In light of recent discussions concerning the “sinner’s prayer,” last Monday I tried to clarify a few things that I believe are important and today I want to offer a few additional thoughts that I sincerely hope will prove helpful. In recent days, I’ve had numerous people ask me, “Well, if we don’t lead people in the ‘sinner’s prayer’ in evangelism, then how can we lead them to Christ?” That’s obviously a question worth discussing for every follower of Christ who is passionate about seeing people saved. So the thoughts below represent my attempt to briefly and concisely address the answer to that question. I share them here not to defend a certain perspective or debate a certain position; my goal is simply to serve those who are asking important questions as they personally seek to share the gospel.
Every spring I teach an evangelism and missions class in our church’s Institute for Disciple-Making. By God’s grace, the class is always packed full of people, some of whom are preparing to spend their lives overseas among the unreached and others of whom just want to share the gospel more effectively right where they live. The foundational material for the class is based on a sermon series I walked our entire church through called “Threads: The Gospel and Personal Evangelism.”
As we explored the gospel in the book of Romans during that series, I encouraged all the members of our church to intentionally and constantly sew gospel truths into the fabric of their everyday conversations. My hope is that every member of our church will have a clear understanding of the core truths of the gospel (concerning the character of God, the sinfulness of man, the sufficiency of Christ, the necessity of faith, and the urgency of eternity) and be able to communicate those truths consistently in their homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and around the world. If you’re interested in listening to that sermon series, you can find it by going here.
Whenever I teach the evangelism class, we always get to the point where we discuss how we call people to follow Christ. Obviously, we are not sharing the gospel fully and biblically unless we invite others to respond to Christ in repentance and faith. It’s at this point in the class that we discuss the “sinner’s prayer.”
I always say to the members of our church in the class that there is nothing inherently wrong with the “sinner’s prayer,” and I point out how it has been useful in many people’s moment of conversion. Many wonderful men and women have used the “sinner’s prayer” to lead people to Christ, from Billy Graham to Bill Bright. Consequently, I encourage the members of our church, as they share the totality and beauty of the gospel, to feel free to invite a lost person to pray a pointed prayer that expresses biblical repentance of sin and faith in Christ.
At the same time, I also share with the class the reasons why I rarely ask people to “repeat after me” or “pray the sinner’s prayer” in my own pastoral preaching and personal evangelism. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll list them briefly here:
- A specific “sinner’s prayer” like we often think of today is not found in Scripture or even in much of church history. Without question, Scripture tells us to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and to call on the name of the Lord and be saved. At the same time, we never see anyone in Scripture saying, “Bow your head, close your eyes, and repeat after me,” followed by a specific “sinner’s prayer.”
- The use of a “sinner’s prayer” can potentially come across as unhealthily formulaic. I talk with people all the time who are looking for a “box to check off” in order to be right with God and safe for eternity. But there is no box. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Such saving faith is the anti-work (i.e., “not by works, so that no one can boast” in Ephesians 2:8-9), and I want to be careful never to communicate that someone’s work (or words) can merit salvation before God.
- I have seen the “sinner’s prayer” abused across the contemporary Christian landscape as people “pray the prayer” apart from a biblical understanding of the gospel or “pray the prayer” on multiple occasions to ensure their salvation or “pray the prayer” without ever counting the cost of following Christ. I have experienced this abuse in my own life: I can remember laying in my bed at night as a child/teenager, wondering about whether or not I’m really saved, and then thinking, “Well, I just need to pray that prayer again…and really mean it this time…and then I’ll know I’m saved.” I have seen this abuse in a variety of evangelistic settings (here and overseas, among children, youth, and adults) where people have been called upon to “pray the prayer” and “raise their hand” in ways that, despite good intentions, were theologically man-centered and practically manipulative. And I have seen this abuse in the lives of many people I pastor who prayed the “sinner’s prayer” at a point in their life and later came to realize that they were not truly saved. Consequently, on both a personal and pastoral level, I have cautions about potential abuses associated with the “sinner’s prayer.”
- It seems that “praying the prayer” is often used in a worship service or an evangelistic conversation to “cement a decision” or “close the deal” regarding someone’s salvation. People are often told immediately, “If you prayed that prayer, you can always know that you are saved for eternity.” Now I certainly believe that justification before God happens at a point in time (i.e., people don’t ooze into the kingdom of God), and it’s helpful (though not entirely necessary) for someone to be able to identify the point at which they were saved. Ultimately, however, I don’t want people to look to me or even to a “prayer they prayed” for assurance of salvation. I want them to look to Christ for this. Assurance of salvation is always based on His work, not ours. Objectively, we look to Christ’s past work on the cross; subjectively, we look to Christ’s present work in our lives; and supremely, we look to Christ’s unshakeable promises regarding our future. This is where books like 1 John biblically ground our assurance as believers. Assurance of salvation is not found in a prayer we prayed or a decision we made however many years ago as much as it is found in trusting in the sacrifice of Christ for us, experiencing the Spirit of Christ in us, obeying the commands of Christ to us, and expressing the love of Christ to others. I want to be careful not to give a person blanket assurance regarding their eternal destiny apart from the fruit of biblical faith, repentance, obedience, and love.
Having said all this, let me emphasize again that I’m not saying this means a “sinner’s prayer” is always wrong for people to employ. Certainly some people could (and likely will) counter each of the points I’ve mentioned above with a variety of other reasons why the “sinner’s prayer” is helpful and beneficial. I completely understand that (and might even agree with some, maybe much, of their reasoning). These are simply the reasons I’m hesitant to lead someone in a specific “sinner’s prayer.”
So how do you lead someone to Christ, then? My answer to this question is exactly what I encourage the members of our church in our evangelism class to do (if, of course, they choose not to employ a specific “sinner’s prayer”). Again, at the risk of oversimplification, here’s how I encourage them:
- Share the gospel clearly…and call people to count the cost of following Christ. Make sure that the person you are talking with has a biblical understanding of the glorious reality that the just and gracious Creator of the universe has looked upon hopelessly sinful men and women in their rebellion and He has sent His Son, God in the flesh, to bear His wrath against sin on the cross and to show His power over sin in the resurrection so that everyone who repents and believes in Him will be reconciled to God forever. Make sure this gospel is clear. Tell them following Jesus will cost them their life…and tell them Jesus is worth it!
- If you are in a personal conversation with someone (and this could be applied in a small group, as well), ask them if they have any questions about the gospel. Ask them if they have ever repented and believed in Jesus (i.e., turned from their sin and themselves to trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord). Ask them if they would like to repent of sin and believe in Christ.
- Invite them to call on the Lord and be saved. If they see God for who He is, their sin for what it is, themselves for who they are, and Christ for who He is and what He has done, then by the grace of God through the Spirit of God they are more than able to call out in repentance and faith…so let them do so. You don’t necessarily need to tell them the exact words to say at that point. You have shared the gospel and the Spirit has opened their eyes to the love and lordship of Christ, so urge them to call out for His mercy and submit to His majesty.
- At the same time, be willing to let them be alone with God, if that is best. In some circumstances, it probably is best to encourage them to be alone with God in order that you might not unknowingly, unintentionally, or unhelpfully manipulate a decision, circumstance, or situation. As you call them to submit to the person of Christ, you can trust the Spirit of Christ to bring them to salvation.
- Most importantly, once someone repents and believes in Christ, be willing to lead that person as a new follower of Christ. Remember, our goal is not to count decisions; our goal is to make disciples.
Practically, this is the way sharing the gospel plays out in my pastoral preaching and personal evangelism. Every single sermon on every single Sunday, I aim to preach Christ clearly and to call lost sinners to repent, believe, and be reconciled to God. Do I ask them to “bow their heads and repeat after me”? No. But I do urge them every week to repent and believe…to call on the name of Christ and be saved. And whether I’m in the city where I live or among an unreached people group on the other side of the world, I make the same plea as I share the gospel in my personal conversations.
In the end, that’s my prayer for my life—and for others’ lives—in light of recent discussions regarding the “sinner’s prayer.” My hope is that as a result of this discussion, I and others together will be all the more committed to passionately, wisely, biblically, and faithfully lead men, women, boys, and girls to salvation in Christ among all nations for the glory of His name.