Monthly Archives: January 2011

The “sinner’s prayer” is a very popular tradition in evangelical churches. It is so widespread, in fact, that for many it has become an integral, necessary part of the gospel message itself, so much so that any evangelism that lacks it will most likely be regarded with suspicion.

For those who don’t know, the sinner’s prayer is a prewritten prayer for salvation that often appears at the end of gospel tracts or is provided by a preacher at the close of a presentation of the gospel message. The idea is that if an unbeliever prays the prayer word for word sincerely, he or she will be saved.

I imagine a whole book could be written about this method, but I just want to touch on a few issues. First, the Bible says nothing about it either explicitly or implicitly. This biblical silence on the sinner’s prayer should prompt us to wonder where it comes from. To be fair, though, this silence alone is not enough to make it wrong. After all, the Bible is silent on many other popular aspects of Christian culture, such as Sunday School and Christmas trees, yet we continue with those.

Second, this method is a relatively recent development in evangelical circles. Compared to other Christian teachings that have been around for the roughly 2,000 years of church history, the sinner’s prayer is really a new kid on the block—a theological novelty. As such, it was never passed on by the apostles. Not only that, but if this technique were really as vital as many make it out to be, one has to wonder how the church got along without it for so many centuries.

Third, it invites the wrong kind of assurance. True assurance of salvation is not based on a one-time prayer made in the heat of a past moment but rather on the presence and increase of spiritual fruit in a person’s life. In other words, biblical assurance stems from a sustained pattern, not a single prayer. If a single prayer gave us assurance of salvation, then we would not be commanded in Scripture to make our calling and election sure by producing an increasing abundance of spiritual fruit in our lives (2 Peter 1:3–11).

Finally, leading someone in such a prayer could really be an attempt to do what only the Holy Spirit can do: draw someone to Christ. Like it or not, we have no power whatsoever to draw others to Christ. Our job is to sow the seed of the Gospel; the condition of the soil is up to God. When that soil is good, we will see fruit, and it will grow. Regenerated people will pray to Christ in contrition and brokenness over their sins. You can be assured of that. They will repent. They will come to Christ sincerely. Their new nature will lead them to do those things, and even more. If they do not have a new nature—if they are not born again—then all the sinner’s prayers in the world will amount to nothing. Consider this parable that Jesus told:

“The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26–29, NASB)

Just like the seed sower in this parable, we do not know how the kingdom of God grows; our job is simply to sow the seed, not to try to make it grow. That growth comes from God alone.

I have no doubt that God is fully able to convert someone through a sinner’s prayer, but I think it must be used very wisely and only in conjunction with certain teaching. Such accompanying teaching should include the following.

  • The gospel should be carefully and clearly explained.
  • The cost involved in following Christ should be conveyed (count the cost!).
  • It should be emphasized that a single prayer cannot be relied upon for salvation. Only Christ can be relied on for salvation, and He must be relied on every day for the rest of one’s life.

There is only one means of atoning for sin, and that is the blood of Christ. Faith is like a hand that receives that blood and all its benefits, but the hand itself does not do any saving. It is only instrumental, and Scripture bears that out:

being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith [διὰ πίστεως]. (Romans 3:24-25a, NASB, emphasis added)

When the Greek preposition dia is followed by the genitive case (as in the bracketed Greek words at the end of the quote), it indicates instrumentality, the means through which something happens.

Faith cannot appease God’s wrath for sin. Only the blood of Christ can do that. It’s the difference between a cause and an agent. To use an analogy, if you are underwater and breathe air through a straw, what is the thing your body needs to remain alive—the air or the straw? It needs the air. It needs the straw, too, but only as an agent through which the air is breathed in. The straw, in and of itself, cannot directly keep your body alive because the straw does not keep your lungs going. It is the air coming through the straw that does that. If you were in outer space and you had a hose to connect you to an oxygen tank, but the tank were floating out of reach of the hose, trying to breathe through the hose would do you no good at all. It’s similar when we talk of faith and the blood of Christ. Faith—like the straw and the hose—is the conduit through which the benefits of Christ’s saving blood come to us, but that precious blood—like the air—is what actually saves.

It should be pointed out, though, that like all analogies, these ones eventually break down and can be easily misunderstood. They do not mean that faith is some kind of work that earns salvation. Faith is merely passive; it simply receives. Another analogy is that of an eye: The eye does not create the light or deserve the light; it simply receives it. In addition, faith is not something that a person can do on his or her own. Scripture clearly says that faith is a gift from God; it is not something that one can create inside oneself.

Scripture makes it pretty clear that our assurance is based on the presence of spiritual fruit in our lives as well as a pattern of spiritual growth and increasing maturity:

For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. (Hebrews 6:7-9, ESV, emphasis added)

But what are these fruits? That also is made clear:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-11, ESV, emphasis added)

Unless I’m misinterpreting this passage, the text does two things, in general: 1) It commands us to make our calling and election sure (i.e., to seek assurance), and 2) it tells us how to go about obtaining that certainty. Since what Peter described here is a process, it seems clear that gaining such certainty is not instantaneous. It is acquired only after developing a pattern of increasing holiness, Christlikeness and maturity.

I cannot imagine that God would give anyone assurance of salvation who is stagnating in their Christian life, failing to grow or, even worse, taking steps backward. There is only one proper direction for the true Christian: forward into more and more Christlikeness. If that forward progression is not happening, we have good reason to doubt our salvation.