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.
It’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 3:26; Ephesians 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.