Imagine you’re the parent of an 8-year-old son. One evening, your kiddo wanders downstairs from his room and wants to speak with you. When you ask what’s going on, he answers that he’s ready to become a Christian but isn’t sure what to do. A little shocked, you press him a bit on what he means. He tells you he’s turned from the way he’s thought about life and now believes that Jesus is who he said he is and trusts in what Christ has done for him at the cross and empty grave. You’re beyond words. This is the moment every Christian parent dreams about! Then you ask your son, “Well, do you know what you need to do to become a follower of Jesus?” Your kid shrugs then sheepishly replies, “I guess I need to invite Jesus into my heart.”
What would you say? This is where most folks I know would lead their child1 in what is known as the Sinner’s Prayer. For those who don’t know, this is a prayer someone recites with words that confesses sinfulness, professes belief in Jesus and his work at the Cross, and invites Christ to come into their heart or life.
You may wonder, “What’s your problem with that?” In principle, nothing. However, in practice it can have its challenges. For example, if people are worried that God won’t save them if they’re not led to invite Jesus into their hearts, then the Sinner’s Prayer may have devolved into a religious formula or mantra – more like a Sinner’s Spell. Some point to it as the ground of assurance for an individual’s salvation: Did you pray to ask Jesus you’re your heart? If so, you’re good. In some church circles this kind of pledge has been confidently given to those who, over the course of their lives, evidenced little to no care for Jesus’ mission, his people, or even Christ himself. Yet, tragically, they depart this life convinced the genuineness of their salvation rests on a moment in time where they prayed to ask Jesus in their heart. To put it gently, that’s dangerous place to be (cf., Mt. 7:21-23; James; 1 John).
With that said, I should also point out that the vast number of faithful, earnest Christians I know also hold testimonies that include praying the Sinner’s Prayer. Mine does. Again, the Sinner’s Prayer isn’t de facto a bad thing. However, I’m going to argue the prayer itself is not as important as we think, in that (buckle your seatbelts my Baptist friends) it’s not mandatory for becoming a Christian.2 Let me offer two reasons. The first (and much shorter) is historical; the second (and the bulk of this article) is biblical.
In a historical sense, the Sinner’s Prayer is a recently new invention. Dr. Paul Chitwood, president of the SBC International Mission Board, wrote his PhD dissertation on the history of the Sinner’s Prayer. He concluded both the prayer as we know it and the concept of inviting “Jesus into your heart” didn’t readily appear until well into the twentieth century. Did you hear that? Within the last one hundred years! The Sinner’s Prayer was invented as a result of efforts to simplify and reproduce evangelistic methods. Then it was popularized by Billy Graham, and as such, became standardized in evangelistic training manuals. By the 1950’s the Sinner’s Prayer had become commonplace. For example, in Minyard Merrell Barnett’s 1950 book The Greatest of All Journeys, the lost person is told to pray:
“Oh God! I am a sinner. Forgive me of all my sins, come into my heart and save me NOW; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Similar prayers are uttered in hundreds if not thousands of churches today. Yet, this technique of telling folks to ask Jesus into their hearts wasn’t practiced throughout most of church history. It’s absent from Augustine, Athanasius, Origen, Clement, Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Bonhoeffer, and many others.3 How did people become Christians for the last 1900 years without reciting the Sinner’s Prayer? Could it be that it’s not as critical as we think?
Secondly, and more importantly, this prayer is absent from the biblical witness. Jesus and his apostles never once said individuals must ask Jesus into their heart or life to be saved.4 However, the New Testament is very clear about how someone becomes a Christian; it’s by placing one’s faith in who Jesus is and what he’s done as Savior and Lord. Jesus opened his public ministry in Mark 1: 15 proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” 5 Notice the call isn’t to invite Jesus into your heart but to trust Jesus in your heart. Let me be clear. If someone wants to pray to express precisely that, great! If a pastor wants to lead folks through the elements of saving faith via a prayer, that’s cool too. Where we must draw the line is making this invitational prayer for Jesus to come into our heart requisite for salvation. It’s not. Belief is.
John 1:12 is instructive here, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” This is important because while some argue the Sinner’s Prayer is how a person receives Jesus, John says the way one “receives [Jesus]” is by “believing in [Jesus] name”! Two chapters later the apostle will repeat this truth with the famed John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Surely, if the Sinner’s Prayer was pivotal we would see multiple examples of first century converts reciting a prayer led by the apostles (or Jesus!) to invite Christ into their lives? But the reality is we have no individuals (e.g., Paul, Peter, Lydia, Mary, Philippian jailor and family) who evidenced that at all. What we do see is their newfound belief. Why? Because what salvation required wasn’t a saving prayer but a saving faith!
Seeing this truth should shift our focus and strategy when it comes to leading people to embrace Jesus. Let’s go back to our hypothetical our 8-year-old son who informed us he’s repented and now believes in Jesus but asks you if he needs to ask Jesus into his heart to become a Christian. Instead of making sure you pray with your kid as fast as you can to “seal the deal,” you might consider encouraging your son to be baptized.6 Why? Because it sounds like your kid has already become a Christian. You protest, “But he hasn’t invited Jesus into his heart!” That’s okay, Jesus never tells us to do that. He did however command us to “repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk. 1:15) And when someone’s at the point where they would pray to “receive Jesus” it appears they already possess the faith Jesus calls for! Put another way, it seems your child became a follower of Jesus before he walked downstairs. He doesn’t needs to pray the Sinner’s Prayer. He needs to undergo believer’s baptism.
This is the way of the Bible.
When Peter preached his first sermon in Acts 2, proclaiming the gospel message that “God has made [Jesus] both Lord and Christ,” (36) his hearers asked him, “What shall we do?” The apostle didn’t say, “Now say this prayer after me…” but “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (38) Peter isn’t mentioning baptism because it’s necessary for salvation.7 He calls them to be baptized because it’s the way his hearers testify that they’ve given their allegiance to Jesus as “Lord and Christ.” In short, it’s how people announce they now believe in the gospel.
Jesus makes this same assumption with salvation and baptism. He says in Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Like Peter, Jesus isn’t teaching you must be baptized to be saved (remember, salvation is by faith alone) In fact, he says salvation is kept from “whoever does not believe” not “whoever does not believe and is baptized.” So why mention baptism on the front end? Because getting baptized is the God-ordained, New Covenant sign of someone becoming a Christian. In other words, according to the New Testament, what identifies someone as a follower of Jesus isn’t whether one walked down an aisle and said a prayer to receive Jesus, filled out a card and later prayed with their VBS director to accept Jesus, or at a camp raised their hands, bowed their heads, and asked Christ to come into their heart. What matters is they believe and then get baptized to profess that newfound faith.
This is why I care far more about someone getting baptized than praying the Sinner’s Prayer. “Yancey, don’t you want people to be converted?” Of course I do! But conversion is God’s work. Saving faith is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8). The Holy Spirit sovereignly regenerates us by grace (Jn. 3:8, 1 Cor. 12:3). We share the gospel with people, and God saves people with the gospel. For example, your 8-year-old son heard the gospel message and responded with a faith given to him by God. The burden for your child isn’t to invite Jesus into a life Christ has already entered. It’s to go under the waters of baptism to declare that God has converted him – that he now believes. Since he has already repented, let him now go be baptized (Ac. 2:38)!
I understand that many regard the Sinner’s Prayer as the Christian finish line.8 I humbly submit it isn’t. Baptism is. Indeed, I’d argue baptism is actually the Bible’s version of the Sinner’s Prayer because through it one declares to all, “Now, I believe!”
- Or take their child to their church’s Children’s Director or pastor to have them lead them
- The only text I hear given in defense of asking Jesus into your heart is Rev. 3:20 which says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” First, this text says nothing of the heart. Secondly, and more importantly, the context shows us that Jesus’ words are directed not to a community of unbelievers but to a local church.
- The great 19th century pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon has the closest to what I would call a Sinner’s Prayer, though it seems his appeal is to believers for intercession on behalf of the unconverted, and yet, Spurgeon wants to ‘put words in the mouth of sinners’ which can be problematic: You will do anything rather than come to Jesus. You stop short of calling upon him. O my dear hearers, do not let it be so with you! Many of you are saved; I beseech you intercede for those who are not saved. Oh, that the unconverted among you may be moved to pray. Before you leave this place, breathe an earnest prayer to God, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner. Lord, I need to be saved. Save me. I call upon thy name.” Join with me in prayer at this moment, I entreat you. Join with me while I put words into your mouths, and speak them on your behalf—”Lord, I am guilty. I deserve thy wrath. Lord I cannot save myself. Lord, I would have a new heart and a right spirit, but what can I do? Lord, I can do nothing, come and work in me to will and to do of thy good pleasure. “Thou alone hast power, I know, To save a wretch like me; To whom, or whither should I go. If I should turn from thee?” But I now do from my very soul call upon thy name. Trembling, yet believing, I cast myself wholly upon thee, O Lord. I trust the blood and righteousness of thy dear Son; I trust thy mercy, and thy love, and thy power, as they are revealed in him. I dare to lay hold upon this word of thine, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Lord, save me to-night, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
- Some defend the Sinner’s Prayer by referring to passages which refer to calling upon the name of the Lord (e.g., Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13; cf. Joel 2:32) but those don’t teach the recitation of some prescribed prayer of invitation but a submission by repentance and belief. The phrase employed in Acts 2 is explained by Peter to be exactly that: to call upon the name of the Lord is to believe!
- Faith is often described in the New Testament using the negative/positive combination of repentance/belief.
- I obviously am credobaptistic.
- There are tons of Scripture that speak of salvation without mentioning baptism.
- Or better yet, starting line.