Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part One): “The Sinner’s Prayer”

NOTE:  Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable.  But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought.  In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.

 

5889311_origIt’s the go-to prayer for many evangelicals.  Across the globe, countless new believers are led in a “sinner’s prayer” for salvation.  It’s the moment when the newly converted “asks Jesus into their heart.”  Many children are led in this prayer by Sunday School teachers, children’s pastors and parents.  “Just repeat after me,” says the evangelist, “and pray this prayer.”

Historically, the sinner’s prayer emerged in the 19th century and is largely attributed to Dwight L. Moody.  Later evangelicals, particularly the crusade preachers like Billy Graham, used the prayer alongside altar calls.  It’s not uncommon in today’s evangelical and non-denominational churches for a preacher to close his sermon with an invitation to close the eyes, raise a hand and repeat a dictated prayer silently.  After which, the announcement is made that several “new Christians” are now in the church.

It seems like an innocuous and efficient tradition.  What could be wrong with saying a “sinner’s prayer?”  Actually, there are several problems.

The first problem is there’s absolutely no biblical example for a sinner’s prayer in the New Testament, particularly in the book of Acts (which documents how the early church operated in the first-century world, showing how people became Christians).  There’s no example of a sinner’s prayer in church history until the 19th century.  Unlike other traditions like baptism, Lord’s Supper/Eucharist, preaching, singing and offerings, the “sinner’s prayer” (as a vehicle for salvation) is both historically and biblically absent.

The second problem is the “sinner’s prayer” could be easily confused as a human work.  It’s something you do to receive Grace, especially if you must “repeat” or “read” a prescribed prayer.  The very act of repeating another person’s specific prayer is an act or work.  You’re doing it to gain salvation.  I realize this is a troubling conclusion but many “Christians” today believe that because they “prayed the prayer” (or any prayer) that they’re saved and, biblically, that’s simply not possible (as I’ll reveal momentarily).  Prayer is part of salvation but it’s not the golden ticket.  In fact, biblically, you can be saved without ever saying a prayer!

A third problem is the idea of “asking Jesus into your heart.”  This is so common today in churchianity that few believers think twice about it.  Jesus lives in my heart, right?  Well, that’s a very loaded theological question.  What I can say confidently is nowhere in the conversion process of New Testament believers did anyone “ask Jesus into their heart” (or even imply it!).  To the contrary, the New Testament states a believer “receives” or is “filled” with the Holy Spirit when they’re saved. Jesus, according to apostolic writers, is in Heaven to one day return.  The Holy Spirit indwells the human heart and is given as a “deposit” to guarantee full salvation when Jesus returns (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; 2 Timothy 1:14; Hebrews 9:28).

The fourth problem is the evangelical proposition, in particular, that belief alone grants salvation (and nothing else plays a part).  The Protestant Reformation recaptured an ancient biblical truth:  we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9).  However, in the past 150 years, many evangelical and non-denominational churches took it a step further:  faith or belief in God only saves.  But by that definition even the demons could gain salvation (James 2:19)!

So what does the New Testament actually say about salvation?  How (or when) is a person saved?  It’s a rather simple equation:  we are saved by grace, through faith, in baptism, for good works.

First, we are saved by GRACE (Ephesians 2:8-9).  We can’t do anything to gain God’s favor or earn His salvation.  Grace is free gift.  You can’t pray a prayer to be saved.  You can’t do enough good works.  You can’t even repent (change your habits, attitudes and lifestyle).

Second, we are saved through FAITH (Romans 5:1-2; Galatians 3:26Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 3:15; I Peter 1:9).  We must believe only in Jesus Christ.  Salvation comes in no other name (Acts 4:12).  Our faith is not in our parents, our pastor, our church, our denomination, our nationality, our ethnicity or our goodness.  Jesus alone saves us.

Third, we are saved in BAPTISM.  When we are baptized, according to apostolic teaching, we are “clothed in Christ” (Galatians 3:27), connected to the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:13); resurrected to life and dead to sin (Romans 6:3-14), spiritually washed (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5) and, yes, saved (I Peter 3:21).  In Acts 2:37-38, Peter reveals this simple template for salvation:  believe, repent, baptism.  It’s a popular evangelical idea to add “confession” (cherry-picking Romans 10:9-10) but confession is more a post-salvation act that proves your salvation.  Paul’s point in Romans 10, when writing to Roman Christians, isn’t to create a formula for salvation (belief and confess) but rather to reveal a continuing example of what the saved do:  they continue to believe and confess Christ as Lord after baptism (Romans 6:4ff).  Confession is important, but for the initiate a part of repentance. To learn more about baptism, watch this YouTube video I created.

Finally, we are saved for GOOD WORKS (James 2:14-26).  Once we are convicted and believe, then baptized, we experience the power to fully repent (change) and live abundantly (because the Holy Spirit lives inside us).  With changed attitudes come changed behaviors.  What we do and how we live proves our salvation.  James clearly points this out in his epistle.  Good works don’t save you, but once you are saved (belief, repentance, baptism), you will do good works as evidence you’re saved.

I truly don’t know how much more simple it can be.

Believe in Jesus.  Commit to change.  Be baptized.  Then live the change.

Throughout the book of Acts, the best textbook to show how the early church believed and practiced, no one was saved by saying a prayer alone.  No one was saved simply by doing acts of repentance.  Baptism, like the Red Sea for the Israelites, was the Divinely-orchestrated event that separated, sanctified and sealed.  Salvation didn’t come prior to the Red Sea but it was clearly pronounced after Pharaoh’s armies drowned in the waters (Exodus 15:1-2).  Paul even compared the Red Sea experience to baptism (I Corinthians 10:1-2) and professed that’s when he was “washed” and saved (Acts 22:16).

Of course the other cherry-picked Scripture for the sinner’s prayer is Revelation 3:20.  Jesus is standing at the heart’s door, knocking to come if we simply open it.  It’s a nice painting but a poor interpretation.  This passage has nothing to do with individual salvation.  Rather, it’s a corporate call to an entire first-century congregation to repent (they’re already believers!).  The whole church has locked Jesus out of their lives.

In summary, the “sinner’s prayer” is an evangelical salvation tool without a shred of biblical support and to employ it without repentance (which includes confessing and professing faith in Christ) and baptism to pronounce a person’s salvation is error.  If you truly desire salvation, follow Peter and Paul and the rest of the early church:  believe in Jesus, commit/confess to change and get baptized.

It’s truly that simple.

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About rickchromey

Dr. Rick Chromey is a theologian, philosopher, historian and cultural expert. He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach and parents to parent since 1985.

Posted on December 18, 2015, in Acts, Baptism, Biblical Interpretation, Salvation, Theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Spot on! However, why is nothing said about repentance? Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Lk 13:5) and declared that “repentance and forgiveness of sins” would be preached in his name. At the first preaching of he Gospel after Jesus’ ascension Peter proclaimed, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Unfortunately, there seems to be a gross neglect in proclaiming the need for repentance in today’s church. The dangerous result is that many people, like those who say the sinner’s prayer, think that because they believe and are baptized they are saved, leading to churches filled with members who have never seriously addressed the need for repentance about their sinful life style and/or toward God. Result: their lifestyle is never changed from a world-focus to a kingdom-focus. They have never experienced the true impact of Romans 6 and are not following Paul’s instructions, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:3). Question: If there has been no repentance is there truly a conversion? Can one be saved without repenting?

    • JMP, I completely agree. Repentance is definitely part of the picture. As I showed, the template is simple: believe, repent, get baptized. Prior to baptism, I believe this repentance is more attitudinal, however. It’s a desire to change more than actual change. However, once indwelled with the Holy Spirit (at baptism), the desire to change is coupled with the POWER to change. Our change (repentance) is revealed through the good works that James suggests is part of LIVING salvation: “faith without works is dead.” Make sense? Thanks for reading and chipping in your additional insights, friend.

  2. I too like your article and was going to ask about repentance, but I see you have addressed that in your above response. I do have comments that perhaps you will be addressing in a future article.
    First, a bit of my personal background. I was brought up in a Southern Baptist Church and there are lots of well-meaning Christians there, but for certain there is lots of emphasis on the sinner’s prayer and much talk of “asking Jesus into your heart”. I realized early on in life (13-14 years old) that there was more to being a Christian than showing up at Church when it was in session and the superficial Christianity that I saw in so many in the Church. I began to understand that there are many false converts in the Church. As an adult, I chose to seek a different local assembly. I ended up in a local “First Christian Church”, and initially had problems with baptism as a part of salvation. But after a look at scripture, I discovered that my beliefs were based on traditions of man and not on what scripture says. I now believe that baptism is a part of one’s salvation process.
    That being said, and getting to my comments, I believe we need to be careful how we speak about this. After I became a part of the local “First Christian Church”, I noticed that ministers spoke would make statements at an invitation time such as, “Come be baptized and have your sins washed away”. Now, they are obviously speaking to non-Christians and these people might be inclined to think the act of baptism will save them alone. My heart sinks when I hear Jesus left out of the salvation process and I hear it a lot in this tradition.
    Another thing that Christians do is think that sin does not need to be mentioned in the context of giving the Gospel message to someone. In an adult Bible study group, this came up in the context of the study. I made the statement that sin is a part of the Gospel message. It was argued that all we need to do is tell of the love of the Lord (God, Jesus) and what he did for us. This was even argued by a couple of the elders that were in that class. I asked what he did, and they said, “He died for us”. I replied that His dying for us makes no sense if it is not understood that we face certain judgement for our sin. If the bad news (sin & judgement) is understood, then the good news (Jesus paid the price for my sin) can be appreciated. Romans is pretty clear that God is angry with sinners and will judge them. We will suffer God’s wrath unless we are covered by the payment that Jesus made…

  3. I like your article, and I agree with it…
    Except for one tiny piece. Your third problem where you write about “asking Jesus into your heart.” It is true that I have found no verses in the NT about asking Jesus into my heart. However, I think this part of the sinner’s prayer is not literal, but figurative, and I believe the apostles, especially Paul wrote that Jesus can live in you in a figurative sense.
    Colossians 1:27 NASB reads, “…to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
    Furthermore, I found this article which highlights seven other verses where Jesus FIGURATIVELY lives in us:
    http://biblesforamerica.org/8-verses-showing-jesus-lives/

    • Tim, thank you for the comment. I see your point and know the verse (Colossians 1:27) well. If the “sinner’s prayer” and the convert asked the “Spirit” (not Jesus) to come into their life, it might be different. That would, at least, be biblical (as I’ll show momentarily). I find the “figurative” interpretation interesting because, of course, it’s figurative. To “literally” (if I understand your intent and meaning) have “Jesus in your heart” would be impossible. Jesus is in my heart like anything (or anyone) else I love. My wife (whom I love) is in my heart. My passion for St. Louis Cardinal baseball (whom I love) is in my heart. Pizza (whom I love) is in my heart. Jesus is LORD of “loves” and my heart though.

      The problem is, again, there’s still NO theological or ecclesiastical example for “asking Jesus into your heart.” In the New Testament teaching, Jesus is ABSENT from earth and His creation, until He returns. The Holy Spirit was promised and sent (as a Comforter, Counselor and Sealer) until the Day Christ returns (John 14:15-31; Acts 1:4-10; I Cor 15:20-26; Ephesians 4:30; Hebrews 8:28). This is why early Christians hoped for the “soon” return of Jesus. This presents an eschatological problem that few 21C Christians truly consider, since Christians (including myself) generally act/feel/think Jesus lives IN them. Colossians 1:27 points to the HOPE OF GLORY when Christ and Creation are forever united. What N.T. teaching says is we have the “Spirit of Christ” living in us:

      Romans 8:9-11: You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

      So to (literally or figuratively) ask JESUS into our heart isn’t possible. It’s when Christ returns that Jesus and man dwell forever in complete relationship. Until then, it’s the SPIRIT of Christ living in us or the Holy Spirit in the “name of Jesus.” We are baptized “in the name of Jesus” and sealed with Spirit to guarantee our full salvation. We live “in Christ” but does Christ (fully) live in/with us? Not until His return! Hence, the eschatological problem.

  4. Yes the sinners prayer is unbiblical as is the doctrines of faith alone and grace alone. The New Covenant is a free will covenant where salvation is by grace (God’s work) through faith (man’s work). Unfortunately you’ve made a couple of glaring unbiblical mistakes yourself.

    You correctly identifed the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a guarantee until Christ’s parousia but you misidentified the time of the parousia and the nature of the indwelling. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit did not happen at baptism but by the laying on of the Apostles’ hands as recorded in Acts and the parousia occurred in the 1st Century, “this generation,” at the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. No one in our Century receives the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Wrong time and wrong method of reception.

    • David, I appreciate your comments and thank you for sharing your concern about my “unbiblical mistakes.” Since the point of this article is the “Sinner’s Prayer” I intentionally was vague on the eschatological assumptions. Whether preterist or futurist, historicist or spiritualist on eschatology, it doesn’t matter. I leave that problem to my reader and to the subject of a different blog.

      As per your biblical position the Holy Spirit did not indwell a believer at baptism but rather when the Apostles laid hands upon a person, I think you’re only seeing half the story in Acts.

      Without a doubt, the Holy Spirit indwelled a believer when they were baptized (Acts 2:38 being the template, though there are many other passages). A person RECEIVED the Holy Spirit, which acted as a “seal” for salvation, counselor, and comforter.

      However, during the apostolic age, a second anointing of the Holy Spirit happened where the Spirit FELL UPON or CAME UPON a person, who already enjoyed the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This second anointing always manifested itself with the ability to speak in unknown languages, heal, raise the dead, and other spectacular miracles. Not everyone received this “second anointing” because the only way it could be given was through the Apostle’s hands.

      We see this “second anointing” playing out in several conversion episodes in Acts. The first are the Apostles themselves. In John 20:21-22, Jesus appears to his disciples post-resurrection and INDWELLS them with the Holy Spirit personally. Forgiveness of sin is connected to this action. Later in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit “came to rest upon” these disciples and they spoke in various known languages (vv. 2-4). Peter will preach his famous sermon and 3000 people will accept it, being baptized, for the forgiveness of sin and the gift (indwelling) of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). There is no biblical clue the Apostles laid their hands on any of these new Pentecostal converts. And yet we can assume they did (from the next story).

      Later, in Acts 8, Philip is preaching in Samaria. He’s obviously received this “second anointing” because of the supernatural miracles he’s doing (vv. 9-13). And yet, Philip can only baptize believers (to receive the indwelling Holy Spirit). He has no ability to pass on the gifts. We know this because Peter and John have to travel to Samaria to “lay hands” on these Samaritans in order for them to receive this “second anointing” (or “falling upon” of the Holy Spirit to speak in unknown languages, work miracles [v. 18]). Simon the sorcerer is impressed with Philip’s gifts, but hungers for the ability to PASS ON these gifts even more. This produces a rebuke from Peter (vv. 20-23).

      In a third episode, Peter is called to go to Gentiles (something no good Jew would do). In Acts 10, it takes a special vision and visitors to convince him to go to Cornelius’ house. Peter starts to preach like on Pentecost but something strange happens: the Holy Spirit CAME UPON (“second anointing”) Cornelius and his household start speaking in unknown languages (vv. 44-46). This baffles Peter because NOBODY gets this “second anointing” without having an apostle give it to him by laying on of hands (which Peter didn’t do) and NOBODY gets it prior to being baptized (forgiveness of sin and reception of INDWELLING Holy Spirit). God completely blows Peter’s theology to show the Gentiles were worthy of the gospel. And yet, despite the Holy Spirit “coming upon” Cornelius’ household, NONE of them were saved yet. That’s why Peter then “orders” them to be baptized (vv 47-48). They still needed to RECEIVE the INDWELLING of the Holy Spirit.

      In a fourth episode, Paul encounters some disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19). Paul asks them “Did you RECEIVE (indwelling) the Holy Spirit when you believed (v. 2)?” The disciples said they hadn’t heard of this Holy Spirit and Paul takes them immediately to the the PLACE where the Holy Spirit is received: baptism. He asks them about their baptism and discovers they were baptized by John. Paul teaches them that Jesus’ baptism INDWELLS them with the Holy Spirit and then baptizes them (v. 5). After they were baptized, Paul then lays hands on them to receive the “second anointing” (v. 6). The Scripture says the Holy Spirit “came upon” these disciples and they spoke in different languages.

      I’ve taken the time to lay out this clear pattern in Acts because its important to understand what happens at our baptisms. Today, just like on Pentecost or with Cornelius or the Samaritans, when we are baptized we RECEIVE the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (forgiving our sins, sealing us for salvation, to comfort and counsel). The “second anointing” (my opinion) was a special use deal (passed on only by the Apostle’s hands) and became obsolete once everyone who received it died.

      WATER BAPTISM: Holy Spirit indwells
      “SECOND ANOINTING” (limited to those the apostle’s gave it to): Holy Spirit “falls” or “comes upon”

      I do believe you are in error to conclude “no one in our Century receives the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” It’s simply not true. I have many preterist friends who wouldn’t agree with such a theological conclusion. Even with a 70 AD parousia, the Revelation states a “washing of robes” (clear reference to water baptism) is required to “enter the city” and enjoy the tree of life (Revelation 22:14).

      Thanks again for sharing, David, and God bless you in your journey with Christ.

  5. One of the reasons Protestants broke from the Catholic church is because they disagreed with salvation by prayer. (i.e. “Say 50 ‘Hail Marys’ and 25 ‘Our Fathers’ and you will be absolved.”) Several hundred years later, salvation by prayer is a common part of Protestant teaching.

  6. wish someone taught me this earlier

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