Southern Baptists say the magic words

At the convention’s annual meeting, Southern Baptists reaffirmed the magic words.

America’s largest evangelical denomination wound up endorsing the revivalist tradition of the “Sinner’s Prayer”:

Jimmy Scroggins, chairman of the SBC Committee on Resolutions, told the convention that the committee brought the resolution to the floor because of recent challenges to the emphasis on the Sinner’s Prayer — usually a prayer of repentance to “invite Jesus into your heart” that has become a hallmark of evangelical conversionism.

This is the prayer that’s printed in many evangelistic tracts, or at the “How can I be saved?” link on many evangelical websites. Debate over the prayer, Christianity Today’s Ted Olsen writes:

… was sparked by a talk from one of the SBC’s Calvinist stars, David Platt. Speaking at the Verge church leaders’ conference March 1, the pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, said the emphasis on the Sinner’s Prayer is unbiblical and damning.

“I’m convinced that many people in our churches are simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we’ve sold them as the gospel, i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life,” Platt said. “Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer in the New Testament? Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrase, ‘accept Jesus into your heart’ or ‘invite Christ into your life’? It’s not the gospel we see being preached, it’s modern evangelism built on sinking sand. And it runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls.”

I share many of Platt’s concerns about this “superstitious prayer,” albeit from a different starting point. Platt seems to worry that the central prominence of the “Sinner’s Prayer” conflicts with his Calvinist doctrines of election and grace. I’m more concerned with what Scot McKnight calls the “soterian” logic behind the prayer. Here’s McKnight in his book The King Jesus Gospel describing what he means by that term:

Evangelicalism is known for at least two words: gospel and (personal) salvation. Behind the word gospel is the Greek word euangelion and evangel, from which words we get evangelicalism and evangelism. Now to our second word. Behind salvation is the Greek word soteria. I want now to make a stinging accusation. In this book I will be contending firmly that we evangelicals (as a whole) are not really “evangelical” in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians. Here’s why I say we are more soterian than evangelical: we evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation. Hence, we are really “salvationists.” When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) “salvation.”… We ought to be called soterians (the saved ones) instead of evangelicals. My plea is that we go back to the New Testament to discover all over again what the Jesus gospel is. …

So it’s good to see the SBC talking about this and re-examining the ritual of the magic words. And particularly encouraging was the part of the SBC’s resolution urging its members not to think of the magic words as magical words:

A ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the gospel.

Unfortunately, that just kicks the can down the road a bit, since the “clear articulation of the gospel” implied there is still “pray the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ and you can be saved.”

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  • VMink

    Back during the very short time that I was a Charismatic Pentecostal, there was a prayer that I was taught that could not be said by someone who was possessed.

    In truth, you were in such a state of mind, and the prayer itself was rather freaky, that you had trouble saying it unless you were willing to submit your entire will to the concepts of Pentecostalism.  And if you weren’t able to say it, you were in such a tizzy and in a panic that you lived your life in constant fear.  In point of fact, if you took oaths seriously, and yet were gullible enough to believe that you could not say this prayer if you were possessed or unfaithful, and really really really wanted to be saved — or rather Saved(tm) — then this would cause all sorts of mental issues.

    This Present Darkness is a book I can cheerfully never read again.

    Now?  I could probably plow through that prayer without a second blink.  It would be dishonest, since I don’t consider myself exactly ‘Christian’ anymore, but I could say it.

  • lowtechcyclist

    I’d rather say the magic word, and have the duck come down and give me $100.

  • lowtechcyclist

    I never said the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ in the course of coming to know the Lord. 

    Maybe I’ve just been imagining his presence in my life over the past few decades.

    Or maybe the whole thing isn’t about words and phrases anyway, but about loving God and your neighbor.

  • Robyrt

    Good to hear the Calvinists are on the right side here. The first time I heard the Sinner’s Prayer (age ten, maybe?) it sounded alien and forced, like you were giving Jesus permission to enter your life.

  • Tonio

    We ought to be called soterians (the saved ones) instead of evangelicals.

    Am I wrong in reading that as a tribalist concept, as in saved versus unsaved?

  • rm

    Tonio, I think the gist of the remark was not “we are saved and they are not” but “we seem to think the whole point is to get saved, instead of to love and help others.”

  • megaforte84

     One of the things that struck me on reading the article is that they don’t seem to have made sure that everyone in the discussion was using the same definition of ‘Sinner’s Prayer’.

    There are Independent Baptist groups, and likely some of the very conservative SBC congregations agree with them, who believe in an Exact Words definition: if you miss a word, no matter how minor, from the local standard wording, you aren’t saved no matter what was actually in your heart at the time.

    There are others who believe a proper prayer of salvation requires particular elements. Miss one, even if the sentiment the words express was in your mind at the moment you were praying, and it doesn’t count.

    And then there are those who think there isn’t such a required formula, but encourage the use of a formula to make sure God heard and accepted.

    The pastors and leaders commenting about how praying a prayer to receive Christ shouldn’t be controversial? Are operating under that last definition without a clue how many people are stressing out in the convention and other Baptist groups because they’re being taught a formula prayer said after 5-minutes of consideration on a mission trip counts more than a heartfelt “God, PLEASE!” from someone too focused on their own sins and guilt and need for salvation to have the words in a human language to express it all at that moment.

    I independently ad-libbed a prayer in Vacation Bible School nearly 20 years ago (just a few weeks until the best-guess date!) and according to a lot of people in the convention, my choice for Christ that day didn’t count because it was the furthest thing from formulaic (it wasn’t even guided).

    I wish they’d realize that the real debate isn’t really over praying to receive Christ. It’s over what counts as a ‘prayer to receive Christ’ and right now, there is no agreement about that.

  • Ken


    There are Independent Baptist groups, and likely some of the very
    conservative SBC congregations agree with them, who believe in an Exact
    Words definition: if you miss a word, no matter how minor, from the
    local standard wording, you aren’t saved no matter what was actually in
    your heart at the time.

    Would those be the “non-creedal” denominations and congregations that Fred was talking about last week?

  • Ken


    a heartfelt “God, PLEASE!”

    He tried praying again, more desperately this time, fragments
    of childish prayer, losing control of the words and even of their
    direction, so that they tumbled out and soared away into the universe
    addressed simply to The Occupier.

    From Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, who often
    writes things that ring as strongly with me as any canonical scripture.

  • Enoch Root

    Again Christian tribalism plays itself out here. I grew up watching (mocking, really) the TV preachers who would bring the sick on stage to be ‘warshed in the blood of the lamb.’ Here’s a man who’s going to heal you if you say that you accept Jesus into your heart, and a whole crowd of people having religious epiphanies as if this stuff were real. Of course you’ll say it, and you might even mean it.

    The context of the sinner’s prayer is everything. You don’t say it while you’re alone on the toilet. You say it when it can cement your belonging in a community of people who might help you when you’re in trouble.

    You hear evangelicals tell their conversion story all the time. Each time you hear it, it’s a little more harrowing. Jesus’ power grows with each telling. “And just then, when the Satanists were about to open my skull and eat my brain, I accepted Jesus into my heart and he saved me. He saved me in the form of the 20 cops that happened to show up with guns drawn.”

    Other believers nearby nod sagely and might even say ‘hallelujah.’ Non-believers have to figure out if they want to point out how ridiculous it is.

  • Tonio

      So McKnight’s point about salvation is that evangelicals are missing
    the point of the Gospel? I thought he was saying that they
    should focus on salvation.

  • seniorcit

    The Gideons used to pass out New Testaments to school children that had a  “sign on the line” page at the back where you could indicate that you had prayed the prayer and asked Jesus to be your own personal savior.  This gave you the “assurance” that you knew the time and date when you became a Christian, something that is important in today’s evangelical churches and  in many churches a prerequisite for church membership.  Now that I’m all grown up and pushing 70 and after teaching Sunday School and Children’s Church for decades, leaving the Baptist church and becoming more mainline in my theology, I’ve come to the conclusion that “asking Jesus to be my own personal savior” is an extra Biblical addition and does little to assure that one actually becomes a disciple of the Christ, loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

  • Albanaeon

    Completely OT here, but I am somewhat amused that when I see things like “Evangel” and the like my head goes immediately to “Neon Genesis: Evangelion.” 

    The Evangelions of the anime are human in form but very alien, possessing weird shields that are manifestations of their terror of being alone, and fight against monstrous things to save the world while often being pretty monstrous themselves.  So maybe its not that odd, actually.

  • pharoute

    I actually had to wikipedia the sinner’s prayer… meh, it’s no “Our father.”

    which, you know, is how Jesus aka GOD taught us to pray.

  • Haven

    I think he’s saying “we should be Doctor Who aliens that can get knocked out by a fuzzy ball to the back of the neck.”

  • ReverendRef

     Would those be the “non-creedal” denominations and congregations that Fred was talking about last week?

    Yep . . . I noticed that, too. 

    “We can’t be saying either the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed because they are non-biblical, written by man promoted by teh evul Catholics (and, by extension, the Orthodox, Anglicans and [maybe] Lutherans, but we’re all so far removed from their radar they probably don’t even notice us).”

    And yet they are perfectly willing to come up with thousand-word “faith statements” and mandatory formulas for sinner’s prayers (that really are non-biblical)  and whatnot.

    The more I read this stuff, and the more I hear stories from people formerly in that culture, the more I’m glad I grew up Episcopalian and encouraged to ask questions and develop my own faith.

  • LouisDoench

    Maybe I’ve just been imagining his presence in my life over the past few decades.

    To be completely frank, that would be the atheist position on the matter.  But if you are loving your neighbor, most of us won’t give you any crap for it.

  • friendly reader

     You are correct, Lutherans are creedal, we recite either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed at every service. Which you do when varies; though the usual rule is “Apostle’s on regular Sundays” and “Nicene on special holidays,” the church I’m at in Japan says the Nicene every service for some reason.

    Not enough people understand the origins of creeds. They’re not comprehensive summaries of Christianity, they’re statements intended to resolve a theological dispute. All the talk about “god from god, light from light, true god from true god, begotten not made” is a rebuttal of Arianism, which taught that Jesus was a secondary perfect being, a lesser god, created by God.

    I love saying them since I find their poetic language to be a solid part of worship for me, tying me in with a long tradition of people thinking about difficult theology. But if you asked each and every Lutheran to come up with a faith statement summarizing what we believe (and we’re asked to at Confirmation, which is pretty limited given that you’re 13/14 at the time) they’d all be somewhat different. And that’s a good thing.

    And as for the sinner’s prayer… I was raised in and have grown to really appreciate the idea that you don’t welcome Jesus into your heart; he comes in because he loves you without you necessarily asking. Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus ad erit…

  • The_L1985

    I used to live not 5 minutes from the Church At Brook Hills.  Reading this article is giving me the funniest sense of deja vu.

    More heartening:  the church in question is in a highly conservative, upper-middle-class part of town (just across the Jefferson/Shelby county line, near Greystone).  The fact that “the Sinner’s Prayer is the easy way out and not sound theology” is a safe position to hold in an area like that, where backlash against new ideas tends to be strongest, is a very good sign. :)

  • m11_9

    Lutherans recite an intense sinners prayer every week, no wimps there.  If I spent a few minutes I could remember it…sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone, we have not loved you with our whole hearts, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves…

  • The_L1985

     This, SO much.  As an ex-Catholic, I know quite a few of the standard prayers: the Anima Cristi, the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, Hail Holy Queen, the Memorare of St. Bernard, the Glory Be, the standard Prayer Before Meals*…

    Meanwhile, the Southern Baptists in the family refuse to use pre-scripted prayers of any kind at meals, before ball games, or at any other event that prayers are said–but you have to say the Sinner’s Prayer before you even think of going to get baptized!

    It just seems weird that the denominations that tend to scrap every other “standard” prayer except the Lord’s Prayer are the same exact denominations that tend to cling most tightly to the exact wording of a prayer that is less than 100 years old.

    * “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts…”  My parents still use that one.

  • The_L1985

     But, by “salvation,” these sorts of evangelicals tend to mean only the first steps of becoming a Christian.  The “accept Jesus into your heart” parts.  They completely ignore the fact that this ought to make you a better person.

    I’ve always been of the opinion that if your religion doesn’t make you want to be a better person, and want to do the right thing, then that religion is not the right one for you.

  • Not at all. I believe that McKnight is saying that Evangelicals have become far too interested in “salvation” as a one-step process. (“Bam! You’re saved! Woo! …Okay, you can go now. Next?”)

    Whereas they should be focusing more on the whole “good news”, with all its life-changing repercussions.

  • arcseconds

    Like Tonio, I’m having a bit of a struggle understanding McKnight’s point about ‘soterians’.  

    So I’m going to shove my interpretation, which is quite probably mistaken, out there and hope that someone can tell me where I’ve gone wrong.

    I don’t think it’s ‘saved’ versus ‘unsaved’ or even ‘evangelicals should focus on salvation’, but rather evangelicals are too fixated on (their own) salvation, and spend too much time focusing on the exact salvation formula.

    An evangelist, on the other hand, is one who spreads the Good News.  The mindset of one who’s concerned with spreading the Good News I would think is quite different than one who’s focused on the exact ingredients necessary for someone’s (one’s own, maybe) salvation.

    McKnight wants evangelicals to go back to the Bible and find out what the Gospel actually is.

    Fred is worried that telling evangelicals to go back to the Bible will be interpreted as ‘the Sinner’s prayer isn’t any good as a set of magic words, so go back to the Bible to find a better set’ (i.e. if you’re fixation on finding and knowing and performing the one true recipe for salvation, the problem is not where you’re finding your recipes, but that you’re looking for recipes at all)

    How’d I do?

  • friendly reader

    Confession in a Lutheran church is not the same as a Sinner’s Prayer, since there’s no sense that the act of saying it has any effect on your salvation.

    In fact, the pastor’s absolution afterwards says a formula to the effect that God has already forgiven you in baptism and the whole process is more about (1) reflecting on how your actions have hurt others and yourself, and (2) letting go of any sense of crippling guilt so that you can go on for another week trying again.

    I’m not 100% certain of how confession is viewed in other churches that do it, but it’s not the same as a Sinner’s Prayer.

    Also, found this. There’s a website for everything.

  • friendly reader

     Dangit, misspelled the recaptcha. The lost link is this:

  • With a strong overlap with the “Catholics are sooo bad because they repeat prayers – that’s ‘vain repetion’ and it’s wrong!!!” group.

    The one on wikipedia does look like a mashup of the Credo and the Communion prayer:  “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

    (That’s the version that just got replaced by a “more literal” translation of the Latin, and don’t get me started on how literal translations can be *less* accurate. Prime example: the Latin for cup gets translated as “chalice”. In English a “chalice” is far more fancy than a mere cup. Now, as anyone who’s watched Indiana Jones knows, you don’t want to pick the fancy one.)

  • Mary Kaye

    There’s a strain in Christianity that says “you must die to yourself in order to be born again” and actually means it, with all the pain and difficulty that that entails.  I am not a Christian, but I respect this:  it seems like a genuine expression of spirituality.

    But, it’s–I keep wanted to say “damned tough” or “tougher than Hell” but that really won’t do!  It’s very hard.  For most people (including me when I was a Christian) it’s too hard.

    But a lot of people want to live forever–it’s a very basic unsatisfied human desire.  They don’t want to die, and they don’t want to die to self:  they want to live, unregenerate ego and all.

    I think any religion based on salvation is going to get perverted almost instantly by people who want life everlasting *as themselves* and who are self-centeredly focused on that goal.  To me that’s what “soteriologist” would mean.  You see it in the age-long obsession with figuring out what’s the least you can do to get into Heaven, you see it in the sale of indulgences and relics, you see it in the “say the Sinner’s Prayer and then you’re set for life and can safely go back to what you were doing.”

    I personally cannot accept the concept of a binary saved/damned separation, because I just see no evidence that people can be divided into two groups with no injustice.  And on a practical level, the effects of the doctrine seem more evil than good–it tends to put the focus of religion on gaining a good outcome for yourself, not on knowing the Gods or doing good to others.

  • azelie

    I have always been confused about the concept of “personal” as it’s used in this kind of thinking.  My impression is that originally it was meant mainly to clarify the understanding of Jesus as a person rather than an abstraction, but that many evangelicals tend to use it now to emphasize something about themselves (Jesus is *theirs*). It has seemed to me to demonstrate the self-centeredness of some evangelical thinking, which I think relates to the concept of soterianism.  Am I wrong about the original meaning, the modern usage, or both?  

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Years ago I heard that the word usually translated in English bibles as “salvation” is perhaps better expressed as “rescue”. I hope there’s some accuracy in that, because I like it.

    The lecturer who said this pointed out that the Hebrew word we translate into “salvation” is used throughout the Old Testament, including the parts written before the concept of afterlife emerged in Jewish theology. It’s also frequently used to refer to a collective action–“God of our salvation”. The idea that salvation is primarily about me, personally, or that it’s about whether one is or is not on a list of people who get to end up in heaven isn’t supported. (Note: the talk focused on the Hebrew; I don’t know what the connotations of the Greek word translated as “salvation” in the NT are).

    The prophets and the psalms, especially, are filled with people crying out for God’s salvation in times of trouble. It doesn’t gel at all with the experience of my inner life to think that the writers in their anguish were asking God to put them on his list of people bound for heaven when they die. It matches my experience exactly to read those verses as people looking to God and crying “Help!”, or thanking God for rescuing them in past difficulties.

    Salvation can’t just be about getting on a list for when you die. God seems to be much more concerned about the experiences of our lives while we’re alive than many evangelicals.

  • JonathanPelikan

    As an atheist, i just know I’m going to be saying ‘goddamnit’ and ‘jesus christ!’ until I go to my grave. It’s just part of me and sound so natural, even though there’s no religion behind the words. The best I ever do is adapt it to Battlestar Galactica-ish polytheistic ‘gods damnit’ or something. That show taught me how the gods-phrasing can just sound cool and natural. It’s hard to explain.

  • Edo

    I think you’re a little off-base there; as far as I can tell, it’s *always* been self-centered. I think it’s a function of four- vs. five-point Arminianism in America (i.e. “Can you lose salvation?”) That’s why the Sinner’s Prayer is so big: it’s DIY efficacious grace. And if you reject the idea of apostasy (i.e. “Say the Sinner’s Prayer and be saved forever”), it’s theologically fine and saves you from having nagging doubts about whether you’re not wasting everybody’s time.

    It’s also even more… maybe not selfish, but *individual* than you think, because it’s really antisocial too. The Sinner’s Prayer, for me, is associated with Chick tracts, TV preachers and tent revivalists. People who are interested in my salvation but will NEVER have any kind of relationship with me.

    (By way of comparison, Wesley was a five-point Arminian and *did* believe in apostasy. British Methodism as a result was a *very* corporate thing, with tons of interlocking bodies you HAD to be part of unless they kicked you out.)

  • Nenya

    I can’t respect “die to yourself”, at least not in the way I was taught it. The phrase actually makes my stomach hurt, because in our church, it meant “squash out of yourself every bit of individuality and creativity, give up every single thing that matters to you and makes your soul sing, because you are an unworthy worm.” With various vague promises that if you abased yourself enough, maybe God would let you do glorious things. (So if, after quashing yourself to fit into the mold, you felt depressed rather than energized, well, obviously you must not be dying to yourself enough and you had to try harder!) 

    This, to eleven-year-olds as well as adults. 

    So it can be screwed up in that direction as well. 

    It’s taken me years to even be able to consider that “sacrifice” and “diligence” and similar concepts might not always mean “abuse.” There’s a true concept going there that I think you have a handle on…but damn, it’s hard to pick that out of the fucked-up stuff.

  • Nenya

    I remember being shocked to find out that the grandmother of friends of ours, a Christian for decades, had never said the sinner’s prayer or officially “invited Jesus into her heart.” She was certainly as Christian as anybody else, and I didn’t know what to do with the information. 

    Nowadays, I’d agree with the majority of posters here: it’s extra-biblical and unnecessary, although I’m not opposed to having a ritual or a moment you can point to where you say, “Here is when something changed for me.” But “magic words” covers the sinner’s prayer fairly well. 

    As for evangelism, I started drifting towards agnosticism when I realized that I couldn’t, in honesty, tell people how amazing it was to be a Christian and how Jesus would change their lives. I had nothing to tell them that was true from my own life and not just someone else’s bullet points. So it would have been a lie. I think that evangelism should be left to those who (like my big sister or my girlfriend) do feel the connection there and do have something to share.

  • PJ Evans

     That one is usually called confession.

  • Nenya

    @JonathanPelikan:disqus  I’ve taken to swearing by fictional deities–“oh, Eru!” or calling God by honourifics from fictional cultures. I figure that, on the one hand, such things are less blasphemous if I’m using them as swears, and on the other, certain fictional titles mean more to me than real ones, and God (if she exists) will hear the resonance behind them. 

  • m11_9

    when one calls himself worthless, and calls out for forgiveness, it sounds like a sinners prayer to me.  I do respect the Lutheran version much more since it refers to the golden rule.

    I know its not exactly the same thing, but to an outsider…

  • Emcee, cubed

    As an atheist, i just know I’m going to be saying ‘goddamnit’ and ‘jesus christ!’ until I go to my grave.

    I’m reminded of an episode of Good Times, when a teacher Michael (the younger son) admires turns out to be an atheist, Michael decides to be one too, upsetting his mother. She has a meeting with the teacher which ends with them basically agreeing that each is entitled to their beliefs. When the teacher’s reaction is, “Thank God”, she gives him a look. He responds, “When I say ‘Thank God’, it’s like when you say ‘Holy mackerel’. You’re bowing down to a fish.”

  • PJ Evans

     It’s a lot different. Confession is more ‘We did wrong things and didn’t do right things, but please forgive us and help us do better’. There’s no promise of salvation for saying it – that’s why it’s a regular part of services in so many churches.

  • JonathanPelikan:

    As an atheist, i just know I’m going to be saying ‘goddamnit’ and ‘jesus christ!’ until I go to my grave.

    Pretty much the same here, though I try to avoid swear words more now than when I was younger. There’s something just a little tired and worn-out about the usual gamut of Anglo-Saxon four-letter words now that I’ve had a few years on this planet. Being creative with curses is funner, now. :)

  • In the Catholic Mass we call it the Penitential Rite –

  • Mau de Katt


    As for evangelism, I started drifting towards agnosticism when I realized that I couldn’t, in honesty, tell people how amazing it was to be a Christian and how Jesus would change their lives.

    Yes!  Same here.  I’d say how wonderful “being saved” was, and what “wonderful things” Jesus was doing in my life, etc etc, but truth was, I was mostly miserable.  I lived in constant fear of what horrible things God might do to me in order to “teach me,” “cleanse me,” “purify me,” or “discipline me.”  (I once spent a weeklong retreat convinced that God was going to burn down my apartment in my absence in order to teach me to be less dependent upon material possessions.)

    Being an Evangelical Christian quite literally drove me to a nervous breakdown. 

  • Tricksterson

    I’ve met a couple of Evangeicals whoseemed totake the Sinner’s Prayer  as a moral license.  Bascally if  caled them on acing particularly unChristian they’d admitt heir behavior was unChristian, but also say that it was impossible to be a good Christian becuse all humans werescum but as long as they”gave their life up to Christ”He wuuld fogive them for whatever they did. Is ths common?

  • LoneWolf343

    I’m more concerned that ordinary people lack the mana to cast the salvation spell. You need to be a level 5 magic user at the very least.