Friday, July 6, 2012

Some Reflections on the "Sinner's Prayer"

It appears that the Southern Baptists have, despite their decidedly nonconfessional ethos, become the new Presbyterians.  Conservative Presbyterians, after all, have their hoary Westminster Confession of Faith, which denominations like the PCA have painstakingly exegeted in order to dispel controversy precipitated by such perceived doctrinal threats as the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision (whether or not they have been quite as successful in exegeting both Scripture and the writings of those they perceive as threatening the doctrinal purity of the church is another matter entirely).

The Southern Baptists, it seems, have their own issues and "traditions" they hold dear.  How else does one explain the recent hand wringing of "traditional" Southern Baptists over the recent ascendancy of Calvinism in the denomination?  Even more recently, prominent denominational leaders, led by Eric Hankins, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Oxford, Mississippi (and previously the author of the aforementioned screed against Calvinism), successfully presented a resolution on the so-called "Sinner's Prayer" that was adopted at last month's annual convention.  Why the kerfuffle?  The young and Calvinist pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, David Platt, had had the temerity to question the validity and ultimate effectiveness of the "Sinner's Prayer," labeling it "superstitious" and criticising its standard use of such nonbiblical expressions as "accept Jesus into your heart" and "invite Jesus into your life."  Hankins, for his part, thinks he knows why Platt and other like-minded preachers don't like the prayer: "The real problem that the New Calvinists have with the Sinner's Prayer is that they believe only certain people can come to faith, and they don't want the hopelessly condemned thinking they are saved or joining churches when they actually have no chance for life in Christ."

Leaving aside the question as to how such abject theological ignorance could characterize the pastor of such a prominent church, it is nonetheless true that Hankins has hit upon the real reason Platt has concerns about the prayer: overreliance on the sinner's prayer breeds false assurance and unintentionally fosters unregenerate church membership.

For those who are not assimilated to the evangelical ethos, the so-called "Sinner's Prayer" is the staple of classic evangelistic methodology.  It includes three, and sometimes four, elements: the admission that one is a sinner deserving of hell, confession of one's inadequacy to save oneself by good deeds, an expression of trust in Christ as personal savior by virtue of his death on the cross, and (in most versions) a pledge to obedience, often in the form of an acknowledgement of Christ's "Lordship" over one's life.  In some versions of conservative evangelicalism, the expression of "faith" or "trust" in Jesus is articulated in terms of "asking Jesus into one's heart" (based on Rev 3:20).  In others, such as the circles in which I was raised, the element of Christ's "Lordship" is lopped off as a subsequent stage of one's Christian discipleship because its inclusion would supposedly introduce the element of "works" into salvation, as it were, through the back door.  In large group settings, such as evangelistic rallies, the "Sinner's Prayer" is often enhanced by the added element of "walking the aisle" or raising one's hand to bring home the element of "decision" inherent in the classic evangelical understanding of conversion.

Let me be entirely clear.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the "Sinner's Prayer" so long as its purpose and limitations are carefully understood.  The prayer may indeed facilitate the sinner and would-be convert's mental focus on some of the basic truths of the gospel, thereby reinforcing the noetic content of the message and impressing her sense of individual responsibility before God to respond to the message.  Nevertheless, I stand with Platt and others who have voiced legitimate concerns with the prayer.

1.  There is no Scriptural warrant for the "Sinner's Prayer."  This in itself is not fatal.  Nevertheless, a number of considerations give one pause.  Never do we see Jesus or the apostles encouraging people to pray so as to be "saved."  Even worse is the emotionalistic, pietistic emphasis on "asking Jesus into one's heart" that is part of the legacy of Revivalism.  As I have written elsewhere:
What is first of all evident is that the New Testament never uses the language of "opening the doors of the heart" in connection with "conversion." The evangelistic sermons in Luke's Acts of the Apostles are very clear. What one must do to be saved is "believe on the Lord Jesus" (Acts 16:31). Alternately, one must "repent and be baptized in the name of (the crucified, resurrected, and exalted Lord [Acts 2:22-36]) Jesus Messiah (Acts 2:38), which amounts to the same thing. Baptism was (and is—"sacramentophobia" was less a characteristic of the nascent church than it is of many strands of modern evangelicalism) important because it was the specific, public concretization of (inward) faith (cf. Acts 8:36, 38; Rom 10:9-10). At one's baptism the new believer confessed ,"Jesus is Lord" (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3), thereby placing him- or herself under the active Lordship of the resurrected Christ and initiating the life of cruciform discipleship demanded so often by Jesus himself (e.g., Matt 10:38). The language of conversion in the New Testament is uniformly that of faith, repentance, confession, and commitment.
The "Sinner's Prayer" presents one way of articulating the key elements of repentance and faith, but fails entirely with regard to the elements of baptism and its concomitant confession.  It thus, whether intentionally or not, promotes the notion of privatized faith that, more than anything else, has worked to undermine the inherently community-based structure of the church.

2.  The "Sinner's Prayer" often functions as a superstitious formula that skews the focus of faith and provides an inadequate basis for assurance.  I know this firsthand.  As a youngster I was exposed consistently to the Bible and worship at both my family's home church and the various churches where my father preached at least a couple of Sundays a month.  I attended the wonderful Calvary (Lutheran) Christian Day School in Havertown where I received fine religious instruction from future LCMS Pastor John Kieschnick.  I was an avid reader of the Bible, imitating my parents' practice of underlining select verses from the text.  I was particularly fond of St. John's Gospel because of its deceiving simplicity and its clear promise of "everlasting life" through "believing" in Jesus.  To this day I still remember stopping on the street in front of my house on Balwynne Park Road in Wynnefield Heights, Philadelphia when I was four years old and telling God I believed in Jesus so I could go to heaven.  But when I got to the age of 13 and started classes at church in preparation for baptism, I realized that the pastor of my church, Dr. George Linhart, always used the expressions "accept Jesus as my personal savior" and "trust in Christ as my personal savior."  I noticed my dad did the same thing (they both got their doctorates from the same seminary I later would attend).  This caused me no small alarm, because heretofore I had always used John's language of "believing" and Paul's language of "faith" (I didn't know at the time they were using the same Greek terms).  And when a youth leader at church expressed concern that a friend of mine had said he was a Christian because he had "received Christ" (despite St. John's use of such language in John 1:12), I was very confused indeed.  I soon learned that my understanding of "faith" correlated well with such interpretatations as "accepting Jesus as personal savior," but I also was taught that using such precise terminology was important so as not to obfuscate the so-called "clarity" of the "gospel."  Any talk of repentance, the Lordship of Christ, or (even worse!) baptism was considered a muddying of the waters.  But saying the prayer using the right words, especially if accompanied by such outward signs as raising one's hand at the weekly Youth Ranch meeting, was the sign of true conversion to which a person could always look back for assurance of "salvation."

Now obviously I don't have a problem with precision of terminology.  I am a theologian, after all.  And it is essential that one knows that the Greek terms translated "believe" and "faith" involve trust/dependence on Christ and commitment to him along with intellectual assent to the terms of the message.  Nevertheless, one must insist that it is faith in Christ, not the parroting of precise terminology in a "Sinner's Prayer," that saves.  And assurance of salvation must always be based on the promises of God to those who believe (present tense, as always in John!) in Christ and whose commitment to him is demonstrably not shortcircuited by consequent unbelief or the lure of the "world."  If one wants a "moment" on which to "hang one's hat," as it were, it would be better, with Luther, to point to one's baptism, the sign and seal provided by God that pictures union with the crucified and risen Christ and with his people that the Spirit effects through the faith he inspires.  "Sinner's prayers," after all, are often brought about by homiletical manipulation and fail to reflect the real interior work of the Spirit of God on the sinner's heart.  Such "conversions" are all too often inauthentic, and I have known far too many cases where Christian family members have clung to hope of their loved one's "salvation" because of their having prayed the prayer or walked the aisle.

3.  Reliance on the "Sinner's Prayer" fosters an unbiblical reduction of "salvation" to a past, punctiliar experience.  Once again, I know this from personal experience.  One of the favorite verses of evangelical Protestants is the programmatic Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace you have been saved."  The key verbal expression (este sesōsmenoi) is perfective in force, emphasizing the present state based upon a past action.  The Ephesian Christians were, so Paul says, in the condition or state of "salvation" because of a definitive act of having been "saved" in the past.  And thus, in common evangelical parlance, "salvation" is effectively reduced to a person's conversion experience.  This, no doubt, is the fruit of Revivalism or what I like to call "decisionism."  In many churches, not least those Southern Baptist churches who are so adamant in defending the "Sinner's Prayer," the focus of preaching is often reduced to the proclamation of a conversionist gospel.  And the consequence is that this focus reinforces the dominant impression that what really matters is whether or not a person is "in" or "out."  Hence the perpetual emphasis an the terms of entry and the perennial controversy in some circles over the Pauline teaching on justification.

Yet Paul more characteristically speaks of "salvation" as a present process (1 Cor 1:17; 15:2) or future hope/confident expectation (Rom 5:9; 13:11; 1 Thess 5:8).  Whereas evangelicals today tend to focus on instantaneous conversion and focus assurance of being "in" on that moment, the New Testament rather takes the long view of discipleship, of the believer daily taking up his cross and following the Lord who embodied the cruciform life of service for others.

I wholeheartedly believe in the doctrines of penal, substitutionary atonement and justification by faith.  But, as I have long argued, the "gospel" can not be reduced to the issue of the "spiritual" salvation of the individual (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).  The "gospel" is the announcement of the kingdom of God, the message that God had been faithful to his covenant promises in the life, death, and resurrection of Messiah (King!) Jesus.  The message of the gospel is good news indeed for a lost world, but the point is not simply to secure a spot in the "in," "saved" crowd for individuals.  Furthermore, it is the evangel itself that is God's power, creating faith in the listener, who when she believes is drawn into the story, where she consequently locates herself in the narrative of God's making all things new.  The gospel preacher must, therefore, not merely declare what God offers, crucial as that is.  Sinners dead in their trespasses and sins can do nothing, after all, to raise themselves from spiritual death.  But the preacher must likewise declare what God demands of those who want the benefits of the kingdom.  Jesus is the only savior, by virtue of his representative, vicarious sin-bearing death.  He also is the risen Lord to whom the sinner must submit in cruciform discipleship.  Those of us who preach the gospel had better not renege on our duty to proclaim both of these truths.  We can use a version of the "Sinner's Prayer" if we like, but we had better not attempt a vain emotional manipulation to bring about "conversions."  It would be better, like the apostles, to proclaim the Word faithfully and trust the Spirit to do his work through the message.  We will then find, as Paul and Barnabas did at Pisidian Antioch, that "as many as were appointed to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).


  1. Hey Jim,

    Well done, of course. I do believe that Jesus offered a simply stated path to conversion and assurance. "Make disciples...baptize...teach" for conversion; "if you love me you will obey...thereby proving to be my disciples..." for assurance.

    These are, of course, not simple in the doing, but tansactional and/or compartmental short-cuts are not from God.

  2. Did you hear that Billy Graham Ministries has abandoned the Sinner's Prayer? It's true. They wanted a "fresh" slogan to appeal to nonbelievers. Here is what they decided on:

    "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins."

    I personally don't like it: too Lutheran.