If you’ve ever been to an Evangelical church, you’ve probably heard something along these lines:
If you want to get saved, if you want to accept Jesus as your Savior tonight, I want you to bow your heads, close your eyes, and repeat after me:
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.
If you prayed that prayer and meant it with all your heart, now you’re saved.
Such an invitation is so common that many people would not even give it a second thought. However, there are potential problems with this approach. First, let’s consider a question: what exactly is going on here?
Basically, at the end of many church services, revivals, and other evangelistic events, there is a call to salvation. This commonly takes the form I just mentioned. The idea is that, having presented the Gospel, people who want to get saved might need help knowing what to pray. Therefore they give the people words to express their feelings and thus receive salvation.
On the surface, this sounds like a good enough idea. However, I believe in practice there are a few issues. I’ll explain them here, in something resembling order.
- The sinner’s prayer may not be 100% theologically accurate. For example, what is meant by “invite You to come into my heart and life?” Does Jesus need an invitation? When we are called to believe in Jesus Christ, is “You died for my sins” part of what we are specifically told to believe? Regardless, I don’t think the sinner’s prayer is bad theologically, even if it’s not perfect. This part is the least of my concerns.
- The strategy assumes that salvation requires explicit verbal articulation. We believe that salvation comes by faith alone. Faith is a posture of the soul at heart, and so begins even before words come out. If the Holy Spirit is so moving in someone as to inspire faith and repentance, they are saved, whether they make what we would recognize as a sinner’s prayer or not. This isn’t to say that their faith is silent, but that the Spirit’s work is deeper than words and complete even without them. This isn’t to say that repenting sinners don’t or shouldn’t pray for salvation, but that their conversion is not dependent upon it.
- The call to pray this can be manipulative and/or misleading. This isn’t a problem with the sinner’s prayer itself, but with its presentation. Often the prayer is preceded by an impassioned plea for everyone to pray along, whether saved or lost. It is usually done in emotional revival type settings. This can often result in people who have no personal conviction praying just out of the moment or to fit in with everyone else, and still thinking they’ve been saved. Since the preacher or whoever usually says that if you mean it you’re saved, people who’ve prayed and felt something, of the Spirit or not, think that means they’re all set.
- It gives many a false sense of assurance. Especially in Baptist contexts, where we generally believe in eternal security, we tend to try hard to give people assurance of salvation. The problem is we often try to ground this assurance in a particular memory of a conversion event like praying the sinner’s prayer. However, as I mentioned previously, many people pray the sinner’s prayer for reasons unrelated to actual conversion. Yet we often try to tie their security to that event. This is not Biblical. Confession: my memory of my conversion is almost completely gone. I was young, and I don’t really know how everything happened. Here’s what I know: I was blind but now I see. The moment at which I gained sight isn’t the point. The fact that sight now lives in place of blindness is what really matters. Sinner’s prayer events tend to hurt the focus when we should really be pointing people to their union with Christ’s atoning work by faith expressed in faithfulness for assurance.
Ultimately, I don’t oppose the content of the sinner’s prayer, nor do I oppose praying something along those lines when calling on the name of Jesus for salvation. But there are dangers to a believe-pray-secured conversion mentality and methodology which we must be aware of and avoid.