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. 😉

I love Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I named my middle son after him. One of his sermon manuscripts marked by his own hand hangs in my office. I count him among the greatest, if not the greatest of English-speaking preachers to have ever lived. Needless to say, I’m a fanboy.

Yet I always find it ironic when seminaries and other Christian groups that host events, seminars, or training dedicated to expository preaching defined only as proceeding verse-by-verse through sections of Scripture1 also pay homage to the pulpit ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a man who to my knowledge didn’t preach expositional sermons as they’ve delineated it.2

Often, Spurgeon’s sermons would open with one verse as a reference text and after some initial addressing of said text, he’d be off to the races with stories, points, and appeals, rarely returning to the initial verse. When it comes to how we think about preaching styles in modern terminology, Spurgeon leans more toward topical than expository-as-defined.3

Heresy? Not really. Sample Spurgeon’s sermons for yourself. I’d argue evangelicals do with Spurgeon like they do with many great leaders of the faith (Augustine, Luther, etc.): quote easily, read rarely. But the fact that Spurgeon was more topical than expository is hard to miss if you actually read his sermons. I’m not alone. Indeed, Phil Johnson, founder of The Spurgeon Archive, sees the exact same thing:

It’s true that Spurgeon was not an expository preacher. In fact, he regarded biblical exposition as something distinct from “preaching.” His approach to “exposition” was simply to read a phrase and comment on it. Some of his printed sermons include an “Exposition” section, but the “exposition” was a whole different part of the worship service, distinct from the preaching.

This doesn’t mean Spurgeon misapplied texts or took them out of context.4 His sermon’s bled Scripture when cut and took aim at the glory of Jesus. Even so, that doesn’t take away the fact that his style wasn’t given to preaching through a book of the Bible or working through large sections of Scripture in a verse-by-verse manner that many preaching leaders today would promote.5 Johnson thankfully adds, “Normally, [Spurgeon] at least took time to explain both the context and the meaning of his text, even if he then departed from the text and its context into a more topical kind of message.” So while this keeps us fanboys from tearing our Spurgeon t-shirts and smashing our Spurgeon pint glasses in grief, the truth still remains. Yea verily it has been said unto you, from the guy who founded The Spurgeon Archive, that the Prince of Preachers was a topical preacher.

Say it with me, “Spurgeon was a topical preacher.” You can do it.

The point of all this isn’t to say expository preaching, or what I believe is more clearly defined as verse-by-verse preaching, isn’t good.6 It is very much so. In fact, I just preached through Romans 9:1-27 this past Sunday. There are some things verse-by-verse and Bible book preaching does that topical cannot do. Yet, that shouldn’t move us to short-change or vilify topical preaching. One must still exposit the texts correctly – giving them the right context and interpretation – no matter how many are used in any given message.7 Topical preaching also does things verse-by-verse or Bible book preaching can’t do. That’s why my own preaching strategy employs both: sermons through Bible books (or big sections within them) and topical messages.

And why not? I consider both expository. So for using the former, I’ve got tons of wonderful Christian leaders today cheering me on. For the latter, well…I’ve got Spurgeon. 😉

 

*UPDATE – July 13, 2017: Peterson has now offered a retraction of his statements in the Merritt interview.

Recently, well-known author and pastor Eugene Peterson made waves in Christian circles when, in an interview with Jonathan Merritt, he spoke of his newfound support for same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general.* The response was quick from the evangelical community. Most were sad. Some weren’t surprised given Peterson’s denominational background. But the interview had several other parts. One segment dealt with Peterson’s view of the American megachurch. In lamenting the consumer mentality in American congregations overall, Peterson singled out megachurches:

I think the thing that’s most disturbing is the megachurch because megachurches are not churches. My feeling is that when you’re a pastor, you know the people’s names. When 5,000 people come into the church, you don’t know anybody’s name. I don’t think you can be a pastor with just a bunch of anonymous people out there. In the megachurch, well, there’s no relationship with anybody. I think the nature of the church is relational. If you don’t know these people that you’re praying with and talking with and listening to, what do you have? I feel pretty strongly about that.

Now, there’s a lot of innovation in the church, and overall, I can’t say I’m disheartened. I’m just upset by the fad-ism of the megachurch, but I just don’t think they’re churches. They’re entertainment places.

For the record, I like Eugene Peterson. A lot. His pastoral heart, literary giftedness, and anti-celebrity persona are incredibly endearing to me and instructive for me.1 His latest revelations on sexual issues notwithstanding, I have found myself resonating with much of what he’s written and said over the years. I felt like he was a needed voice in American Evangelicalism.

Now, among other targets, Peterson has set his sights on the megachurch. As one who pastors in a megachurch, I think it’s easy to get defensive when critique arises. My experience over the years is that diatribes against the megachurch are a mixed bag. They can be full of straw men, false equivalences, and over-generalizations as well as proper rebukes, accurate assessments, and necessary correctives. I quite remember when the tune of critique for one famous megachurch was, “They never preach the gospel there, but just some watered-down Jesus in order to draw a crowd.” These critical publications were met with cheers by those with an axe to grind while it sowed seeds of doubt in the mind of neutrals. What angered me was not that the church in question was above critique2, but that the critique given wasn’t true of what I knew of the church. I had attended that congregation over the years and had yet to hear some curtailed, gospel-lite presentation of Jesus. Maybe they only “beefed it up” when I was there, but I doubt that was the case.

But I also know churches of any stripe can easily become blind to their own shortcomings. Megachurches included. And I absolutely concur that megachurches need to be critiqued when that critique is merited (and there are many places where it surely is). That’s why I think it’s good to ask questions about Peterson’s critique. It’s also good to address his assumptions.

As to the high number of people in a church:

  • Is Peterson working under the assumption that a church should have a solitary pastor?
  • In Peterson’s view, if a church grows, should it only grow to the degree where the pastor knows everyone and is able to minister personally (pray, talk with, listen) to each and every one of them?
  • If the church grows beyond the pastor’s relational quotient (say, for the sake of argument, 250 people), would it be wrong to add pastoral staff? Or does that kind of growth necessitate the planting of another church? If another so, where would you plant it?
  • If you can’t pastor a church where 5,000 people come into it because you, as the solitary pastor(?) cannot relationally minister to all of them, what would Peterson say of the first collection of Christians in Jerusalem when “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Ac. 2:41)?3 Is that not a church as well?
  • Is it fair to say “in the megachurch there’s no relationship with anybody”? What of arrangments where the larger group is broken into smaller ones (cf., Ac. 2:42-46)?
  • Would Peterson say Charles Haddon Spurgeon wasn’t a pastor because he led a church of 5,311 people, at that time the largest independent congregation in the world?4

As to entertainment in the megachurch:

  • What practices on Sunday morning would lead Peterson to call megachurches “entertainment places”? What activities or accoutrements associated with entertainment find themselves in megachurch services?
  • How has consumerism infected American churches? Are megachurches the embodiment of this malady? How so?
  • How do megachurches address the relational dynamics needed in the local church as Peterson describes?
  • When is something innovative and when is something regressive or unbiblical?
  • What would make a service less about entertainment and more about being biblical?

To be honest, I resonate with much of Peterson’s reservations. My church isn’t perfect. Far from it. We want to honor God and his Word as faithfully as possible. I don’t want any churches, megachurches included, that don’t pastor their people or aim to entertain on Sundays. If these pitfalls are easier for larger churches to fall into, then I want to redouble my efforts for my church to be a place where the lost can hear the gospel and the those who’ve embraced Jesus can live out the gospel mission as a gospel community. However, nothing is above critique, including the critique itself. I want to engage critiques based on Scripture instead of someone’s preconceived idea of what the ideal church is. Where we have the former there should be repentance. But where we have the latter, well, it seems a brief tour through the New Testament as well as church history demonstrates congregations came in all shapes and sizes. Each have their own challenges to be sure, but let’s make sure if a church needs to repent of something it’s actually something to repent over.5