When I came to Christ as a teenager, I prayed a prayer similar to what you find in most Gospel tracts:
"Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am sinful and I need your forgiveness. I believe that You died to pay the penalty for my sin. I want to turn from my sin nature and follow You instead. I invite You to come into my life. In Jesus' name. Amen." Steps to Peace with God, Billy GrahamI know that countless others have prayed this prayer to initiate their life with Christ. On the surface, the prayer seems theological enough--there is acknowledgment of need, confession of sin, the substitutionary nature of Christ's death, and repentance, all biblically necessary for receiving salvation.
However, is there anywhere in the Bible that someone prays for their initial salvation? I don't think so. I do not want to say that if an apparently Scriptural practice, if it is not chapter and verse, that it is immediately unbiblical. There are a lot of modern constructs used in Christian life and practice that though they do not have a biblical precedent it does not make the usage of them sinful. Nevertheless, there is no notion of a sinner's prayer in the Scriptures.
God has outlined the plan of salvation clearly in the Scriptures. And from that plan, there is no mention of prayer being a prerequisite. The plan goes like this:
- Hear the Gospel message (John 5:24, Acts 15:7, Romans 10:14).
- Believe in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God (John 3:16-18, 11:25-26, Romans 10:9).
- Repent of sin (Matthew 3:2, Luke 13:3, Acts 17:30).
- Confess Christ before others (Mark 8:38, Romans 10:9).
- Be baptized as an outward testimony and as an act of obedience (Matthew 3:13-15, Acts 9:18, 16:33).
- Live faithfully and steadfast as a Christian (Matthew 10:22, Hebrews 3:6, 14).
- 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41)
- Simon and the Samaritans (Acts 8:9-12)
- The Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-39)
- Saul/Paul (Acts 9:1-19 & Acts 22:3-16)
- Cornelius’ Household (Acts 10:44-48)
- Lydia (Acts 16:11-15)
- The Philippian Jailer (Acts 16:16-34)
- The Corinthians (Acts 18:1-8)
- The Ephesians (Acts 19:1-7)
What I am not trying to do is impose a rigid rule upon the salvation experience, for each person's experience coming to Christ is different. However, it seems that a pattern can be discerned from Scripture that is noticeably devoid of prayer of any kind. I do not think prayer as a matter of course cannot be part of the initial saving process. The concern raised in my mind is what the usage of the sinner's prayer has done to discipleship. Has the church overemphasized the usage of the prayer to the effect that it has the opposite effect on maturity?
The prayer seems to truncate the primary Christian discipline of discipleship as well as the most noticeable indicator of salvation; that one continues in the faith. I have served in church long enough to garner enough empirical evidence to see that those who have prayed the sinner's prayer, if it is not solidified with discipleship, the prayer then becomes an end unto itself. The sinner has then staked his eternal soul not on the merit of Christ, but a tenuous prayer.
The sinner's prayer, often used as a substitute for the dirty work of discipleship, can even be prayed again if one does not "feel" saved, purely contrary to the Scriptural teaching on salvation.
So, just how biblical is the sinner's prayer?