What is the “Sinner’s Prayer”?

What is the

“Sinner’s Prayer”?

Richard Hollerman

In Protestant Fundamentalist and some Evangelical circles, people take it for granted that the Bible teaches a “sinner’s prayer” for salvation.  What do we mean by this term that is passed around with such familiarity that we assume it is the will of God for one who desires to be saved from sin?

This phrase refers to a prayer that the alien sinner is supposed to pray either to God or the Jesus Christ in order to validate, express, or give evidence of his faith in the Lord.  Most agree that salvation is “by grace through faith,” as Paul puts it (Ephesians 2:8-9).  In addition, it is generally agreed that the sinner cannot be saved through his own works, for Paul says, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  It is thought that this sinner’s prayer is not a work and isn’t meritorious, thus it has a place in man’s salvation response.

Some teachers would deny this.  They would look on faith as a gift of God to the sinner, thus when a sinner believes or has faith, it is entirely God’s choice and activity.  This monergistic view would say that man does nothing—including faith, repentance, or prayer.  Salvation is of God alone.

Others, however, conclude that man does have something he must do to exercise or express faith.  (See our booklet, Questions of Salvation.)  They believe that prayer is the means by which faith saves.  Various scriptures are cited in an effort to prove this view.  First, Revelation 3:20 is often cited.  Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”  What is the verse is saying?  It is directed to “the church in Laodicea” that was a legitimate community of believers at one time but these people had become lukewarm and apathetic (vv. 15-18).  They were told to “be zealous and repent” (v. 19).  Jesus was standing at the door, seeking to have these lackadaisical Christians to repent and allow Him into their fellowship once again.  It was directed to a church, not total unbelievers.  It is not directed to the alien sinner who has never been saved.

Second, another passage used to support the so-called “sinner’s prayer” is 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  John writes this to people whom he calls, “my little children” (2:1) and “beloved” (2:7), ones who have received the promise of eternal life (v. 25).  These were true Christians who were compromising with sin.  Thus, John writes, “If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1:7).  These are the ones who are encouraged to confess their sins and receive cleansing from God the Father (v. 9).  This is not written to unbelievers at all but to any Christian who seeks God’s forgiveness.

A third verse that is commonly used to support the “sinner’s prayer” view is Luke 18:13: “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating is breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’” Then, in verse 14a, we have Jesus own comments on this humble and repentant tax collector: “I tell you, this man went to his house justified.”  Does this support the idea of the sinner’s prayer as it is usually viewed today?  It does show the need to be humble and repentant when we want to be justified (or accepted as righteous by God), but it is not really a clear reference to one who is initially saved through the gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  The whole context here was Israel and how one could be justified under the Old Testament period.  Further, no one today would say that it is sufficient to just ask God to be merciful.  The point of the sinner’s prayer is that one must ask Jesus to save, based on His death on the cross—something that the tax collector knew nothing about.  Thus, it is not really an example to us today on how to be forgiven of sin through the gospel of Christ.

A fourth passage that is often used to “prove” the “sinner’s prayer” is Romans 10:13.  In this passage, Paul quotes Joel 2:32, saying, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Beginning in verse 9, Paul writes, “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.”  In the section after verse 13, Paul gives this explanation: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?  How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?  And how will they hear without a preacher?  How will they preach unless they are sent?” (vv. 14-15a).  Finally, in verse 17, we read, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”

Notice the chain that leads to salvation: (1) A preacher is sent to proclaim the gospel; (2) the word of Christ is proclaimed; (3) the sinner hears this message of salvation; (4) the sinner believes the message; (5) the believing sinner “calls on the name of the Lord” for salvation.  This does seem to show that one is not saved at the point of mere inward belief/faith, but at the point of the “calling.” 

Several points may be made about this.  First, this “calling” on the Lord (the name of the Lord), may be a reference to confessing that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9).   Even this does not specify whether this confession is a confession of Jesus’ Lordship to Him directly or to others about Him.  If it is a confession of Jesus to others (perhaps similar to 1 Timothy 6:13), it would be understandable.  If it is a confession to Jesus directly, confessing His Lordship, we can see that this would help to elucidate verse 13: “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  (Some may point out that Joel 2:32, which is quoted by Paul in verse 13, is a calling on the name of Yahweh, which is a name generally given to God, the Father of Jesus, though occasionally it does seem to be applied to the Lord Jesus.)

When and how does this “calling” occur?  Joel 2:32 is also quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost, in Acts 2:21.  He tells these devout Jews that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  But after Peter presents the gospel to these sincere listeners (vv. 22-36), they were “pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” (v. 37).  Did Peter answer with Joel 2:32 again?  No, instead he answered, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38).  It seems that, in context, the calling on the Lord to be saved is fulfilled when one repents of his sins and is baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of those sins (and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit).  Doesn’t this seem to be what the text is saying?

Maybe this will become clearer yet if we consider Paul’s own conversion.  You will remember that Paul (Saul) was on his way to Damascus to persecute the followers of Christ Jesus (Acts 9:1-9).  The Lord Jesus then appeared to him on the way and said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do” (vv. 5-6).  Paul did go to the city and spent his time “without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (v. 9).  This demonstrated his deep repentance and growing realization of who this Jesus really was.  The Lord then spoke to Ananias and sent him to Paul who was “praying” (v. 11).  This too shows Paul’s sincerity and earnest search for answers and forgiveness. 

In Paul’s own account of his conversion, given years later to the Jews, we learn what Ananias told this sincere, repentant, earnest Pharisee named Saul: “Now, why do you delay?  Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (22:16).  He says that Paul has waited long enough (three days); now he is to arise and be baptized as he calls on His (Christ’s) name, and he will have his sins washed away.  The text says that Paul “washes away his sins” but we realize that there was no merit in this baptism for Paul.  It could be said that Paul himself washed away his own sins since he had to be the one who submitted to baptism and called on the name of the Lord.  Either this would be Paul’s own calling on the Lord directly (through prayer) or it was his confession (to Ananias and others) that Jesus was Lord (and perhaps God’s Son).  The Net Bible takes this position, saying, “The expression calling on his name describes the confession of the believer.”  It then cites “Acts 2:17-18, esp. v. 38; Rom. 10:12-13; 1 Cor. 1:3.”  Interestingly, the Net Bible assumes that the “calling” of Acts 2:21 is fulfilled in the repentance and baptism of verse 38.

We don’t know of any other passage that might support the theory that one is saved by uttering a so-called “sinner’s prayer.”  Yet it is widely encouraged and practiced in Evangelical and Fundamentalist circles.  In fact, some make it the central part of salvation.  In short, if a sinner wishes to be forgiven of his sins and be born again, the preacher urges the person to “invite Jesus into your heart,” or “call on the name of Jesus,” or “bow your head and repeat this prayer after me!”  Just today, I was reading the account of a girl who claims that she was saved and expressed her experience in this way:

Then one day she heard a Christian radio program in which the preacher said, “If you die today, would you go to heaven? If you are not sure about going to heaven, repent from your sins and invite Jesus in your life. And He will forgive all your sins and give you assurance of heaven.”

She prayed the sinners’ prayer with him (Lord Jesus, I am a sinner, please forgive all my sins and wash me with your precious blood. Please give me assurance of heaven that if I die today, I may reach heaven.) As soon as she prayed this prayer from the bottom of her heart, a great peace came into her life. Though her circumstances did not change immediately, still she got great peace and joy in her heart. (bibleandquran.com/me.htm)

This kind of example could be repeated a hundred times since it is so common in tracts, books, sermons, and the internet.  People just assume that this is the way to be saved since they have heard it so often from preachers and read it so frequently in gospel pamphlets.  They just don’t seem to question it and wonder where this teaching of the “sinner’s prayer” ever originated.  Actually, it seems to have had its origin during the nineteenth century in America, though there may have been examples of it before.  When revivalism swept this country, it was convenient for the preachers to call on the earnest listeners to pray to God for salvation.  Some would come to the front, to the “mourner’s bench” or “anxious bench,” and agonize as they pleaded for God to have mercy on their soul.  At some time, the preacher or others would urge the sinner to pray to God for his salvation. 

In more modern times, this was reduced to the simple idea of repeating a prayer that the sinner has read at the end of a little gospel tract or repeating a prayer that a preacher or “soul winner” says and the sinner is expected to say the same words to Jesus (or sometimes God).  The example above shows how one person experienced the “sinner’s prayer” in her own life.  It is part of what has been aptly called “easy believism.”  Sometimes the sinner has little or no conception of repentance and the change that God expects in his life.  He just knows that God can save and he wants heaven as his future home, thus he just bows his head and repeats the words of a preacher that is supposed to be uttered to God or the Lord Jesus.  But is this really what God wants and expects?

From the evidence of the New Testament, we know that a sinner must believe in God and Jesus as the Son of God (as well as the Savior of the world and the Lord of glory) (cf. John 3:16-18, 36; Acts 16:30-31).  He must totally depend on Christ to save him through His death on the cross.  He must also repent or change his heart regarding sin and the Savior (Luke 13:3; 24:47; Acts 3:19; 20:21; 26:20).  He must confess Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9-10) and be baptized (immersed) into Jesus Christ, into His death on the cross, and rise to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-6; Colossians 2:11-13; Galatians 3:26-27).  To use Peter’s statement, one must repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins and he will receive (from God) the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-41; cf. 22:16). 

If there is a prayer to God or to Christ or a confession to God or Christ, it would be within the framework of the above response of the sinner to God through Christ.  Personally, I encourage a person who has come to the point of genuine faith and sincere repentance, to be baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of his sins, and in that very context, I encourage the person to “call on the name of the Lord” or confess Jesus as the Lord and ask Him to save from sin by His grace and shed blood.

It is time that we cease twisting the word of God according to popular preaching or traditional practices.  Our question should always be, “What does Scripture say?”  Let’s encourage others to lay aside customary but unfounded beliefs and practices that do not rest solidly on the firm foundation of God’s Word, and return to the plain and true teachings of the Lord.  This is the only reliable course to adopt—especially in regard to salvation from sin!




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