My Love/Hate Relationship with the “Sinner’s Prayer”

I love the sinner’s prayer.

Usually at the end of our services at Waters Church we end with the opportunity for people to come to faith in Christ. At that time we ask them to raise their hands, or come down to the front and pray with member of our Small Group Leadership/Elder team. We lead them in what is commonly referred to in Church circles as the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Please note you will not find this prayer in its totality in Scripture. But that does not make it unfit for use in the Church. Most of the elements come straight out of Scripture: A general cry for salvation is found in Jesus’ parable of the Tax Collector and Pharisee in Luke 18. The prayer leads the person to confess with their mouth that they are a sinner who needs forgiveness and that only by faith Christ Jesus as Lord through His death, burial and resurrection can they be saved (according to Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23; & Romans 10:9-13; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Conveniently, all these scriptural truths are composited in a simple short prayer to God.

We have had several baptism testimonies in our church mention that moment of our services as THE moment they truly came to Christ. Some of them confess their heart was warmed, they felt a strange and welcoming sensation, and they knew in their heart something dramatic had changed. I love to hear these stories. And for these reasons, I love the sinners prayer.

I also hate the sinners prayer.

Don’t stop reading! I will continue to use it because I see the effectiveness of leading people to a life-changing moment of salvation. However, I also see it leading others to a “one-stop” shop for eternity the Bible never promises. I’m talking about those who put the hand up, say the prayer, receive our literature, and then never darken the doors of our church again. While some may indeed have truly been converted, it is often hard to tell for sure. The sinner’s prayer inadvertently sends the message that people are “all set”, case closed, job finished, “see ya in the afterlife.” I feel profound disappointment with this sentiment.

Jesus never commands anyone to pray the Sinner’s Prayer. Rather, He calls them to come, follow and believe – in that order. Come to church, to small group; be around Christian people and Gospel preaching, learn, grow and hear (Romans 10:17). Secondly, follow Jesus. Start doing the things He says. Forgive, love your enemies, seek peace, do justice, hunger for righteousness, freely give. These commands are so essential to the Gospels we tend to ignore them under the shadow of one singular prayer. Finally, believe Christ. Do not simply believe what He says, believe WHO he is (John 6:68-69).  Our lives are not always going to “get better in every way” when we follow Christ. That’s when we trust WHO He is! He is the peace of God (Eph. 2:14). He is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:1-2). He formed us and owns us and ransomed us back to God (Romans 11:36)! Believing is always present tense, never a singular moment.

This is why I hate the sinner’s prayer. You must never sum up your faith with an emotional nod to God one Sunday in your life. If He is who He said He is, everything changes, sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically, but there’s no denying the difference. You don’t END with Christ, you BEGIN with Christ. All things are new!

I will continue to use the “Sinner’s Prayer.” I believe it leads people to Christ. But I will continue to pray Jesus’ words from John 17 over those who come to Waters: John 17:3 (ESV) And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.