I was listening to a podcast of N.T. Wright. He was talking about Evangelism. In it he spoke somewhat negatively about “The Sinner’s Prayer.” He suggested that when a person decides to follow Christ, that saying the Lord’s Prayer may be a better choice than the Sinner’s Prayer.
We probably need to step backwards and say something that SHOULD be obvious, but sadly isn’t—-
NO ONE IS SAVED BY SAYING THE SINNER’S PRAYER.
We are saved by faith. That faith may be expressed in a shorthand way with the Sinner’s Prayer, but if a person had saving faith in Christ but did not say the Sinner’s Prayer, that person would still be saved. And a person who said the Sinner’s Prayer but did not have faith would not be saved. In other words, the Sinner’s Prayer has no power to make effective salvation.
Some go further and argue that the Sinner’s Prayer is un-Biblical. I think that is taking it too far. The Bible does tell us to choose who to follow and the path to take. The Bible does tell us to “call on the Lord” and to “confess Jesus as Lord.” All of these are consistent with the Sinner’s Prayer, even if the prayer is not specifically mentioned in the Bible.
The problem is when the Sinner’s Prayer is treated like an incantation. An incantation is a word or phrase that is believed to have power of itself to create change either on its own, or by compelling a spiritual being to act. In other words, it is magic. I get that. I have thought that way. When I was 7 years old, I said the Sinner’s Prayer in my room at home with no one else around. For the next few months I wondered whether I was saved or not. “What if I said it wrong?” At least twice more I said the Sinner’s Prayer as best I could remember, hoping that I “got it right.” Eventually I figured out that my salvation was in my faith and determination to follow Jesus, NOT in saying some words the right way.
But I have met people who have struggled with the meaning of the Sinner’s Prayer. One person I knew was told that she must not be saved because she doesn’t remember whether she said the Sinner’s Prayer— despite the fact that she had many times expressed her faith in Christ and actively sought to serve Him faithfully. I have known other people who assure a person over and over again that they are saved and secure because that repeated some words in the past, not considering whether the person meant the words he said or whether he has faith now. Rather than saying that the Sinner’s Prayer is un-Biblical, I would rather say that it is theologically dubious.
The Sinner’s Prayer has different forms but it generally has some common elements.
- Admitting to being a sinner
- Seeking forgiveness from God through Jesus Christ
- Asking to be saved by Christ
Some would add other things like saying that they were saved through the ‘blood of Christ’ embracing the metaphor of penal substitutionary atonement. Some statements expressly say that Jesus is Lord of the person’s life. Others seem to embrace a lower standard, more akin to intellectual assent.
Instead of looking at the merits or lack of merits of the Sinner’s Prayer directly as something to do when one becomes saved, let’s instead compare it to saying the Lord’s Prayer.
#1. Both the Sinner’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer share the common elements. Both describe admitting to being a sinner. Both express the wish to be forgiven by God. both express desire to be saved by God (delivered from Evil).
#2. The Lord’s Prayer also expresses the broader Sinner’s Prayer that vocalizes the desire for God to be Lord in the pray-er’s life (“Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”)
#3. The Lord’s Prayer is more than an entreaty. It is also an act of worship— expressing that God’s name is to hallowed. And the longer version has more worship language (“For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever).
#4. The Lord’s Prayer is less self-focused than the Sinner’s Prayer. While it does entreat of God for self— it also entreats for others and for all creation.
And these are all good things. Since the Lord’s Prayer covers the elements of the Sinner’s Prayer… and more, it does seem a bit unclear why the Sinner’s Prayer was artificially created for a person to say at salvation. It seems pretty unnecessary. Nothing wrong with it I guess. It is true that the Lord’s Prayer does get overused in church, I can imagine it being looked down on by Evangelists fearing it to be “vain repetition.” However, I see little reason to think it is likely to be more meaningless than the Sinner’s Prayer at times.
I do have three more reasons that I definitely think push the Lord’s Prayer across the finish line as the better choice.
#5. The Lord’s Prayer is given by Jesus to His disciples. Even though we may call it “The Lord’s Prayer,” it is probably better understood as “The Disciple’s Prayer.” So when one decides to submit to Christ as Savior and Lord, one is choosing to be a disciple of Christ. What is more natural than to express that decision by saying “The Disciple’s Prayer”?
#6. The Lord’s Prayer has throughout Church history been seen as a prayer of community. Even in my own faith tradition, that tends to be highly skeptical of set prayers, the Lord’s Prayer is still respected as a recitation to be done by the faith community. (I have, however, met a few who are legalistically opposed to any prayer or recitation that is not extemporaneous. A bit strange.) When a person follows Christ, she is not just “getting saved.” She is becoming a part of the community. What is more natural than for the evangelizer to say the Lord’s Prayer with the new believer as an act of Christian Community. When the evangelizer tells that new converst to “repeat after me” the Sinner’s Prayer, the evangerlizer is not really praying because he is presumably already saved. But with the Lord’s Prayer, both can pray it with relevance. They both can say it with meaning, much like a young alcoholic and the seasoned sponsor can both state the Serenity Prayer with equal conviction in AA.
#7. The Lord’s Prayer, if done this way, as a symbol of salvation would add meaning in the liturgical use of the prayer. Now it is not only a reminder of being a disciple of Christ and part of the community of Christ. It is also a commemoration of the salvation experienced by each member of the body.