Thoughts on the "Sinner's Prayer"

Should it be used in evangelism and tracts?

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by Samer Adra
January 2007


Romans 10:9-14a
(9) That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
(10) For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
(11) For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.
(12) For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.
(13) For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
(14a) How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?

Introduction

Some people have noticed that none of the tracts on my website include a sinner's prayer. I don't consider them evil, per se, but I just don't see the concept in the Bible, and I believe that, at times, they can have a negative effect. I believe God does hear many of these prayers. I believe many people who have been saved after reading tracts did repeat sinners' prayers, but I believe salvation came by what was in their heart. We can find various examples of sinners' prayers in the Bible, and I think it can be helpful to look at three in depth (a few others will be mentioned briefly toward the end). The important thing is to be Bereans, and test all things by the Scriptures, so that everything we say, do, and write, can be as true to the Bible as possible. This is especially critical in witnessing to the lost, as we don't want to get in the way of God.

Example 1: The sinner's prayer and repentance

Jeremiah 14:20-22
(20) We acknowledge, O LORD, our wickedness, and the iniquity of our fathers: for we have sinned against thee.
(21) Do not abhor us, for thy name's sake, do not disgrace the throne of thy glory: remember, break not thy covenant with us.
(22) Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles that can cause rain? or can the heavens give showers? art not thou he, O LORD our God? therefore we will wait upon thee: for thou hast made all these things.

So far, this sounds like a model sinner's prayer. Let's see the next verse.

Jeremiah 15:1
Then said the LORD unto me, Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my mind could not be toward this people: cast them out of my sight, and let them go forth.

Jeremiah 15:7
And I will fan them with a fan in the gates of the land; I will bereave them of children, I will destroy my people, since they return not from their ways.

God rejected their sinner's prayer! What happened to Romans 10:13?

Repentance is more than mere words.
It seems they only had the first part of Proverbs 28:13:
He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and
 forsaketh them shall have mercy.

Is forsaking a work?
forsake, Webster's 1828:
2. To abandon; to renounce; to reject.

So let's look up this word, renounce:
2. To deny; to cast off; to reject; to disclaim; as an obligation or duty; as, to renounce allegiance.

In the context of salvation, this is a heart matter. What will the sinner choose? No man can serve two masters.

Nobody can come to Jesus for salvation if he will not give up his allegiance to sin. No amount of confessing is going to help him if he isn't willing to give it up for Jesus's sake--to let Jesus clean him up (which comes after salvation)--key word, I think, being willing. Steve Nichols, pastor of Regency Baptist Church in Orangevale, CA, has used the example of a cigarette smoker asking, "If I accept Jesus, do I have to give up my smoking?" And when the response comes, "Absolutely! Jesus said 'If ye love me, keep my commandments,' and honoring our bodies is one of them," and he turns away sorrowful (as in Luke 18), what does the evangelist say as the sinner departs? "No, wait! Come back! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved!!" No, we do what Jesus did, and let him walk off lost, because he loves his sin, and wants to stay in it. Same if you think you can forsake your sins, but not confess them--that's not salvation either, because that person thinks he can be good on his own, without acknowledging the enormity of his failures, and thereby, his need of a Saviour. Nobody will get saved until he realizes he is lost, and part of conviction of sin is not just conviction of the punishment of sin, but also conviction of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and God's hatred and judgment against sin. This humble, convicted attitude is the one that will lead to salvation by faith, trusting wholly in Christ. God wants people to approach Him on HIS terms, and not their own--and not just trying to make a deal with Him. A lot of times, people aren't truly turning to God, but just want to have assurance of Heaven and be on their merry way, living to please self until they die, and then, God can be their God. Sometimes, we can't know to avoid these types--even Jesus had a false convert among Him, as a picture of the future church, with tares growing alongside the wheat. They have sown wheat, but shall reap thorns (Jer. 12:13). We can just do the best we can in presenting the law and the condemnation that is upon them, and once we perceive them to be humble, the Gospel, and to let God take care of the results.

Example 2: "Easy-believism" vs. calling upon the name of the LORD

For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. -2 Corinthians 7:10

Hosea 7
(7) They are all hot as an oven, and have devoured their judges; all their kings are fallen: there is none among them that calleth unto me.
...
(10) And the pride of Israel testifieth to his face: and they do not return to the LORD their God, nor seek him for all this.
...
(13) Woe unto them! for they have fled from me: destruction unto them! because they have transgressed against me: though I have redeemed them, yet they have spoken lies against me.
(14) And they have not cried unto me with their heart, when they howled upon their beds: they assemble themselves for corn and wine, and they rebel against me.
(15) Though I have bound and strengthened their arms, yet do they imagine mischief against me.
(16) They return, but not to the most High: they are like a deceitful bow: their princes shall fall by the sword for the rage of their tongue: this shall be their derision in the land of Egypt.

Verse 14 is really interesting. It says they were howling on their beds. Could it be they were howling to pagan gods, and that's why God says they weren't calling upon Him? Perhaps, but I think they were making entreaty of God, so as to say, "Lord, Lord," because the verse says not just they didn't cry unto God, but rather, they didn't cry unto God with their heart. Yet there is howling, and much sincerity. If we look at the context, obviously, they have much to howl about--they are under the fierce judgment of the God of all the Universe. He promises destruction upon them. In the same way today, the sinner is promised an eternity in Hell. Who wouldn't cry, under such a promise?

But clearly, something is wrong. This connects with the earlier passage about the vain "sinner's prayer" in Jeremiah 14. We see that these people were sincere in a way--howling is typically an emotional experience. They howled, so as to cry unto God, but the verse isn't even over and they're already drinking and serving their idols again. There was no desire for practical righteousness or holiness, but they wouldn't mind if God saw them as righteous insomuch as He would withhold His wrath from them. There was no desire to know God or His Messiah--only a selfish desire to not know Hell. Don't get me wrong: we should still preach Hell--Christ did so more than Heaven. But we wonder why our churches are filled with people who name the name of Christ, and know nothing of His holiness, with cigarette in one hand, beer in the other, and lips spewing forth, "God, forgive me, and take me to Heaven when I die, in Jesus's name, amen. *hic!*" And it's because they want God to meet their selfish desires--they'll howl all night long if it will stop the torment, or get them a spot in Heaven, but as far as they're concerned, the whole notion of them being punished is ridiculous, because they don't see their sin as God sees it. It's a conviction issue. Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation, and a willingness to turn to God as He commands us to, but sorrow only because of the punishment, and not the awfulness of crime against Deity, worketh but death. They're just trying to have some fun--a drink here, a pinch of adultery, and a dash of idolatry--and God is, in their eyes, menacing over them for no apparent reason, threatening them with eternal fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth, and although they don't understand why God is so "mean," they'd just the same rather He stop being so cruel, so they say the prayer and "get that taken care of" so they're free to live their lives as they please. And although we must preach the punishment, if we do not show sinners that they are wholly deserving of God's punishment a thousand times over and more, and that God is merciful to allow them even to breathe each breath, and that they ought to love Him and serve Him because He's worthy, then the only reason to "call upon the name of the Lord" (supposedly) is to get God's justice off their backs and not have to worry about Hell anymore--punch their tickets to Heaven and move on with life. I fear too often we preach the punishment of Hell without an adequate understanding of the crime against God, which understanding comes primarily by the Law as revealed by the Holy Spirit, and God is therefore seen as an unjust tyrant, and grace consequently does not abound.

Hosea 8
(1) Set the trumpet to thy mouth. He shall come as an eagle against the house of the LORD, because they have transgressed my covenant, and trespassed against my law.
(2) Israel shall cry unto me, My God, we know thee.
(3) Israel hath cast off the thing that is good: the enemy shall pursue him.

They say they know God. What does the Bible say?

1 John 2:4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

Despite the wicked, selfish attitude of man, and the permeating attitude of humanism, evangelism is not hopeless. We simply need to get back to the biblical roots of it. We all know the first part of the following verse so well, but the end sure applies to this generation today.

Hosea 4:6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.

The law will show them their sin, be their schoolmaster to lead them to Christ, and make sin abound, that grace may much more abound. People will do more than repeat the prayer to go to Heaven, but will call upon God to save them from themselves, and from Hell, and to change their hearts and lives, that He might get all the glory due His name. We just need to exalt the holiness of God more, and the righteousness of His judgments, and the sinfulness of sin, and then when we mention the remedy of the cross, it will be the most amazing thing in the world to them.

It's amazing how it seems every page we read in the Bible shows more and more the truth that God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Consider Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and so on. Throughout His dealings with kings and kingdoms, and the world's system, God does everything to abase man and man's foolish pride, and to lift Himself up (as it should rightly be). I don't know why it should be any different in evangelism, where many Christians suddenly switch gears into boosting the sinners' self-esteem, telling them that God loves them and died for them, and they only need repeat a simple prayer and they're "in." If we'd only stop trusting all these big names with millions of proselytes to their name, and listen to the Bible, we'd be amazed to actually start seeing some perseverance and fruit when we see people profess Christ. Sure, the numbers will be less, but they'll be real (or much closer to it).

Isaiah 58:1 Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.

Example 3: David's Prayer of Repentance

Psalm 51
(1) <To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.> Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
(2) Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
(3) For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
(4) Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.
(5) Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
(6) Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
(7) Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
(8) Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
(9) Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
(10) Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
(11) Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
(12) Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
(13) Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
(14) Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
(15) O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
(16) For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
(17) The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
(18) Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
(19) Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

Some brief New Testament points on salvation

  • Acts 16:31 shows us that salvation is simply a heart matter. Acts 8 confirms this, with the Ethiopian eunuch. A question for those who believe in sinner's prayers is this: Are sinners saved before, during, or after they pray? I firmly believe the saving faith in their heart is what will cause them to cry out to God for mercy. This is similar to baptism, which does not save, but which evidences salvation, and is often linked in the Scriptures (e.g., Mark 16:16). Baptism is an outward work and evidence of an inward saving faith. Crying out to God is simply evidence of what is in the heart. Baptism and calling upon the name of the Lord are similar in this regard, that they are often closely tied in with salvation, yet salvation is ultimately a matter of the heart.
  • The thief on the cross was saved by simple faith. He cried out to Jesus the best he knew how, as evidence of the faith that began in his heart.
  • In John 20:28, Thomas simply cried out, "My Lord and my God." Whatever words are spoken to God should be unique to the individual, as God leads, and can be anything from a simple "My Lord and my God!" to an intricate prayer such as Psalm 51. Of course, Psalm 51 was only worth something because it reflected what was in David's heart.
  • The Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14 had all the theological words, and all the publican had was what was in his heart, and a broken, humble attitude before God: "God be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). The publican went away justified because of his faith.
  • Romans 10:9-13 is commonly used to advocate sinner's prayers. Notice the importance of believing in the heart--believing unto righteousness. Isn't this righteousness salvation? The following verse, Romans 10:14, shows us that no one can truly call upon the name of the Lord unless there is a prior saving faith in Christ: How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? Of course, we know from John 3:16 that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. We must compare Romans 10:9-13 with the whole of Scripture, and also look at the verses that seem to say baptism saves, and consider the issue. In the end, the Bible tells us that faith saves. True faith will call out to God, as led by the Spirit.

Conclusion

First, we must point that, while Psalm 51 may not have been a prayer until salvation, per se, the same principles hold, as it reflects a sinner crying out to God for mercy.

  • In these three apparent examples of "the sinner's prayer," nobody is coaching the sinner on what to tell God.
  • All examples include genuine sorrow:
    • The first two examples, rejected by God, apparently show a genuine fear of punishment. The first clearly includes recognition and confession of sin. This is the humanistic, self-centered "sorrow of the world" of 2 Corinthians 7:10.
    • The third example, accepted by God, shows a genuine sorrow over having offended a holy God--having sinned against God, and God only. Not only does David confess his sins, but he forsakes them, desiring no more to be in allegiance to them. This is the God-centered "godly sorrow" of 2 Corinthians 7:10.
  • In the second example, we have seen that a person can howl night and day, but if the heart's not in the right state, God will not hear.
  • In the third example, accepted by God, David shows us that it's not the words that matter, but the attitude of the heart:
    • ...thou desirest truth in the inward parts... (v. 6)
    • For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (vv. 16,17)
  • Nobody in the Bible was ever led in a sinner's prayer, and many of them have other stuff not in the Bible, like "asking Jesus into the heart." Psalm 51 is a good example of how sinners should come before God, but God looks upon the heart, not magic words. Would you lead a husband caught in adultery to come before his wife, repeating after you, "Dear wife (dear wife), I am so sorry (I am so sorry) for cheating on you (for cheating on you)"?
  • Ultimately, because of the unsure nature of sinners' prayers (i.e., not everybody who prays one actually gets saved), it may be best for the sinner to simply call out to God as the Spirit moves him--i.e., sometimes we just need to get out of the way and let God work.

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