Posts Tagged ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’

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.

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

January 5, 2012

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.