The Perils of the Sinner’s Prayer and a Better Way

If you listen to many evangelistic presentations today, whether corporate in a church setting or one-on-one in street evangelism, you will notice that the goal of the presentation is often to lead the unbeliever to pray “the sinner’s prayer.” The sinner’s prayer is typically a short prayer that expresses the unbeliever’s desire to have his or her sins forgiven and to receive eternal life because of Jesus’ death on the cross. On the surface, the idea that a new believer would confess her sins to the Lord and ask to be forgiven based on the finished work of Christ is expected (actually, that all believers would do this regularly is expected). And yet, so often, the sinner’s prayer ever so subtly leads unbelievers away from a biblical understanding of the Gospel and salvation.

One of the most shocking truths to many contemporary evangelists is that not one evangelistic encounter in the New Testament culminates in someone saying a prayer for salvation. Despite the complete absence of anything remotely like the sinner’s prayer, thousands of conversions occurred in the New Testament period. Let’s look at some examples.

Immediately following the very first sermon in church history, the hearers ask, “Brethren, what shall we do” (Acts 2:37)? Peter responds by saying, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Peter does not lead the people in “the sinner’s prayer.” He doesn’t even mention prayer! He exhorts the people to repent and then be baptized because their sins have been forgiven in Christ if they do in fact repent.

In Acts 8, Philip the evangelist encounters an Ethiopian eunuch reading the book of Isaiah. After Philip preached Jesus to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:35), the eunuch asked, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized” (Acts 8:36)? The text doesn’t say whether the eunuch prayed to receive salvation, but it does emphasize his baptism. Philip’s message must have been like that of Peter on Pentecost, a call to repentance and faith demonstrating itself in the obedience of baptism.

In Acts 16, we encounter two individuals who receive salvation. The first is Lydia, and Luke says that “the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). The next verse adds, “And when she and her household had been baptized…” Once again, what is emphasized is not a salvation prayer but the obedience of baptism. Later, when Paul and Silas are in prison, the Lord shakes the prison with an earthquake, resulting ultimately in the jailer asking Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)? Paul’s answer is most instructive: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). A couple verses later we read, “And he [the jailer] took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.” The elements of faith and baptism again are central. Paul does not respond to the jailer by telling him if he wants to be saved to pray a prayer. He tells him to believe in the Lord Jesus. He preaches to him the Gospel of justification by faith alone. And the immediate expression of that faith is baptism.

I can remember as a kid praying the sinner’s prayer over and over again, each night before I fell asleep, wondering if I had said it right, or if I had really meant it, or if God had really heard it. The sinner’s prayer was a source of torment and terror to me. It had been presented by well-meaning leaders as a sort of magic phrase to say to receive salvation. What was not emphasized was faith and baptism (I was not baptized until I was 20, although I became a believer at least 10 years before then). I can remember sitting through altar call after altar call whispering the prayer, just in case it hadn’t “stuck” the previous week. “What can it hurt to pray it again?” I thought, just to be safe. In all of this, salvation became justification by works, specifically, the work of prayer, praying the sinner’s prayer. Following each altar call, the pastor would pronounce with great confidence, “If you just prayed that prayer and meant it, you are now a member of the kingdom of God,” hanging the entire assurance of our salvation on a formulaic prayer and our sincerity in praying it.

There is a better, more biblical way. There is a way that will not make sinners think salvation is obtained by reciting a magic phrase. There is a way that will not reduce justification to dependence on how sincerely I prayed a prayer. There is a way that lines up with the way of the Apostles and evangelists in the New Testament. That way is to tell sinners to believe in the Lord Jesus and to show their faith in baptism. After all, we are justified by faith, not by prayer. And the first step of obedience is baptism. Today, I derive great assurance from these two things: I believe in Jesus, and I see the evidence of it in the Spirit’s work in my life, beginning with my baptism in Jesus’ name. I don’t say “the sinner’s prayer” anymore. And I don’t encourage others to say it. I do pray, of course. I encourage other believers to pray as well. But when it comes to entering the kingdom of God, I tell others to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus. When they believe, they are to be baptized as soon as possible. And they are to pray without ceasing, not to get saved, but because God has saved them through faith and faith alone.

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