Instead of the Sinner’s Prayer…

I’ve been asked more than once What do you say, then, when you are calling people to … here the words matter but I don’t want to parse them at this point … decision? I have observed, with David Platt, that the Sinner’s Prayer is neither here nor there; it’s not the point; it can be the right thing for the right person but it can (too) easily become a magical potion for some evangelists and for some responders. We need to begin at the core of what the proper response to the gospel is:

Here are some reflections:

1. Remember, gospeling is not fundamentally about pleading, persuading, pleasing, or getting folks to decide. Gospeling is to announce something about Jesus. The rhetorical bundle of revivalism, which I have sketched in The King Jesus Gospel, is not the gospel of Jesus or the apostles, and it is bundle of rhetoric designed to persuade and plead and to precipitate decisions.

2. The gospel itself awakens, through the power of God’s Spirit, folks to respond. Don’t forget this: our calling is to witness, God’s Advocate, the Spirit, awakens and draws people to God. God’s Spirit is at work in all and for all.

3. The appropriate response to hearing the message about Jesus, a message that generates this question: Who is Jesus?, is to repent, to believe, and to be baptized. Confession, yes, of course — inchoately or not — but all of these can be wrapped up into the notion of surrender. I make no apologies for these terms repent, believe, baptize — they are rugged, pervasive terms in the apostolic writings, the source of Christian theology.

4. What we are to do is point people to Jesus: we ask them to look to him, to love him, to live before and under and through and by and in him, to call them to give themselves to Jesus and to what he calls us to do. God’s Spirit is at work; God’s Spirit works repentance and faith and leads to baptism. When we get ahead of the Spirit, we run the risk of aborting new birth.

5. What do I say? “Give yourself to Jesus!”

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.

  • Chuck

    I have often heard well-meaning friends of mine say that they use the sinners prayer to, in essence, help “seal the deal” of salvation. It makes me wonder just who this prayer is really for. As has been noted already the sinners prayer is really not the issue. But, could it be that the prayer can easily distract us from the call to simply announce the gospel? Could it be that the prayer easily distracts the sinner from their real need which is to repent, believe in Jesus, and then be baptized? I think so. Let us be careful.

  • Wyatt

    I am in agreement with Chuck. I have heard this language before and I may have used it myself a long time ago. But then something happened. I began to question the use of the prayer based upon one item Chuck introduces, “Who is the prayer for anyways?” The answer is, me. To make me feel better about how I communicated the gospel. To make me feel better or more secure in the decision this person is making. The prayer wasn’t for them; it was for me. And then I could check the box, “Yes, s/he prayed the prayer. That means they are saved!” Those people were praying that prayer for my sake, not theirs. While perhaps well intentioned because we want them to confess Jesus as Lord and there is power in public confession, the prayer is distracting and quite possibly disingenuous and worse, dishonest.

  • http://disorietedtheology.wordpress.com Paul A.

    Yes, the sinner’s prayer is kind of like a safety blanket. The theology of hell and damnation is so deeply enmeshed in our psyche that it’s very difficult to overcome the “just-in-case”ness of it. As a parent of young children, I have to admit it’s hard to imagine being fully ensured of their “salvation” if we’ve never heard them say the sinner’s prayer. Yet I said the sinner’s prayer at age 4 and didn’t really know what it truly meant to follow Jesus – and start trying to do so – until the last couple of years. In the end, the old cliche seems to be the best medicine here: “Let go, and let God.”

  • scotmcknight

    Paul A., in other words, the sinner’s prayer is the sacrament for those without sacraments?

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    How does Paul’s admonition to “imitate me as I imitate Christ”fits into this?

  • scotmcknight

    Nate W, it’s the global, or comprehensive, articulation of the whole: it’s the gospel’s Christ-shaped ethic.

  • http://milewis.wordpress.com Mitchell

    I’ve traded the sinner’s prayer for the waters of baptism and the Apostle’s Creed as the doorway into discipleship.

  • http://www.stonecall.com Samuel

    @7 – Mitchell,
    as a prospective church planter you’ve given me something to consider here. I never thought about the Apostle’s Creed as a replacement for the ‘sinners prayer’. That makes so much sense. Thank you.

  • Kristin

    Paul #3 is right. The fear of hell and needing to “make sure” are why so many cling to the sinner’s prayer. It’s not really about the method but the underlying theology.

  • Chris Oakes

    I grew up in a Pentecostal church in which the sinner’s prayer was not used. People were called to repentance, and then baptism was seen as the public confession. I still believe that understanding lines up well with accounts in Acts.

  • http://chosenrebel.wordpress.com Marty Schoenleber, Jr

    Well said Scott. thanks for this. David has made a great case against the idea of the sinner’s prayer and your succinct summary of a way forward is very helpful. We (believers) are fundamentally heralds of the good news. Our job is to announce the Kingdom and call people to repent, believe and be baptized. Love people and announce good news, that is the task on the horizontal line and love God and obey his word is the task on the vertical line.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Outstanding summary Scot. “Come and see that the Lord is good!”

  • http://www.dualravens.com/ravens Patrick O

    This post is a keeper. Thanks for putting it succinctly and holistically.

    One of the dangers of the present shift in the church away from revivalism/narrow evangelism is that because that was the model for so long, there really is a gap in how passionate Christians evangelize. That has been a sticking point as the more narrowly focused evangelists have the passion and zeal to go out and sell Jesus, while those who want to reflect a deeper expression of the Kingdom don’t want to be like that and so don’t know who to be. I see this as being a big issue with current seminary students: they don’t know how to evangelize even as they know how they should not. They’re sensitive, maybe too sensitive, to the shallow salesmanship.

    What I especially like, too, is your embedded point about the Holy Spirit, which orients both the evangelized and the evangelizing.

  • http://johnmarkharris.net John Mark Harris

    Sure, I agree with the sentiment, however there IS apostolic pleading, there IS the call to a verbal confession, though not a formula. I think that (sometimes) people opposed to an incantation like “sinner’s prayer” go too far in decrying the need for words to express a change, not that it ends there, if it does, then it didn’t mean much, but it certainly should start there. Platt, I think, in his “neither here nor there” approach gets closer…

  • Daniel

    I agree with Chris. Why don’t we focus more on baptism instead of the sinner’s prayer as the moment of public confession?

  • Peter

    While I absolutely agree that there has to be a better way (I especially like Patrick #13 and Paul #3′s posts), I think another purpose that the Sinners Prayer serve(d/s) was as an assurance to the “sinner.” I remember, as a child, doubting my own salvation but then recalling (perhaps with prodding) that I “prayed the prayer.”

    As such, it is a kind of artifact given by someone on the inside to a new initiate (so to speak), and in recollection it may be helpful to a new Christian. It’s also more succinct and digestible than a creed. On the one hand, even the language of this post belies the kind of incantation-ey logic behind that approach. But on the other hand, I think that logic arises out of the “eternal security” perspective on salvation. If “once saved, always saved,” then it makes perfect sense that you would try to devise a prayer that “always works” and thus provides both spiritual and emotional security to the evangelist and the new convert. It’s Spiritual Engineering!

  • Shane

    Does a sinner know how to pray?

  • Park Smith

    Great discussion! I have found that there has correctly and justifiably been a strong – and now even prolonged reaction to the unreasoned imitation of what people call (strictly speaking now) “The Sinners Prayer”. What I find left out of this conversation as well as most that deal with the “whole gospel” and the portion of the “whole gospel” which includes the “salvation” portion is passing from death to life.

    While we as mere humans may not be able to tell when that actually happens to someone, I think we need to reaffirm that there is a passing from death to new life or, being born from above as a better translation may have it. It is left out of most discussion and practical teaching that I see today. The New Testament spends an enormous amount of time discussing the results of this new life and the discipleship that should necessarily follow from it…..that there is a change and ongoing transformative process which begins to take place as light shines stronger each day and darkness must flee. The change is of the spirit which then works out to influence systemic issues which are in need of change —- or, the rest of the gospel.

    I have appreciated NT Wright’s strong emphasis on the Kingdom and the way we have missed the point of the Gospels. In so doing however, he doesn’t negate this point (of new life) but, it does seem to be minimized. Scott, in your book “The King Jesus Gospel”, you seem to lay out the NT Wright theses in much more detail in the sense of bringing home the point of exactly what the gospel is – and is not. This has been an ongoing eye opener to me now for quite a while and I’m still adjusting my eyesight. I find I’m needing a new prescription for my glasses on a weekly basis since it is an amazing paradigm change for me – and quite welcome. But, I can’t get away from this new life thing. From the way Jesus all but “butted in” to Nicodemus trying to ask some good questions to cut to the chase of the matter at hand.

    I’m a dude that prayed the sinner’s prayer because the people (yes people lol – and all at once) and nothing “happened” to me at that moment – much to the chagrin of those who seemed to need that confirmation as other posters above have quite correctly made note of! But, I remember staying on my needs by myself an crying out in my own way. I didn’t care who I was talking to because I didn’t even know if it was true at the time. I said that “I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what your name is. But, if you are who these people say you are and you really can change my life, then I give you my whole be-ing!!!”. Well, it was I guess like the Damascus Road at that point. The windows of heaven opened up to me. It was a complete turnover of my life to God. That was the beginning some 40 years ago (sheesh that’s a long time ago!). I passed from death to life. It was something that was a true and continued change in my heart. It hasn’t been perfect since then. But, I know I have passed from death to life.

    I, like Peter (#16) above used to go back to that day and did relive that time and the words of turning that I uttered without any “results”. That has been a stake in the ground for me. It’s been very helpful in my younger faith years.

    Anyway, I’m in agreement with all of the posts but, I would caution about throwing the baby out with the bath water – all other so-very-necessary-cautions notwithstanding.

  • http://www.godhungry.org Jim martin

    Scot, I appreciate your reminder in #2 and #4 that the Spirit is at work here. A much needed reminder for me and I suspect, many other preachers.

  • Stephen Williams (Tabor Student Australia)

    Re #5 without wanting to be to finicky about the exact words as if they were like a magic incantation…I prefer the ‘rubber hits the road” langauge and implications entailed in “follow Jesus” as an overall request as at least we hear Jesus himself saying that to would be responders. While “give yourself to Jesus” is definitly what happens as we follow and perhaps even what happens internally to a degree… before we even take one step in his direction,”follow” I think is perhaps more in keeping with the practical nature of the decision and encompasses the giving and the outworking of that giving.
    What do you think?
    Steve

  • michael

    “The sinners prayer is a sacrament for those without sacraments.” That’s priceless.

  • paul

    I can’t find a “sinner’s prayer” in the New Testament, but only find Believe, Repent, be Baptized by immersion on the spot (not months later…), so that your sins will be forgiven. If neither Jesus nor the Apostles taught a “sinner’s prayer”, and the “sinner’s prayer” is used to replace what they did teach (Believe, Repent, be Baptized), then there is a problem – substituting the steps God provides to obtain forgiveness with a man-made “sinner’s prayer”. How can you have assurance if you are not obtaining salvation through the steps Jesus and the Apostles taught?

  • Merv Olsen

    John Stott wrote a wonderful little book many years ago called: “The Meaning of Evangelism” that shows the variety of terms the apostles used in Acts to get their message across – they did `witness`; they did `announce` but they did more. I quote a few paragraphs here from Stott …..

    “It is illuminating to observe the verbs which Luke employs to define the business of preaching. One of the commonest seems to be diamarturasthai translated to `testify` (e.g. 2. 40, 8. 25, 10.42, 18. 5, 20.21, 24, 23. 11, 26.22, 28. 23). This is ` earnestly, religiously to charge’ (Thayer), but is no doubt a popular word because the apostles were bearing witness to events and facts of which they had themselves been witnesses. The claim to be a witness is frequently made in the Acts (e.g. 1.8, 22, 2.32, 3. 15, 10. 39, 41, 13. 31, 22. 15, 26. 16). Three other fairly common verbs are kataggellein, ` to proclaim ‘ (4. 2, 13. 5, 38, 15. 36, 17. 13, 23), euaggelizein, ` to preach the gospel ‘ (5. 42, 8.4, 12, 25, 35, 40, 11. 20, 13. 32, 14.7, 15, 21, 16. 10, 17.18) and kerussein, `to herald` (8.5, 9.20, 10.42, 20. 25, 28. 31). These three verbs indicate that the Word which the apostles preached was good news which needed to be ` proclaimed ‘ or ` heralded ‘. But in some ways the two most important verbs employed by Luke in this connection are didaskein (`to teach`) and dialegesthai (` to argue`).

    The apostles were not just proclaiming news; they were teaching a body of doctrine and arguing towards a conclusion. Didaskein is used in 4. 2, 18, 5. 21, 25, 28, 42, 13. 12, 15. 18. 11, 20. 20, 28. 31, and dialegesthai in 17. 2, 17, 18. 4, 19, 19. 8, 9, 24, 25.

    It is no doubt because the apostles were giving careful instruction that the Jewish authorities became so alarmed. `You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching,’ they expostulated to the apostles (5. 28). Of course there was a place in their evangelism for urgent exhortation (e.g. 2. 40), but there was a place for patient explanation also (e.g. 28. 23), and for closely reasoned argument.

    This explanation or exposition of the truth aimed naturally at an intellectual conquest. The apostles do not seem to have been excessively wary of an intellectual approach! Luke uses two words for ` to reason ‘, namely, to dispute ‘ (suzetein, 9. 29) and to ` argue ‘ (dialegesthai), and four words for ` to convince ‘, namely, to ‘ confound ‘ (sunchunein, 9.22), to ` prove ‘ (paratithemi, 17. 3 and sumbibazein, 9. 22) and to ‘confute powerfully (diakatelgkein, 18. 28). The purpose of the apostles was to `persuade` their hearers of the truth of their message (17. 4, 1 4 19.8, 26,28.23-24 AV). They presented the Word in such a way as to require its acceptance or rejection. Men were obliged either to be obedient to the faith` (6.7) or disobedient.”

  • Marc B.

    Romans 10:9-10 is often used as support for praying a prayer or making a decision: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” This was a key verse for me as a young Christian first learning about sharing the faith and leading someone to Christ. Of course there are many other important factors in witnessing, but I just remember that the goal was always to lead the person to, in essence, put these verses into practice.

  • Terry

    After praying the sinner’s prayer several times at various altars in churches and being told I was saved by a few preachers I got saved in a Spanish church (I don’t know Spanish) while they were singing a hymn (AT The Cross) in Spanish.

  • Chris White

    I was taught to use the sinner’s prayer when using the tools of the Four Spiritual Laws tract and Evangelism Explosion. I stopped when I realized that a person repeating after me phrase by phrase could still not understand or believe what was being said. If a person is shown the Good News and understands it, then they could just pray out of their understanding–which would reveal to the believer just how much they did or did not understand about what was going on. I think making a decision about following Christ is important but that conversion is more than a decision-on-the-spot accomplishment.

  • Kent

    But you said nothing about what the gospel is. People have to hear the gospel and know specifically what the gospel is. After all, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

    This is the gospel, that Jesus died on the cross, was buried, and that He rose again on the third day.

    Corinthians 15:1-4

    15 Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

    3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures

    This is what we must do to be saved, believe on the Lord Jesus Chirst.

    Acts 16:30-34

    30 And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
    31 So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34 Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household

    This is how we believe on the Lord Jesus Chirst

    Romans 10:9-13

    9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

    Realize, none of the above passages say anything about saying a prayer for salvation or especially asking Jesus to come into our hearts. So I am not arguing in favor of the sinner’s prayer. In fact I have never said the sinner’s prayer but I know I am saved because my faith is in Jesus and it is not in me, what I do.

    Yes repentance is needed but I believe repentng is acknowledging that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves by anything that we do and that faith is complete faith in who Jesus is and what He alone did by dying on the cross and rising again on the third day. So it is all about what He did and not about what we do.

    Should we be baptized? Yes we should be baptized as we are commanded to so but people can be saved without being baptized, as shown by the theif on the cross, but if we make being baptized a make or break part of the deal then it becomes works, about what we do and not about what He did, and works can never save us.


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