The Sinner’s Prayer & the Gospel

The “Sinner’s Prayer” has come up a lot for me lately. On Sunday, I was in a “Life Group,” which the other, more long-term members do not hesitate to call Sunday school. We’re going through a book on prayer, and the last two chapters were on healing and the sinner’s prayer.

Крамской И.Н. Молитва Моисея после перехода израильтян через Черное море 1861

Like most other Sundays, we tried to get through two chapters of the book. Like most other Sundays, we failed. We have a whole hour and a half for the study. We chat for 15 minutes, use an hour or more for the first chapter, and then we race through the second chapter in 5-10 minutes so we can say we did it.

Thus, the need for speed spared me from being asked any questions or commenting on the chapter on the sinner’s prayer. The leader did, however, ask at the end, “We’ve all prayed the sinner’s prayer, right?”

I didn’t know what to say. Yeah, I prayed the sinner’s prayer for a month, every day when I was 12 or 13, because I had read The Cross and the Switchblade and a whole bunch of Jack Chick literature.

Nothing happened. I learned that God doesn’t answer that prayer and that Christianity doesn’t work, so I gave it up.

Eight years later, God drew me back to him, I said out loud that I believe Jesus is the Son of God, and the I was instantly transformed.

That’s an understatement. The whole world was transformed.

A few months later, trying to figure out what John 3:5 (“born of water and Spirit”) meant, I looked up every New Testament word that started with “bapt” and every occurrence of “water.”

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. My friends said I had no business trying to find out what John 3:5 meant. I needed to be satisfied that it didn’t mean baptism. Never mind what it did mean. Looking for that could only lead to heresy.

Really. I’m not making that up.

I made the unfortunated discovery that the apostles never had anyone say a “sinner’s prayer.” They baptized their converts, although one verse does point out that they were baptized “calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).

Check it out for yourself. They always baptized them, and it was always immediately. The Philippian jailer and his household were baptized in the middle of the night! (Acts 16).

Baptism was the apostles’ “sinner’s prayer.”

If we use the NASB, then Peter calls baptism a sinner’s prayer. He says it is “the plea to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21).

I’ve looked up that translation in the most respected lexicons and Greek dictionaries. It’s impossible to determine whether it ought to be a plea to God “from” a good conscience or “for” a good conscience, but “plea to God” is definitely the preferred translation of Liddel-Scott and other respected lexicons.

I have to suppose that’s why Paul says that baptism is what brings us into Christ (Gal. 3:27), and that it is the place that we are buried and rise again in Christ (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 1:11-12). It is why Peter says baptism is for the remission of sins and Ananias tells Paul to wash away his sins in baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16).

I don’t want to fault those of you whom God was gracious to save despite the fact that we have replaced baptism with a prayer. I, too, was not baptized for a month after the day that Jesus baptized me with the Holy Spirit and released me from sin.

In Prayer
By Senia L (Flickr: in Prayer) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So I was baptized wrong, just like you probably were.

This post isn’t supposed to be about baptism, though. Let’s get back to …

The Sinner’s Prayer

In the book we read on Sunday, the author admitted that there’s no direct evidence in the Scripture for a “sinner’s prayer.” He pointed out that the Bible doesn’t use the word Trinity, either, yet the Scriptures not only teach the Trinity (well, not our modern version of it), but they list the persons of the Trinity on purpose repeatedly (e.g. Matt. 28:19-20; Rom. 15:16; 2 Cor. 13:14).

True enough, but where are the Scriptures supporting a sinner’s prayer? When did the apostles employ a sinner’s prayer?

The book referenced Romans 10:9-10.

If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved. For with the heart one believes leading to righteousness, and with the mouth one confesses leading to salvation.

There you go. Confession leading to salvation is the sinner’s prayer.

Let’s assume this is true. I want to ask a different question.

What Are the Contents of the Sinner’s Prayer?

Everyone in a conservative evangelical church knows how to pray a sinner’s prayer. It goes something like this:

Father, I believe that Jesus died for my sins. I believe that I am a sinner and cannot save myself, and I am trusting only in Jesus for my salvation. Thank you for making me your child and bringing me to your heaven because of Jesus’ blood. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Not every sinner’s prayer is exactly like that, but they are all very similar.

I wrote a booklet called The Apostles’ Gospel (available at Amazon and on Kindle). It is a simple, easy-to-read study of the sermons the apostles preached to the lost. It is simple, but it is not easy to swallow or digest. It makes it clear that we have taken a message meant for the church, a message not once preached to the lost by the apostles, and we have turned into a gospel that bears little similarity to the Gospel the apostles preached.

Our sinner’s prayer does exactly the same thing.

What confession did Paul say would save us? What belief did he say would bring us to righteousness?

We are to confess Jesus as Lord, and we are to believe that God raised him from the dead.

This is perfectly in line with what the apostles preached in Acts to the lost.

Look for it in the sinner’s prayer I wrote above. Doesn’t bear much resemblance to Romans 10:9-10 now, does it?

Where is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord? Where is the acknowledgement that God raised him from the dead?

We emphasize Jesus’ death to the lost. It is the emphasis of the sinner’s prayer. It is shocking, I know, but the apostles never told a lost person, not anywhere in the New Testament, why Jesus died.

They did tell them that Jesus died. They had to. They were appointed to be “witnesses of the resurrection” (Acts 1:22; 2:32; 4:33; 10:39-42; 13:30-31). That was their mission, the heart of their Gospel.

We Christians know the amazing effects of his death. We know that he purchased us with his blood. We know that he bore our inquities. We count his blood precious, and it is a motivation to holiness for us.

The lost may know this, but we are not called to preach this to them. The apostles never did. They were witnesses of the resurrection because the resurrection established that Jesus was God’s King, God’s Judge, God’s Chosen One, the Lord of all.

According to the apostles, if the lost want their sins forgiven, then they need acknowledge him as King and bow their knee to him. They don’t need to know he died for their sins. It will be emphasized to them later. They need to know that they must repent and do works befitting repentance (Acts 26:20). They need to know that they must be baptized and enter the kingdom of King Jesus, submitting themselves to his rule.

Because we don’t know this, we have a sinner’s prayer that tells God we understand the atonement. He wants to know that we understand that who the Lord, Judge, and King is (Acts 2:36-37).

Through this Man, the remission of sins are preached (Acts 13:38). Later they will find out the role of Jesus’ death and great cost of that remission, but when they hear the Gospel, they need only to know that he is Lord, Judge, and King, and he is the only one who can forgive sins.

Do you want to be saved? Confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord. Believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead to prove that he is the Son of God, the one to whom you owe all allegiance.

If you’re going to pray a sinner’s prayer, let it be that one. Let it be the one that is actually prescribed in Romans 10:9-10, not the one that we justify with Romans 10:9-10, though it bears no resemblance to what Paul prescribed.

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4 Responses to The Sinner’s Prayer & the Gospel

  1. Ruth says:

    amen! and thank you Paul.

  2. Whenever I’m asked about The Sinner’s Prayer by my Protestant friends, I usually point them to the Confiteor in the Roman Mass or the prayer we pray before communion in the Byzantine Rite:

    O Lord, I believe and profess that you are truly Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. Accept me as a partaker of your mystical supper, O Son of God; for I will not reveal your mystery to your enemies, nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief I confess to you: Remember me, O Lord, when you shall come into your kingdom. Remember me, O Master, when you shall come into your kingdom. Remember me, O Holy One, when you shall come into your kingdom. May the partaking of your Holy Mysteries, O Lord, be not for my judgment or condemnation, but for the healing of soul and body…

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