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I grew up at a Bible church where the sinner's prayer was not employed in the main church service. There was no end-of-service invitation. In fact, it wasn't common to hear about salvation at all. Though, during kid's Sunday school the flannel board wielding childcare volunteers were not afraid to lead us through the sinner's prayer and often did.
Often the person being lead through the prayer is asked to repeat the prayer line by line — the content of the prayer changes depending on who's leading the prayer. There seems to be no consensus on what should be included in the sinner's prayer. When I was young, I noticed the multiple variations and wondered why it wasn't more consistent.
It would be nearly impossible for you to have never heard some version of the fabled sinner’s prayer. From televangelists to Gospel tracts, it's become a modern phenomenon. I know that Billy Graham and Campus Crusade for Christ are both revered and loved by Christians throughout the world. They are two of the leading proponents who made the practice popular. Here is an example of the sinners' prayer taken from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.1
This prayer, badly confuses the requirements for discipleship as the requirement of salvation.2 What's maddening, is this version, which comes from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is only one of about a billion versions of this prayer. As a kid, I wondered why the sinner’s prayers I heard were always different. Why didn't they just memorize the version of the sinner's prayer that appears in the Bible. All you’d have to do to get a finalized version of the sinner’s prayer is turn to the page on which it appears in Scripture. The only problem is that you can't because it's not there. In fact, it's nowhere in the Bible. Actually, it's not even present in history until pretty late.
Did you catch what I just said? The Bible DOES NOT tell anyone to pray the sinner’s prayer. Let me repeat that. The sinner’s prayer is not in the Bible. The sinner’s prayer is not the way a person gets saved. There is no example of a person getting eternally saved by praying a prayer anywhere in the Bible. The sinner’s prayer has no place in what the Bible presents as the requirements for salvation.
Though some have claimed that the sinner's prayer came much earlier, Paul Harrison Chitwood, in his doctoral dissertation,3 gave a good defense that the sinner's prayer didn't even arrive on the scene until the 1900s. As the tradition of evangelists, Billy Graham being the most well known, snowballed into a massively popular movement, the sinner's prayer became a standard fixture. Campus Crusade for Christ has also contributed to making the sinner's prayer a common practice.
The Bible never mentions anything like a sinner's prayer. In addition, there are lots of examples of people getting saved without praying a prayer or even saying anything at all. The sinful woman in Luke chapter seven is a good example. She washes Jesus feet with the jar of perfume but says nothing at all. She makes no proclamation or confession about Jesus. She doesn't pray a sinners prayer. She's completely silent. Jesus then tells her:
“Your sins are forgiven…Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7:48–50)
She spoke no words but got saved by her faith. No sinner's prayer required. Matthew chapter nine has the story of the sick man. This character is a quiet example as well. Before Jesus healed him, it says,
“When Jesus saw their faith He said, “your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2)
The sick man is healed a moment later, but through the story, the sick man doesn't say anything until after his sins had already been forgiven, and he'd been healed. He prays no prayer but becomes saved nonetheless. No sinner's prayer required. Another example comes in John's Gospel. Jesus is in the middle of a speech the text tells us:
As He spoke these words, many believed in Him. (John 8:30)
Believed in Him, is the phrase that John uses to show that these people just got saved. Not only did they not pray a prayer aloud, but they also couldn't have been praying silently because they were busy listening. The moment they believed, they received eternal life according to Jesus. (John 6:47)
Another example of spontaneous belief comes from the Book of Acts. Peter is preaching in the house of Cornelious to a bunch of gentiles. Luke then tells the reader:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. (Acts 10:44)
The Spirit would only be given to those who believe. They were not believers when Peter began his sermon; they became believers during the sermon as Peter was speaking. There was absolute proof that they had become believers because the Spirit came in an undeniable way. We know that because of what happens next.
As many as came with Peter… were astonished… because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. (Acts 10:45–46)
Not only did those listeners become believers but there was proof that they had become believers. They spoke other languages and glorified God. This was highly unexpected. Though it was all the proof that Peter needed to believe that salvation could come to the Gentiles. And all this happened without the use of a sinner’s prayer.
Another example that the sinner’s prayer is not an appropriate evangelism tool comes later in the book of Acts. A man asks Paul and his companion a simple and direct question:
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30)
If the sinner’s prayer was a useful tool for getting the man saved, then Paul would have employed it. However, Paul goes a different direction completely. Paul says simply:
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)
If there was a need to pray a sinners prayer, surely one of the above situations would have included it. I want to reiterate; there is no example of a person getting eternally saved by praying a prayer in the entire Bible. We need to stop using the sinner's prayer. It's not biblical, and it confuses the message and method of salvation.
1 From the Billy Graham Institute. Which can be found at peacewithgod.net. Accessed March of 2019.
2 If you’re not sure what the difference is between salvation and discipleship, I’d highly suggest you get a copy of my book, Salvation And Discipleship: Is There A Difference?
3 The Sinner's Prayer: A Historical and Theological Analysis, Paul Harrison Chitwood. (Ph. D. Diss, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2001)
Excellent article about the Sinner's Prayer and convincing examples from Scripture. Thanks for sharing these biblical insights. I sent it to Adam's Road Ministries, as they are making a movie about how the Wilder family came to Christ out of Mormonism. I urged them to keep their salvation message clear and simple and based on John (not Romans 10).