The Sinner’s Prayer is Making the Rounds

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I am seeing more and more blogs discussing the sinner’s prayer these days. There is this saying in the Churches of Christ that says we are usually about 20 years behind what other churches are doing. In this instance it seems they are 200 years behind us! I kid when I say that because it is not about who is “ahead” or who is “behind” this is all about people seeking God and the truth from scripture.

Churches of Christ have been asking where this is in the Bible for a very long time. I am glad to see people are understanding the lack of biblical support for such a prayer as a means to salvation. Obviously the only means to salvation is Jesus Christ. The question still remains, what kind of response is God looking for. I think what is really happening here is that those who are rejecting the kind of thinking that the sinner’s prayer is the means to salvation would also reject baptism as the means to salvation, citing that we are saved by Christ not by prayer or by baptism. However, it is clear which response is supported by scripture, not as a means to salvation but as humble obedience to the directives God has repeated placed in front of us in the New Testament.

Here are some recent posts:

Frank Viola (excerpt from Pagan Christianity) – Rethinking the Sinner’s Prayer
Frank gives the background & history of the sinner’s prayer as well as what the New Testament actually says about conversion and baptism.

Scot McKnight –The Sinner’s Prayer: A  Bye-gone?
Scot talks about the recent Southern Baptist Convention discussion on the sinner’s prayer that was brought up  by remarks from David Platt. As always, Scot has some great content and so do the comments!

Christianity Today’s article on the discussion at the SBC by Ted Olsen

How could I ever leave out – This one is only for you serious exegetes.

Some similar remarks from David Platt.

0 Responses

  1. Much of what David Platt said about the sinner’s prayer can also be said about the way baptism is frequently presented in our pulpits. We often talk about baptism without including the grand picture of the gospel of Jesus. Baptism, as Paul presents it in Romans 6, is an introduction to a life of discipleship – of death with Jesus to live with Him in resurrection power. Too many times our focus is only on forgiveness of past sins with little talk about our reception of the Holy Spirit and what that means in our life going forward.

    When we cheapen our faith-response to a mere claim of God’s forgiveness, how far are we from those who “save” people by instructing them to repeat the sinner’s prayer? Baptism as a ritual response to the gospel is little different than prayer as a ritual response to the gospel.

    1. Yeah, unfortunately, many teachings in the book of God have been “cheapened” and perhaps turned into “ritual responses”.

      But, the worst is when what is being taught is nowhere to be found within the book of God to begin with. While the Biblical teaching regarding the meaning and purpose of baptism can (and often is distorted), the teaching of the “Sinners Prayer” is ALWAYS unbiblical and can never be taught and practiced with approval of heaven.

      It is good so many are pointing out as much. Thanks for postinig, Matt.

    2. Too, looking back, I don’t believe that any of the congregations of which I have been a member were/are guilty of cheapening baptism as a “ritual response”. Rather, I believe they have been, and are, teaching the same as is taught in the Bible.

      While there are certainly complex and difficult doctrines in the Bible, the meaning and purpose of baptism is not one of them when one is willing to just look at it honestly. I know you know that, and I praise God that so many prominent preachers are taking a closet look and coming to the same conclusion.

    3. The nearest “examples” of the sinner’s prayer in Scripture is the Tax Collector in Jesus’ parable who cried out, beating on his breast, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner” and the passage in Jesus’ letter to the Laodicean church where He said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock….” Of course, neither of these are truly applicable. One was prior to the cross; the other is actually addressed to the church, not to the people of the unbelieving world.

      My point was that some (not all) of the things for which the sinners prayer is criticized by some from fellowships that practice it are also true of baptism as some in churches of Christ proclaim it. You are right that one take a practice not really found in Scripture and substitutes it for a biblical faith-response while the other takes a biblical faith-response and cheapens it by divorcing it from a view of the gospel and salvation that goes beyond the forgiveness of past sin.

    4. I can’t really recall a time I have heard baptism being cheapened as a magical act that demands salvation from God. I have heard of that type of thinking but never personally heard anyone say that.

    5. Matt,

      I don’t think anyone makes baptism a magical response (as in Middle Ages Catholic sacramental theology – and even they spoke of the “faith and practice” of the church, so it was not something truly magical). Yet, I do believe some within our fellowship tend to “cheapen” baptism by not recognizing or not understanding its connection to the Holy Spirit, nor its importance in bringing us into union with the resurrection of Jesus. This means that we miss the forward looking part of baptism in our focus on “for the forgiveness of sins” instead of baptism as our introduction to life in the kingdom of God.

      It’s not so much that we are wrong in what we are teaching; its more that we are not teaching the full story. As I’ve said many times over the years: our problem is not that we talk too much about baptism; its that we do not say all that needs to be said about it. In the same way, there is nothing “wrong” with a sinner praying; but, if that is all he does, while ignoring or even denying what God says about baptism, that is a different matter. In both baptism and the sinner’s prayer, the onus is on the teacher – not the new convert. But poor teaching has consequences down the road for the convert, mostly in a false assurance that he’s perfectly o.k. The problem is more severe for those who pray the sinner’s prayer than for those baptized with defective, incomplete teaching. Why? At least baptism is taught in Scripture, while the sinner’s prayer is not taught there at all.


    6. Baptism is reduced to some magical act every time it, along with four other ingredients, are tagged on to a sermon as the five-step plan of salvation (=man’s part).

  2. Hank,
    The biggest thing that is omitted from baptismal teaching in the churches of Christ is the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead us into newness of life in the resurrection power of the gospel. We tend to teach the resurrection of Jesus only as proof of His deity and miss the fact that we are to live in the power of His resurrection, as Paul stated in his prayer in Ephesians 1:18ff. This, unfortunately, is endemic among the churches of Christ – as well as most other Christian groups.

    1. Jerry,

      As close as the parable of the tax collector and the picture of Jesus knocking may or may not come to what is being taught today via the sinners prayer, neither one offers any support whatsoever. You yourself acknowledge that neither are Bjblical examples of how a sinner responds to the gospel and is thereby added to the church. As the preachers in the links above point out, the SP is man made and wholly unbiblical.

      As far as the gift of the Holy Spirit, that is a blessing given by God to all who repent and are baptized. I am grateful that all who are added to the church are promised that blessing whether or not we understand completely what such means.

      The precise meaning of the gift of the wholly Spirit

    2. I agree that God is the giver of the gift (just as He is the one who forgives the sins). And, I’m sure we do not need to understand what that gift means in order to receive it. (Would it also follow that we do not need to understand that baptism is “for the forgiveness of sins” in order to be forgiven as long as we are baptized with faith in Jesus and as obedience to God? Jimmy Allen, in his book on re-baptism, seems to think so.)

      Our defective teaching in these areas, however, means that Christians attempt to live the Christian life with no knowledge of what God has promised them to help them in that journey: the Holy Spirit and participation now in the power that raised Jesus from the dead. </blockquote<For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:15-21, ESV)

      And you were dead in the trespasses and sins…. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:1, 4-7) For us to try to live the Christian life without the resurrection power of the gospel puts us at an extreme disadvantage. And this is a defect in our teaching that needs to be corrected. Certainly most others share this defect – but that does not excuse us for continuing in it either.

    3. I can’t reply to your last comment so I will reply here with a hearty “amen”! That is exactly it, if you learn proof texts then you teach people from proof texts. The problem is, we don’t always teach baptism from the perspective of the greater narrative of the kingdom of God. That is the missing piece.

    4. Amen.

      Clealry, the Bible teaches thar baptism marks the initial point wherein sinners are forgiven of their sins and are added to the church. Just as clearly, it teaches that through the indwelling of Holy Spirit and via Christ being in us, we are to grow in faith and maturity as we live out our lives here, awaiting the return of Jesus and the restoration of all things.

      Unfortunately, those who have prayed the sinners prayer without being immersed, are not born again and are alienated from all of the spiritual blessings which are only in Christ. That is why it is so good that so many mainstream figures are beginning to recognize this and are nor speaking out against the sinners prayer. It has been a non Biblical teaching that has surely kept millions from being saved from sin.

  3. I will say that I never want to limit God by any means. He can save who he wants, however he wants to do it (Hank, I would be very careful who you say is “in” or “out.” That tends to limit God and what the Spirit can do). But it’s impossible to get away from baptism as the response to the gospel. I have to wonder about those who become saved, then wait until “baptism Sunday” to seal the deal. The two are tied together. Baptism is the first response to faith. I think we miss the boat, in multiple fellowships, in seeing faith as the call to make a decision, rather than one to become a disciple.

    The bigger problem I see with the Sinner’s Prayer is that it makes salvation incredibly and almost exclusively individualistic. Invite God into MY life; have Jesus come live in MY heart. Salvation is all about God’s greater story, being a part of it, small as it may be. God invites you into HIS story, to be a part of HIS church and HIS plan for the world, to carry HIS message.

    I think this is one of the more serious biblical matters we need to stand on.

    1. Charlie, you wrote: “Hank, I would be very careful who you say is “in” or “out.” That tends to limit God and what the Spirit can do”.

      But, doesn’t God limit himself at times? For example, he himself proclaims that he CANNOT lie. Accordingly, whenever God states an exclusive truth, all other ideas or possibilities are eliminated. For example, when God (Jesus) said that “no one” comes to the Father except through Jesus – he means that there is no other way of coming to the Father. Therefore, when we insist that there is NO other way, we are not limiting God, rather, we are taking him at his word.

      When a person argues that God may act and/or judge differently than he has revealed in his word, he is demonstrating an attitude of disbelief. For whatever God says is true and final. God has not left himself room to go against the holy Scriptures, which is his very word.

    2. Hank, did God not also say, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy”? Are you saying that He cannot have mercy on whom He chooses to have mercy? Does He have no power to make exceptions if He chooses? Having that power and using it are two different things – but are you saying He does not have that power? That, my friend, is close to being blasphemous. You need to rethink what you wrote: “God has not left himself room to go against the holy Scriptures, which is his very word.”

    3. Let me give one example where God didn’t do what he said he would do.
      Exodus 12 & Numbers 9 told the Jews exactly how to celebrate the Passover. They were told if they did not they would be sinning and cut off from the people. It is very explicit and repeated.
      2 Chron 30 – They decide to celebrate the Passover at the wrong time. 30:3 tells us why – they didn’t have enough consecrated priests. 30:18 says they did things contrary to what was written in the Law.
      2 Chron 30:27 says, “The priests and the Levites stood to bless the people, and God heard them, for their prayer reached heaven, his holy dwelling place.”
      God didn’t do what he said he would do and God didn’t hold them to cutting every last one of them off even though that is exactly how God said he would act.

      God can do that because God is God.That doesn’t diminish the truthfulness or seriousness of His Word in the least. If I am missing something on this one please help me out.

    4. Obviously, we don’t go around trying to make laws out of exceptions or expect to hold God to exceptions. We do have to realize that we do have examples of God making exceptions even to his own word in scripture.

    5. Matt, in response, I agree we can’t make laws out of exceptions. I think we have to be incredibly careful. After all, in Acts the holy spirit came upon the Gentiles before they were baptized. God does what God wants to do sometimes.

      However, I believe he has made it abundantly clear what is and is not the proper response to the gospel.

      Hank, I think we all will be surprised who ends up with the Father one day. I’m with you, God’s way has been made known! But God not being able to lie doesn’t limit him. It tracks perfectly with his holiness. We do indeed trust that God is good on his word. After all, every promise he has made has been fulfilled. But by us holding legalistically to the word and calling ourselves the final judge on who is and is not truly saved puts us in his place. That is limiting God to our understandings and our perceptions, rather than letting God have the final say.

    1. Kyron,

      Comments like that are not all that useful. I hate to say that out loud but it is true. What do you mean? Why? What are they to look for? Also, both Jerry and Hank have read those books many, many times. Can you get more specific?

  4. God certainly made it clear what he desires from us in response to his love and grace. No doubt. It is amazing how people have muddied up the water for so long when it is all so clear in scripture. I am sure I have done that myself at times on something…if I just knew which things I would knock it off myself 🙂

  5. Rather than a clear and final answer to the idea of God saying he was/is going to do a thing and then not doing it (as Matt pointed out about the Passover), I have a question. IF (or perhaps, “since”), God can and just might NOT do what he has said he was going to do, why should we ever speak in absolutes in regards to his proclamations? I mean, IF certain individuals may in fact end up coming to the Father other than through Christ (due to an “exception” made by God), should we not be more careful in limiting God to his word? I mean, we have probably all insisted that faith in Jesus is the ONLY way of being saved at one time or another. Perhaps, rather than claiming that “no one” comes, we ought to say “hardly any” come? Similarly, perhaps we ought to say that without faith, it is “very difficult” to please God? Not trying to be smart aleck here, but wouldn’t it be technically more correct and factual to not say “no one” and “impossible” if there could be “exceptions” to God’s revelations?

    Furthermore, if God being God means that he may act and judge in ways other than he has revealed, where would it end? I mean, who could insist that Jesus will even return and that the dead will all be raised? Seriously, why can God not change his mind and make exceptions regarding the end of time?

    I don’t know. I mean, IF non believers can be saved via God’s ability and right to. Make exceptions (even though Jesus said they’d all be condemned), how could we be sure of any of it?

    Is that not a fair question? What do you think? How would you answer that?

    1. After the case of the Passover, no prophets (to my knowledge) ever referenced that “exception” and always delivered Gods word in absolutes. The NEVER spoke in ways leaving room for exceptions. Like “in forty days you’re gonna probably perish unless God changes his mind”. I can not recall a single instance wherein any man of God spoke of the possibility of God doing other than what he previously declared. I don’t think we should either. I believe we can and should insist that it will happen ONLY in the way God said it would. And never include “unless he makes an exception “.

    2. Hank,

      I think we have to take God 100% at his Word. His word is truth and will guide us in all truth. It is the only thing we can stand on precisely because God is faithful, eternal, all powerful, etc. So when God says something it is “Gospel”, meaning you can bank on it. The reason God didn’t destroy them in 2 Chron 30 is because God saw that the inclination of their hearts was bent on repentance and restoration. They weren’t being flippant. They weren’t being arrogant. They were earnestly seeking God even though it was in a way that violated what God said (the letter of the law). God presumably saw their hearts and responded with mercy and grace.

      I am not going to say God said this or that but surely didn’t mean it. I am not going to say we should live by exception. That very attitude would say we have no respect for God or His Word. I am willing to say that we can point to biblical example of God exerting all of His rights of being God in making decisions about people in whatever way he sees fit. I saw that in light of the fact that God has laid out how he wants it done and we have to respect that. To know that and decide that we just don’t care about baptism, etc is quite a dangerous attitude of the heart.

    3. Hank,
      The reason we do not say there may be an exception is that we are not God. God alone has the right to make an exception. We do not. YET, to say that even God cannot show mercy if He so chooses is to put God into a box of our own interpretation and understanding.

      Likewise, to devise a response to the gospel (such as the Sinner’s Prayer) that is not from God puts God into our box. He is not bound to honor promises He has not made. IF (and that’s a big IF, underlined and in bold) IF God chooses to save someone because of faith confessed in a Sinners Prayer, are you going to argue with Him? I’m not. But when I am teaching someone how to respond to the gospel, I teach them what Peter did on Pentecost.

  6. Hank,
    Rather than deciding that I just don’t care about baptism, IF you will read my comments above, you will see that I stated we do not make enough about it. We are more likely to stress the forgiveness of sins – and forget all about the dying with Jesus, and being raised with Him to a new life in which we are led by the Spirit, empowered by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead to live as children of God and citizens of heaven.

    Why don’t we talk about those things as much as we talk about baptism for remission of sins? In the epistles, where the writers are addressing Christians, not people coming to baptism, the emphasis is on what should follow because we have been baptized – things like purity of life, unity in Christ, and assurance of our hope. If we stressed those things more, I dare say we would all be better off.

    When we strip baptism of the meaning the writers of the epistles gave to it when talking to Christians, how much better are we than those who eliminate it all together? Yes, we have part of it right – but we seem perfectly willing to leave out some of the most important parts and go along in our smugness like the Pharisees who claimed to be children of Abraham – and that therefore, they were free and not in need of someone to redeem them from their bondage.

    1. Jerry,

      Why do accuse me of deciding that you “just don’t care about baptism”? I’ve decided no such thing. What did I write to lead you to THAT conclusion?

      BTW, when you keep saying that we “forget all about the dying with Jesus”, the “being raised with him to a new life in which we are led by the Spirit”, and the being empowered by (the Spirit) “to live as children of God and citizens of heaven”… to whom are you referring? Just who are the “we” which you claim forget all about such things?

      And who are the “we” that “strip baptism of the meaning the writers of the epistles gave to it when talking to Christians”? I don’t know about the churches with which you have been a part of, but I haven’t known of any churches guilty of the charges you allege. And I have been a member of congregations in California, Tennessee, Indiana, and now Florida.

      Frankly, when you claim that “we seem perfectly willing to leave out some of the most important parts and go along in our smugness like the Pharisees who claimed to be children of Abraham…” I honesty do not know of whom you are referring. None of the churches or Christians I know are guilty of the claims you are making. None of them.

  7. Matt wrote this blog to point to some who practice the Sinner’s Prayer beginning to question if it is a valid practice. I introduced the question of whether we do not also need to look more deeply at what happens in baptism. Is remission of sins what it is all about? Or is there much more that should go with us every day of our walk with Jesus? Is it enough to say, “I have been forgiven; now I’m right with God”?

    I know I’m probably overstating my case – but it is frustrating to see so many not growing in the life that is in Jesus simply because they are not laying hold of the things God gives them when they are baptized in His name in penitent faith. It is the new kind of life opened to us that is the good news, even more than the forgiveness of sin (as great as that is)!

    When Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23), people came to Him and He gave them the Sermon on the Mount. That sermon describes the life that is ours in the Kingdom. It is not a new set of rules as much as it is a description of how life in the Kingdom of God is lived – and, brother, that kind of life is good news!

    1. “Matt wrote this blog to point to some who practice the Sinner’s Prayer beginning to question if it is a valid practice.”

      Actually, the men Matt point to do not (or no longer) practice the Sinner’s prayer, they oppose it. Nor are they merely “beginning to question if it is a valid practice”, rather – they clearly affirm that it is NOT a valid practice. They say it is man made and unbiblical, and they are right.

      And while only God knows how many thousands of people there are who have been baptized and failed to grow and/or wandered from the faith, it is surely not because of so many of our churches (cofc’s) teaching that baptism is the “end all.”

      And while “we” may hammer home the fact that baptism actually is for (in order to obtain) the remission of sins, I don’t believe that very many of “us” forget all of the other important stuff. And I believe that “we” wouldn’t ever be guilty of over-emphasizing baptism at all if the majority of Christendom did not so vehemently deny what the Bible actually teaches regarding the meaning and purpose of baptism. And exchange the practice and role of immersion with the so-called “sinner’s prayer.”

      Which is why it is so wonderful that so many prominent Christian men are now speaking out against the SP.

    2. I guess the point in all of this is that we need to make sure we are teaching all the NT teaches about baptism and not having a “canon within a canon” of our selected points to the neglect of many other biblical points regarding baptism. No one would argue we need to be less biblical. We all seem to be saying more biblical is better.

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