November 18, 2016

The Sinner’s Prayer?

by Mike Riccardi

One of the privileges I have in my ministry is to regularly teach on the theology and practice of evangelism at The Master’s Seminary. Recently, the guys at TMS asked for my thoughts on whether we should use a “sinner’s prayer” when speaking to someone about the Gospel. They captured part of my response in the below video. I hope it serves you as you think through how to helpfully and faithfully “land the plane” in evangelistic conversations.

Ask a Prof: The Sinner’s Prayer? (Season 1 Episode 4) from The Master’s Seminary on Vimeo.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Dan Phillips

    OK, am I the only one who thought the music was the beginning

    of “California Girls”?

  • tovlogos

    Absolutely, Mike.

  • The issue behind the issue is that we must do a better job in our evangelism classes helping people understand how to react when it seems that God has just regenerated a heart right in front of them. What should I do at that moment in time? That is what people need training on. We need something in place of the “sinners prayer” or else we create a vacuum.

    I would suggest some basic questions and then some next steps for discipleship and of course, baptism. It would be tragic to pray with them, and then pat them on the back and wish them the best which i know you are not suggesting. I am only aiming to add some meat to the bones, so to speak.

    1. Do you confess that Jesus is your LORD?
    2. Do you literally believe and affirm that God raised Jesus from the dead?
    3. Are you, at this moment, forsaking your sinful life, turning to Jesus Christ in complete faith, surrendering all you are to him?
    Praise the Lord! Let’s get some discipleship training in place and we can start talking about the next step of baptism!

    Of course we should encourage folks to introduce this person to the pastors/elders immediately.

    • Thanks Ed. Good comments. Very much in the spirit of the video at around 1:53 and following.

      You’re right: it is important to have an “alternative” to the sinner’s prayer. I mentioned in the video that the evangelist might pray for the professing believer himself. Something that I said that got edited out of the video was the suggestion to let the new professing believer pray on his own, without having him “repeat after me.” This way, that person isn’t coerced, and the evangelist can get a sense of how truly the person has understood the Gospel by what comes out of his/her heart naturally after indicating a desire to follow Christ.

      I also suggested (also didn’t make the final cut :-)) that in between (a) casting unnecessary suspicion upon a profession of faith and (b) uncritically offering assurance on the basis of a profession only, we should (c) call the person we’re speaking with to “confirm what God has done today” by making your calling and election sure (2 Pet 1:10), by bearing fruits in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:8), by following Christ and keeping His commandments (John 8:31; 14:15, 23).

      I think your suggestion to encourage them toward discipleship and baptism is great, also very much in the spirit of the video at around 2:13 and following — what I say is “probably most important.” Start the beginnings of discipleship (let’s meet up and talk about the Scriptures) and encourage them to be involved in a local church and moving toward baptism.

      I also like your set of questions. Something I’m finding interesting about this discussion is that people think that being “anti- sinner’s prayer” is being “anti – calling for a response in evangelism.” But that doesn’t follow. I believe 100% in calling for a response in evangelism; we are to beg people to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20), to call all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30-31). I think your summary questions do a good job of calling for a response. However (not that you’re saying this; though others have), the response we’re calling for isn’t a “sinner’s prayer,” but for true repentance and faith in Christ. Now, true repentance and faith may very likely be expressed in prayer, but certainly not in the cookie-cutter, “repeat-after-me” fashion that the sinner’s prayer is known for.

      Thanks again, Ed, for your thoughtful comments.

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  • Lee

    Hello Mike,
    Very true that the “Sinner’s prayer” is a more recent phenomenon over the past 2 centuries. You are right to question it since we don’t ever read about such a specific prayer in scriptures. What is most commonly referenced is Romans 10:9 but of course this was written to the Christians in Rome. The pattern for salvation was already set in Acts, and we see it re-affirmed in Romans and throughout the Pauline epistles.
    To respond specifically to some points that you made I would begin with the thief on the cross. Remember that he would be grouped with those in the Old Testament faith since Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead yet. In Luke 18 you reference the Pharisee and make an important point here – “a prayer alone isn’t the key for salvation”. What you seem to imply is that this Pharisee didn’t have faith. I am not sure you can deduce that from the passage for he certainly acknowledges God from the very opening of his statement. As we know from James 2:19 even the Demons have faith – but certainly are not saved. So is it faith alone? I would ask a simple question that the scripture answer quite clearly, “How do we get into Christ?” Are we ‘Faith-ed” into Christ? I wouldn’t look at the past two centuries but rather at the first few centuries of writings, namely the Ante-Nicene Fathers. The 10 volume work covers the beginning of Christianity until before the promulgation of the Nicene Creed at the First Council of Nicaea. The translations are very faithful, and provide valuable insights into the spirituality and theology of the early Church fathers

    • 4Commencefiring4

      Speaking of what we “don’t read in Scripture”, there’s never any mention of “accepting” Jesus Christ as one’s “personal Lord and Savior.” Or of “accepting” anything.

      What it says is “believe” on the Lord Jesus Christ, “trust” in the Lord, “receive” Him, etc. And there’s no “personal Lord and Savior” talk. He IS the Lord of heaven and earth; He IS the only Savior. There’s no distinction between Him and some “personal” one we’ve acquired somewhere, like our personal pocket knife.

      I know it may be semantics, but when we depart from the language He uses, we can sometimes–though not always–slowly begin departing from the truth. He is the Savior of the World, and not just our personal one. He saves us from the sum total of our individual sins, yes, but that doesn’t make Him our “personal Savior.” I really have no love for that phrase. I think CCC came up with it first in their “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet–another bit of material I would rewrite, despite its widespread and effective use over the years. The Gospel message, as I understand it, doesn’t begin with “God’s love” for us–as important as that may be; it begins with our sin problem.

      But that is getting off topic at bit.

    • What is most commonly referenced is Romans 10:9 but of course this was written to the Christians in Rome.

      That Romans 10:9 was written to Christians in Rome isn’t evidence that such doesn’t apply to the church today. The Roman Christians believed in the same Jesus that we believe in today. My thing is: I just don’t think that Romans 10:9 is adequate justification for the sinner’s prayer at all. I have no qualms with the notion 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.” But that is not, “Repeat after me, and don’t let anyone ever tell you that you’re not a Christian, no matter how you live, because you mouthed these words.”

      Those who use Romans 10:9-10 as justification for the sinner’s prayer abstract that passage from its context. The demons could say Jesus was Lord (cf. Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34), and I can’t see why they’d have any misgivings believing the fact that He was raised from the dead (cf. James 2:19). But Romans 10:9-10 comes in the context of the most thorough explanation of the Gospel in all of Scripture. If we’re not to have a sudden onset of amnesia when we get to chapter 10, we must conclude that “believing in your heart” means genuinely believing that the true God raised the true Christ from the dead, as vindication of the sufficient, once-for-all payment for sins that He accomplished on the cross for His people (Rom 4:25), when God set Him forth publicly as a propitiation of divine wrath by the redemption through His blood (Rom 3:25), and trusting in that sufficient propitiating payment for acceptance with God (Rom 3:28; 4:4-5). “Confessing with your mouth” means genuinely, from the heart, owning Christ as the Lord and Master of your life — both of your walk and of your mind, so that to disbelieve the things Christ says in His Word is to deny His Lordship. All of that militates against reducing Romans 10:9-10 to a talismanic mantra, and presses into the reality that we’re saved through genuine God-given repentance and faith.

      To respond specifically to some points that you made I would begin with the thief on the cross. Remember that he would be grouped with those in the Old Testament faith since Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead yet.

      This also has no bearing on the discussion. People saved under the Mosaic Covenant (and even before the Mosaic Covenant) are saved by the same grace through the same faith in the same God as those saved under the New Covenant (and even after the New Covenant). The thief recognized his sin before the holiness of God, and trusted in the work of Jesus — the very work which he himself was witnessing with his own eyes! — to save him.

      In Luke 18 you reference the Pharisee and make an important point here – “a prayer alone isn’t the key for salvation”. What you seem to imply is that this Pharisee didn’t have faith. I am not sure you can deduce that from the passage for he certainly acknowledges God from the very opening of his statement.

      “Acknowledging God” is not saving faith. Trusting in God’s provision of atonement for forgiveness and righteousness is saving faith, as is illustrated by three things: (1) the publican’s response (“God, be propitious toward me, the sinner,” Luke 18:13), in contrast with (2) Jesus’ intent in telling the parable (“to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” Luke 18:9), in concert with (3) the comment that the Pharisee did not go to his house justified (saved) while the publican did, Luke 18:14.

      Trusting in yourself to be righteous means that you’re not justified. Trusting in the propitiation God provides does result in justification. Therefore, the Pharisee didn’t believe savingly, while the publican did.

      As we know from James 2:19 even the Demons have faith – but certainly are not saved.

      Demons mentally assent to certain facts, like monotheism, but, once again, mental assent is not saving faith. True faith, as opposed to dead faith, or demonic faith, or useless faith, is genuine trust in Christ alone for righteousness, and, necessarily then, a distrust of anything else for righteousness, including one’s works. Even prayers.

      So is it faith alone? I would ask a simple question that the scripture answer quite clearly, “How do we get into Christ?” Are we ‘Faith-ed” into Christ?

      Yes, it is faith alone. And yes, in a manner of speaking, we are “faithed” into Christ, if you like. More precisely, union with Christ encompasses the whole of salvation — planned, accomplished, and applied. 1. With respect to the plan of redemption, the elect are said to be, in a sense, in Christ from before the foundation of the world, since we are chosen in Christ (Eph 1:4) and are thereby granted grace in Christ Jesus from all eternity (2 Tim 1:9). 2. With respect to the accomplishment of redemption, the elect are reckoned to have been in and with Christ in His death and resurrection, so that we have been “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20; Rom 6:6), “united with Him in the likeness of His death” (Rom 6:5), and therefore also made alive together with Christ (Eph 2:5), raised with Him (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1), and seated with Him in the heavenlies (Eph 2:6). 3. With respect to the application of redemption, the resurrection life lived by believers is lived “by faith in Christ” (Gal 2:20). Faith is the instrument by which lay hold of the righteousness of Christ (Rom 3:28; 4:4-5; Phil 3:9). We are “justified in Christ” (Gal 2:17) — that is, we are justified only by virtue of our union with Christ. And if we’re justified by faith apart from any works (again, Rom 3:28; 4:4-5; Phil 3:9), then it is by faith that we experience the application of our union to Christ.

      I wouldn’t look at the past two centuries but rather at the first few centuries of writings, namely the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

      I much prefer to look past even the first few centuries of writings to the Scriptures themselves, which are the sole infallible authority for matters of faith, life, and godliness (2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:3-4). And the unified consensus of the Scriptures is that “a man is justified by faith apart from works” (Rom 3:28; cf. 4:4-9; 5:1; 9:30; 10:4, 10; Gal 2:16; 3:21-16; Phil 3:9). It must be by faith alone apart from any works, because otherwise salvation would not be in accordance with grace (Rom 4:16). And “if salvation is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom 11:6).

      These works would include water baptism, which is where I expect you’re going with all this. The above response should be sufficient, so I’ll stop you before you go any further down that path, since baptism isn’t the topic of this post. But it’s probably necessary to say that when Scripture says we are “baptized into Christ” (Rom 6:3; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27), it is not speaking of water baptism, but rather to the ministry of the Holy Spirit whereby we are “immersed” (i.e., the literal meaning of baptidzo) into union with Christ upon believing the Gospel. To make union with Christ dependent upon anything but faith is to corrupt the Gospel and make grace no longer grace.