The Sinner’s Prayer: A Bye-gone?

At the most recent SBC annual meeting there was a dustup about the wisdom of the Sinner’s Prayer in evangelism, and David Platt was the source of the concern because he had made some disparaging remarks about the effectiveness of the Sinner’s Prayer. I stand 100% with Platt on what he said. CT has published not only his own take on the event, and how he has been misrepresented, but also his long sermon in which his remarks were found.

The Sinner’s Prayer, which involves admission as a sinner, need for Christ, an expression of trusting in Christ, and a pledge to obedience, is the staple prayer for thousands and thousands of evangelists, preachers and parents. A few thoughts:

1. The heart of the response to the gospel in the New Testament is repentance, faith and baptism (involving confession); I discuss this briefly in The King Jesus Gospel. The Sinner’s Prayer can and sometimes does put into words both the repentance and the faith dimensions of the New Testament call to response. Even when it is done, it is inadequate: baptism and confession go beyond The Sinner’s Prayer.

2. The problem with The Sinner’s Prayer is that becomes quasi-magical for too many. How so? First, it is thought to be adequate and sufficient and efficient: if you’ve made this prayer, you’ve done enough; if you’ve made this prayer, you’ve done all you need to do; if you’ve made this prayer, salvation has occurred.

In other words, the problem is that The Sinner’s Prayer replaces King Jesus himself for too many. Instead of seeing redemption in Christ and knowing he alone is redemption, some transfer their belief to what they have done to trigger that redemption instead of focusing on King Jesus.

3. Another problem is that The Sinner’s Prayer is driven by a soterian system of thinking that is shaped by a one-time decision (a religious version of  “get er dun!”). Platt wants more, even though what I’ve seen of his work makes me think his gospel is soterian. Platt wants more of those who are converting; he wants it to be genuine, life-changing, Jesus-following stuff. The Sinner’s Prayer does not lead a person to that but, like most soterian frameworks, leads people to assurance that they are saved. This is not enough: Jesus called people to become disciples, not to make decisions.

The Sinner’s Prayer can be used to articulate what repentance and faith can mean; too often it becomes a shallow, superficial, let’s-hope-this-person-continues kind of action that falls short of the gospel summons of the New Testament.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • brian

    I am in agreement with everything this article. My question is how do we not become unheathly reactionary and not help people practically respond. In a faithful manner, what does it look like to help those responding to Christ? How do we counsel and encourage holistically? An over-reaction would be to stop guiding new followers because of not wanting to fall into the same tensions of what is described above.

  • scotmcknight

    brian,

    You are exactly right, and so much disaffection with evangelism today is rooted in stuff like the Sinner’s Prayer. We need to return to the basics of gospeling in the NT: repent, believe and baptism. Instead of a “decide” or “admit” mode we need to focus more on the “surrender” mode.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    Yes! Thank you. (Is this long enough? :) )

  • Tim Hallman

    I used a form of the Sinners Prayer this morning in our worship at Anchor. But it was framed as a response to the prompting of the Spirit, it was a pledge of allegiance to the Lordship of Jesus as Savior, and it was about forgiveness of sins with the expectation we forgive others in response- this emphasis instead of the framing of salvation as “heaven when I die” I suppose I can’t really refer to it as a Sinners Prayer, but the classic Sinners Prayer was in the back of my head as I lead the congregation as I prayed – and intentionally deviated from the classic prayer.

  • http://derekouellette.com Derek

    Scot, can you offer an alternative approach scenario? I’d love to read an article, and yes I’m asking you to tap into your hidden fiction-lit side, with two fiction scenarios. 1) here’s a fiction scenario where the sinners prayer is normally used (and here’s what that looks like) 2) but here’s that exact scenario, but with an alternative approach.

    Go.

    Derek ;)

  • A Medrano

    An alternative approach I think would be to challenge them to discard all their habits, possessions, and relationships that were of either a bad influence or had a tie to a bad past. And follow up with them. The rejection of the old lifestyle is better than the sinners prayer. Baptism is the symbol which would represent the change the individual has made. Forsaking the old to live a better life with Jesus. That’s where conversion happens.

  • ao

    Amen, Scot! I loved every word of this. Thanks for saying it!

  • Dave

    I appreciate the perspective on the sinners prayer and it can, of course become formulaic and even magical. But if the problem is with a decision of some sort, what is the difference between the decision expressed by prayer and the decision to repent (certainly a decision precedes the action), to become a disciple or to be baptized?

    Of course the scriptural directive is to repent and be baptized, but the critique of the ‘decision’ model here largely applies to the other outward expressions of faith that you advocate Scot.

  • mike m

    So you’re saying I’m not saved? I said that prayer, and I believed it…does God not honor that? It took me almost 30 years later to really begin listening for the holy spirit and to begin to seek his will for my life. Does that mean I’m saved now? Because I made the decision then and NOW I am a disciple? If that is the case, then that means my own choices and actions have saved me…you KNOW that is not possible. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) The thief on the cross acknowledged that Christ had done nothing wrong and that he was the son of God. All the thief did was say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”. And what did Jesus answer? You have to be baptized first? NO! You have to be a ‘disciple’ first? NO! Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)
    Believe and Receive…don’t try to make it more difficult for people to come to Christ.

  • scotmcknight

    Mike M,
    No one’s trying to make it more difficult than it is but instead we are trying to be as faithful as we can to the Bible’s witness — and it all depends on what you mean by “believe and receive” but Jesus said “repent and believe” in Matt 4:17. That theme is continued right through Acts. I’m sticking with Jesus on this one.
    And Mike, no one has said someone who prays that prayer isn’t saved; they are saying that prayer, when perceived as the efficient, necessary and adequate trigger of salvation, are making a mistake.

  • scotmcknight

    Dave, I wouldn’t say we should advocate a “decision to repent” but instead we should advocate turning from where we are, whom we trust, etc, to God in Christ through the Spirit. So this isn’t about a decision so much as an inner-revolution of surrendering to God.

  • Will

    We need disciples not just decisions. The body of Christ has been crippled by a call to a one time decision rather than communicating Jesus’ invitation to live a Kingdom life.

  • mike m

    If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is that the prayer itself is not some magic talisman that imbues you with salvation…just “saying” the words is not enough…I would whole-heartedly agree with that statement, you must, as you pointed out “repent and believe.”. The mistake some of us make is tacking on further requirements, such as baptism…certainly Jesus modeled baptism for us and we should do it in obedience, but it is not a condition of salvation. I’m sticking with Jesus too:)

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I do believe mike m brings up some good points because we don’t want it to be legalistic. But, I have no problem with having a fairway approach and then other clubs and other games to use in getting out of a sand trap (the thief on the cross), or to get out of the rufffff (the man lowered through the roof.

    When I was in grade school, I was taught that if I found someone dying or in big trouble that I should find some water and offer to baptize them. They made us practice this. I have always had this odd fantasy of finding someone on their back in a grassy meadow by a stream and I comfort them and baptize them before they die. …..

  • David Cheyne

    What is the purpose of evangelism? Is it to inform a person as to what they must believe? Is the prayer a statement of good theology? How does it go beyond good words and lead to entering into a life-changing love relationship with God. As a person whose life was transformed said to me, “I was taught all the right theology and said the right words, BUT you introduced me to Jesus Christ and his love. I am truly a new person and am in a love relationship every day with my Living God.”
    This is much different than the person who says, “I said the sinners prayer and now I have done the deed. You tell me I am in”

  • Bev Mitchell

    Scot,

    I like your emphasis in (11). The initial step, no matter how tentative, is turning –  seeing/agreeing that the centre is not “me” after all but Christ. As to who is “saved” and how quickly they have to turn to be “saved” is, fortunately, above our pay grade. We even have Paul introducing ideas like “being saved” as a process. 

    Accepting the gift of faith from the Holy Spirit to the extent that I turn from my self-centered focus (repent) and adopt a Christ-centered focus (believe) in order to begin the process of being saved works for me too.

    This turning and believing can take time or be quite sudden. Speculation on the speed (rate) of this turning has led to enough problems to make us all queasy. 

  • scotmcknight

    David Cheyne,
    The purpose of evangelism is to declare/announce that Jesus is King/Lord and Messiah who rules and saves. Gospeling is declaring something about Jesus.

  • MichaellS

    In my own approach, are they things which become of sound doctrine, if not okay, disown, otherwise, pack in all merited works for His glory to use as He leads. Oversimplified? That again for example is His lead for each to use or not. God Bless!

  • Percival

    Repentance does not equal confession. Confession is just one step toward repentance, albeit a key step. It is not that confession is not needed, rather it is that a shallow general confession of sins is inadequate to help move the penitent towards full repentance. In the old days, the penitent was enjoined to “pray through.” If that phrase seems strange to most JCreed readers, it shows how much we have changed over the decades. (But then again, who has time for “praying through” nowadays? We need to move people out to get ready for for the 11:00 service.)

  • http://prodigalthought.net ScottL

    Scot -

    I, of course, appreciate your thoughts. In comment #2, you said:

    ‘We need to return to the basics of gospeling in the NT: repent, believe and baptism.’

    I agree, but what do you think of also teaching about the ‘receiving the Holy Spirit’, helping people understand this aspect of salvation. I know we consider it automatic, the Spirit just comes to the believer, so why explain something. But this might be (or is) important in discipleship. I think Luke (in Acts) has more of a focus on the baptism/filling of the Spirit for empowered service, rather than initiation into Christ, while Paul focuses more on that initiation into Christ as sons and daughters of God. But obviously discipleship calls for empowered service and the testimony we find in Acts is that people recognised they were filled/baptised with the Spirit.

    I do hope no one precludes this discussion with – Acts is simply descriptive, not prescriptive. I don’t want to set a kind of law about the Spirit. But Acts is didactic narrative. It is given to teach us something about what it means to follow Christ, including the pneumatological aspects.

  • http://www.derwinlgray.com Derwin L. Gray

    Scott,

    a person can be baptized yet be unregenerate.

    a person can serve in ministry yet be unregenerate.

    a person can say the sinner’s prayer and be unregenerate.

    The sinner’s prayer is merely a conduit to Jesus. Jesus and His finished work saves and redeems (humanity and creation). 1 John 5:11-13

    As pastor, I must clearly articulate the Gospel as best I can and then trust God who gives the increase. Let’s not micro-mange who has truly been converted and who hasn’t. People mature at different rates. Let’s not turn grace into works.

  • Anita Norman

    As a bit of background clarification, I was raised in the Assemblies of God but left that judgmental, back-biting faith in favor of a lifelong music ministry in the mainstream churches. As such, I have experienced a great diversity of theologies and interpretations of things like confession, discipleship, charity, etc.

    In my young adult years, when most everyone questions why they believe what they believe, I struggled with the disparity between the A/G condemnation of works-based theologies and the preacher’s words from the pulpit telling me that unless I ALSO lived a sin-free life, gave my tithes and offerings, obeyed the Ten Commandments, etc., etc., I wasn’t truly saved.

    Even back in my Fundamentalist days, I rarely heard the Sinner’s Prayer from the pulpit without a follow-up encouragement to become part of the church, which is where the theology of baptism and discipleship are taught and applied. Maybe I’m reading it wrong, but it seems like Scot is saying that praying the Sinner’s Prayer isn’t enough to be saved, that if I merely confess that I’m a sinner and ask Jesus to be my Lord and Savior, then get hit by a truck before having a chance to come back to church and be baptized and grow as a disciple, I wouldn’t be saved. This has “works-based theology” written all over it, with which I strongly disagree. I agree that the Sinner’s Prayer should not be the beginning AND end of a person’s new life in Christ, but to imply that it has no worth and should become a “bygone” makes me wonder if the thief Jesus forgave on the cross is really in heaven, having not had the chance to be baptized or grow in his faith.

    I assume that this is a primarily a forum for the ordained, whilst I am a mere choir director and organist, so perhaps I am way out of line, and I apologize.

  • Josh

    Scot,

    I agree with Platt on the sinner’s prayer being a problem, but his CT article left a bad taste in my mouth. It seems he replaced the magical formula “I’m saved because I said these words” salvation with a “if I’m truly born again I will exhibit such-and-such radical super-Christian behavior.” I used to tell kids in a Sunday School class that I helped teach (SBC) that I wasn’t all that interested that said a prayer at some point, but whether or not they’re following Jesus now. But with Platt it seems his solution to the sinners prayer is to replace it with a different kind of overly introspective way of thinking that on the surface sounds like it’s focused on Jesus, but probably drives those who are struggling not to him, but into their own anxious thoughts of whether or not they’ve had a genuine conversion experience.

  • http://www.davecrabb.com David Crabb

    Agreed. Thanks Scot. I wrote on this last week and gave four reasons why it seems generally unwise to lead people to pray the Sinner’s Prayer.

    http://www.davecrabb.com/2012/06/22/should-we-lead-someone-to-pray-the-sinners-prayer/

  • http://www.proclamaction.com josh

    Amen, amen, and amen. Growing up in a tradition whose bread and butter was the sinner’s prayer, I’m happy to now be in a community that realizes exactly what you’ve said here. Rather than encouraging a private prayer and a private hand-raising confession (“with no one looking but the preacher at the front”) I now encourage a four-fold response of belief, confession, repentance, and baptism. Of course, this is very neat and tidy within the confines of a blog response; it’s much more fluid in real life. But I find this approach more biblically justifiable than the sinners prayer approach.

    Perhaps a hidden shift that we’ll have to address the further we move away from the sinners prayer is the need to know time and place of your conversion in order to justify your experience in some traditions. I’ve encouraged people to look to their baptism to serve that purpose, but I’d be interested to know what others do here.

  • http://seldomwrong.blogspot.com SWNID

    Scot, when you gloss baptism as “confessional,” do you understand that as a confession to God/Christ, a confession to people, or a confession of both? Similarly, is it a confession of faith in Christ, a confession of sinfulness or a confession of both?

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    This is why understanding covenant and cHesed are so important. I’m doing what I call a Tweetinar on cHesed… it will last a couple of more months … and I use the imagery of being born again as cutting the umbilical cord from the natural “wild” vine so that the Holy Spirit may graft one into the True Vine, Jesus. It is the remaining “in Christ” and letting the life of the Vine flow into the grafted branch that allows growth and the production of fruit.

    This “cutting off” is the dying to self that is so essential, so that we can live in Christ. It is a mature decision, not the too-frequent emotional one that accompanies a “magical” prayer.

    Thanks for this, Scot — I will never forget the look on my senior pastor’s face, as we were discussing cHesed, as he said to me: then you would never used the Sinner’s Prayer? Exactly.

  • http://paroikos.com Rob Ely

    “Platt wants more of those who are converting; he wants it to be genuine, life-changing, Jesus-following stuff.”

    Not a huge Platt fan, but he is right on with this sentence.

  • Kristin

    I think the Sinner’s Prayer can be helpful when ministering one on one to people who are already “cut to the heart” but actually don’t know how to pray or what to do next…I kind of view it as a personal introduction to God, like formally meeting him for the first time. Basically, when used as a RESPONSE to the inward work of the Spirit that has already begun.

    I become wary of the Sinner’s Prayer when it used in evangelism, ie trying to convince or persuade people to pray this prayer, or when valued for its speed and efficiency, like a massive altar call or street evangelism.

  • http://www.northminstersandiego.com Markus Watson

    I grew up in Campus Crusade and the goal of all our evangelism efforts was to get them to the prayer at the end of the 4 Spiritual Laws. Don’t get me wrong–CCC was a wonderful experience and a huge reason for why I’m a pastor today. And while there may be times when a sinner’s prayer might be appropriate, I’m more interested in helping people experience real life transformation by the Spirit of God. Most stories of “conversion” in our congregation are stories of gradual conversion. But the lives of these folks reflects a kind of conversion that is evident in the way they now live.

  • http://prodigalthought.net ScottL

    Mike M (comment #13) -

    You might want to read passages about baptism/being baptised. Quite significant things to say about it, even using the concept of salvation with it. Sounds scary to evangelicals, but it is biblical. Of course, we can approach those verses with a system that says “baptism is a work of us” and we are not saved by our works, therefore baptism doesn’t save. Or we can take the verses as they are truly stated. Baptism is important, extremely important in our walking out our salvation in Christ.

    Now, having said that, if one is water baptised without faith and repentance, well, they just get wet. But true baptism is a gracious act of God, a powerful working of God by faith (as Col 2:11-12 speaks of it). God’s grace is very active in water baptism.

    We are not trying to work our way to God. We are working out our salvation with fear and trembling as God has given to us. It is His, and His alone, gracious act. We just participate.

    Of course, there is the enigmatic thief on the cross – he died without baptism. Well, if one is planning on dying tonight, then of course the grace of God is sufficient. But 99.99% of us will not die in the time of our coming to Christ, our believing and repenting. So why not step into the waters and work out that gracious work of God?

  • http://therealprayer.wordpress.com Jeff

    The fact that anyone could create a “dustup” over something like this both amuses and saddens me. I left mainstream ministry years ago over the weariness created by similar events, and had I not stumbled across your blog I would not have dreamed that discussions like this still crop up in denominational meetings. I remember being trained in EE years ago and feeling as if I were simply “closing” for some financial deal like selling a car or a piece of real estate.

    Just read the many responses here: baptism-no baptism, confession-no confession, public-private, each person no doubt able to prop up their ideas with scripture. I can’t imagine the man creating the dustup is more concerned with the lost than with garnering some attention for himself or his church.

    For example, I’m obsessed with the Lord’s Prayer. I speak about it, write about, promote its revival, etc., but it is not the only way to pray, the only prayer, the best prayer, or anything else. It has simply allowed me, in my old age, to reclaim some of the simplicity of the faith in God that I lost in my younger years as a theological know-it-all. I really would like to think that this man is in fact searching for some of that simplicity himself, and not the attention-getting I may have unfairly suggested above.

  • Anita Norman

    Amen, Jeff. The Sinner’s Prayer is not the only path to salvation any more than the Lord’s Prayer is the only path to communion with God. Each is a vehicle – one vehicle among many – that can serve as a way to open the door to a relationship with Jesus Christ or a dialogue with God. Saying the Sinner’s Prayer and leaving it at that, while according to Romans 10:9-10 would save us from our sins, would surely not go far in helping the new convert continue in his walk with the Lord. The Lord’s Prayer was a gift from Christ Himself in response to His disciples’ asking, “Lord, how should we pray?” I find great peace when I recite it in the worship service, but limiting ourselves to that single prayer robs us of the chance to make God personal, to talk with Him from the depths of our heart.

    Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the unsaved come to us looking for a pathway to Christ, a door that is easily and effectively opened by praying the Sinner’s Prayer. We shouldn’t deny them that first taste of the joy of having Christ in their heart, but then we must also encourage them to follow through with Believer’s Baptism, studying the Word, ministering to others, etc., so that they can grow as Christians and walk with Christ throughout the rest of their lives.

  • TR Wells

    I am glad that anyone questions a man made confession and calls for a look at Scripture. It is always in the best interest of everyone to reject a man made mode of salvation. Baptist seek to be biblical but have adopted a non biblical approach of a “wink and a nod” means of being saved. It just is far better to speak where the Bible speaks.

  • Damien Barber

    “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you— not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” ~ 1 Pet 3:21

    “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” ~ Mark 16:16

    “Peter said to them, “ Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” ~ Acts 2:38

    Faith, repentance, and baptism are all necessary to accept God’s offer of salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. When we see someone has faith and is willing to repent of their sins, may we all say to them as Ananias said to Paul in Acts 22:16:

    “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”

  • Kwokwah

    The sinner’s prayer is the ‘gateway’ not the end.Following the sinner’s prayer is a process of growth, hence the importance of follow up and spiritual mentorship.

  • Paul King

    The argument using the “sinner’s prayer” as an example for answering to the gospel call is simply not the instruction given by Jesus Christ himself after his crucifiction. It does not conform with good theology.

  • Charles Richardson

    Never once in the New Testament can a person find an example of where people were saved by praying a prayer… regardless of the content. We can find numerous examples where people believed, repented, and were baptized… but not once can we find a prayer being the point of salvation for a person. If we want to be saved, we must do the things people did in the 1st Century… because Scripture wholeheartedly indicates salvation occured in their lives.

  • Bill

    IF i ever heard someone asking another someone to do the *sinners prayer* i’d tell them to RUNNNNNNNNNNNN!!! It’s as bad as promising someone if they give their hearts to Jesus they will get a nice life in return! Repent believe and be baptized PERIOD!


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