The Wikipedia entry on “Sinner’s Prayer” says that it is “any prayer designed to make it simple for one wanting to become a Christian to confess sin, acknowledge the need for salvation or redemption through Jesus Christ, and make a commitment to ‘receive Christ as Savior.’ The prayer is typically very basic, short, simple and straight to the point.”
Indeed, an unwritten rule in evangelical tradition tells us that whenever you lead someone to Christ, you should help the person to “seal the deal” by asking the person to prayer a “sinner’s prayer.” For example, this is the “sinner’s prayer” from “The Four Spiritual Laws”:
Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.
The longer I’ve been a Christian, the more problems I found with this so-called “sinner’s prayer.” If it’s a prayer of a sinner, why does it lack any hint of feeling sorry for your sins? In fact it reads more like a prayer of thanksgiving, where the focus of the prayer is not God, but the focus is (to put it bluntly) to “use Jesus” as a means for us to achieve eternal life. In addition, the prayer seems to be based on an incorrect understanding of Revelation 3:20, which, taken in context, is really addressed to Christians to open their heart’s door to Christ, and not intended for non-Christians “accepting Jesus into their heart.”
In a Christianity Today article entitled “Jesus and the Sinner’s Prayer,” David Gushee pointed out that the concept of the evangelical “sinner’s prayer” tends to teach “easy believism …… If Jesus is to be believed, inheriting eternal life involves a comprehensive divine assessment at every step along our journey, not just at its inception.”
Evangelicals like to hoist the banner of “saved by grace through faith, not by works,” but omit the part where we are “created in Christ for good works” which came one verse later in Ephesians 2; we tend to focus on “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17) but forgetting that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17); we tend to get people to make their “decisions” and pray their “sinner’s prayer” and become a church member, forgetting that we should first and foremost be a member of the kingdom of God, and that Jesus’ first instruction concerning the kingdom of God is to “repent” (Matthew 4:17).
To me, the “sinner’s prayer” is not a once-and-done prayer. The first time someone truly accepts Christ should be the time when he/she realizes truly how much of a “sinner” he/she is. From that point on, every prayer is a “sinner’s prayer.”
Contrast the “sinner’s prayer” in “The Four Spiritual Laws” above with the Puritan prayer below entitled “The Convicting Spirit”:
Thou blessed Spirit, Author of all grace and comfort, Come, work repentance in my soul;
Represent sin to me in its odious colors that I may hate it; Melt my heart by the majesty and mercy of God; Show me my ruined self and the help there is in Him; Teach me to behold my Creator, His ability to save, His arms outstretched, His heart big for me.
May I confide in His power and love, commit my soul to Him without reserve, bear His image, observe His laws, pursue His service, and be through time and eternity a monument to the efficacy of His grace, a trophy of His victory.
Make me willing to be saved in His way, perceiving nothing in myself, but all in Jesus. Help me not only to receive Him but to walk in Him, depend upon Him, commune with Him, be conformed to Him, follow Him, imperfect, but still pressing forward, not complaining of labor, but valuing rest, not murmuring under trials, but thankful for my state.
Give me that faith which is the means of salvation, and the principle and medium of all godliness; May I be saved by grace through faith, live by faith, feel the joy of faith, and do the work of faith. Perceiving nothing in myself, may I find in Christ wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
Now that’s a real “sinner’s prayer” that starts with true repentance, that surrenders one’s life to be just a trophy of God’s victory, and that attaches to a faith that produces not only salvation but also godliness. That’s the kind of “sinner’s prayer” that we should be praying every day.