Archives For Evangelism

The Goal is Not a Prayer

July 22, 2017 — 1 Comment

I grew up in a tradition that employed what is known as the “sinner’s prayer.” The sinner’s prayer is viewed by many as the process whereby people ask to either “receive Christ” or “ask Jesus into their hearts,” and having done so, cross the threshold unto salvation. I was encouraged to pray it when I became a Christian. I’ve encouraged others to do so over the years as well. It’s become such a part of some church cultures that the sinner’s prayer is viewed as essential for salvation. How many parents have breathed sighs of relief when their children finally came to some point in their lives (at home, church camp, Sunday School) where they prayed the sinner’s prayer and finally “asked Jesus into their heart”? How many parents are still anxious for that day to come for their own kids? Praying the sinner’s prayer appears to be a pretty big deal.

The only issue is such a practice isn’t explicitly in the Bible. In fact, having people pray something akin to the sinner’s prayer is a rather recent phenomenon in church history. It was popularized by modern-day evangelicals of revivalist/crusade stripes such as Billy Graham, parachurch groups like Campus Crusade for Christ and YoungLife, and denominations like Southern Baptists (who further tied it to other revivalist techniques such as the altar call1).

This begs the question: If they didn’t employ the sinner’s prayer method in the New Testament, how did people become Christians? There’s no debate that the early church saw explosive evangelistic growth, and it did so without employing methods such as altar calls or sinner’s prayers. So what did they do? The apostolic counsel given to the jailer at Philippi in Acts 16:29-31 gives some clarity:

And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…”

The end-game for those who want to embrace the gospel isn’t a prayer about the gospel per se but belief in the gospel (Ac. 15:7, Rom. 1:16, Eph. 1:13, etc.).

Does this mean using techniques such as altar calls or sinner’s prayers are bad? There’s some debate about that today. In my past ministry, I’ve done them all. Presently, I would say I stay away from some approaches while carefully using others. I consider the sinner’s prayer in the latter category.

However, I want to be careful about using the sinner’s prayer because I see too many well-intentioned Christians regarding it as the finish line in evangelism. But the biblical summit in evangelism isn’t getting someone to pray a prayer, it’s conversion, which means my goal isn’t to lead someone to utter some words in a prayer but to share the gospel in a prayerful, clear, and winsome way in the hopes my listeners will respond in saving faith, that is, they will believe!2

Christians must know a prayer-as-prayer never saves anyone. Getting hung up on the idea people must recite some kind of sinner’s prayer to be converted, to seal the deal, or guarantee the job’s been done, has more to do with magic than the Bible. You’re channeling Harry Potter the Wizard, not Paul the Apostle. The Scriptural witness is that it’s God via his Spirit that converts the soul (cf., Jn. 3:8). We receive the gift of salvation when each of us believes the promise of the gospel in Christ for ourselves. Did you hear that? The key is belief, not a prayer. Forgetting this may lead to running after the wrong goalposts. Dare I say, many have prayed a sinner’s prayer who still found themselves deeply in need of conversion. But to evidence genuine belief can only be the work of the Spirit of God.

This is why repentance is always involved in salvation (cf., Mk. 1:15). Those who are converted are breaking away from other saviors and lords to embrace and follow the One True King. We see these essential components in Christ’s words in Matt. 13:15b:

lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them

That’s why when I share the gospel with others my excitement isn’t tethered to seeing someone pray “to receive Christ” or “ask Jesus into their heart” but faith and repentance (an embracing the gospel with their “eyes,” “ears,” and “heart,” that brings a “turn” in themselves). That’s why Scripture tells new converts the way we demonstrate the reality of saving belief and breaking away from our old life isn’t done by reciting a sinner’s prayer but plunging into the waters of baptism. Take a listen to one of the first sermons ever preached and see how Peter counseled those who wished to embrace the gospel. Acts 2:37-38 reads:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “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.

Peter not only calls for belief (using the word repentance) but also expects gospel converts to immediately take the initiatory step of entering into God’s gospel community, the church, by being baptized. I’d go so far to say that if there is a declaration of faith endorsed by the New Testament, it’s not found in the words of the sinner’s prayer but the waters of baptism. If Romans 10:9 says that if we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved, then baptism is the mark of that confession.3 No wonder the apostles so closely linked baptism with conversion.

Thus the aim in our evangelism isn’t a prayer but a confession of belief in the gospel witness. That’s why when your 5th-grader comes to you and says he’d like to become a Christian, he probably already is. Why? Well, if his belief in the goodness of Jesus and the gospel is what’s actually motivating him to request your help in “asking Jesus into his heart” he already possesses what God demands from him and also, by his grace, produced in him. What more can one add? Nothing. According to the New Testament, your child’s next step wouldn’t be you leading him in a sinner’s prayer but into the waters of baptism.4

But because we want to make sure and not leave anything on the table, parents feel the need to have them pray the sinner’s prayer….just in case, ya know. I get it. I’ve prayed that prayer with all three of my sons. Honestly, I think I was doing it more for me than them. The truth was, they already believed. I was praying with Christians. I can’t bring conversion. I was simply seeing the Spirit blow and bringing new births. Having them pray a sinner’s prayer didn’t bring any real effect.5 The truth was they had already professed belief when I inquired of them why they wanted to “receive Jesus.” Their answers constituted a confession of faith.

Which, at the risk of sounding like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, is why many find it helpful to walk someone through something like a sinner’s prayer. Doing so helps them better profess the faith they now believe. I practice it with regularity in my preaching. So, I’m not on the anti-“sinner’s prayer” bandwagon but want others who employ the prayer to do so with eyes open. Be sure to make the main thing the main thing: belief! Parents, pastors, and followers of Jesus in general, the goal isn’t the sinner’s prayer because a prayer doesn’t save anyone. Only God does via his gospel. Ours is but to believe that gospel with all we are and professing that belief in the waters of baptism.

Therefore, if your kid tells you he wants to pray to receive Christ and you ask him why and he tells you because he repents of his self-led life and believes in who Jesus is and what he’s done for him at the cross and grave. You might tell him it looks like he already has. 😉

If I could give one piece of advice to spiritual seekers (or believers for that matter) who have nagging questions about Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity which keep them from embracing Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity, I could summarize it in two words: work hard. If there are troubles, doubts, or a lack of clarity keeping you from a deeper engagement or commitment to knowing and following God as revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ then I would encourage you to be industrious about finding the answers. If you attend a local church you might utilize her leaders or journey along with a small group of believers for help. Furthermore, you could read books from the best and brightest biblical scholarship over the decades if not the centuries. You could also see if the Church Historical has already encountered and answered your questions (I mean, we’re talking roughly 2,000 years here). Regardless how you pursue the answers to your questions, the point is to actually pursue them.

Far too often when I hear of someone’s journey for answers it seems less a journey and more an extremely abbreviated stroll…to their computer to google a question. Unfortunately for many, the “search” amounts to finding within the first page or two of results an answer which merely serves to reaffirm biases and preconceived notions1, and that’s it, they’re done. Back to binge-watching on Netflix. Or maybe the journey abruptly concluded because of a Facebook fake news post blasting long-held truths of orthodox Christianity that the reader assumes is legitimate simply because it’s on a webpage. Hear me, both illustrations are examples of those who aren’t looking for answers as much as wanting to retain excuses for unbelief. Real searching takes real work. Frankly, how hard we work at our search tends to indicate how genuine our search really is. In other words, working hard can be a litmus test for what constitutes a real question we’re hung up on versus something we just tell people we struggle with because we don’t want to come across spiritually shallow or lazy.

The 1992 Academy Award-nominated Lorenzo’s Oil tells the true story of a family with a child, Lorenzo Odone, who begins to show neurological problems, such as loss of hearing, tantrums, etc. The boy is diagnosed as having adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), which is fatal within two years. Augusto, Lorenzo’s father, an economist who worked for the World Bank, couldn’t find a doctor to treat their son’s rare disease, so he took it upon himself to find a treatment to save his son’s life. In their quest, the Odones clash with doctors, scientists, and support groups, who are skeptical that anything could be done about ALD, much less by laypeople – remember, he’s an economist, not a doctor. But Augusto is undeterred. He sets up camp in medical libraries, reviewing animal experiments, enlists the aid of a professor, presses researchers, question top doctors all over the world, and even organized an international symposium about the disease. And yet, in spite of research dead-ends and the horror of watching his son’s health decline, Augusto persists until he finally discovers a therapy involving adding a certain kind of oil to their son’s diet. The movie ends with his son’s improvement and future brighter than when it began.2

Why all the work? Why all the blood, sweat, and tears to get the right answer? Well, for Odone family, getting the answer was literally a matter of life and death. But is our spiritual quest amidst questions and doubts any different? On the contrary, I would argue it’s even greater, for the stakes are infinite. The consequences being eternal life or eternal death (cf., Heb. 9:27). This is why each of us should do whatever it takes to reduce the doubts we have by working hard to get the correct answers, even if we don’t like the answers we find.

Don’t settle for living a life where your “doubts” are really excuses in disguise. Think deeply about the questions you have and work hard to find the answers. Run to the real “oil” of truth and be honest with what you find, even if you don’t like it. Doing so will aid you in your spiritual journey for the present and hopefully for the life to come.

Work hard.

Nothing good ever happens here.

Those were the sentiments expressed by the people of Redenção, a small town in Brazil’s northeast. With drug trafficking, political corruption, abject poverty, and violence on the list of Redenção’s daily reality, it was easy to see why many believed it to be true. Even when a new church moved into the area saying it was going to be a place of truth and hope for the people, a place where children would be cared for and taught about Jesus, a place where the gospel would be known, most were skeptical. They won’t build a building here. They’ll take our children away from us. This will be a bad thing.

Me with Pastor Isaiah and Karl Garcia

And then Pastor Isaiah arrived. With the support of churches and organizations like Acts 29, The Church of 11:22, and Compassion International, not only was a local church established but a building constructed where families could bring their children to be cared for both physically and spiritually.

With Compassion International, I and other Acts 29 pastors had the opportunity last week to witness the Grand Opening of the church in Redenção. It filled my heart with joy to see a thriving gospel work – families were being reached, kids were ministered to, and a gospel dent was being made in the city. I was taken both by the dedication of the church to reach the city as well as Compassion’s intentionality with helping free kids from poverty. It was a powerful combination for those living in Redenção. One woman said that before the church arrived no kids would play in the streets during the day. Now they can. While much darkness still exists in Redenção, there is also light.

Grand Opening of the church with Compassion International’s sponsored kids

Enough light has spread that views are changing. Another lady who at first resisted the planting of the church has now begun to attend it. She’s seen the genuine love and concern of Pastor Isaiah and those who serve alongside him. She’s heard of the goodness of God’s grace in Christ. She’s tasted of what it is when God’s people are about God’s mission.  When asked about everything that’s happened she had a new tune to sing:

Wow! Something good CAN happen here!

And it wasn’t politicians, drug lords, or others in power who make promises to these poorest of people. It was Jesus. Jesus working through his local church.

Playing futbal with the kids

How fitting. In Portuguese, Redenção means “redemption.” It was named so because it was the first place in Brazil that abolished slavery (1883). Indeed, one of the Brazilian leaders told us that the ground on which the church was built likely was a place where slaves were sold. Now, over 130 years later, it is a place where another freedom is found. Freedom from poverty. Freedom from hopelessness. Freedom in the gospel.

Good things still can happen in places where no one thinks it can because the mission of Jesus is not only alive and well but also because it’s each and every one of our calling as Christians…to those across the street or over the seas. May the world find redemption in the Redeemer!