I hate to state the obvious, but “The Sinner’s Prayer” is not heresy

This is old news, but I wasn’t blogging when it was new news. I don’t mean to pile on. Many, many thoughtful Christians rightly lambasted Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, after she spoke these words, which were reckless and not a little ironic, considering how some critics of the Episcopal Church have used the H-word to describe developments within that particular body in recent years.

A couple of years ago, Jefferts Schori said that the “the great Western heresy” was “that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being.”

Among other things, she’s attacking what’s often called “The Sinner’s Prayer,” popularized by evangelists like Billy Graham. It’s not any one formula, but, in general, it includes a number of things: a confession of sin, an expression of repentance, and a plea for salvation based on the atoning work of Christ, in whom we place our faith as Lord and savior.

So what’s wrong with the Sinner’s Prayer? Nothing.

It’s a start. It’s an entry-point. It’s a first step. It doesn’t preclude everything else that faithful Christian living entails: baptism, Holy Communion, churchgoing, prayer, Bible study, and other means of grace including service. Of course there are Christians who fall victim to what I’ve heard described as “easy-believism,” and I understand how an outsider could misinterpret this prayer as “exhibit A” of easy-believism.

But not Jefferts Schori… She should know better.

She should know her own flock well enough to know that evangelicals don’t believe that this or any prayer saves anyone—just as we don’t believe that sacraments, by themselves, save anyone.

God saves. Through Christ’s atoning work. Which is made effective for us through faith. Whatever we may disagree on, we all agree on that.

Speaking of faith, since I can’t possess it on someone else’s behalf, I’m not sure how salvation isn’t also deeply personal and, yes, individual. It’s more than that, of course. But it’s at least that.

Recalling Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, this person called “Brent White” is “but a bare seed” of what he’ll become in resurrection. But even in resurrection, he will be this bounded person with a unique body and personality, just as he is today. For some reason, God created Brent White as a unique individual and wants to save him as such. To which Brent White responds, “Thank you, God!”

Again, if that isn’t personal and individual, I don’t know what is!

Finally, if you’ll allow me to put in a plug for the home team: We evangelicals of the Wesleyan persuasion are less likely to fall victim to easy-believism. We emphasize that salvation is a lifelong process that isn’t complete until we arrive safely in God’s kingdom on the other side of resurrection. Until then, we are not—as Wesley preached and wrote many times—eternally secure.

Still, all evangelical Christians agree that we have to start somewhere, and some version of the Sinner’s Prayer is a great place to start.

Adam Hamilton reminded me of Jefferts Schori’s words while I was studying The Journey. He concluded his book with a version of the Sinner’s Prayer, which I adapted as a response to a recent sermon:

“Jesus, I come to you, like the shepherds and the magi did so long ago. I accept you as my King, my Savior, and my Lord. Forgive me for the ways I’ve turned from God’s path, and help me to follow you. Save me from myself, and help me to live for you. I receive you, Jesus Christ, and believe in your name. Make me your child, and bring me your joy. Help me to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you. In your name I pray, Jesus my Christ. Amen.”

Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abindon, 2011), 129.

Leave a Reply