Is the sinner’s prayer biblical? Was it a practice of the early church? Why do we do it? Should we continue with this practice?
I used to think that “The Sinner’s Prayer” was normal. Whenever someone got converted, they were supposed to recite a prayer. It was like making it official. Without a prayer, it wasn’t real, and the hope of their transformation was diminished. But then as I got older, I began asking “why?”. I was asking lots of why questions with everything Christians do. Not in a negative, critical way, but in a because-I-want-to-know-if this-is-man-made-tradition-or-if-it-has-much-biblical-support kind of way.
While reading the New Testament, especially the Acts of the Apostles (or Spirit), I couldn’t help but notice that when one decided to put their faith in Jesus they were baptized. But, then I began thinking, “yes, there are lots of baptisms but that’s not something we really do on the spot” (I’m sure Baptists would disagree).
Lets say a co-worker places their faith in Jesus. It’s not like you’re going to immediately take them to the nearest pool and dunk them. So then I thought, “well, that’s why we do the sinner’s prayer…for logistical reasons. The sinner’s prayer replaced the baptism thing”.
Some might argue that the prayer is not unbiblical since it is a formula founded on several bible passages. Okay. I get that. But, they came from passages which weren’t prayers. The primary passages is from Romans 10:9–10, which refers to “confess with your mouth…you will be saved”, and Revelations 3:20 refers to Jesus knocking on your heart’s door. Also, these passages are not intended of the pre-believer. They are directed towards those who already believed.
We created a prayer for people to recite. We created a practice. We created a man-made tradition. There are no examples of people saying any prayer for salvation. The sinner’s prayer is not in the Bible and there is no such mandate that a new follower of Jesus must recite any prayer for salvation. None. The sinner’s prayer then could be considered unorthodox.
Is it a problem to have people recite the sinner’s prayer? Maybe, maybe not. Many people count the prayers as conversion. After a successful response from a message, a pastor might say, “(X number) people prayed the prayer!” Which would be right if those are true conversions. But, are they? Is this what should be counted? Is this what we’re expecting out of converts? Are we telling potential followers of Jesus that all you gotta do is say some words and that is it, that is Christianity? This, I think, is the problem: the sinner’s prayer as salvation/conversion is lowering the bar Jesus normally set for others who wanted to follow him.
Jesus set a bar? Yes. Of course Jesus wants everyone to follow him. That’s his mission. That’s our mission. But the road ain’t easy and the door isn’t wide open. He made it difficult and challenging for people to follow him. He told those who expressed their desire to follow him to: sell all their possessions, hate their family members, leave their jobs.
When Jesus offered the call to follow him, it was an invitation to follow a new path. Following a new path also included walking away from one’s former lifestyle. So Jesus challenged people with a hard decision: to keep things as they are and loving your sins or, to lose it all and love him more than life.
Now, onto the baptism thing that we see so often throughout the New Testament. What was baptism? Baptism is not an English word. It’s a transliterated word. Transliterated? It just means not translated. Because of disagreements from various denominations, rather than translate the Greek word, the translators left it as is. And the disagreements were not so much the meaning of the word as it was that various denominations already had instituted their version of the baptism. To translate the Greek word correctly (which by the way is “immersion”) would imply that their practices were wrong. So, there you have it. Baptism means immersion, and the substance people were immersed was fresh (living) waters.
Also, baptism didn’t begin in the New Testament. Although the word “baptism” isn’t found in the Old Testament, the original practice is. In Leviticus we see that an unclean person would be immersed in living waters for cleansing. It was a ritual they practiced. And then in between the testaments there was a group of people, known as the Essenes, who lived in the desert “preparing the way of the Lord”. They made this into their common practice. It is why we see the first baptisms occurring not in the church age, but with John the Baptist.
Here are some key elements that we find in baptism:
- Baptism was done in the presence of witnesses
- Baptism was an act of ceremonial cleansing (repentance)
- Baptism was usually done in living (fresh) water
- Baptism was a commitment to living a new life
Baptism then, in summary, was a public declaration to living a new life signified by the washing of water.
The living water was symbolic. It didn’t actually clean people. But it represented the washing of sins. Now, if we were to put aside the symbolism of baptism – living waters, the heart of baptism then is the cleansing of sin and the commitment to living in holy ways.
The Sinner’s Prayer is symbolic. The words are symbols. And like baptism, the words don’t actually justify a person. And as above, setting aside the symbols – the words, the heart behind the sinner’s prayer should be one of repentance and their commitment to living in the ways of Jesus.
Yet, it remains, the Sinner’s Prayer and baptism is a traditional practice. Though they are both well-meaning, we must not be tied to these symbols. They are man-made, not mandated.
Since they are both man-made and not mandated, then I think these are practices we no longer need to do. Of course you and churches can still do them. But, you needn’t. Baptisms are biblical, and the sinner’s prayer is not. However, they both are symbols used in their respective times and cultural context.
For a moment, imagine processing conversion without baptism or the sinner’s prayer. No more need to debate the technicalities on how to baptize someone – sprinkle, submersion, or immersion. Or whether babies can be baptized. Or if one should go through a new members class first. Or the appropriate place for baptism – a pool, a river, in the church, in the eye of the public.
And, think about no more sinner’s prayer. No longer do you have to feel you have to lead someone in prayer to count as a conversion. No more, “if this is your first time…if you want to put your faith in Jesus, close your eyes (or keep your eyes open), and repeat after me”. No more believing that the recitation of a prayer saves.
Repentance and Justice
If there’s no need for baptism or the sinner’s prayer, then what? How do we affirm that someone has committed to turning their life over to Jesus? More than reciting words, what if the declaration required action? At least baptism did. Prayer not so.
During baptism, John would ask those responding to act out their repentance – to do justice. Repentance wasn’t about saying “God I’m sorry”, rather it was about showing how you were sorry. Upon baptism, it was about going out and making amends. Practicing mercy and doing acts of justice. In essence, baptism was an act of repentance which demanded an act of justice. Repentance is action-oriented, not recitation-oriented.
The meaning of baptism is repentance.
For the people back then, baptism was a way to express repentance which led to act of justice. And that is why they wanted it publicly demonstrated. It was so that the public can keep them accountable to their commitment to new living. Without repentance there was no salvation.
And this is why the sinner’s prayer must not be practiced anymore. The sinner’s prayer does not require an act of justice. It is not repentance-based. Even if someone is crying their eyes out, and telling all the bad things they’ve done. That in itself is not repentance. And so it offers no assurance of salvation. The sinner’s prayer is mis-leading.
The only way we can know if one is saved is by 1) their act of repentance which results in an act of justice and, 2) their commitment to following Jesus. Essentially, we will know they are saved by their fruit, not by a prayer.
So what then?
The mission of God is to make disciples, not converts to a religion. To help people effectively repent and make a public commitment to following Jesus, here are 3 things to consider doing.
- Refrain from baptizing and having pre-believers recite the sinner’s prayer. Again, these are not bad. But, if you keep thinking, “well, it’s not bad” then you’ll continue to justify using these traditions.
- Have pre-believers consider the cost. What is it that Jesus would ask them to give up? Relationships? Vocation? Possessions? Position? Lifestyle? Have they considered that there are things of which are anti-Christ that they’ll have to give up to follow Christ? If not, it’d be best to tell them and give them the choice: to keep things as they are and loving your sins or, to lose it all and love him more than life.
- Have pre-believers express their repentance and commitment to Jesus. How? It depends on the person. They might need to destroy items that are antithetical to the Christian faith. Or, give stolen money back. Or quit that job that oppresses people, or harms the environment, or glorifies violence or sex.
I hope this will help Christians and churches rethink the sinner’s prayer and baptism, and to find ways to make disciples of Jesus rather than converts to lite-Christianity. A prayer doesn’t save. A baptism doesn’t save. These things won’t make one a Christ follower as circumcision won’t turn a Gentile into a Jew. The only assurance of salvation is (action-oriented) repentance and a devotion to following in the life-altering ways of Jesus.
No longer should we be confined to traditions or man-made rituals. No longer should we fall into giving false assurances of salvation. No longer should we continue creating a Christianity Jesus never wanted.
If the heart of baptism and the sinner’s prayer is repentance, justice, and a public declaration to living in the ways of Christ, what are some meaningful and modern ways to express that?