Should We Lead People in a "Sinner's Prayer"? - Radical

Should We Lead People in a “Sinner’s Prayer”?

Do I only need to pray the Sinner’s Prayer to be saved? Will praying the Sinner’s Prayer actually save me, or is there something more I need to do? In this video, David Platt cautions against the formulaic use of the “Sinner’s Prayer”, offering two key rationales against this method of prayer. Over time, many well-intending pastors have used the Sinner’s Prayer in a very formulaic way, not fully presenting the true, life-altering cost of following Christ. Pastors and ministers should offer a clear, urgent call to salvation at the end of sermons, teachings, and conversations, while reminding believers that the assurance of their salvation is in Christ and His death on the cross, and not in how often or how well they prayed the Sinner’s Prayer.

1. Avoiding Formulaic Prayer

2. The Cost of Following Christ

3. A Clear and Urgent Call

4. Assurance of Salvation at the Cross

Sinner’s Prayer

David, as you know, there’s been a lot of discussion surrounding the sinner’s prayer. You have spoken about that, you have given some caution in terms of having a specific prayer that we repeat as we call out to the Lord. On the other hand, week in and week out, when you preach, you urge people to repent and believe. You tell them to call on the Lord. So how do those two things fit together, and what is your real concern when you talk about the sinner’s prayer?

It’s a great question. I want to be clear from the very beginning, I’m not against prayer, and certainly not against prayer when it comes to salvation. Like Romans 10, everyone who calls the name of the Lord will be saved, if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

So clearly we call out to God for salvation so what I am cautioning there is the ways I think that is sometimes used, and I’ve seen it not just here in our culture, and I’ve seen this in places around the world where people are called to and it comes across, I think, in an unhealthily, formulaic way. I talk with all kinds of people who are looking just for a box to check off, just tell me what I need to do in order to be right with God.

The Command to Repent and Believe

And then people who have been encouraged to do that, but then there’s no life change that flows from that. And I realize that there are, like we’ve talked about with a variety of things, many good things can be abused. And so I’m not saying that a sinner’s prayer in and of itself is a bad thing. I mean, whether it’s Billy Graham or Bill Bright or other, I mean other brothers and pastors who I respect deeply who have called people to pray a sinner’s prayer. I’m not saying that that’s just totally a hundred percent wrong, we shouldn’t be doing that. I’m throwing a caution that says, okay, to follow Christ, to become a follower of Christ is more than an invitation to pray a prayer. This is a summons to lose our lives. That in scripture we see clear calls, commands to repent and believe.

So let’s focus there. Let’s call people to repent and believe, to turn from their sin and themselves to trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, let’s make that gospel call clear and urgent. I mean, you mentioned, every Sunday I want to make eye contact with people who are there, who don’t know Christ, and I call them, turn to Christ to be savior, repent and believe today, call out for him to save you. Now, where I don’t… And this is more personal, I’m not saying that everybody needs to follow this, but in evangelism, or in preaching, in evangelism, I call people to trust in Christ. What I don’t do is I don’t say, “Okay, so in order to do that, let me invite you to repeat these words after me.”

I think about a friend who recently just came to Christ and I’ve been sharing the gospel with him over a matter of weeks, been walking through the gospel with him, and he comes to the point where we’re sitting down, I walk through, one more time, just the whole picture of the gospel, and I say, “What’s keeping you from doing this? From repenting and belief, from trusting in Christ and turning from yourself?” He said, “Nothing.” And I said, “Well, are you ready to do that now?” And my friend says, “Yes.” And so I said, “Well, I invite you to do that. Call out to God.” And so at that point, in his heart, he understands the gospel, he’s about to pray. I don’t think it really matters what he says at that point exactly.

Asking God to Save Us

If it gets all the… Does he get all the Roman road right? Does he get all the terminology theologically? No. He’s calling out from a heart that’s been changed by the spirit of God. He’s understood the gospel. He’s asking God to save him. And so we rejoice. He prays and I pray for him and then just, I mean, hug each other with tears in our eyes. I mean, that’s what I love to do personally, that’s what I want to do pastorally, on a week in, week out basis.

But I do want to be careful in trying to give cautioning against unhealthily formulaic ways of, okay, this is what salvation is, or reducing salvation to just saying certain words, which I don’t think anybody necessarily is saying, “Okay, well I believe salvation is just saying certain words.” But I think that is the way it sometimes comes across. I think there are a variety of people who look to a prayer they prayed as assurance of salvation, which first John, I think, directs us to other places for assurance of salvation than just, okay, I prayed this prayer.

And even in the church I pastor, we have numerous people who went through religious motions like praying a prayer, even being baptized, who never experienced, I mean just so many who had never experienced regeneration in their heart and never had turned from themselves and trust in Christ.

And so I just want to be zealous to make sure the gospel’s clear and as best as we can, it’s not that there’s any perfect way to do this on this earth, but as best we can, we’re responsibly calling people to repent and believe in Christ and showing in a way that Jesus clearly emphasized that count the cost before you follow Christ. Count the cost. This is more than just saying words you’re about to say, this is your life. You’re dying yourself. And so that kind of invitation and the gospels compels me to say, let’s be serious about that kind of invitation we give now.

Children of God

Okay, so somebody who hears that and say, as a child, they prayed a prayer, they kind of mark that as their conversion. Now they hear that and they affirm that’s a good caution. But they think, well, did that really happen then? Am I really converted? Am I a child to God? How do you counsel somebody like that?

Yeah. So I certainly want to encourage people just, I mean, I would not want anybody to take away from what I just said, “Well, okay, if I prayed a prayer, maybe I’m not saved,” or so I would ask the question, fundamentally, has there come a point where you turned from your sin yourself and you’ve trusted in Jesus as savior and Lord? Have you repented and believed? Have you become a follower of Jesus? Are you a follower of Jesus?

And don’t be looking, okay, what was I thinking about this moment when I said certain words, but no, are you believing in the truth of Christ? Are you walking in the spirit of Christ? These are the things that first John encourages us to ask when it comes to assurance of salvation. And some people may not be able to remember the exact point when they trusted in Christ, particularly if they became followers of Christ at a younger age. And at less, I’ll use the term less dramatic, I think all conversion is dramatic in a sense that supernatural what’s happening, but maybe grew up in a Christian home and were taught the gospel very early on, and so might have a hard time identifying that certain point.

Posture of Repentance

I’m thankful for just encouragement. Even friend of mine, J. D. Greear, wrote a book, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, where he talked about this, and I think it’s helpful to look at faith and repentance as a posture toward God. So I may not remember the exact moment when I sat down in this chair, but I’m confident I’m sitting in this chair right now. That’s clear. And so we may not be remembering that exact point, but are you trusting in Christ? Have you trusted in Christ for salvation? Is he the Lord of your life? Have you returned from your sin in yourself? Okay. Then, and this is what it means to be a follower of Christ.

So again, even to go back to the caution a little bit there, I can think numerous times in my own life, as a kid, laying in bed thinking, “I don’t know if I got it right the first time. I’m just going to pray the prayer again,” because I had this fear that I wasn’t going to wake up in the morning.

So, “Okay, well, I just, I’m going to pray the prayer one more time and make sure,” and I think that is… It’s clearly unhealthy. Now I think that’s unhealthy because then, okay, I’m constantly looking actually to myself and something I’ve done for assurance, instead of looking at the finished work of Christ on the cross and the present work of Christ in my life through his spirit that gives me assurance.

David Platt serves as a pastor in metro Washington, D.C. He is the founder of Radical.

David received his Ph.D. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of Don’t Hold Back, Radical, Follow MeCounter CultureSomething Needs to ChangeBefore You Vote, as well as the multiple volumes of the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series.

Along with his wife and children, he lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area.


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