Should We Lead Someone To Pray The Sinner’s Prayer?

http://www.davecrabb.com/2012/06/22/should-we-lead-someone-to-pray-the-s... Should We Lead Someone To Pray The Sinner’s Prayer?

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Jeffrey Dean's picture

Sometimes a blog is actually worth reading. Sometimes.

Charlie's picture

As both a church historian and a theologian, I’m interested in the why and when of the sinner’s prayer. That is, why do some groups of Christians (really only evangelicals with a baptistic flair) practice this, and when did it gain ground? The two questions normally clarify each other.

The “Sinner’s Prayer” was never used in the patristic, medieval, or reformation periods, as far as I can tell. My readings in the 17th century have not revealed any instances. My readings in the 1st Great Awakening-era (around 1740s) similarly reveal no emphasis on this prayer accompanying faith. So, by process of elimination, unless I missed something (a possibility), it must have originated in the late 18th century or later, almost certainly within a North American (but perhaps British) context.

It seems to me that the purpose of the Sinner’s Prayer is to provide some kind outward demonstration of the inward act of faith. The assumption is that such an inward act will naturally issue some kind of corresponding external signification. The appeal to Romans 10 (believe with heart…confess with mouth) is not entirely misguided here. Further, this outward act becomes a reminder of faith in times of doubt, something tangible to hold onto when the heart is stormy one’s perception of one’s own faith is unclear. But again, why a prayer, and why this time period?

From the later evangelical revivals to the present day has been the low point of sacramental theology among Christians. In the New Testament, baptism is represented as actually conferring salvation, or at least the authors do not feel any great urgency to divide between faith in Christ and baptism into Christ. As such, a common appeal in the early church was, “Believe and be baptized.” At the very least, the early church felt comfortable expressing faith through baptism in a way that contemporary Christians feel comfortable expressing faith through the sinner’s prayer.

Is it possible that the creation of the sinner’s prayer was a compensation for the loss of baptism as the outward sign of Christian belief? (Note: many NT scholars believe the passage from Romans 10 was an early baptismal confession.) Martin Luther, that great champion of justification by faith, also believed in a kind of baptismal regeneration and instructed doubting or tormented believers to “look to their baptism” as an empirical evidence of God’s love for them.

In short, perhaps the very presence of the sinner’s prayer in evangelicalism is an attempt to fill a void, and merely discouraging people from employing it will not be effective, because the void remains.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

G. N. Barkman's picture

It would seem that there will always be the need to "fill a void" in the minds of many. Icons (Orthodix), rosery, prayers to saints, holy water, etc. (Roman Catholic), and the sinner's prayer (evangelical).

If Christ and the Apostles did not use it, and its not in Scripture, what legitimate "void" could it possibly fill? If it is needed to fill a void, Scripture would have commended it to us. If not, shouldn't we conclude that its purpose is to satisfy a fleshly need (void), not a spiritual one, and as such, is more detrimental than useful?

G. N. Barkman

Charlie's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:
It would seem that there will always be the need to "fill a void" in the minds of many. Icons (Orthodix), rosery, prayers to saints, holy water, etc. (Roman Catholic), and the sinner's prayer (evangelical).

If Christ and the Apostles did not use it, and its not in Scripture, what legitimate "void" could it possibly fill? If it is needed to fill a void, Scripture would have commended it to us. If not, shouldn't we conclude that its purpose is to satisfy a fleshly need (void), not a spiritual one, and as such, is more detrimental than useful?

I think you may be confusing two issues. There is 1) the legitimacy of the underlying need and 2) the legitimacy of the method chosen to supply that need. For example, RCC prayers to Mary and saints are based on a legitimate need: seeking supernatural help and intimacy. They are illegitimate because they detract from Christ, who ought to be supplying those needs. So, illegitimate practices often nevertheless testify to legitimate needs.

This is in fact the theory of idolatry expressed by Calvin in Institutes. Humans are religious by nature, and every illegitimate religious system is a perversion of the unavoidable sensus divinitatis. Therefore, it is a useful practice to identify the legitimate spiritual reasons behind illegitimate practices.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

G. N. Barkman's picture

Charlie,

I think I can agree with your post, but perhaps with some additional clarification.

1) What is the underlying legitimate need in the "sinner's prayer" practice?

2) Does identifying an underlying legimitate need validate a non-Biblical practice? In other words, should a legitimate need be addressed through a Biblical practice, or a non-Biblical one?

Thanks for your consideration of these questions.

Warm regards,
Greg Barkman

G. N. Barkman

Lee's picture

(1) A sinner's prayer has at least one precedent in Scripture: "Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican....And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified...." (Luke 18:10-14) So it is not exactly accurate to state it was never a part of recorded NT salvation experience.

(2) I think you may very well find that the use of the sinner's prayer in corporate evangelism will roughly correspond with the invention and incorporation of the microphone/PA system. It was the microphone that first allowed one to address a large crowd in their "intimate zone" which is a requisite for leading someone in the sinner's prayer to be "effective." Just a thought.

Lee

Charlie's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:
Charlie,

I think I can agree with your post, but perhaps with some additional clarification.

1) What is the underlying legitimate need in the "sinner's prayer" practice?

2) Does identifying an underlying legimitate need validate a non-Biblical practice? In other words, should a legitimate need be addressed through a Biblical practice, or a non-Biblical one?

Thanks for your consideration of these questions.

Warm regards,
Greg Barkman

1. There are perhaps two. First, to express in a natural and organic way one's faith (hence Romans 10, believe with heart/confess with mouth). Second, to provide a moment of personal history that can be placed in larger perspective and even looked back upon at moments of spiritual disequilibrium (as in Luther's "Remember your baptism").

2. No, illegitimate practices are by definition invalid. That's why I've employed Calvin to talk about illegitimate attempts to fulfill legitimate needs. To use a nutritional example, someone suffering from the effects of a poor diet cannot simply stop eating. It's necessary to identify healthy ways of satisfying hunger.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Charlie's picture

Lee wrote:
(1) A sinner's prayer has at least one precedent in Scripture: "Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican....And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified...." (Luke 18:10-14) So it is not exactly accurate to state it was never a part of recorded NT salvation experience.

Not necessarily. We don't know the history or the background. Both the men could have made a habit of this practice. The Greek word δεδικαιωμένος (which has been translated "justified") in the middle voice can mean simply "to be in the right." The contrast is between a correct attitude toward God and an incorrect one. In any case, it's a stretch to read the whole doctrine of justification into this passage. In none of the passages in which we know that a person came from unbelief to belief do we see a sinner's prayer.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

G. N. Barkman's picture

I have no problem with someone praying the sinner's prayer, as long as it is spontaneous. What I reject is someone else leading one to pray the sinner's prayer. I find no precedent for that practice in Scripture.

G. N. Barkman

Lee's picture

I am not going to bat for the sinner's prayer, but I am not tossing it on the trash heap, either.

One of the things I find interesting throughout the NT is that each time someone under conviction asks "what must I do..." or similar they are given something very specific to do, but different each time.

Acts 2:37-38 "...what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ..."

Acts 9:6 and 22:16 "...Lord, what would you have me to do...;" "..arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord. "

Acts 16:30-31 "...Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ...."

Mark 10:17-21 "...what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?...go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. "

Lee

Shaynus's picture

I thought David's article was an excellent summary of the reasons against relying on the sinner's prayer as the primary call to salvation. I really felt its un-helpfulness in my own life. As an adolescent, I struggled with wondering if my prayer was good enough rather than relying on Christ directly.

If I were to ask for a follow-up it would be what a positive gospel call looks like in normal preaching.

juitdeflesch's picture

I appears to me that the concept of a sinner's prayer is Biblical, as shown by the "God be merciful to me a sinner" [mentioned above ] as well as Romans 10:9-13. What we can question is whether it should be a "repeat after me" type of scenario. I fear the blog above is riding the pendulum too far the other way...

John Uit de Flesch

christian cerna's picture

It is very easy for a person(especially when they are young) who is unfamiliar with scripture, to think that salvation depends on a prayer, rather than on the work of Christ, and faith therein.