“And Jesus said, ‘say unto God the Sinner’s Prayer and ye shall be saved.'”
If you’re looking for a scripture reference for that quote you won’t find one because Jesus never said it.
He said many things about a relationship with Him, about knowing God and living a changed live but not about saying the Sinner's Prayer.
Man has turned salvation into a formula. A nice, neatly packaged formula that feels good from the pulpit, sounds official and works well on the What To Do To Get Someone To Heaven checklist but folks, Jesus didn't die for us to have a neat and orderly system. We had that with the Pharisees.
What We’ve Made It
“Sinner’s Prayer” sounds as if somehow we’re only sinners before we say it and once said, we’re not. We may be tempted to think this, but it is not true.
We’ve cheapened salvation to a count of hands raised with “every head bowed and every eye closed” so the raised hands aren't uncomfortable. It's odd to me that we want those coming into the Kingdom to be as comfortable as possible yet the One we're to be in relationship lived anything but a comfortable life and said “Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” ~ John 16:32-33
He also said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” ~ John 15:18
Since when is a relationship with Christ supposed to be comfortable? I’ve been saved many years and yes, I find comfort in my relationship with Christ, but there is nothing “comfortable” about being led (and sometimes pushed) to new levels of faith, commitment and obedience. It stretches us, changes us, molds us and forms us and that is often uncomfortable.
Are we setting these new believers up to fail by saying, “We won’t watch you step into eternity because we want you to be comfortable. Once we know you’ve recited this thing we made up then we’ll look at you and expect big things!”
What? I’m not sure that’s what Jesus died for. It's time to rethink this.
Man’s Formulas Aren’t God’s Formulas
Silly humans, we’ve got this all wrong.
God isn’t after our checklist. He probably shakes his head and laughs in love like a father of a toddler who is trying to put a square peg in a round hole.
God is after our heart and if what comes out of our mouth doesn't line up with what is in our hearts our words are an empty, meaningless chorus of nouns and verbs, nothing more.
God wants our hearts because he knows words aren't enough. Reciting a sinner’s prayer on Sunday is not going to change your behavior on Monday if the Holy Spirit hasn't pricked your heart.
When we say a prayer of Salvation it should never be out of duty or obligation or to fit in with the masses. Our hearts should be so moved by the Holy Spirit that we cannot help but confess with our mouth.
More Than Words, More Than Feelings
God knows there is a big gap between the altar and the door. He knows that the glossy image we portray on Sunday is a far cry from the bad attitudes, yelling and fussing that come on Monday morning. Saying a few shallow words isn’t going to change the way we behave, think or feel but when our hearts are open then, and only then, can God begin to work in the rest of our lives.
We need more than a checked box beside “Sinner’s Prayer” to live an abundant life that serves as an example to others. God knows this. That’s why Jesus didn't say, “Repeat after me guys….ok great, now you’re in. Here’s a Bible, go read it like a good history textbook, memorize it for the test and I’ll see you at the Pearly Gates.”
Our need for salvation is so much greater than feeling like we've followed the church’s script. When we “bring someone to Christ” we need to remember this is a relationship. A prayer of salvation is like accepting a courtship. After that, it’s a journey toward marriage.
What The Bible Says
“that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead,
you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation,” ~Roman 10:9-10
This scripture is often used to say we need to confess to be saved. Except Paul wasn't talking to unbelievers, he was talking to the church.
Here's another one: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,”~ 1 John 1:9
Guess what, John is talking to the church in Ephesus. Christians, not unbelievers.
Being born again is not about a script. Listen to Jesus' words to Nicodemus:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ ~ John 3:3-7
Let’s look at what Jesus said:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. ~ John 5:24
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. ~ John 14:6
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. ~ John 3:16
Another a few other verse to note:
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. ~ 1 John 1:7
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” ~ Ephesians 2:8
What We Should Do Instead
Instead of asking someone to recite a Sinner's Prayer we need to lead them to an attitude of repentance and a desire to live by faith. Repentance and faith – that's what it takes to enter God's kingdom. It's God's amazing grace that takes us from sinner to saint through the blood of Jesus.
But we'll be doing that the rest of our lives, I thought we only had to be saved once?
Once saved, always saved is debatable and yes, we will do this for the rest of our lives.
As we work out our salvation, as we grow and dig deeper we recognize our shortcomings and repent. As we face new and difficult decisions and trials in life our faith needs renewed, and we will have to guard our hearts and be purposeful in having faith in Christ.
We should not expect someone to respond out of pure emotion to an alter call and expect them to be saved. God will prompt them, whisper to them and convict them. Once someone is ready there are a few things they need to do to begin their relationship with Christ:
- Admit they're sinners
- Ask forgiveness
- Ask to be saved and recreated
- Confess that Jesus is the Way
There's not magic formula. Flowy eloquent words or a simple, “God I've screwed up the life big time. Forgive me. Help me change, save me from myself. I know you're the only way I'll ever change.” It might not look good on a pew card, but it will get the job done. God isn't after our words, he's after our heart and our life. Jesus died for more than our formula.
*Note* This post is meant to challenge your thinking and the systematic Christianity that much of the Church has fallen accustomed to. Many of us, myself included, were led to the Lord through the traditional Sinner's Prayer. That's okay! It doesn't mean you're not saved (though it doesn't necessarily mean you are either). If you're not sure you are saved you need to talk to God about that and evaluate if you are becoming a new creation. Is there visible change in your life, words, thoughts and actions? Are you bearing good fruit?