The Sinner’s Prayer–Should we use it or not?

Should evangelism involve the use of what has come to be known as “The Sinner’s Prayer?” This question was recently debated and resolved by the Southern Baptist Convention. The delegates voted to affirm its use in evangelism. Of course, that settles the issue once and for all. If the Convention says it is right, it must be right.

I personally have some issues with using a “canned prayer” in “canned evangelism.” Let me just state a few observations and note what I believe are the implications of this practice.

1. I believe we are to find the pattern for evangelism in the Scriptures. How did Jesus, the apostles, and biblical evangelists seek to bring their hearers into a saving relationship with God?

A. One characteristic that becomes clear immediately was they did not practice cookie-cutter evangelism. Jesus doesn’t deal with Nicodemus the same way he does with the sinful woman at the well. When the eunuch of Ethiopia said to Philip “see here is water, what hinders me from being baptized?” Philip didn’t say, “Wait! First, you have to pray the sinner’s prayer.” He simply said, “If you believe, you may.”

B. We do not find a single example in the Scriptures of anyone asking a sinner to repeat a prayer after an evangelistic appeal in an effort to “draw the net.” Evangelists are not called on to “close the deal” (Of course, I know you can’t count them and get credit for it in the associational record unless you get a decision. Their names can’t be recorded in heaven until you get it into the associational record). Closing the deal is God’s work; our work is to “hold forth the word of truth.”

C, The term “The sinner’s prayer” suggests that there is one prayer every sinner must pray if he is to become a follower of Christ. The term is not “A sinner’s prayer” i.e., one of many, but “THE sinner’s prayer,” suggesting that every sinner’s prayer must have the same content. If Nicodemus had prayed aloud, he might have confessed his sin of self-righteous pride and self-reliance. If the woman at the well had prayed aloud, she might have confessed her sins of idolatry and adultery. If the rich young ruler had been converted and prayed aloud, he might have confessed his sins of self-righteousness and covetousness. The point is, there is no “one size fits all” sinner’s prayer.

D. If we have done our job of presenting the gospel thoroughly, it will not be necessary to tell sinners what should be in their hearts and on their lips as they rest in Christ for justification before God. According to Romans 10:9, all sinners must confess with their mouths is that Jesus is Lord. We are never told sinners must pray anything. May a sinner use the words of this suggested prayer (the so-called sinner’s prayer) to express his faith in Christ? Of course! Must anyone do so in order to become a Christian? No! If a sinner should repeat this prayer are we warranted in assuring him that he is now a child of God? NEVER! Conversion is not merely a matter of making a decision or praying a prayer. It is a matter of God causing the light of the new creation established by the redemptive work of Christ to shine into our hearts “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6). If you meditate on the profound implications of that statement “the knowledge of God’s glory” just a little, you will begin to realize how superficial, cheap and tawdry are the methods of the modern “evangelist.” The methods of the Southern Baptists are in perfect accord with their message. Their methods are shallow because their message is shallow. Arminianism is Arminianism. If salvation is ultimately in the sinner’s hands, we must use every cheap trick in the book to get him to make the almighty decision. When I was in sales and the time came to sign the contract, we didn’t ask the client to sign; we simply handed him the pen. Great sales technique! But, evangelism isn’t sales. Since salvation is of the Lord, we don’t need to “close the deal.” If the God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness does not shine the light of his glory into our hearts, repeating all the prayers in the world will not save us, and failure to repeat the words of some formula will not condemn us.

2. “Calling on the name of the Lord” is not the same as repeating the words of a prayer after someone. Those who contend for this modern innovation love to point to Romans 10:13 for their justification. Some are even so bold as to tell sinners they must never question the reality of their sonship, however little evidence they may have of saving faith. They have “prayed to receive Jesus” and to question their standing would be to call God a liar. God promised that every one who has called on the name of the Lord (in their view–repeated the words of this prayer after some “soul-winner”) will be saved. They have “prayed the prayer” and now they are eternally secure no matter what they do. I wish I were making this up; I’m not.

What, then, does the apostle Paul mean when he talks about “calling” on the name of the Lord? Calling on the name of the Lord means to call on the Lord himself. This cry springs at the same time from a sense of desperation and confidence. He who calls has despaired of making himself better, freeing himself from the entanglements of his sins, or rising to meet God’s perfect standard of righteousness. If God does not come to his aid and deliver him from himself and his sins, he will be doomed. This call rises from the sinner’s profound sense of helplessness, guilt and despair in himself. At the same time, it is a call of confidence in the promises of a covenant keeping God. He who calls becomes a worshiper of God. He basks in the revelation of the glory of God in the fact of Jesus Christ and trusts that God will, according to his promise, save hm for Jesus’ sake. Out of his profound need, he cries to God for mercy, worships him for who he has revealed himself to be, and trusts him for grace and blessing.

Robert Haldane wrote concerning what it means to call on the name of the Lord,

It denotes a full and entire communion with God. He who calls on the name of the Lord, profoundly humbles himself before God, recognizes His power, adores His majesty, believes His promises, confides in His goodness, hopes in his mercy, honors Him as his God, and loves Him as his Saviour. It supposes that this invocation is inseparable from all other parts of religion. To call on the name of the Lord is to place ourselves under His protection, and to have recourse to Him for His aid (Haldane, Romans, p. 511).

To me that sounds altogether different from repeating a prayer at the end of an evangelistic presentation. Southern Baptists, along with a multitude of others, need to learn what responsibility we have in evangelism and what God must do if our efforts are to be successful. We must proclaim the gospel and pray for God to make our preaching effective; only he can cause sinners to call on him and be saved.


1 Response to “The Sinner’s Prayer–Should we use it or not?”

  1. August 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Excellent post. I am waiting for Chaplain approval and sponsorship to teach a course in evangelism based on material in a truth For Life series “Crossing the Barriers. In it, Allistair Begg recommends, after a clear presentation of the gospel, asking if the one with whom you have been presenting Christ might be reasy to ‘respond to the gospel message heard’, or if he in ‘still on the road’. Interesting approach. There is an underlying hint that God has been at work in a human heart and no hint of trying to ‘close the deal’ (God’s business).

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