The Sinner’s Prayer and Discipleship: Some Connections

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It is the tendency among evangelical Christians, notably Baptists, to reduce a practice to the lowest common denominator for ease of use and accessibility. Our natures cause us to oversimplify and often this causes detriment to Scriptural practices, not the least of which is discipleship. If the church is failing in any one particular area, it is manufacturing true, genuine disciples, those willing to take up the cross daily.

When I came to Christ as a teenager, I prayed a prayer similar to what you find in most Gospel tracts:

“Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am sinful and I need your forgiveness. I believe that You died to pay the penalty for my sin. I want to turn from my sin nature and follow You instead. I invite You to come into my life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” Steps to Peace with God, Billy Graham

There are countless others that have prayed this prayer to initiate a life with Christ. On the surface, the prayer seems theological enough–there is acknowledgment of need, confession of sin, repentance, and the substitutionary, vicarious nature of Christ’s death; all biblically necessary for receiving salvation.

However, is there anywhere in the Bible that someone prays to receive salvation? It cannot be said that an apparently Scriptural practice, if it is not chapter and verse, is immediately unbiblical. There are a lot of modern constructs used in Christian life and practice that though they do not have a biblical precedent it does not make the usage of them sinful. Nevertheless, there is no notion of a sinner’s prayer in the Scriptures.

God has outlined the plan of salvation clearly in the Scriptures. And from that plan, there is no mention of prayer being a prerequisite. The plan goes like this:

  1. Hear the Gospel message (John 5:24, Acts 15:7, Romans 10:14).
  2. Believe in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God (John 3:16-18, 11:25-26, Romans 10:9).
  3. Repent of sin (Matthew 3:2, Luke 13:3, Acts 17:30).
  4. Confess Christ before others (Mark 8:38, Romans 10:9).
  5. Be baptized as an outward testimony and as an act of obedience (Matthew 3:13-15, Acts 9:18, 16:33).
  6. Live faithfully and steadfast as a Christian (Matthew 10:22, Hebrews 3:6, 14).

Of all the conversions recorded in the New Testament, there is no witness to any kind of prayer to receive salvation. There are nine conversions in the book of Acts alone and all follow this plan.

  1. 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41)
  2. Simon and the Samaritans (Acts 8:9-12)
  3. The Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-39)
  4. Saul/Paul (Acts 9:1-19 & Acts 22:3-16)
  5. Cornelius’ Household (Acts 10:44-48)
  6. Lydia (Acts 16:11-15)
  7. The Philippian Jailer (Acts 16:16-34)
  8. The Corinthians (Acts 18:1-8)
  9. The Ephesians (Acts 19:1-7)

There are also the conversions recorded in the Gospels (for example, Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the Gadarene demoniac, and Zaccheus) where similar patterns are evident, though they do not follow exactly the pattern from the book of Acts.

The point is not to impose a rigid rule upon the salvation experience, for each person’s experience coming to Christ is different. However, it seems that a pattern can be discerned from Scripture that is noticeably devoid of prayer of any kind. Prayer as a matter of course does not have to be precluded from the initial saving process, but the concern this raises is what the usage of the sinner’s prayer has done to discipleship. Has the usage of the prayer been overemphasized to the degree that it has the opposite effect on maturity?

The prayer seems to truncate the primary Christian discipline of discipleship as well as the most noticeable indicator of salvation; that one continues in the faith. I have served in church long enough to garner enough empirical evidence to see that those who have prayed the sinner’s prayer, if it is not solidified with discipleship, the prayer then becomes an end unto itself. The sinner has then staked his eternal soul not on the merit of Christ, but a tenuous prayer.

There then is no grounding in Christian orthodoxy, the fundamentals of the faith, or any kind of catechetical teaching, all simply because “Our dear brother or sister has prayed the prayer and it is now up to him and the Holy Spirit.”

The sinner’s prayer is used as a substitute for the dirty work of discipleship. It can even be prayed again if one does not “feel” saved, purely contrary to the Scriptural teaching on salvation (not to mention that it has become more and more common to re-baptize). Moreover, the prayer also seems to set the tone for the new Christian’s walk with Christ. Salvation, having been distilled to a few pat sentences, logically then, sanctification must also be that simple. The Bible teaches clearly that it is not, that we must work out or own salvation, with fear and trembling. Having oversimplified coming to Christ, continuing with Christ is also oversimplified.

Dr. Bill Bennett, then Visiting Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, claimed about eight years ago that the greatest heresy among Southern Baptists is that of easy believism. These are very true words, and as such, has allowed for the infiltration of prosperity teachings that have subtly fill this void. An undue emphasis on the sinner’s prayer may be a partial culprit.