The “sinner’s prayer” is quite popular in contemporary American Christianity. Basically, it’s the concept that a preacher, usually at the end of his message, asks his audience to close their eyes, bow their heads, and repeat a prayer of salvation after him. Typically it goes something like this:
“Father, I know that I have broken your laws and my sins have separated me from you. I am truly sorry, and now I want to turn away from my past sinful life toward you. Please forgive me, and help me avoid sinning again. I believe that your son, Jesus Christ died for my sins, was resurrected from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward. Please send your Holy Spirit to help me obey You, and to do Your will for the rest of my life. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”
Despite its popularity, the “sinner’s prayer” is not immune to criticism. Several concerns should be raised pertaining to its legitimacy. Here are five of those concerns:
1. Lack of Biblical and Historical Support
First, there is virtually no biblical or historical support for the “sinner’s prayer.” Many people are surprised that the prayer isn’t actually found in the Bible at all. It’s so popular that it simply has to be in there, right? But one searches in vain to find any biblical support for the “sinner’s prayer” by way of either pattern or encouragement. There is no biblical warrant for it. It is never mentioned in Scripture. No biblical character ever prays anything like it. No biblical text even implies that we should use it.
Therefore, we should think carefully about using the “sinner’s prayer” in our ministries. Furthermore, no one in the history of the church used the prayer until the early twentieth century. For 1,900 years no one said it. Church history and tradition are not authoritative in an ultimate sense, but we should still think twice before we invent a new practice which has never before been used. The fact that the “sinner’s prayer” has no biblical or historical support (at least for the first nineteen centuries in the history of the church) should cause us some concern.
2. Tendency toward Emotional Manipulation
Second, the use of the “sinner’s prayer” tends to be an emotionally manipulative practice. I’ve sat through lessons in which the preacher, after pouring his heart out, asks everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes.
Cue the music.
All around, emotions run high.
With heartstrings firmly pulled, commence the prayer.
And this is classic emotional manipulation. The preacher seeks to produce an emotional response in his audience such that they are induced to repeat the mantra after him. To produce the desired results, the preacher fixates all his efforts on the emotions (often in opposition to the minds) of those in his audience. This should raise serious concerns for Christians who genuinely want to disciple people to know the one true and living God.
One caveat is in order here. I am not condemning all preachers who utilize the “sinner’s prayer” in their ministry. I am not calling into question the motives or sincerity behind their efforts. I also don’t have any problem whatsoever with emotions, so long as they are rightly informed by a genuine knowledge of God.
However, the “sinner’s prayer” produces an unhealthy reliance on emotion. I’ve heard of many people who said the “sinner’s prayer” five, six, ten times because they were unsure that God loved them each time. But at the bottom of why they felt like that, you will find that their emotional “high” was gone. The emotions they had when they initially said the prayer eventually dissipated. They were subsequently tossed into the sea of uncertainty, where waves crashed around them and dashed all hope that God might love them. The “sinner’s prayer,” which promised so much at first, actually seems to be the source of a great deal of confusion in the lives of those who pray it. The prayer implicitly communicates that God loves you so long as you continue in your current emotional state. As soon as those emotions disappear, however, doubt makes itself at home in your heart.
3. False Idea of What It Means to “Be Saved”
Third, the “sinner’s prayer” is a product of false ideas of what it means to “be saved.” There is no shortage of biblical and theological ignorance in our current cultural context. Ask ten professing Christians what it means to “be saved,” and you will receive ten different answers. In this climate the “sinner’s prayer” has flourished. Preachers who utilize the prayer frequently imply that saying it makes you saved: “Repeat this prayer after me, and you will be saved.”
But this couldn’t really be any further from the truth. A few rhetorical questions will demonstrate my point: “How was anyone in the Bible saved if the prayer isn’t even mentioned there?” “How did anyone get saved before the ‘sinner’s prayer’ was invented in the early twentieth century?” “Why should we continue with something that is neither mentioned nor encouraged in Scripture?”
Furthermore, those who say the prayer typically rely on the fact that they said the prayer to know they’re saved: “How do I know I’m saved? I said the prayer!” But this is a very dangerous thing on which to stake your salvation. Perhaps those who advocate for using the “sinner’s prayer” would object to me calling it a “work,” but relying for our salvation on something that we have done (i.e., praying the prayer, walking the aisle, signing the card, etc.) rather than relying solely upon the perfectly sufficient and finished work of Christ in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and present intercession seems to me to be a bit foolish in the end.
4. Problems of False Assurance and No Assurance
Fourth, because the “sinner’s prayer” is produced by false ideas of what it means to “be saved,” the prayer produces false assurance of salvation in those who pray it. False assurance is the idea that someone thinks they genuinely know God in a saving way, even though they don’t. Paul says that there are those who “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). How true is this in our day as well. Saying the “sinner’s prayer” does not actually save anyone, and therefore it is disingenuous at best to act as if it did. But this is exactly what we see happening, and this practice produces people who think they truly know God when they really don’t.
But there’s also the problem of having no assurance at all. Think again of those who have prayed the prayer multiple times, each time expecting to be “re-saved.” Those who say the prayer fluctuate between having false assurance and no assurance, and therefore think they need to repeat the prayer again and again. But if a good theology of salvation was taught (namely, that a prayer never saved anyone; that the person and work of Jesus Christ is sufficient to save all who turn away from themselves, repent of their sin, and trust in Christ alone), these problems would be rectified to a great extent.
5. False View of the Sovereignty of God in Salvation
Finally, the “sinner’s prayer” diminishes the sovereignty and glory of God in salvation. For example, the prayer assumes that sinners have the ability in themselves to turn to God in faith and repentance. Not only does this assumption take away from the glory of God in salvation, but it directly contradicts what the Bible teaches: “You were dead in [your] trespasses and sins…But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1, 4-5). Sinners are spiritually dead (i.e., unable to turn to God) and need God to make them alive. In this way, God demonstrates his sovereignty over all things, including our salvation, and therefore He deserves all the glory in that work of salvation. Why, then, do we act like saying a prayer is what saves people? To say this is to strip God of his deserved glory.
Perhaps the prayer was invented out of our desperate need to control all things, especially our salvation. But the repeated emphasis of Scripture is that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). Indeed, “salvation belongs to the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). This doesn’t leave a lot of room for us to boast, and in that way we know we’re on the right track: “because of him you are in Christ Jesus…’Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1: 30-31).
With these concerns in mind, we do well to consider the legitimacy of the “sinner’s prayer.”
Thanks for reading. Have any additional thoughts? Leave a comment below if you feel so inclined.