Sinner’s Prayer Controversy
“If you want to go to heaven when you die, invite Jesus into your heart by praying this little prayer…”
There has been a tendency in ministry to short-cut and attract in order to provide the easiest possible agreement. Shorter church services, less depth in sermons and songs, familiarity with cultural tides, morning coffee, and stylish pastors have come under some fire from those desiring to keep the heart of Christianity… well, the heart of Christianity. Now there is nothing wrong with the things I just mentioned as long as they don’t replace theological truth and spiritual depth.
Coffee is just coffee, style is just style, etc. There is nothing inherently Christian or unchristian about it; they are preferences and tools for connecting. But the concern is that this “connect at all cost” habit has spilled over into more significant areas. There may not be a more significant area than the emotional peak of a church service or major event. The vulnerability of believers and unbelievers is probably maxing out. Believers are reassessing the certainty of their own salvation. Some of the unbelievers become aware of the reality of God and their need to turn their life toward Him. Then the leader, hoping to cover all the right bases, while also remaining convincing tries to articulate a simple, easy, and non-threatening invitation. Then he tries to reformulate a prayer that seemed to work pretty well in the past.
Here are some samples of what I’m talking about:
As believers move forward, they have a tendency to mimic these types of prayers, especially since they tend to come at a significant time.
Some of the prayers are more exhaustive than others; some are more biblically honorable than others. Before focusing on what is necessary to include, though, I want to focus on the method of drawing the individual. To tackle this point let me present one major premise: We don’t focus enough on truth. Most of the evangelistic invitations that I have heard have little to nothing to do with whether God is truly God and whether Jesus is truly who he claimed to be. Instead, they focus on the types of feelings that can be produced in a person. “Fill your void,” “Quench your thirst,” “Feel true joy,” “Don’t go to hell,” “Live the good life,” “Sleep better at night,” “Live sober,” “Be a better person…” On and on the alluring motives go. None of them is entirely false; the problem is, they generally don’t offer anything that another religion or lifestyle couldn’t also provoke (at least temporarily). Are we telling people to come to Jesus for merely pragmatic reasons, for selfish reasons, to belong, for better feelings, for an emotional boost? This is all putting the cart before the horse!
If Jesus really was who he claimed to be, if his death really accomplished what he, the apostles, and the grand meta-narrative of the Bible said it did—what would be the reasonable response? Shouldn’t it be more about what God deserves from each and every person than what the person can get out of the deal? Maybe I’m unique, but I care little about the temporary emotional satisfaction that a particular response or choice can make. I believe that it is more enduring and powerful to live your life according to reality. It’s no wonder that people are bringing questions against Christianity’s truth. We focus so much on its conveniences that the reality of the person of Jesus, the necessity and nature of God, and the objectivity of His truth are pushed aside until, like a seldom opened box stored in the attic, we neglect the beauty that is contained within it.
Now that I have made my stand for what I see as the most God-glorifying and truth-satisfying method for drawing people to God’s salvation, let me assess the fruit of what’s been happening. This is my second major premise: God uses less than ideal prayers and motives to draw people to Himself. It is fascinating and humbling fact that God would use what proves to be skewed intentions and questionable words to still bring about a salvific response in people. Even when the cart is before the horse, God uses the self-seeking motive to bring about the truth of His presence to people. It’s as if the person came to the restaurant wanting a cookie, but ended up being brought a filling meal. God uses these initial desires for fulfillment, but the person should not be satisfied with only those feeble intentions.
In questioning the motives behind the somewhat controversial sinner’s prayers, I hope that I have shown a better motive for bringing people to Christ. I hope we can continue to see God at work even through somewhat poor representations of His Gospel. Since God seems to extend this grace, I hope grace can be extended from Christians regarding what may be imperfect means of drawing people and articulating the message of God’s salvation. If God can’t use these imperfect representations… how could He use any of us? With that said, let’s do our part to get away from compromising theological integrity for cultural allurement.
In part 2, I’ll break down the essential parts of what a prayer toward salvation typically looks like compared to what it should look like.