How to Make Disciples and Why I Don’t Like the Sinners’ Prayer

     If converting people to Christianity was like buying shoes, the “Sinner’s Prayer” is like swiping the credit card and signing the receipt. It’s kind of the linchpin to a proselytizing session. The goal of all the selling, persuading, and smiling is to get the person that believes differently than you to say the “Sinner’s Prayer.” And like the credit card, the “Sinner’s Prayer” is an invention to make the transaction as simple as possible.

     I was trained as a teenager to proselytize my friends to my faith. I was trained to get into conversations, and the ultimate goal was to seal the deal by getting people to say the “Sinner’s Prayer.”

     My first encounter with the prayer was after a terrifying Christian play. I might have mentioned this before. I was 12 yrs old, and I attended a play consisting of something like 20 vignettes of people just before some sort of freak accident (like a brick wall falling on them). Each vignette then depicted the characters waking up in front of an angel with a book, and if they at some point in their life said the “Sinner’s Prayer” and really believed it, then the Hallelujah Chorus would play and they’d get to go to heaven. 

     However, the majority of the characters had not said this prayer, so Satan and his demons would slink from the wings to drag these poor souls, kicking and screaming, into a hell of cray paper and strobe lights. At the end of the play, some guy that I didn’t know and didn’t know me came out and told me that I needed to give my life to Jesus or I would go to hell, and then he led me and other scared children in the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Transaction complete, I even got a receipt.

     The “Sinner’s Prayer” is a basic prayer where the convertee usually repeats lines that admit he or she is a sinner, needs God, asks for forgiveness, and devotes his or her life to Jesus forever and ever. The “Sinner’s Prayer” is not found in the Bible, and there aren’t any examples of someone leading another person in this prayer to the resultant conversion. It is a elongated version of what the Eastern Orthodox Church calls the “Jesus Prayer,” a sentence-long prayer based on the prayers of people in need who cried out to Jesus in Scripture (Luke 17:13, 18:14, 18:38). The prayer is often prayed as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

     Why am I getting into this? Why am I so concerned with the “Sinner’s Prayer” today?

     Well, I’ve recently gotten into two really deep conversations with friends who are not Christians. And they were great conversations. I was able to share the story of Christ, why I think the most important question is not “Does God exist?” but rather “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”, and for me how the implications of Jesus rising from the dead is great news for all people and all creation. We had fantastic back and forth discussion on the authority of Scripture and the history of the church. I think the conversations had been absolutely enlightening for all of us. One person, I will have an on-going relationship with. The other was just passing through town.

     As these conversations were wrapping up, I couldn’t help feel some of those zealous Christian teenage compulsions rise up in me. And a thought occurred to me in each situation, “Am I supposed to lead them in the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ now, am I supposed to make them a Christian now?” So here’s the conflict: On the one hand, 1) I entered into these conversations because I love and respect these people and am happy to share life and the good news of Jesus with people. On the other hand, 2) I have been programmed to “seal the deal” by converting people via the “Sinner’s Prayer” and to feel like a failure if I walk away from a conversation unsure whether or not that person really came to faith in Jesus!

      Here’s the thing (and why I ultimately did not lead either of them in the “Sinner’s Prayer”): I don’t really think the “Sinner’s Prayer” seals the deal of salvation. Maybe no one really believes that? The idea that the power of Christ’s death and resurrection completely relies on whether or not a person says a specific prayer seems to really diminish Christ’s ability and desire to redeem the people he loves. Maybe it’s not the prayer, maybe it’s getting a person to believe perfectly or correctly, maybe that’s what ratifies Christ’s work and sacrifice for us? But what does it mean to believe correctly? I just watch a documentary on Youth Ministry that told me I’m failing if I don’t get the teens to believe that the earth is only 6 thousand years old, but I don’t believe the earth is 6 thousand years old. Do I believe incorrectly? And does this incorrect belief cancel Christ’s saving work done for me?

     I didn’t lead either of them in the “Sinner’s Prayer” because I think that method of evangelism makes Christ’s work for us contingent on our very fickle selves. Ultimately, that says that God’s work in Jesus is weak.

     No, the “Sinner’s Prayer” does not seal the deal for salvation. The work of the cross did that for all people and it is a free gift. Christ died for us while we were still sinners, independently of us, and on our behalf. It is a free gift. And I am happy to tell anyone that. I will not tell anyone that this gift is ineffective until they do something specific (that is Pelagianism), like say a prayer or believe a certain way. Christ’s work for us is powerful. It’s breaks the power of cancelled sin. It bring the dead to life. It recreates us as new and transformed people. Don’t get me wrong, I believe God honors free will and allows us to reject his gifts, but who would when presented with such grace, love, relevance, and excitement?

     But, Christ calls us to make disciples, and how do I know that I am answering his call to do so if I don’t lead people in the “Sinner’s Prayer” and keep tally of the people I’ve led to Jesus? The only way that I know how to really join in God’s transformative work and “make disciples” is to invite people into the journey I am on, share with them the good news that God can transform us, that God is making all things right, and that God invites us to join him in making things right in the world. To make disciples is to journey with people through transformation, to invite them into your worship habits, your prayers (including prayers of confession), your conversation, to love them and serve them sacrificially, to be Christ to them. And this type of transformation, this type of evangelism, it takes time. It takes years. It means being there. For one of my conversation partners, I will be there for him… for years, because I believe that Christ will never leave or forsake us, and if I can’t model that for him, how can I expect him to believe what I say? I must be a model of Christ, a Christian for him. Above all, I must trust that Christ will reveal himself to my friend. Lord, use me.

     When I was 12, someone scared me with threats of hell to say the “Sinner’s Prayer.” For a long time, I used to think that that moment made me a Christian, but I was wrong. I was being made into a Christian long before and long after that moment. From a young age, people in my church told me Jesus loved me, and they modeled that love for me. My parents modeled faithfulness and devotion. As a teenager, people befriended me and joined in my life with me, not with the agenda to change me, but with the agenda to love me and share life. We talked about God from time to time. We prayed for each other, even if we didn’t tell each other. People who loved Jesus dove into my life and never left. They did not coerce me into saying a prayer, but they guided me… for years. And I’m sure it was hard work.

     It was not the moment when someone persuaded me to say a prayer that made me a Christian. It was the people that loved Jesus and shared in my life, giving up their time (years) to show me what unrelenting love is. That’s why I’m a Christian. That’s probably why you are a Christian. And that’s how we join with Christ in making Christians.

peace to your souls

Ric Shewell

  • Greg Crofford

    There are things here I agree with, yet other things that raise questions, Ric. I’m not a big fan of scaring kids into praying a prayer. Those kinds of prayers are often shallow, and i wonder about the group psychology going on in such a setting. On the other hand, when it comes to conversion, Scripture portrays moments of decision, even if it doesn’t use the “sinner’s prayer” language. For example, Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch discussed Isa. 53 in a desert chariot (Acts 8), then (interestingly) the Eunuch sees water and says: “What is preventing me from being baptized?” There is dialogue that seems to be missing leading up to that point, but that baptism presupposes a decision to follow. John Wesley himself records in his Journal in 1738 his interaction with Pete Bohler and his own investigation of the new birth, noting that only Paul seems to have languished so long in the “pangs” that birth, a full three days. Other instances are much more abbreviated. So, let’s be careful that in denigrating the “sinner’s prayer,” we don’t lose sight of the fact that however gradual the ripening, there is a moment when we pass over from death unto life. But what do you think?

    • Rich C.

      Greg, I think you are right about the “moments of decision”. We all come to those points and we all decide one way or another. And like the the great Canadian theologian, Geddy Lee of the band Rush, says in the song “Freewill': “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

      I think the point Ric made was about the over-simplification of “the sinner’s prayer” and the condensation of the entire salvation process into a few short sentences.

      I think we can agree that salvation is entering into and growing a relationship with Christ. And just like our earthly relationships it starts with an introduction. I think “the sinner’s prayer” serves as that introduction to Jesus but all too often, especially in the cases Ric brought up about groups of kids and teenagers being scared away from hell, the introduction is all there is. I have been to countless youth events, both as a student and leader, where thousands of kids go down to the stage at the altar call and I often wonder what happens to those kids days or weeks later when no one has come along to help them in this new relationship.

      • Greg Crofford

        Thanks, Rich, for joining the conversation. The term “sinner’s prayer” is likely just another of those religious-sounding phrases (like “age of accountability”) that has no Scriptural warrant as such, but can serve a useful purpose. John Wesley’s term for this was a “prudential means of grace,” and for him it included the class meeting, a practice with no precise Scriptural warrant but useful. I agree with you that we had best not be birthing spiritual babies only to neglect them afterward!