believer — with some doubts and with many questions.

    If that isn’t enough, my chaplain husband and I own a mountain lot on a road named Damascus. 🙂

    Can you guess that my dad and my uncle were ministers? Also, my mother likes to write letters that are nothing but page after page of handwritten Bible verses, with “Dear Linda” at the top of the front page and “Love, Mother” at the bottom of the last page. When her scripture letters failed to elicit whatever reaction she was looking for, she sent me letters of thirty, fifty and sixty-plus pages, telling me everything that was ever wrong with me in my entire life. At the end of these abusive letters, she kindly informed me that Jesus will forgive me of everything, if only I will repent. Because apparently my ten thousand plus prayers of repentance did not count, since I was not a particular denomination.

    I worked full-time for Pat Robertson’s television ministry in Virginia Beach for three years in the 1980s. During the time I was there, Pat ran for President, and televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart fell from grace.

    Oh that was a fun time… NOT. I quit that job one heartbreaking day when I was invited by my department head to leave after I had very delicately, humbly, and respectfully objected to her telling us to outright lie on the phone to the ministry’s financial supporters, in a scheme she had cooked up to try to save the 700 Club from going bankrupt due to donations drying up in the wake of the various TV ministry scandals.

    Soon after I left that job my father, who had lost his faith in Christ, quit the ministry and become a pot smoking Buddhist, died. I was terrified that my daddy was in hell, burning forever.

    That’s when I became an agnostic.

    Today, as a sixty-something great-grandmother, I have more questions than answers when it comes to Christianity. But today I believe in a Creator God. I also believe in Christ Jesus, God’s only begotten son. I believe Jesus lived, died, and rose again. And I also believe in the Holy Spirit. Most of all I believe that God is love.

    As for everything else.. I still have more questions than answers. As a Mensa member with an IQ just four points below Albert Einstein’s, I am either not dumb enough, or not smart enough, to have it all figured out. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • My dad was born in 1934, so he was before his time.

      Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Wow, Linda, you have had quite an adventure in Evangelical-land! I remember all those public things you mention; I was busy in Evangelical-land too, working in the Christian bookstore industry and in my local churches.

      We seem to be about the same age and both have had interesting spiritual journeys, though mine is a bit different of course. But I have survived near-death by proof-texting.

      I am glad you arrived at ‘God is love’, but I firmly believe there is anything wrong with having more questions than answers. I think those who are certain they have all, or most of, the answers are surely mistaken.

      I hope you have enjoyed visiting the site and that you continue to visit and interact as you feel inclined. I notice that you ‘liked’ several posts; thank you for that. Can you share who the blogger friend was who mentioned the blog?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for fixing my typo. Near-death by proof-texting, lol. Why I proof read AFTER hitting the Post Comment tab, I do not know. Still mortifying the flesh, maybe? 😉

        Yes, we are nearly the same age. I will be 63 next week. But in my heart, I don’t feel any older than my granddaughters, one of whom is in nursing school and the other in a Harvard masters program (brag).

        The blogger friend who told me about this site goes by the name Lucky Otter. She recently wrote a post about your blog: https://luckyottershaven.com/2016/04/24/god-answers-prayers/

        I have been sitting in the kitchen reading through your terrific site for the past hour and a half. Time for this old great grandma to get some work done.

        Er… maybe I will just read one more post…

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Hi Linda, I am honored that you are reading so many of my posts. I hope you like most of them. And Yes! I know Lucky Otter; I have been reading from her blog for the last couple weeks.

          Regarding ‘near-death by proof-text’, I was not referencing your edit item but your mention of getting pages of proof-texts from the Bible as a substitute for reasonable discussion. People do this to me all the time.

          Like

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