For about the last 100 years of church history, among a narrow theological band of Christianity, the method of salvation has been centered on people praying “the sinner’s prayer”.
For many of the people in this brand of Christianity, praying the prayer is the only reliable way to know that you are saved. Testimonies are centered on itl; evangelistic methods built around it; theological systems pivot on it.
Again, this has pretty much been true only among evangelicals for the past century — mostly in the West. Other “brands” of Christianity have looked to things like baptism (infant or adult), confirmation, formal conversion rites, etc. For evangelicals, it has been “praying the prayer”.
What is the prayer?
It varies, but roughly follows this outline: “Lord, I am a sinner without hope. But you are holy and perfect and loving… and Jesus I believe that you are who say you are and that you did what you said you did. I believe I can be forgiven by you because of what you did on the cross for me. So I commit my life to following you. Amen.”
It is not a bad prayer. It is essentially modeled after the most basic of “sinner’s prayers” found in the scriptures: “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
The problem is that evangelism has now become for too many people just a matter of getting people to “pray the prayer”. You are not saved until you pray the prayer and getting people to pray the prayer is really the primary goal. So we get children to pray the prayer. And teenagers. And all ages. And call celebrate each time because “one that was lost has now been found.”
But there are a lot of problems with this methodology:
1. JESUS DIDN’T USE IT.
When it comes to evangelism, I find it helpful to study the approach of the great evangelist… that is, Jesus. Jesus never taught that salvation was received by praying a prayer, welcoming Him into your heart, or any of those other terms we use. In fact, Jesus’s evangelistic interactions with people are all remarkably unique. But if there is any pattern to be found, it is in the call to “follow me”. For Jesus, actually following Him, doing what He did, going where He went, loving people the way He loved them… this was evidence of salvation — not that you had said certain words at a youth camp 15 years ago.
2. IT DOESN’T WORK.
We know the “sinner’s prayer” doesn’t work theologically and it doesn’t work methodologically. In terms of method, we all know many people who have “prayed the prayer” at some point in their lives (or multiple times in their lives) but have never become (or are not currently) disciples of Jesus. But more importantly, it doesn’t work theologically. Theologically, Jesus saves. Period. Add nothing. Prayers don’t save, good works don’t save, baptism doesn’t save. Attending the right church doesn’t save. Only Jesus saves. Period. Add nothing.
3. IT IS BASED ON A WORKS THEOLOGY.
Most of us within the evangelical tradition (and, more broadly, the reformed tradition) affirm that salavtion is by faith and grace alone — not by any works or deeds, that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). But, in the evangelical world, we have simply replaced the idea of works. We have swapped “good deeds” for “good words” — we have created a culture that believes (though does not profess) that we are saved by right words, not right deeds. But in both cases — words and deeds — the culminating action is taken by us, the focus is on us and what we do. But the Gospel is clear: salvation is a gift of God and we add nothing to that gift. We do not earn it through deed, creed or proper profession or “praying the prayer”. Simply put, grace plus anything is not grace at all.
4. IT GIVES FALSE ASSURANCES.
When we tell people that “praying the prayer” guarrantees their salvation, we are being disengenuous. Saying thr right words at the right time is not what seals our salvation — and to imply that it does is dangerous and misleading.
5. IT IS AHISTORICAL & UNDERMINES OTHER CHURCHES & TRADITIONS.
It is worth remembering that this is a relatively recent (at least in church history) development. I can’t tell you how many times I have overheard conversations like this:
“Are you a Christian?”
“Yes, I was baptized in my church.”
“But did you pray the prayer?”
“I pray all the time.”
“But did you pray THE prayer?”
“You know… the sinner’s prayer… accepting Jesus into your heart.”
“I’m not sure if I have prayed it that way…”
“Then you might not be saved. Do you want to pray that prayer with me right now…?”
So this person is in a church community, has been baptized, has a prayer life with God… but because they haven’t said the magic words, they might not be saved? This is just not an idea found in historical Christianity or in most denominations.
But there are some good things about it too:
1. IT IS A GOOD PRAYER.
It is actually a very good prayer — and one we should probably all pray on a daily basis. As part of my own prayer like and daily examination of conscience, I pray “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” I also acknowledge and profess Jesus as Lord, Savior and King. I surrender daily to Him, recommitting to follow Him each day. This is the essence of the “sinner’s prayer” (and probably of “the believer’s prayer” too) — and it is a really good prayer to pray. All the elements, by the way, come from The Lord’s Prayer — how Jesus taught us to pray. So it is even a Biblical prayer. It is a good prayer — and one we should all pray daily.
2. IT GIVES PEOPLE A MARKER.
In evangelism, I do think it is very helpful to give people “hinge moments” — markers of before and after. Baptism or taking a first communion can be this hinge. And so can “praying the prayer” or standing up and publicly decalring your faith (an old fashioned “say so”). And this idea is well-rooted in the scriptures. Throughout the Old Testament, God commands people to build altars — essentially piles of rocks found in random places throughout the land. Why? Because they are markers, hinges. Everytime you see that pile of rocks, you remember “ah yes… God was faithful to me that day!” or if you sa the pile that your grandfather built you are reminded too “God is faithful! God works!” The same can be said for having a MOMENT where you mark in your own life that you became a follower of Jesus. And “praying the prayer” provides people a marker, a hinger, an altar-moment to remember. And that is important — as long we use it in this way, and do not try and make it into a magical incantation anymore than we make those altars into super-spiritual magical places. It is only helpful as it serves to remind us of the faithfulness, love and work of God. Not our faithfulness (we are not), not our works (we don’t have enough — ever) and not our love (we only love because He first loved us!).
So what should we do?
1. STOP USING IT.
We should stop using it as evangelistic tool, method and test.
2. KEEP USING IT.
We should keep praying the prayer — maybe even daily!