Today, I was in a Bible Study. It was an evangelistic bible study. It was rather interesting. For one thing, the facilitator used Ecclesiastes. He focused on our need for purpose in life— about what truly gives life meaning. That was, I believe a far superior strategy to, for example, the ones that try to scare the person into a guided response.
After the presentation, the facilitator led those who wished to join in saying what has been called “The Sinner’s Prayer.” After the prayer, the facilitator said something to the effect that, “If you have said this prayer with me, I believe that God working in your life to draw you closer to Him.” I like that statement. I fully agree with that statement. Sadly, however, the Sinner’s Prayer often has a pretty sketchy theology supporting it. However, I fully support the way the facilitator used it.
Far too many use the Sinner’s Prayer in ways that I consider problematic. Here are a few of my concerns:
#1. It is often used to define who ARE NOT saved. If a person is deeply committed to God, and faith in Jesus Christ, but comes from a denomination or church that does not use the Sinner’s Prayer, the presumption is that certainly this person is not saved. I have seen statistics that between 5 and 10 of Filipinos are Christian. Of course, over 90% of Filipinos describe themselves as Christians. Why the discrepancy? The 5-10% essentially describes the percentage of Filipinos who are associated with Evangelical churches… or churches that embrace Historical Christianity and the use of the Sinner’s Prayer. Apparently 100% of those involved with Evangelical churches are Christian and 0% of those involved with other churches are Christian. I doubt this is a good assumption. I believe eternity will have a lot more, and a lot less, people than we are tempted to assume.
#2. It is often used to define who ARE saved. There is a tendency to declare that when people say, pray, or think the Sinner’s Prayer, they are now saved. Sometimes I wonder if Christians find the simplicity of the Shahada as appealing. In Islam, if some confesses the Shahada, the core statement of faith of Islam, AND MEANS IT, that person is now recognized as a Muslim. Christianity is more muddy. We are supposed to believe certain things certainly, but salvation is firmly linked to following Jesus, and yet grounded in grace rather than works. That muddiness makes it difficult to determine who really is a “Real Christian.” The book of I John addresses this very issue, but the focus is on how a person can self-examine to determine if he or she is a child of God, but it does not give firm guidance for others. The end of the matter is that God judges the heart and we do not. And that would be great except for two things. First, we want to have good statistics. Doing evangelistic medical missions, we wanted to have good numbers to share with others to show how successful we are. Murkiness is not as inspirational as clear numbers. The same goes for revivals. We want numbers that seem unambiguous. Measuring how many people walked forward at an altar call is easy to measure compared to how many are being molded in to the image of Christ over a period of time. Second, we want to treat Real Christians very different from those who are not-so-Real. More on that later.
#3. It lessens the Christian faith. Christians are no longer those who are following Christ, living according to the Great Commandment, and led by God’s Spirit to live holy lives, and bless those around them. Instead, it is people who can recite an event where they said something at some point in time. Those who are followers of Christ and walking in the Spirit demonstrate this in exhibiting the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, gentleness, goodness…. ). That should be a pretty good (but not absolute) test… but with so many Christians not demonstrating this, Christianity can slip into what the revivalists (originally) wanted to stop. The revivalists saw lukewarmness in the church and in so-called Christian communities, and so wanted to get people fired up for God. The altar call was a way to quantify it. But in placing so much emphasis on the altar call and saying the Sinner’s Prayer, people could fall back to lukewarmness and carnality with the comforting assurance that they are Real Christians.
#4. We want to treat Real Christians different from not-so-Real. In evangelical circles we like to clearly separate between evangelism (leading people to Christ) and discipleship (guiding those already saved to grow in their faith). However, this division breaks down if we don’t really know who is saved and who is not. Paul Hiebert addressed this issue by suggesting that we should look at Christianity in terms of a centered set with an uncertain boundary. We don’t necessarily know who is redeemed by God, but we know that our task is to guide people closer to Christ. Therefore, evangelism should not really be seen as a separate activity. We disciple all bringing them closer to Christ without knowing exactly where they are in this process. I recall being hired by Founder’s Inn, a resort that was owned by Pat Robertson and CBN. As a secular business they were not supposed to ask about our faith, but they did anyway. However, they did not ask about how I sought to live out a holy life, obeying the Great Commandment, expressing love to all people, and encouraging fellow Christians to great Christlikeness. They asked me to describe my “conversion experience”— that is, when I said the Sinner’s Prayer. Not a very useful question for a job interview.
#5. The focus on the Sinner’s Prayer sometimes leads to even more shortcuts. Some try to scare people to follow Jesus. I never saw much value in that one… but it was the method we used in doing medical missions. I have used it before. One method I was taught, the Dunamis Method, seems to be nothing more than guilt-tripping Christians (who already believe in Jesus, the Trinity, salvation through faith, and the grace of God) to say the Sinner’s Prayer. Since the method does nothing to change people’s minds or hearts, I see it as nothing more than a trick to get Christians to be identified as Christian by Evangelicals.
There are other issues. That being said, I am not anti-Evangelical. In fact, doctrinely, I fit pretty comfortably in the Evangelical camp (despite the growing toxic culture forming in much of American Evangelicalism). I think there is need for slight adjustments.
One can still be convinced that God at some point in time, transitions a person’s status to that of being adopted into the family of God. One can firmly believe this without necessarily knowing at what exact point in time that occurs. In other words, embrace Paul Hiebert’s set theory of centered set Christianity with uncertain boundaries.
If we can embrace the call to follow Christ faithfully and encourage every Christian to be a blessing to all people in message and in action, discipling all who seek it, I believe the Sinner’s Prayer has a role in identifying through confession the intentions of a person… and recognition that God is indeed doing a work in his or her life.
However, for what it’s worth, I think I would rather see a new believer recite the Lord’s (or Disciple’s) Prayer rather than the Sinner’s Prayer. It expresses faith better than the Sinner’s Prayer, and is typically tied to community— an act of the church with the individual, rather than simply the act of the individual alone. But that is just my opinion. That view may change over time.