You will likely be faced with the sinner’s prayer early on in your Christian walk; perhaps on your first day. But what is the sinner’s prayer?

This is the first of a two-part series on salvation: what it is not, and what it is.

The sinner’s prayer is treated as a necessary right of passage, but if you wind up attending a church that treats it only as a get-saved-in-3-easy-steps prayer, then you can easily find yourself in the trap of easy-believism.

You will hear the sinner’s prayer at sermons, worship concerts, on YouTube, and on podcasts. I’ve also seen it handed out on business cards, and very small pamphlets called tracts.

As the sermon is coming to an end, a balanced church will wrap up an edifying message of teaching and building up of its members with a welcoming to its visitors. Then an invitation of some sort to receive Christ will be extended. Here is where there can be trouble.

“If you are that person today, raise your hand. It’s okay; everyone’s head is down, and their eyes are closed. No one can see you but God.

“Now repeat after me.”

Here it comes. The sinner’s prayer.
Teaching styles differ, but these are the common components of this prayer:

  • God, I don’t want to go to hell. I want to go to heaven. I acknowledge that I am a sinner. Please forgive my sins.
  • I believe your Son, Jesus, died for my sins.
  • Thank you for dying for me, Jesus. I repent of my sins.
  • Jesus, please come into my heart.
    …or something like that.

    The sinner’s prayer has become an almost cliché encapsulation of the components of the decision to receive Jesus. But this prayer never saved anybody.

    The components are mostly biblical and mostly essential. My caution is that you not walk away from such teaching with the impression that you are on your way to heaven simply for having recited this prayer. At best, it should represent the beginning of a lifelong commitment to follow and serve Jesus Christ. Not one that ends as the prayer ends.

    “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

    Yes, we must confess what God has done for us and believe it in our hearts. But it is the object of our belief, God’s raising Jesus from the dead and Jesus’ being Lord, that saves us, not the act of our belief.

    There are frequent mentions in the Bible of the importance of our faith (John 1:12, 3:16; Acts 16:31).

    In fact, Jesus repeatedly recognized the importance of someone’s faith (Matthew 8:13, 9:22, 15:28; Luke 7:50, 17:19, 18:42).

    And yes, we must repent of our sins (2 Chronicles 7:14; Matthew 4:17; Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 17:30; Romans 2:4). When we come to grips with who God is and who we are, it is only then that we appreciate the severity of sin and truly desire to turn from it.

    The inviting-Jesus-into-our-hearts part? That’s not too biblical. I’ve heard Revelation 3:20 cited as the reason for this thinking, but that is a stretch at best. (hint: There’s no mention of an invitation or the heart. It was Jesus who knocked.)

    Inviting Jesus into your heart will not save you either.

    The church I first attended as I was coming to Christ was a seeker-friendly church. By that, I mean that – as all churches should – the teaching pastor invited people to accept Christ. But he invited people to come speak individually with the pastors at the front of the church. Unknowingly, I was spared the sinner’s prayer and only learned of it later.

    I was standing before the teaching pastor, (perhaps too) convincingly moved by his message. I explained that I was convinced that I had been wrong all my life about the existence of God. He agreed.

    Rather than yank back on his pole and set the hook in my lip with the sinner’s prayer, he instead asked me if he could pray for me.

    I nodded and assumed that was something he would add to his to-do list; “put in a good word for Brian.” Instead, he held his hand an inch or two above my head, closed his eyes, and just prayed aloud that I would come to realize the wonders of God’s grace. (Now we’re getting somewhere.)

    Looking back, this was a far more constructive prayer – his prayer for me – than would have been a prayer on the part of someone (me) who may never have spoken to God before.

    I spoke of the dangers of an unbalanced church last week in my blog on church shopping. There is danger in a church that is too heavy on church growth and too weak on church strengthening.

    A growth-heavy church will tend to paint a picture that is rosy in all the wrong ways, all in order to attract new believers for all the wrong reasons.

    They may describe “blessings” as:

    • A big house
    • A nice car
    • Toys in the garage
    • Money in the bank
    • Your kids going to nicer schools
      Many falsehoods can be heard from the pulpit of this kind of church:

      • If you have enough faith, you can have whatever you want.
      • Jesus didn’t die so you can be poor all your life.
      • If you are a Christian, you are no longer a sinner.
      • Good things (acts, tithing, service, prayer) will lead to more blessings.
      • If you said the sinner’s prayer just now, you are saved and have eternal life in heaven.
        There are some very well-meaning pastors who will preach to you that Christianity brings joy, peace, love, and blessings. Unfortunately, when they leave out the part that these things are matters of the heart and not of your circumstances and can coexist alongside poverty, terminal illness, or the death of a loved one, the wrong conclusions can often be drawn.

        There is no more important question than “how can I be saved?” The answer determines all of our places in eternity. If the sinner’s prayer fully captured this answer, there would be no need for the New Testament, or – for that matter – the entire Bible.

        So what is the answer?

        Next week, I will answer this question in the second of this two-part series.

        Saved for Later is a blog for the recently – or almost – saved adult. To get more of the foundational truths that we were not taught in childhood, subscribe to this blog. Please ‘like’, comment, and share!

        Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.