Choosing Between the Sinner’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer

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.

Critique on Evangelism. Part 1

I have to admit that I might not be the right person to criticize “evangelism” as it is practiced today. As a student and teacher of missiology, and as an administrator of the Christian Counseling Center, evangelism (as it is presently defined) is something I only do rarely. (On the other hand, I have organized and participated in numerous evangelistic projects, and have taught evangelism as a seminar or course on occasion.) Regardless, perhaps my role as a bit of an outsider gives me a perspective that others might miss. I don’t know. You decide for yourself.  Here are a few concerns with Evangelism as it is understood and practiced today.

1.  Evangelism is defined too narrowly. It is often defined in such a way that it is limited to “proclamation of the gospel message so as to produce spiritual conversion.” In one sense, this makes sense. The Greek (“euangelizo”) from which evangelize is transliterated comes from roots that mean proclamation or speaking a good message. But David Barrett has shown in his book on Evangelism (“Evangelize! A Historical Survey of the Concept”) that the term was often used both in the Bible and in the early church to describe the entire process of discipling.  It has broadness in ministry and depth in process. This seems to be a reasonable understanding.

2.  Evangelism is too focused on the cognitive. Once again, this is understandable if one sees evangelism as communication (and receipt) of a message. In effect, evangelism becomes a part of Communication Theory and Cognitive Learning Theory. Yet the Bible definitely describes the transformation, the re-creation of a person into a member of the family of God, in more than cognitive (right thinking) terms. It also involves affective (right valuing) and behavioral (right action). Salvation is by faith, but faith expresses itself in thoughts, feelings/values, and actions.

3.  Evangelism tends to focus too much on either Input or on Output. This sounds weird, but think about this. Input-oriented Evangelism focuses on the presentation of the message. As long as one says correct things in a correct way, one has been an effective evangelist. We cannot control response so response is not important. As logical as that may be, there is a problem. Truth that is packaged to be unpalatable or culturally inappropriate is not good evangelism. Titus 2:10 describes how we are “adorn the gospel with our words and actions.” On the other extreme, output-oriented Evangelism focuses on the response. Whatever gets you the response you want is good evangelism. Here in the Philippines, one sometimes comes across the Dunamis method for evangelism that, to me at least, is nothing more than a method to “trick” Roman Catholic Christians into saying the “Sinner’s Prayer”. I cannot see how that could be called evangelism at any level or that the statistics from this method mean anything. (I have a friend who is a missionary in a Islamic nation whose friends almost managed to trick him into saying the Muslim declaration of faith (Shahada) three times, making him, in their minds at least, Muslim. Of course, he probably could have easily tricked them into “confessing Jesus as Lord” as well, if he was so inclined. Evangelism that doesn’t involve a genuine change of heart is not evangelism. I think we really need to have evangelism that is focused on the hearer. Our motivation may be God, but this motive expresses itself in love for the hearer.

4.  Evangelism is too method-driven. We see this with cultic groups who share their own “gospel”. They often have very regimented methods of sharing that tend to fall apart when the hearer does not respond to the questions in the way that the cultic member expects. (Sadly, Christians are often pretty predictable in what they will say when faced with these methods as well.) Christians also tend to be pretty regimented in our Evangelism methods. We may be trained in the “Romans Road”, or the “Bridge Illustration” or “The Gospel Hand” or “The Wordless Book” or other methods, but have no flexibility in our sharing. We have our favorites… but it is not about us. If we are to be focused on the hearer, our methods should vary… perhaps it is even incorrect to say that we have specific methods. For example a Muslim, a Buddhist, or a Secularist is not likely to be too impressed by “The Romans Road” since a presumption of this method is that the hearer has a high level of respect for the Holy Bible. The Camel Method may be effective with some Muslims, but really misses the mark with others. There is no evidence that Jesus or the Disciples had a one-size-fits-all method for reaching out to others with God’s message. They seemed to have different methods for Hebraic Jews, Hellenistic Jews, God Fearers, Pharisees, and Pagans. And once again, it may be incorrect to even say that they had “methods.” It seems as if they simply sought to express God’s message of hope and love in a way that the hearer could understand and appreciate.

Consider the example of someone trying to convince 5 people to stop smoking. These 5 smokers all have different values. Smoker #1 is worried about personal health. Smoker #2 is worried about personal beauty. Smoker #3 is concerned about saving money. Smoker #4 is a child and is concerned about his parents finding out. Smoker #5 is concerned about the effect of his habit and second hand smoke on his children. The way to give the basic message “stop smoking” needs to be distinctly different for each of these individuals.

End of Part 1