I grew up in the midst of “modern Christianity” and with that came fads such as WWJD bracelets, evangelism crusades, some pitiful Christian bands, Promise Keepers meetings, and books such as Experiencing God, the Prayer of Jabez, and the Purpose Driven Life. Evangelical Christianity today will jump on any wave in order to be known as “relevant” with the culture and make their numbers rise.
And within all of these well-intentioned but misdirected fads, the biggest atrocity is the “sinner’s prayer” that is found at the core of modern Christianity. An example of the “sinner’s prayer” used to close the deal with getting decisions for Christ is like the following from Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life book in 2002 (page 58-59):
“Real life begins by committing yourself completely to Jesus Christ. If you are not sure you have done this, all you need to do is receive and believe…bow your head and quietly whisper the prayer that will change your eternity: ‘Jesus I believe in you and I receive you.’ Go ahead. If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God.”
Now many pastors who use this prayer at the culmination of a service or encounter may be good intentioned. You may have had a conversion experience where this prayer was conducted. You may think this is the only way to help a person become saved.
The real question is not whether you think it works or whether it gets the numbers up in a church for decisions or whether it is effective, but whether it is Biblical. There is no sinner’s prayer in the Bible and nothing in Scripture even remotely similar to what we see here. In fact, there are integral pieces to the true gospel missing in the “sinner’s prayer.”
There is no preaching of sin, no preaching of repentance, no preaching of the consequences of sin which is God’s wrath, no preaching of the cross, no counting the cost, no surrendering to His Lordship, no denial of yourself, no admission of guilt towards a holy and righteous God. It is an inadequate gospel that is absolutely against the entirety of Scripture and needs to be challenged. It produces false converts, false assurances of salvation, comforts the stony ground heart, and actually drives the sinner away from the true gospel.
If you were one who thought they were saved through walking an aisle or repeating a prayer or raising your hand, it may be rather difficult to sway your mind in this area. Blog posts such as Top 10 Ways to Get a Decision for Christ (click on it to read) will surely touch a nerve and get under your skin since the “sinner’s prayer” was effective for you and it may be the only way you know to “lead someone to Christ.” Stay with me in this blog and let logic and Scripture change your mind.
The Origin of the Sinner’s Prayer
So many of us in modern Christianity may think that this “sinner’s prayer” has been around forever. However, it is a rather recent invention by a man named Charles Finney back in the 1800’s. It is not found in the Bible, the early Church, or the Reformers.
Charles Finney was a law student who was converted by what he believed was not a work of God but that his own will was the sole determining factor that brought about salvation. He began a preaching ministry almost immediately with no training or knowledge of the Bible or of theology. He began to hold revivals around western New York that drew huge crowds.
Finney rejected many doctrines such as original sin through Adam, that God could never condemn people for being sinners by nature, human reason was a higher authority than Scripture, there was no such thing as regeneration, and God did not impute Christ’s righteousness to the sinner nor impute the believer’s sin to Christ. He called many of these doctrines found within the book of Romans “theological fiction.”
For Charles Finney, the ends justified the means. “The success of any measure designed to promote a revival of religion, demonstrates wisdom.” This pragmatic philosophy asked converts to “come forward” in these evangelistic revivals to indicate their “acceptance” of Christ. He encouraged preachers to be extemporaneous, make humorous observations, and minimize any doctrine (the main thrust of mainline evangelical churches today).
Finney drew huge crowds, gathered decision after decision for Christ, and this approach seemed to be hugely successful to those around him.
During Finney’s lifetime, the area with which he centered his revivals was known as the “burned-over district.” This symbolized the repeated waves of religious fervor that erased any real concern for the gospel and left those in its wake in destruction. Soon these areas which were full of baptised pagans and false converts showed the full evidence of their hardened unbelief and ultimate agnosticism. One of Finney’s revival workers stated “I have visited and revisited many of these fields, and groaned in spirit to see the sad, frigid, carnal, contentious state into which the churches had fallen – and fallen very soon after our first departure from among them.”
Even Charles Finney, saw the results of his own ministry:
“I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith…[But] falling short of urging them up to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state.”
Finney’s legacy was that of superficiality and destruction. Sinners were not saved by the gospel but brought into some religious experience that was false. He turned in the Biblical call to proclaim the gospel message and teach the Word of God for appealing to the felt needs of the sinner which is still vividly apparent in every seeker-sensistive church today.
He emphasized the ends (which is focused on man’s goals) rather than the means (which is focused on God’s plan). Today, numerical growth is the number one indicator of a successful ministry. Rather than the depth of a ministry being the overall focus, ministries are centralized on an entertainment and watered-down approach that is clothed with the reasoning that it will bring more people to Christ. In this philosophy, doctrine is compromised, the consumer is made sovereign, what seems effective is the truth, and every decision will be made for what works now.
Charles Finney’s legacy is a Christianity that trades in the church’s passion for purity and truth, discards Jesus’ own methods of teaching and preaching, exchanges the substance of the gospel, promotes unity for the sake of growth rather than holiness, health – wealth – prosperity are selling cards for a relationship with Jesus, and most importantly takes away from the exaltation and glory of God.
The biggest piece of the fallout from the Finney legacy is the belief that if you package the gospel the right way and make it appealing to people, people will be saved by making some “decision.” It is rooted in Arminian philosophy in that conversion is nothing more than a decisive act of the human will. It drives the goal of an instantaneous human decision based on the sovereignty of the sinner. The Bible clearly shows the sovereignty of God, the unable and unwilling nature of the sinner, and that a true conversion is a radical transformation of the heart through the work of God’s sovereign election, the Holy Spirit’s convicting work, and Christ’s atoning work on the cross through the gospel in the Word of God.
The Real Sinner’s Prayer
So what is the real sinner’s prayer? The Biblical prayer that shows true repentance and faith is found in Luke 18 in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:
“But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other.”
We are called not to get numbers, not to get decisions for Christ, not to have the ends justify the means, not to do anything other than preach the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ. Law to the proud and grace to the humble. Call on people to repent and put their faith in Christ alone for their salvation.
To preach the Word, be faithful in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort, not compromise, endure hardship, and do the work of an evangelist.
And leave the results up to God.