The Sinner’s Prayer and its evangelical despisers

March 23, 2015


Here we go again… Several years ago, and not without irony, Katherine Jefferts-Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, criticized the Sinner’s Prayer as a symptom of “that great Western heresy,” our individualistic focus in salvation. This week, Asbury professor J.D. Walt has joined her in the complaint.

To be fair, just because Jefferts-Schori said it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but given a choice between her and Billy Graham, well… I know whom I’ll trust. 

On the other hand, no one—certainly not Billy Graham—believes that this prayer alone saves anyone. It’s not a magical incantation. But it provides a way for a sinner to express his desire to repent of his sins, to trust in Christ, and receive God’s gift of salvation. Indeed, to put it in biblical terms, it’s a way for that person to do what Paul says we all must do to be saved in Romans 10:9—to confess Christ and believe. There’s nothing at all wrong with that! We don’t have to throw out the Letter to the Romans in order to accommodate the Rich Young Ruler. 

Is the person praying the prayer sincere in his desire to repent and receive Christ? Is the Holy Spirit, in that moment in which he prays the prayer, justifying him and giving him new birth? We can’t know, but it’s certainly possible—often even likely. 

This is why we believe such a prayer represents a beginning. We have to get started somewhere, right? Sometimes, as the example of the thief on the cross demonstrates, getting started is all anyone can do. Fortunately that’s enough.

I posted these words on Facebook, along with this comment:


20 Responses to “The Sinner’s Prayer and its evangelical despisers”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree that the “Sinner’s Prayer” should not be downplayed, and believe it is actually the point at which a lot of Christians do become saved (i.e., receive the Holy Spirit based on an exercise of faith and confession). However, as I am sure you agree, we should actually be careful about assuring someone that if they were “really sincere” or “really meant it” when they prayed, then they are certainly saved. Jesus warned in the Parable of the Soils that some people start out believing themselves to be saved, but in subsequent circumstances demonstrate otherwise. (Or, they actually did become saved, but then “lost it,” depending on your theology.) So we need to point out to such “protestants” that there must be a “change in life” (i.e., “repentance”) to accompany or follow from the profession for there to be true salvation. Some people err on one side of the point and others on the other. Many Baptists fail to insist on a “repentant” life.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’m sure that different traditions err on different sides. It’s just so funny to me when I hear a Methodist complaining about it—as if the vast majority even have altar calls or invite people to accept Christ! Maybe I’m being too harsh.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Well said, Mr. Harkin.
    Sometimes the “simple truth” is THE TRUTH.
    All journeys begin with a single step.
    My Bible Study Group is in the Book of James this week. James says, in essence, that the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.
    All prayer should begin by setting aside pride and admitting to one’s sin nature. You cannot come before Holy God any other way.
    Admission of sin is just “so old fashioned” and “too fundamentalist” for today’s modernist Christian. I tremble when I stand in the light of their discernment…..(not!)

  3. victorgalipi Says:

    There are different versions of the Sinner’s Prayer. To me, older versions I saw did not say much if anything about repentance. As long as a “Sinner’s Prayer” includes repenting and believing the Gospel (Mk 1:15), I’m fine with it as a model prayer. Sure people can be insincere when they pray it. People can be insincere about anything. People can also be sincere about the wrong things and be sincerely wrong.

    • brentwhite Says:

      My thing is, people have to begin some way. What would these critics have people do to get started? Honestly… The problem with too many Methodists is they don’t expect people to actually be converted.

      • victorgalipi Says:

        Agreed, Brent. Bible revisionists, for supposedly being so much for freedom and anything goes, seem sometimes to be a people of “no”. There is something wrong with everything, except their own narrow agenda of course.

        It seems more and more United Methodists expect not conversion but conformity. Conversion to Christ never seems to occur to them. What do they think “go and make disciples”, “baptizing them”, and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” means?

      • brentwhite Says:

        We don’t expect conversions, pray for conversions, or make conversions a priority, and we end up living down to our expectations. Even the continual emphasis on “church growth” in our denomination is mostly just strategies for “sheep-stealing,” reaching the already saved.

  4. Josh Says:

    Hey man, you shouldn’t be lumpin’ Jefferts-Shori and J.D. Walt in together on what they say about the “Sinner’s Prayer.” In fact, you shouldn’t even use their names in the same sentence – two very different people.

    J.D. comes from an evangelical background and he has encountered all sorts of crazy evangelical crap (evangelicals can be just as far out there as progressives). His point in that Seedbed article (which are some of the best Christian writing out there today) was about letting Jesus be Jesus. We should tell the whole story about the rich young man. We should not reduce Jesus’ words about salvation to just simply praying a prayer (evangelicals) or about giving to the poor (progressives). Let’s just let Jesus be Jesus – the whole gospel for the whole world. We should not reduce him or make excuses for some of the extreme things that he said. He was – and is – the Son of God after all. I think it should be expected that he would say some things that would be considered extreme by our human standards.

    Brent, I understand that you are recovering from going too far too the left. Some of us have spent time in the evangelical scene and are recovering from some of its craziness. I think J.D. has the answer for both of us. Let’s just let Jesus be Jesus. Let’s just shut-up and listen to him and stop funneling him through all of our pet agendas and belief systems. He is the Lord.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’m sure that Jefferts-Schori and Walt make strange bedfellows, and I don’t mean to suggest that the two have much else in common, but they are in agreement about the Sinner’s Prayer.

      I’m sure there is plenty of crazy evangelical crap, with which he is far more familiar than I am, but the fact remains that there’s nothing wrong with the Sinner’s Prayer. Can it be misunderstood, misused, overemphasized? Sure. But who among us United Methodists is in danger of doing that? I haven’t met anyone—certainly not among clergy. Are we in danger of underemphasizing the importance of sanctification? Hardly!

      Our danger is, as one D.S. once told me, that too many of us ordained elders don’t even know how to lead someone to salvation in Christ! But when someone comes seeking this salvation, we pastors need to offer clarity about how it takes place. The Sinner’s Prayer is a good place to start.

      • Josh Says:

        Oh, I agree with you about all that. And I think the reason why most UM’s in the south are like that are because they don’t want to be like Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, or other groups that have a tendency of presenting the gospel in a “here, just pray this prayer and you are saved.” That kind of evangelism is very dangerous – especially with Baptists who also preach the theology of “once saved, always saved” (which is a perversion of John Calvin’s “perseverance of the saints.”

        Walt’s post was a pushback against some of the easy-believism evangelism that goes on – that only tells a portion of what Jesus says (makes excuses for/omits Jesus saying “Go sell it all and give to the poor). I think it’s safe to say that the Episcopal lady probably doesn’t believe that Christians should evangelize at all. She probably holds some sort of universalism that believes that we are all going to one day sing Kumbaya sitting around a campfire in heaven with Jesus and Hitler, Saddam, Osama, Nero, and Pontius Pilate (that’s what universalism ultimately believes, right?).

        Jefferts-Schori is pushing away from any sort of evangelism while J.D. is pushing back against dishonest evangelism – evangelism that doesn’t let Jesus be Jesus. I struggle with evangelism too. I want to see more and more come to know Christ. But I have seen some horrible evangelistic techniques that really hurt people – that left them thinking that they were “saved” because they prayed a prayer (they pulled the lever on the salvation machine and popped out a salvation coin that they’ll never lose).

        Before I graduate, I am going to make sure and take some sort of evangelism course. I’m like you. I really want to be faithful in that calling. I really take Paul’s words to Timothy seriously – “do the work of an evangelist.”

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    Brent, you hit the nail on the head for me. How does one “lead someone to salvation”? That’s quite different from our little ceremonial pledge when someone decides to join the church. The pastor does that without even delving into a person’s salvation. Or, our baptism ceremonies, which have little to do with a profession of faith. What is our “responsibility” for calling others to repent and believe and be baptized?
    My own journey bears witness to this. I was baptized at age 12 after attending confirmation classes. I suppose I made a profession of faith, and I do recall that I was very excited about the whole thing. But, I was 54 when the power of the Holy Spirit washed over and through me in a stunningly strong fashion and the sanctification process has held me in it’s grip every day since. At the time, I asked our Pastor if I could be baptized again. He said that it was unnecessary, and actually forbidden (2nd baptism) in the Methodist Church. That seems odd to me, since I was really excited about making a public profession of my faith. That was 16 years ago, and I have taken every opportunity I can to share my story with others, not for my sake, but as a statement that its never too late, or too early, or too often to share the good news of the new birth in Jesus.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Grant, your words convict me. You and I are on a similar path. It’s true we can’t re-baptize (this is true in most churches, not just the UMC). I would have had you make a public re-affirmation of your faith, and used the baptismal water in a different way in which you can “remember your baptism and be thankful.”

      I also would have gone “off script” from our liturgy. Recently, I’ve had people come forward in church to renew their commitment to Christ, and I ask them questions that go beyond the “prayers, presence, gifts, service, witness” thing. I ask them if they repent of their sins, confess Jesus as Lord, believe in his resurrection, etc.

      Anyway, I have a lot to learn, and a long way to go, but I’m going to become the pastor that God wants me to be eventually. I’m making progress!

    • Josh Says:

      This doesn’t sound right with me. We are reaffirming our baptismal vows this week on Palm Sunday and man, they’re powerful. They speak of more than I have ever heard in an evangelical/conservative church.

      Not baptizing for a second time is a part of our Anglican/Great Tradition heritage. It’s not just something we Methodists do. In fact, most traditions around the world do the same thing. What your pastor should have done is to have put together a special Baptismal Reaffirmation service just for you. That way, you could have spoken your vows for yourself in front of the congregation (publicly claiming the name of Christ). I actually like doing this better than a rebaptism for those who have experienced a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit because it directs them not to just do another ritual (baptism) but to respond to this spiritual awakening by fully committing to following Christ in discipleship.

      I’m going to say this about the UM. The problem is NOT our theology or worship practices – we have an awesome heritage that has been passed down to us. Our problem in the UM is the people and the atheistic culture within the church structures. People in the pews are spiritually dead; people behind the pulpit are spiritually dead; people in the bureaucracy are spiritually dead. This happens with old churches. One generation experiences spiritual renewal, the gospel is preached and people are born again, the joy of salvation leads to all sorts of new things. But as the generations go by, the joy of salvation is lost; salvation is not emphasized because it no seen (no testimonies); people just go through the motions because they want to honor their ancestors. It’s a common cycle in church history. It’s the reason why new movements of the Spirit among people often cause conflict with the old guard (like Wesley, who was in constant conflict with the Anglican higher-ups).

      I have to give the UM some credit here because it has actually encouraged and accepted these new movements of the Holy Spirit. For example, it has allowed Aldersgate Renewal ministries to become an official group in the UMC. I would encourage you to check out Aldersgate. I have come to believe that only hearts that are filled with the love of God (Spirit’s work) have the desire to see people come to know Christ and evangelize in healthy and diverse ways.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Powerful words, Josh. We have opportunities within our tradition to publicly affirm people who experience a renewed commitment and a powerful deepening of faith.

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    Isn’t it wonderful when we feel God working in our hearts, minds and lives!

  7. Grant Essex Says:

    I would like that.

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