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.

4 Responses to Problems with the "Sinner’s Prayer"

  • Darlene says:

    Some believe that regeneration precedes faith while others do not. I suppose it boils down to whether one is a Calvinist, an Arminian, or something else entirely. I think God uses various means to bring others to Him and that there is not one right way, but many. Some are raised in a Christian family and have no recollection of ever saying a Sinner’s Prayer, but nonetheless they have faith in Christ. Others are baptized as infants and slowly as they grew they became quite aware of the presence of God and began calling out to Him regularly. Others were raised in non-Christian homes where they never heard anything about Christ, but later on called out to Him in faith, trusting that He would answer them. I’m sure there are many more scenarios I could give. The problem with many who are in the Sinner’s Prayer camp is that often they believe that is all that is required of them – a once-saved-always-saved mentality.

    With that said, I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and that was how Christ began to reveal Himself personally to me. However, I argued for several hours beforehand. Furthermore, I had been praying for three months prior, calling out to what I believed was the thin air, asking God if He existed to show Himself to me. Having been raised as an atheist/agnostic, I had no understanding about God whatsoever. The Lord used a book I had bought at a garage sale, “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas Kempis. As I read that book, I wanted what he had. Oddly enough, some years later I discovered Kempis was a Catholic. Not surprising I suppose, since there were no Protestants at that time it was written. :)

  • Jeremy says:

    Hi Darlene,

    Thanks again for your thoughts. :) I used the Imitation of Christ as my daily devotional in my early days as a Christian, along with a New Testament & Psalms. There’s a lot of strong wisdom in Thomas a Kempis’ book.

    While I do believe that God can, and often does, work *in spite of* our means because He is sovereign and omnipotent, that should never be taken as a justification for using questionable means. We are still responsible to present the gospel clearly and responsibly to unbelievers based on what God has revealed rather than on a relatively recent, man-made method that has no support in Scripture. The use of the sinner’s prayer did not begin until very late in church history.

    The pitfall that the majority of Christians are falling into nowadays is to substitute personal experience for divine revelation, and perhaps nowhere is that more clearly seen than in evangelism. From what I have heard from various Christians, most people seem to determine what constitutes biblical evangelism by mere experience and personal opinion instead of what God says in Scripture. No wonder there are so many unbiblical methods of evangelism being used out there. Experience trumps Scripture for many people, and to me that is dangerous and perhaps even reflects a low view of revelation. I refuse to evaluate any evangelism based on how I was personally saved because my personal experience–though very meaningful and important to me–does not carry authority. Instead, I evaluate any given evangelistic method based on the divine authority of Scripture. Christianity is based on an objective text–the revelation of God–and not on subjective perceptions and feelings.

  • This is very good, how do you suggest a situation where other evangelists want to labor with you in sharing the Gospel, but they use the sinners prayer to lead people to Christ? Thanks in advance.

  • Jeremy says:

    It depends on whether I’m running the ministry or not. If I were in charge, I would not allow sinner’s prayers to be used. If I were not in charge, then it would be different. I might do outreach for a time with people who use the sinner’s prayer, and I would probably not say anything at first, especially if I were a guest or new to their group. In time, though, I would probably discuss it with them and share my concerns. More than likely I would not continue with them because I think that ultimately the sinner’s prayer comes from the heretical teaching of semipelagianism, which was condemned by the Second Council of Orange as heresy. Here is a text about it from wikipedia:

    “In Semipelagian thought, man doesn’t have such an unrestrained capacity, but man and God could cooperate to a certain degree in this salvation effort: ***man can (unaided by grace) make the first move toward God,*** and God then increases and guards that faith, completing the work of salvation.[5] This teaching is distinct from the traditional patristic doctrine of synergeia, in which the process of salvation is cooperation between God and man from start to finish.” (emphasis mine)

    The sinner’s prayer makes sense only if that statement, “man can (unaided by grace) make the first move toward God” is true. In other words, the belief that man can make the first step toward God apart from grace is why people use the sinner’s prayer. If they believed the opposite–that man is totally unable to take that first step–then they wouldn’t use it because they would be waiting for God to initiate.

    It could be that such people are not even aware of the heretical source of their method. If you made them aware of that, though, they might take a second look at it and be willing to leave it behind.

    Jeremy

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