Should we use the “sinner’s prayer”?
Paul Washer said, “If there’s anything I’ve declared war on, it’s [the sinner’s prayer]… That sinner’s prayer has sent more people to hell than anything on the face of the earth.” Not to be outdone, David Platt said, “…Pray this prayer. Ask Jesus into your heart. Invite Christ into your life. Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer in the New Testament?… It’s modern evangelism built on sinking sand; and it runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls.”
How did we get so attached to the “sinner’s prayer”? The tradition of the sinner’s prayer has often been used as a way to keep track of how many people get saved through a certain ministry. Since the number of salvations is one apparent indicator of ministry success, those leading the invitations and prayers want to make sure that the words they communicate and pray do everything to bring honesty while also drawing maximum interest. Younger listeners tend to demand more interest, while older listeners probably prioritize the truth of the words more.
Contrary to what people like Paul Washer or David Platt might say, I do not see sinner’s prayers as tools of the enemy or an entirely fruitless and false practice. They are most probably not deceptive or misleading. However, I believe that there are alternative methods to present the Gospel and draw a response with more careful accuracy and reverence.
Question 1: How do I balance scriptural integrity with outward attraction?
Rather than trying to balance the two, focus on stacking one on the other. The entire foundation must be built on total biblical truth. Yet we would be naïve to think that outward attraction has no place. Make the delivery as attractive as you want—as long as the attraction is to support, rather than cover up, biblical truth. Another way to look at this is, never let your personality overshadow your message; let it support your message.
Question 2: How long is long enough for a Gospel presentation?
I really don’t like putting rules on things like this. If we were in a culture that regularly listened to speakers for 3 consecutive hours (like we do for movies), then I would not object to taking up to 3 hours for a presentation of the Gospel. Unfortunately, our context and culture greatly influences the window of time we have with our listeners. Depending on the level of interest and engagement, many people can probably go only 30 minutes or so before they become anxious for change or break. This can lead their brain to “check out” at vital times. If the Gospel presentation is part of something else, it probably should not exceed ¼ of the time, and may often reach peak interest at 5-10 minutes.*
Question 3: What is the core of the Gospel?
The Gospel is concisely summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” These three things are of first importance—1. Jesus Christ died for sins. 2. Jesus was buried (confirmed to be dead). 3. Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
To seasoned Christians, these few simple facts carry great meaning and depth. But imagine the person with no background information. He would probably say something like, “Cool. Good for him… But how is that supposed to affect me?” That is why an explanation of sin (a somewhat religious term) and the resurrection can be vital. They both need to go from being a religious concept to a personal realization. Instead of “sin exists,” each person must realize “I am hopelessly poisoned by my disregard for God’s holy standard.” Instead of “the Bible records that Jesus was resurrected,” we must realize, “If I am in Jesus, the living God will raise me to life.”
Question 4: How does one become “in Jesus”?
“In Christ,” a term used 91 times, is basically a common way of identifying salvation in the Bible. Many promises, including the ultimate promise of salvation, are given to those who are “in Christ.” We may have twisted this term into what is probably a less accurate term: “Ask Jesus into your heart.”
Here’s the problem with the difference in terms: With the original term “In Christ,” we are a small part of a bigger deal. It illustrates us being transferred from one position to another. Think of it territorially. Instead of being in the domain of darkness, ruled by self and the devil, you are transferred to Christ’s domain, where there is light and life. Entering into his territory makes us realize that our acceptance of him is not as significant as his acceptance of us. It is we who should be knocking and begging on the “door of his heart” much more than it should be viewed as him knocking and begging on the door of our hearts.
Asking God to accept us into His heart makes more of God than telling an individual to ask God into their heart. I’m sorry, and I understand and appreciate the good intentions, but God is not going to be able to fit into your heart! Sure, His presence will be made evident to your spirit; He will change your heart. But toting Jesus along like your own personal Gigapet was never the intention of the biblical Gospel.
In such invitations, I might go so far as to say that a healthy dosage of intimidation and awe should be aroused concerning God. This idea of God is prevalent throughout the Bible. The Old Testament teaches us a lot about the fear of God—the fear of His impending justice. “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Jesus declared to those who believe, “Don’t fear [because it’s me].”** In the Gospel, fear is aroused and fear is relieved.
Question 5: What does the Bible say about how one is saved?
- They must be born again –John 3:3
- Enter Through Jesus (the door) –John 10:9
- Lose their life for Jesus’s sake –Luke 9:24
- Believe –Luke 8:12 … In the Lord Jesus Christ –Acts 16:31
- Endure to the end –Mark 13:13
- Call on the name of the Lord –Acts 2:21, Romans 10:13
- Through the grace of Jesus –Acts 15:11
- Justified by the blood of Jesus –Romans 5:9
- Confess Jesus as Lord; Believe God raised him from the dead –Romans 10:9-10
- Through the Gospel -1 Cor. 15:2
- By grace, through faith –Ephesians 2:8
- Receiving the love of the truth -2 Thess. 2:10 …Knowledge of the truth -1 Timothy 2:4
- His Mercy, regeneration, renewal –Titus 3:5
- Draw near to God through Jesus –Hebrews 7:25
- Receive the implanted word –James 1:21
- A sinner turned from the error of his way –James 5:20
- Pledge/appeal of a good conscience toward God -1 Peter 3:21
Question 6: If someone told me that they wanted to be saved and asked me to pray with them, what should I say?
First, I consider it a good idea to try to emphasize the magnitude of the situation. This isn’t a Sam’s Club sample that you try before moving on to the next. Many people have died while spreading this Gospel message (on the foundation of Jesus’s own death!), so do not consider it trite.
Next, I might ask them a few questions concerning Christian belief.
- Do you believe in one God over all of creation?
- Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God manifest in the flesh, who came to remedy man’s relationship with God?
- Do you believe that Jesus lived a sinless life, died for our sins, and literally rose from the dead?
- Do you acknowledge the fact that you have sinned against God?
- Do you realize that this sin nature has caused a disconnection between you and an infinitely holy God?
- Do you “repent,” reject and turn from, your sin, turning toward Jesus as the only means of forgiveness for your sin?
- Do you put your trust in him as the one who will lead you in this life and will raise you to eternal life?
Believing the person to already be saved by his/her acknowledgement of and submission to essential truths, I would then probably ask the person to pray. After they prayed, I would then pray for them, asking God for the fruit of redeemed life in Him.
Notice what I did not include. I do not typically see fit to do a repeat-after-me prayer. I think there is more sincerity to a person’s own words. Having asked them questions on the core truths of the faith and salvation, they have a bit of a guide to work off of in their prayer. I also did not include a declaration of my personal certainty of their salvation. I cannot critique the honesty of their words. I fear that hasty declarations of a person’s salvation can be misleading in certain situations.
Conclusion: Contrary to what people like Paul Washer or David Platt might say, sinner’s prayers are not tools of the enemy or an entirely fruitless and false practice. They are most probably not deceptive or misleading. What I still fear is misleading, however, is the declaration that the recitation of the prayer or a raised hand means that the speaker can declare the individual as saved. No! You and I don’t have the right to determine the sincerity of heart toward a saving response from the individual. We cannot save them, nor can our declaration of them being saved contribute to saving them. Our job is to present the Gospel with winsomeness, honesty, and knowledge. In doing so we don’t need to cling to questionable signs of effectiveness.
*MrMediaTraining cites a 7-10 minute attention span to good communicators.
**John 6:20, also Matthew 10:31, Luke 5:10, John 14:27
 New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Mt 10:28). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.