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The Damage Caused by the Sinner’s Prayer in Baptist Theology

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It is heartbreaking to see how much confusion has been created by evangelizing using a “sinner’s prayer.”

Here’s a common sense observation: when you tell people that you can be saved by saying a special prayer, they’ll think that’s what saves them.

Just ask Fr. Mark Perkins, an Anglican rector. His testimony, “Why I Am No Longer a Baptist,” is an excellent example of how much confusion the sinner’s prayer creates.

To be clear, there is only one condition to be born-again, have eternal life, or be justified: believe in Jesus (cf. John 3:15-18; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9, etc.). No works are required. But is that how Perkins, the son of a Southern Baptist minister, was evangelized? Unfortunately not. He remembers being taught that he could be saved by saying the “sinner’s prayer”:

“At age three, led by my five-year-old brother, I prayed the sinner’s prayer — a twentieth-century formula designed to ensure that the requisite conversion has taken place. On my eighth birthday I was baptized by immersion in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My parents sometimes betrayed hints of uncertainty about the validity of my precocious conversion, but I reiterated my faith to them over the years, and they believed me. Perhaps this was because we as a family were more generically non-denominational than rigorously Baptist, even though my father was an ordained Southern Baptist minister working in parachurch ministry.”

He prayed the sinner’s prayer thinking that saying it would “ensure that the requisite conversion has taken place.” That’s not the gospel. That's not in the New Testament. That’s Baptist tradition and superstition (shame on us!).

But that's what Perkins believed at the time, so he said the prayer, and, naturally he later began to doubt his salvation:

“I distinctly remember my first moment of Baptist doubt. A visiting pastor declared that if you could not remember your conversion experience as a singular, life-altering event, it did not happen. This was standard Baptist doctrine, though he affirmed it rather more vigorously and with less nuance than was typical. What really stood out, though, was his subsequent assertion that any doubt about one’s salvation was also proof that one was not, in fact, saved. “Why would the devil cause you to doubt your salvation?” he thundered. “That’d just get you to go get saved!” Doubt was the Holy Spirit drawing the non-believer to salvation.”

Here is more confusion: you’re only saved if you remember your conversion? That’s wrong. The object of your faith is not your memories of first being saved. The object of saving faith is Jesus. You believe in Jesus, not in your experiences.

Perkins was also taught that “doubt about one’s salvation was also proof that one was not, in fact, saved.” In other words, he was taught the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. That doctrine only made his doubts worse. And since he was taught that you are saved by saying the sinner’s prayer, you can guess what he began to do:

“I must have prayed the sinner’s prayer dozens of times in the weeks that followed."

Only no matter how often he said the prayer, it did not help. He still had doubts.

"Eventually I realized that this was a paralyzing way to live, and it dawned on me that, although the devil can’t damn the saved—once saved, always saved was our mantra—Christian paralysis might be a good fallback.”

Living in perpetual uncertainty about his salvation was paralyzing. Were those doubts from the Holy Spirit? That's what he was told. I’m glad he realized the devil can afflict an eternally secure believer with paralyzing doubt. So how did he resolve that problem?

“And as I’d never heard our pastor or my parents or any other adult Christian say anything like that about doubt, I put the visitor’s proclamation out of my mind.”

Doubting his salvation was not getting him anywhere, so he dropped the issue. Interestingly, that led him to question whether saying the sinner’s prayer was the condition of conversion:

“You see, it really was hard to believe that a prayer at age three—one I was not entirely sure I even remembered—could constitute that singular and necessary experience of conversion. And if it didn’t, then I was not a Christian. Yet I knew that I was.”

He knew he was a Christian because he had faith. That's good. But that created a conflict between the doubts about the reality of his childhood conversion experience and the faith he knew he had:

“For years the doubtful conversion experience I could not clearly remember and the faith I knew I had coexisted incoherently in my Baptist self. I occasionally regretted my rather anemic testimony—surely I could win more souls had I been saved from a life of drugs, alcohol, and loose women rather than tantrums—but I rarely doubted the reality of my salvation.”

Unfortunately, instead of realizing that salvation does not come by saying a prayer or remembering an experience but only through faith, he just fell into a different error:

“Eventually a rector in an Anglican parish would give language to my experience of faith: ontologically we are made regenerate at baptism, but existentially the Christian life is a series of ever-deepening conversions.”

I read this as a contradiction: his “experience of faith” is that he was “made regenerate at baptism.” That is just as confusing as thinking you are made regenerate by saying the sinner’s prayer. It's still salvation by works! It's still assurance based on something other than faith!

Here is what should have happened: his experience of faith should have taught him that he was saved at the moment of faith, not at the moment of baptism (still less, the moment of saying the sinner's prayer). We're saved by faith, we're assured by faith, and we live by faith. (I do not want to throw all Anglicans under the bus since I know several Anglican theologians who strongly affirm justification by faith apart from works, including apart from baptism.)

Pastorally speaking, I wonder what would have happened if, as a child, Perkins had been clearly taught that he was saved forever the moment he believed in Jesus, apart from any prayers or baptism that might happen afterward. He might still have had moments of doubt, but those doubts would have been quelled each time he returned to simple faith in Jesus for his salvation.

What's the lesson? The only sinner’s prayer appropriate in evangelism is one that thanks God for salvation by faith apart from works.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


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