A few months ago a teenage young lady told me she was having doubts about her faith. When I asked why she was having such thoughts she began by telling me that she had “prayed the sinner’s prayer” every single time that the pastor had given the “invitation” but she still wasn’t certain of her salvation. Less than a week prior to that, another teenager, this time a young man, approached me with questions about his own salvation. Again, certain that he could remember a time that he had “prayed the prayer” he still had questions about if he was really saved. A third example, is of a woman in her 50s that lives in constant fear that she is not saved and as such admits to “walking the isle” at least 6 times, each with the hope of salvation. What each of these very real examples have in common is the unbiblical evangelical model of the “sinner’s prayer”, but they represent only 1 side of the story.
The flipside of the same coin are those who have become “gospel-hardened”, meaning that they prayed the prayer at some point in their life and now, though they live as the world, point to that time as assurance of their salvation. They have no interest in living a godly life, no interest in reading God’s Word, and no interest in submitting to Christ. I think we all know someone, perhaps even ourselves, who have shown evidence of this bad fruit. Since these two groups of people represent the majority of professing believers, the visible church has developed a solution. Those in the first group are given assurance by reminding them of that day they prayed the prayer and made their decision. Those in the latter group are simply called “carnal Christians” and assured that because they have prayed the prayer they are indeed saved, however they have yet to submit to Christ in their lives.
If you’ve stepped foot inside a church within the United States any time in the last 50 years you’ve likely heard this prayer or seen the invitation to walk the isle. Generally this methodology involves repeating a prayer after the words spoken by the pastor, making the words your own, and meaning them with your whole heart. The problems with this, other than those outlined above, are multi-faceted beginning with the fact that this prayer model is found nowhere in the Bible. It is never taught, never used as an example by which someone comes to faith, never included in the epistles of Paul. Historically, the prayer is not a model that the Church has followed in the last 2000 years, instead the practice reached its pinnacle within the last 50 years. With the increase in revivals of the last century, the sinner’s prayer became a quick method of salvation, one in which the numbers would highlight the success of a particular preacher. To an extent it was used as nothing more than an assembly line for converts. Bringing ‘em in sinners, sending ‘em out saints.
One famous revivalist preacher once said he would be surprised if at least 10% of those who walked the isle at his events were actually saved. The remaining 90% all left with the impression that because they walked the isle and prayed the prayer that they too were saved. To put these numbers in perspective, if 10,000 people walked the isle at one of these large gatherings, perhaps 1000 would actually be saved while another 9000 would leave with a false assurance, likely falling into the categories we defined previously. Some might argue that at least this method saved the 1000. But is that the goal of the Gospel? To save 10%? No friends, the Gospel is purposed to save all those whom it intends to. In Isaiah 55:11 God states, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God’s word will not return to Him empty, but shall accomplish all that He purposes. That means the Gospel has a 100% success rate saving those whom God plans to save and it does not give false assurance but instead is the “power of God unto salvation”. Those 1000 people were not saved because of the sinner’s prayer, but “in-spite of it” as one modern preacher states. This is why it is so critical that we preach only the Gospel, and ensure that we do not subvert it with man-made inventions used to pad “decisions” and church memberships.
If the sinner’s prayer is not a biblical means by which unbelievers come to faith in Christ, we are left with the natural question of how then do unbelievers “come to faith”? This is where an oft-ignored doctrine which has been neglected by the Church recently (to its own detriment), needs revisited. In John 3 the Pharisee, Nicodemas, approached Jesus one night and the first words from Jesus’ mouth to him were, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3 Christian, don’t dismiss the words of Jesus here as something trivial. He is telling one of the leading religious figures of the day how people are saved, i.e. “see the kingdom of God.” After Nicodemas questions how a man can be born again Jesus replies, “5 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The doctrine represented here is that of regeneration.
We read of this also in Titus 3:5, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (see also Ezekiel 36:25-27) A brief look at the two passages and we begin to see the parallels that give us better understanding of regeneration. Note that Jesus first states unless one is born of water AND the Spirit. This parallels precisely with what we read from the Apostle Paul by “washing of regeneration AND renewal of the Holy Spirit.” The washing/born of water is symbolic of cleansing from sin which is followed up by renewal/rebirth of the Spirit, both are works of God. This is regeneration, cleansed then made new. As He concludes His lesson to Nicodemas, Jesus tells him not to be surprised about what He’s just told him and follows up with an analogy of the wind and its effects resembling the Holy Spirit and His effect in the life of those He regenerates unto salvation.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were all about rules, regulations, and formulas which they believed led to their own righteousness. As Jesus taught one of the chief Pharisees, Nicodemas, salvation has nothing to do with man’s formulas, but instead is entirely a work of God. The sinner’s prayer is a man-made formula that undercuts the passages (and many others) we just read above. Does that prayer somehow trigger a “washing of regeneration” or a birth of the Spirit? No. Instead it can lead to either uncertainty over eternal security or false assurance in salvation. This does not mean the Spirit cannot use any means He pleases, such as this prayer, to bring about the salvation of men. But just as we pointed out before it is often in spite of this formula rather than because of it. If you fall into either of the categories that were discussed above and are uncertain about your salvation or show no evidence of salvation, then examine yourself to see if you are really in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). Read 1 John followed up by the Gospel of John and if you’re life does not line up with Scripture then REPENT of your sins and BELIEVE on the Lord Jesus Christ. Then love Him with your whole heart, treasuring Christ above everything else. Christian if you have come to genuine faith in Christ, by repenting of your sins and trusting in Him for forgiveness of your sin, by way of the “sinner’s prayer” then thank God for His mercy and grace. But know that He saved you through no work of your own, no magical formula or recited prayer, no raised hand or walking of the isle, but “He saved us…according to His own mercy….”
“So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” Romans 9:16