Debating the Sinner’s Prayer

June 27, 2012

If the Sinner’s Prayer is good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

I would expect the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church—who has not an evangelical bone in her body—to be opposed to the Sinner’s Prayer, but Southern Baptists, too? Didn’t every Billy Graham Crusade end with people inviting Jesus into their hearts by praying the Sinner’s Prayer? Isn’t it at the heart of the altar call? Didn’t Baptists practically invent it?

No worries. Baptists still believe in the Sinner’s Prayer, even though, according to this Christianity Today article, they did debate it at their recent convention. I appreciated the magazine’s wink to the audience at the beginning of the article:

The vote wasn’t taken with every head bowed and every eye closed, but delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting today supported the “Sinner’s Prayer” after considerable debate.

One prominent critic of the prayer, megachurch Baptist pastor David Platt, said:

“I’m convinced that many people in our churches are simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we’ve sold them as the gospel, i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life,” Platt said. “Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer in the New Testament? Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrase, ‘accept Jesus into your heart’ or ‘invite Christ into your life’? It’s not the gospel we see being preached, it’s modern evangelism built on sinking sand. And it runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls.”

You might expect me—a Methodist—to shake my fist and say, “Yeah! You tell ’em, David Platt!” But Platt has a couple of strikes against him in my book: he is both a Calvinist and, worse, a University of Georgia graduate.

I’m kidding, of course. Neither of those unfortunate facts disqualify his argument. But I’m not kidding when I say that I like the Sinner’s Prayer. No, it’s not explicitly in the Bible, but it accords well with the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 10:9-13:

Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. The scripture says, All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame. There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.

Besides, how else are we supposed to get started on our journey of Christian faith? Sure, if we grow up in church, the church might offer a period of formal instruction leading to a public profession of faith, as we do in the United Methodist Church during confirmation. But what about everyone else?

If the Holy Spirit moves a person to repentance and Christian faith, what are we—the church—supposed to do? Tell them, “O.K. Sign up for this class, and next year, assuming you take all the required courses, we’ll let you become a Christian and be baptized”? Or do we let them get started right away by praying with them—and assuring them that, if they sincerely prayed that prayer, they will be saved? I’m way too Protestant to believe the former.

Among its virtues, the Sinner’s Prayer rightly emphasizes that being a Christian is, among many other things, a conscious decision that we make. It’s not a decision that we make apart from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and it’s not a one-time event. But it starts with a decision.

So, for people who are ready to become Christians, I say pray the prayer first, be baptized if necessary, and then start the classes next week.

Contrary to Platt’s words above, the Sinner’s Prayer isn’t superstitious, because we don’t believe that praying a prayer saves us. God’s grace saves us through faith.

We shouldn’t be surprised that people pray the Sinner’s Prayer and fall away from the faith. Abandoning the faith happens in churches high and low, denominational and non-denominational, Protestant and Catholic, Western and Eastern. If the church is “selling the gospel short,” as one critic in the article claimed, it’s not because they either are or aren’t praying the Sinner’s Prayer; it’s because they’re failing to emphasize that making a decision to follow Christ is only the beginning of Christian faith. It isn’t the goal.

Persisting in the faith until the end is hard, as Jesus warns throughout the gospels.

4 Responses to “Debating the Sinner’s Prayer”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    This is an interesting discussion, and I think you are right that a “sinner’s prayer” is probably a “good place to start.” I think Philip & the Ethiopian eunich may be analogous. At the same time, though, it can be dangerous if it is not also conjoined with the admonitions Jesus gives about how, in essence, you have to “turn your whole life” over to Jesus to accomplish salvation (become his disciple). Nobody does so perfectly, but that has to be an “agenda item.”

    Many years ago I wrote a very short and never-to-be-published Christian novel about how a brother ended up leading his younger brother to the faith, which, after my wife read it, she suggested I should add a “sinner’s prayer” at the end. But I didn’t want to do it, because I didn’t want to give the impression it was “that easy.” However, looking back, I may have been wrong. (A moot point, of course, since no lost person has or ever will read it.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      I almost mentioned Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. When the eunuch asked, “What’s stopping me from being baptized?” it’s not like Philip said, “Well, first you have to go through this class and…” No. He was ready then and there. And of course he was ready! Because the preparatory work had already been done in his heart by the Holy Spirit.

      Honestly, we can easily quench the Spirit, I believe. We’re not saved by knowledge—including knowledge of the Bible or our church tradition or our doctrinal positions or our theological imperatives, as important as those are. We’re saved by grace through faith. It only takes a childlike trust. It’s not all that complicated.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I mean, Christianity can be as complicated as you like, but at the level of saving faith, it isn’t all that complicated. You know what I mean.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, I agree that saving faith may be “initiated” in a simple manner (such as praying the sinner’s prayer). However, I don’t think the “saving” thereby necessarily actually took place without a “commitment.” Perhaps the person praying may not realize that at the time, but ultimately that will have to come out if the salvation is “real.” I like to reference salvation as a “My life for your life” exchange. God wants our lives so much he was wiling to give his life to get ours. In return, we have to be wanting to get his “life” so badly that we are willing to give him ours in the exchange. One colloquial way some people put this, I think, is by saying you cannot get Christ as Savior unless you are willing to take him as your Lord. Again, that may not be “conscious” at the time of the “exchange” and may only get “played out” later, but I think ultimately one cannot be saved without that.


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