The Sinner’s Prayer
Text: Acts 9:1-19
I. A key feature of salvation in many denominations is the praying of the sinner’s prayer.
A. It is generally presented at the end of a service to tell people how they may be saved.
B. Each “Sinner’s Prayer” varies in detail, but generally carry the same theme: that if a person sincerely says these words, God will save them.
II. The history of the Sinner’s Prayer
A. There is no sinner’s prayer mentioned in the Scriptures.
1. No one is told in the New Testament to pray to receive salvation.
2. So where did the concept arise?
B. The Reformation made a great many changes in the religious scene and during this time a number of denominations were founded.
1. Yet, by the 1600's these new denominations were becoming steep in traditions and the earlier zeal of faith was waning.
2. The majority of people still held to the Catholic idea of infant baptism.
a. Preachers tended to minimize the importance of such baptisms because people would hide behind them, saying things like “I’m a baptized Lutheran and that’s that.”
b. It is hard to persuade people to come over to your denomination when they believe they were made permanent members of their current denomination by infant baptism.
3. Hence, a theology developed that one was forgiven of the sin of Adam at infant baptism, but you still needed to be reborn
a. This allowed “salvation” in infancy, but “conversion” as an adult.
b. Even to this day, many people see “rebirth” and “forgiveness” as separate issues, but they remain fuzzy as to what is actually the difference.
C. During the 1700's came a great era of strong preaching.
1. It created an environment where people felt the need to respond to the message.
2. Eventually Revelation 3:14, 19-20 became a popular passage for appeals.
a. The passage is directed toward lukewarm Christians, not unbelievers.
b. Yet, listen to how it was altered by John Webb who preached in the mid-1700's: “Here is a promise Union to Christ; in these words, I will come in to him, i.e. If any Sinner will but hear my Voice and open the Door, and receive me by Faith, I will come into his Soul, and unite him to me, and make him a living member of that my mystical body of which I am Head.” [Christ’s Suit to the Sinner, p. 14]
3. By looking straight into the sinner’s eyes while speaking as if Christ was talking instead of the preacher, raised great emotions – more emotion that one displays at baptism. So, preachers concluded that the point of faith was more important than the point of obedience. This is when Huldreich Zwingli put into words the famous statement that baptism was only an outward sign of an inward grace.
D. Between 1730 and 1750, Eleazar Wheelock used a technique he called the Mourner’s Seat to gain conversions.
1. He selected sinners and had them sit on the front pew.
2. During his sermon he would tell these sinners that “salvation was looming over their heads.”
3. Being placed in the spotlight, these sinners were emotionally readied to be counseled to be converted. They would listen to whatever they were told because when emotions run high, people tend not to reason.
E. The desire for an emotional conviction produced the famous Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky in 1801. During the multi-week meeting, people allegedly barked, rolled in the aisles, and became delirious. Some speculate it was due to the intense heat in the tents and the long periods of going without food as the preaching went on and on.
1. This emotional response was what “rebirth” was all about, preachers claimed, and so the second Great Awakening began.
2. Preachers were enamored with the idea that they could manipulate people into conversion.
3. A writer in that era complained, “The appeals, songs, prayers, and the suggestion from the preacher drive many into the trance state. I can remember in my boyhood days seeing ten or twenty people laying unconscious upon the floor in the old country church. People called that conversion. Science knows it is mesmeric influence, self-hypnotism .. It is sad that Christianity is compelled to bear the folly of such movements.” [ J. V. Coombs, Religious Delusions, pp.92ff]
F. In 1835, Charles Finney took Wheelock’s Mourner’s Seat method and modified it into something he called the Anxious Seat.
1. “The church has always felt it necessary to have something of this kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles, baptism answered this purpose. The gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ were called to be baptized. It held the place that the anxious seat does now as a public manifestation fo their determination to be Christians.”
2. The Anxious Seat had its detractors. It was considered to be an emotional conversion influenced by the preacher’s animal magnetism. They considered it a manipulation of people’s emotions which brought about a premature profession of faith. John Nevin was, perhaps, the most vocal detractor, calling Finney’s methods “heresy”, a “Babel of extravagence,” “fanaticism”, and “quackery.”
G. By the end of Finney’s life, it became evident that the Anxious Bench approach led to a high fallout rate. Emotions cool over time and a conversion based on raw emotion will not last.
1. In the 1860's Dwight Moody took Finney’s system and modified it. Instead of calling for a public decision, which produced responses under pressure, Moody asked people to join him and his trained counselors to a room called the Inquiry Room.
2. In the Inquiry Room, the counselors asked the potential convert questions, taught him from the Scriptures, and then prayed with him.
a. Recall that in the 1700's prayer was loosely associated with conversion.
b. By the 1800's it was standard practice to pray to “receive Christ.”
H. R. A. Torrey succeeded Moody’s ministry after Moody’s death in 1899. He, once again, modified Moody’s method to include “on the spot” conversions in the street. Torrey popularize the idea of instant salvation with no strings attached.
1. From this time, it became common to think of salvation separate from church membership or a change in lifestyles.
I. Also during the early 1900's a baseball player, Billy Sunday, was converted and eventually began to preach. He called his meetings crusades and Sunday was first to mix the ideas of entertainment with teaching.
1. Billy Sunday’s crusades were basically Moody’s method with a bit of a circus touch.
2. After a thunderous sermon that contained heavy moralistic messages with political overtones and humourous, if not outlandish, behavior, salvation was offered to the audience. Often it was associated with prayer, which Sunday called “the sinner’s prayer,” but at times people were told they were saved if they simply walked down “the sawdust trail” to the front. Eventually people were told they were saved because they publicly shook Sunday’s hand while acknowledging they would follow Christ.
J. Sunday’s methods sprouted many imitators and in 1936, Billy Graham was converted at one such imitator’s crusade.
1. Graham’s crusades are a cumulation of the prior methods, but he managed to add the respectability that was often lacking in his predecessors.
2. By the 1950's Graham’s counselors were using a prayer from Graham’s Four Steps to Peace with God. This book was based on Sunday’s tract called Four Things God Wants You to Know.
3. By the late 1950's Bill Bright formalized the “four spiritual laws” so that the average believer could take the crusade experience to his neighbors. The method ends with the sinner’s prayer, “Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.”
K. With this long history, is it a wonder that people today think that this is the way to be saved? Little do they realize that the sinner’s prayer is a relatively recent innovation.
III. How the Sinner’s Prayer is justified
A. For years, people have been told “just receive Christ into your heart” and “trust Jesus as your personal Savior.” The method for accomplishing this, we are told, is the sinner’s prayer.
1. John 1:11-13 - Read this out of your translation and then listen to it from the Living Bible paraphrase, “Even in his own land and among his own people, the Jews, he was not accepted. Only a few welcome and received him. But to all who received him, he gave the right to become children of God. All they needed to do was to trust him to save them. All those who believe this are reborn! – not a physical rebirth resulting from human passion or plan – but from the will of God.”
2. Is it a wonder that the Billy Graham Crusades endorsed this version?
3. This verse teaches that we receive Jesus through faith. Those who do so have the right to become children of God by being born of God.
4. It does not mention prayer as the method of receiving Jesus, nor does it state that only faith is necessary to receive Jesus.
B. Many base the plea to “let Jesus come into your heart” on Revelation 3:20
1. First, the passage is directed to members of a lukewarm church. It is directed to people who are already Christians.
2. It is not a passage about how unbelievers become Christians.
3. It does not mention prayer as the way to let Jesus into your heart.
C. Some state that the basis of the sinner’s prayer comes from Romans 10:9-10
1. Notice that once again prayer is not mentioned in this passage.
2. Also, there is nothing in this passage that says belief and confession are the only things needed. It simply establishes that they are necessary – not exclusively necessary. Actually the Greek indicates that belief and confession lead to salvation, but does not state that they cause salvation.
3. There is no mention of recognizing that a person is a sinner (Luke 13:3).
D. Some will state that “calling on the Lord” is the sinner’s prayer - Romans 10:13
1. Peter quoted this save verse from the Old Testament in Acts 2:21. When his audience asked what they needed to do to be saved, he responded with repent and be baptized - Acts 2:37-38
2. In the context of Romans 10, Paul equates calling on the name of the Lord with belief and confession.
3. Ananias told Paul that being baptized was calling on the Lord - Acts 22:16
4. Calling on the Lord is not just calling out His name in prayer - Matthew 7:21-23.
5. Calling is doing what the Lord commands. It is appealing to the Lord for authority - Colossians 3:17
E. Others will cite Luke 18:13-14 as an example of some one praying the sinner’s prayer.
1. Question: Did this prayer make the man saying it a Christian?
a. The honest answer is no.
b. It was prayed by a Jew who remained a Jew after the prayer.
c. It was prayed by a man living under the Old Law before Christ’s death on the cross.
2. If we want examples, we ought to look in the book of Acts. Acts describes the actions of the early church. How were people saved then?
a. If we look at the examples, there is no record of someone being asked to pray to receive salvation
b. Acts 2:37-38 - These people were told to repent and be baptized.
c. Acts 8:4-5, 12-13 - These people believed and were baptized
d. Acts 8:35-39 - This person heard, confessed his belief, and was baptized.
e. Acts 10:33, 42-43, 48 - These people were commanded to believe and be baptized.
f. Acts 16:13-15 - Even though they were in a place of prayer, it was Paul’s preaching that opened Lydia’s heart and the result was that she and her household were baptized.
g. Acts 16:30-34 - The jailer was told to believe, he and his household heard the word preached, and immediately they were baptized.
h. Acts 18:4-5, 8 - Paul taught and many Corinthians responded by listening, believing and being baptized.
i. Acts 19:4-5 - Paul taught some Ephesians that they needed to believe in Jesus and on hearing this they were baptized.
j. Acts 9:6 - Saul wanted to know what to do. He was told to go into the city and wait for someone to tell him.
(1) He waited three days, praying and fasting - Acts 9:9-11
(2) If anyone could have been saved by prayer, it would have been Saul
(3) Yet what did Ananias tell Paul when he arrived? - Acts 22:16
(4) In other words, three days of prayer and fasting left Paul still in his sins
(5) What did Saul do? - Acts 9:18
IV. People have advocated praying for salvation, yet Jesus asks a simple question - Luke 6:46
A. Jesus did not ask people to pray for salvation. He told them to listen, to believe, to repent, to confess, and to be baptized.
B. If you want to be saved, what must you do?