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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Sinner's Prayer

During the May 22nd, Hour 2 podcast from Way of the Master Radio (seriously, just download the program and I'll quit talking about it) we're forced to ask the question, "What possibly could be wrong with leading someone in a "sinner's prayer?"

Easy enough question, it seems. However, let me establish the scene for you. A man named Darrel is street preaching when a young man approaches him and says he wants to accept Jesus right then and there. There is an entire crowd around. Temptation may lead us to immediately pray with the guy, assuming the Spirit must be working. However, Darrel is discerning and starts asking questions about why the man wants to come to Christ. Darrel walks him through the gospel again, emphasizing repentance and trust, and the young man seems to nod along. Darrel is almost discouraging the young man from making a decision, yet the young man persists in wanting to pray. Finally, Darrel offers this option: "You pray to God, and then I'll pray for you." Here is the young man's prayer:
Lord, thank you for letting me see the Light among millions. I know for the past few years I've been messing up and I wish I could turn myself into something better. I want more help. I want more strengthening to reach my goals that I want to reach. And not only that Lord, I want to help out all my friends who know how much I did wrong, and they've turned, they've kind of like followed me, and I want them to change back to how they used to be, and how I used to be too.
RC Sproul has stated before that his conversion prayer was nothing glamorous. He certainly didn't understand the doctrines of grace when He prayed to God. However, he did pray, God, be merciful to me, the sinner!

But why be critical of a man's prayer to God? Isn't it just exciting that he is looking toward God? Is there possibly any harm to leading him in a prayer anyway? Couldn't his theology get straightened up during the prayer?

Here are some reasons why it is not a good idea:
    If he's has not come to the place of repentance and trust, the prayer is empty. Christ is the Way, not a prayer. This can not be accomplished simply by lip service (having the words repentance and trust come out of their mouths), but must happen in the heart.
    He's not listening. By the time a person is praying the sinner's prayer, they believe they know what it takes to be saved, and believe that you are confident that they know what it takes. At this point, they are repeating your words, but probably not taking them to heart.
    You give him a false sense of security. The only thing more tragic than a nonbeliever is a nonbeliever who thinks he is a believer. If you pray the "sinner's prayer" with a person who has not truly repented and trusted Jesus alone, you run the risk of that person believing they are saved when they truly aren't. How many people have you talked to who are confident they are saved because they repeated a prayer, but do not identify themselves as one who has repented of sin and trusted in Christ. I know I've met far too many.
Please do not think that I am saying that all people who repeat the sinner's prayer are not saved. I for one, am one who repeated the sinner's prayer. My salvation is not found in that prayer, but rather in the faith God has granted me, starting just before the time of that prayer. However, I've led people in the prayer far too many times and then wondered whether they truly meant it.

So what do you do? I suggest that Ray Comfort is on to something. Have them pray first, and then you pray for them. You can even reiterate how to receive the gospel in your offer. (For instance, "Why don't you confess to God your repentance from your sin, and call on Him to mercifully save you.) This is beneficial for a number of reasons:
    1. If the person does not indicate in their prayer an understanding of the gospel, you have an opportunity to pray for their salvation right then and there. You can call out to God to open the person's heart.
    2. Incidently, if the person has not indicated an understanding of the gospel, they hear you pray that you long for God to open their eyes. Quite clearly they hear that you still long for them to understand the gospel and respond.
    3. Know of people who tend to put spiritual notches in their belt for converts one? Doesn't it seem the glory is taken off of the Lord and placed upon the evangelist? Well, this eliminates that. No one "closed the deal," but rather, the Spirit drew the person to Christ and caused him to call out to God. The evidence of the Lord's work in salvation is all the more clear.
    4. The person did not need you. Discipleship is critical, but discipleship is not a two year program. Discipleship is a life long calling. What if you move away, or the Lord takes you home? Can those you are discipling survive without you? Sadly, there are many codependant relationships taking place under the guise of "discipleship." Having the person go before God, without your direction, reminds the person that they are not dependant upon any one specific man.
    5. Greater confidence in the conversion. I don't know how many times I have finished with a prayer, and the person leaves, and I'm left wondering, "Did they really mean it, or were they just repeating me?" Ugh. How much greater the joy in the situations where I have heard a person declare their own depravity and need of mercy from Christ on their own initiative!
    6. Keeps my eyes on my job. My job is not to win converts. My job is to preach the gospel, and allow God to create the increase. If the Spirit is drawing a person (through illuminating an accurate gospel presentation), then I am not necessary for the conclusion. I just need to present the gospel faithfully and then get out of the way. My success and failure is not gauged by the listener's response, but upon my faithfulness to the Word of God.
    7. It's Biblical. Isn't it amazing how an approach that works just happens to be what we see modeled in Scripture? We don't see a single apostle, prophet, John the Baptist, or our Messiah ever conclude a message with, "Now pray this prayer after me." Do we see them call people to repentance? All over the Bible! Do we see them call out to God for mercy? Again, from cover to cover! But that is all we see. We see them call people to repentance and then challenge the listener to call upon God for salvation. They don't do it for them.
Just another reminder, our theology should precede our methodology.


  • At 7:36 AM, Anonymous Brad said…

    Often on your blog you express concern for people who profess to be believers but who really are not.

    And though you've frequently hinted at situations where this might be so, I can't recall you giving any comprehensive list of those crteria you consider essential to Christian faith.

    I wonder if sometime you could articulate for your readers what it is someone must believe (or do)before you would consider them a genuine believer.

  • At 8:04 AM, Blogger danny2 said…

    good idea brad. i'll do that sometime.

  • At 9:08 AM, Blogger jason said…

    I bet one of those on the list is going to be signing a card and/or raising your hand and/or throwing your stick in the fire at summer camp.

    Seriously though, great post.

    The more we can understand the nature of true faith and dispell the rumors of what our world calls genuine faith the less we will see false positives.

    I was listening to Sproul's message from T4G this morning. I'm reminded of his statement about how confusion over the nature of justification by faith has led to all kinds of wacky theologies concerning those who apostocize. His solution? Preach "posession" of faith rather than "profession" of faith. In other words, emphasize the process over the event.

    Anyway, great post.

  • At 9:49 AM, Blogger Matt Strader said…

    good stuff man. I'm also one that believes there are many people who call themselves Christians because they've said the prayer but the fruit they bear is hardly the mark of a Christian. I wonder what percentage of people who claim to be Christians are actually true followers of Christ?

  • At 12:33 PM, Anonymous mcgriff said…

    One of the best evidences of a true conversion is our fruit that we bare. James 2:20 says that faith without works is dead. Too many times people put too much an emphasis on the salvation experience, or moment of salvation and that is what the cling to for hope of salvation. But if our lives do not show a continual pattern of obedience to God's Word then we are deceiving ourselves. Sure Christians can backslide, but God chastens whome He loves.

    John MacArthurs book The Gospel According to Jesus goes into great detail about this issue of works after salvation. "Lordship Salvation" - the idea that God is either your master/Lord/Savior or he is not. You can not be "saved" if He is not your Lord and Master also.


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