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.
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?