A few years ago, J. D. Greear wrote an article in which he declared to "stop asking Jesus into your heart.” Greear’s point was much more about the security of salvation and the basis for our salvation than it was about the sinner’s prayer per se. What he was communicating, and rightly so, is that we need to stop putting our faith in a prayer or the words of a prayer to save us. For him personally, he struggled with the security of his salvation because he was not sure if he had prayed the right prayer. As Greear says, “I believe it is time to put the shorthand aside. We need to preach salvation by repentance before God and faith in the finished work of Christ.” And I agree fully with his conclusion.
Ephesians 1:13 teaches us the process of salvation: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” We hear the gospel (the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and our response of repentance and faith), we believe, and we are saved. In fact, the point of the first fourteen verses of Ephesians 1 is that salvation is all about God and up to God, not us. If God did not initiate, provide, and hold salvation, none of us would be saved.
So where does the sinner’s prayer play a part in a person’s conversion? When I came to Christ, I did not know all the Baptist trappings of salvation. No one had ever witnessed to me. Even though I lived in the back door of a Southern Baptist Church, no one ever visited my home or invited me to church. I heard the gospel on TV through the preaching of Billy Graham. When I trusted in Christ, I did not know the “sinner’s prayer.” I had never heard of it. I remember having a pastor tell me one time that I was not saved because I had not prayed the sinner’s prayer. He was gravely mistaken. My salvation was based upon my trust in Christ as Savior, not upon any words that I used.
- Obviously, there have been those who have misused the sinner’s prayer. This fact is true with many things we try to do for God. It is true about the invitation, the sinner’s prayer, evangelism, and discipleship. The first two churches I joined after I was saved never even asked me about my salvation experience. I was 22 years old before anyone actually talked with me about my salvation (outside of me sharing my testimony at my ordination and subsequent church pastorates in college). So if I’ve had such bad experiences with these things, why do I support them? Let me give you several reasons.
1. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If I rejected something just because I saw someone not follow correct procedure, I would never do anything in the church. I would not worship, pray, study, evangelize, or go to church. When we see abuses or misuses, we need to correct them; not reject them.
2. I believe that the sinner’s prayer has biblical foundations. We unfortunately (and for lack of better terms) use the terminology of “the sinner’s prayer.” That nomenclature can lead to the belief that there are specific words that must be prayed – a magical set of words. We understand that idea is totally and absolutely false, but the use of prayer in asking God for salvation and expressing repentance and faith are biblical. Romans 10:13 states, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” The question begs to be asked, “How do we call on His name?” For me, the easiest answer is prayer. Whether it is silent, spoken with the heart, verbalized out-loud, in a crowd, or alone, when we talk to God, we pray. Thus, verbally expressing faith and thanksgiving is praying a “sinner’s prayer.”
3. The sinner’s prayer can be a beginning form of discipleship. I have witnessed to people who were as far away from God as I was when I came to Christ. They do not understand all of what it means to repent, believe, pray, trust, or follow Christ. If they were to be told to ask God, many of them would not know where to start. Therefore, leading them in a specific prayer is teaching them how to pray. It is demonstrating to new Christians that they can approach God personally, and the salvation prayer gives them a foundation upon which to build.
4. We are people of physical remembrance. I got married a long time ago. The reason I know that I got married is because I was there. I repeated vows to my wife, and I have pictures to prove it. We have to clarify the terminologies that we use, because I believe that we confuse people and mistakenly identify the wrong term with the wrong action. For example:
· The public profession of faith is not walking an aisle. It is baptism. Baptism is another of those physical/visible acts that are essential to a believer’s well-being and security. Baptists have downplayed the importance of baptism because of the mistaken theology of the baptismal regenerationists.
· We talk about going to church (I used that term earlier in this blog). The fact is, however, we do not go to church. We are the church. We gather to worship, but the church is not a location or a building. It is (she is) the bride of Christ and God’s people.
· The actual moment of salvation is not when the prayer is prayed but when the heart is surrendered and the person believes. That action could take place during the middle of a sermon, when a public invitation is given, or when a person wrestles with the claims of Christ during the night. The prayer, then, allows the person to verbalize to God what has already happened in the heart.
Praying a verbal, personally expressed prayer can be useful when a new Christian experiences attacks on his/her salvation experience. We are all attacked by Satan, but those attacks and temptations vary among us. I have never doubted my salvation, but I know many people who have struggled with that attack. One of the ways to help them find hope and security is by walking back to the point when they trusted in Christ. The sinner’s prayer can be one of those access points. Baptism is also important at this point. What we must understand, though, is that we are people who remember things. The more physical, mental, emotional, and personal the event was, the more we remember it.
I have a deep appreciation for those who have called into question the need for, theological foundation of, and proper use of the sinner’s prayer. I have found that, when I talk with someone rather than down to or at someone, we are closer in theology than we think. I am convinced, though, that the sinner’s prayer is still a legitimate practice in leading someone to personally repent of his/her sins and to surrender to Christ as Savior and Lord and in helping that person understand what God has done for them through Christ’s death on the cross. It is a first step of discipleship, and it allows a person to call upon Christ to save them. To call people to a make a decision for Christ is not unbiblical. Jesus cried out among the Jews who were in the midst of celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37, CSB). In that verse, Jesus includes action that is necessary for a people to have their thirst quenched. They must know that they are thirsty; they must come; and they must drink. When we understand the claims of Christ, there is always a proper reaction demanded. In other words, we cannot just acknowledge the Jesus is God. Knowing His Deity and sacrifice demands that we respond to Him. That reaction is crying out to God to save us.
Perhaps it is proper to conclude with this understanding. While the sinner’s prayer is not a biblical mandate nor a biblical prohibition, and while salvation occurs because of the biblical demands of repentance and faith, could it be possible that the sinner’s prayer is more accurately seen as a response of thanksgiving for what God has done in a person’s life through Christ? Can the moment of that conversion be when that person verbalizes the prayer? Yes, but the actual moment of salvation could take place prior to that prayer. With children raised by practicing Christian parents, salvation is very much a process as much as it is a moment. I like the sinner’s prayer because it allows the person to speak to God what is or has taken place in a person’s heart and will. It gives us that moment in time. For a person who struggles with satanic attack on the security of the believer, having a moment in time provides a very positive reaffirmation of the all-sufficiency of Christ’s death. The prayer, then, becomes a positive rather than a negative.
If someone objects to the sinner’s prayer because of its abuse, I applaud them. We must not continue bad practice or theology just to maintain the status quo. Let’s also, though, give each other the grace to practice evangelism in ways that bring people to a genuine faith in Christ. Supposedly one day a woman criticized D. L. Moody for his methods of evangelism. He asked her, “How do you do it?” She replied, “I don’t do it.” And Moody responded, “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
 J. D. Greear, “Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart,” online, available at: https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/stop-asking-jesus-your-heart/
 James S. Hewett, ed., Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1988), 178.