The concept of the sinner’s prayer has come under much scrutiny recently. A co-worker one day asked me, “where do you find ‘the sinner’s prayer’ in the Bible?” He genuinely wanted to know. The sinner’s prayer is often found at the end of gospel presentations in tracts or books. While it may appear in various forms, it goes something like this: “Dear God, I know that I am a sinner. I believe that you love me, and that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I now repent of my sins and ask Jesus to come into my heart to forgive my sins. Thank you for saving me. In Jesus’s name, Amen.”
After that prayer, the text of the tract, or the person presenting it will say, “Congratulations. You have just been born again. Welcome to the God’s family. Now that you have prayed that prayer, never let anyone or anything cause you to doubt your salvation.”
Is that person truly saved? Many evangelicals would say yes. After you have “prayed the prayer,” you are saved no matter what. “Anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved,” (Romans 10:13). Only time can answer that question. In reality, many who have “prayed the prayer” often return to life as usual. Young people, once they move away from home, may go off the deep end morally. Yet when someone asks them if they are saved, they often reply, “Yes, I ‘prayed the prayer.’”
That view makes “the prayer” little more than a magical charm, an amulet that is supposed to protect you from evil spirits. Once you pray the prayer, you can live like the devil thanks to the “assurance” you received about never doubting your salvation. This has led some denominations to separate over the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. Some churches call it “perseverance of the saints.” Several denominations believe that you can lose your salvation if you don’t “toe the party line.” In other words, you backslide into the world. You may have a habit that a particular denomination does not accept. I have heard of certain groups that do not allow you to play dominoes because they are the “devil’s bones.” If you continue to play dominoes after “praying the prayer,” you are in danger of falling from grace.
Where does the Bible contain the “sinner’s prayer”? It does actually exist, however in a different form from the one above.
In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus told the story of two men who went to the Temple to pray: one a Pharisee who religiously kept the law. In fact, he reminded God of that during his prayer. In essence he said, “I keep the law. I do not extort money. I don’t commit adultery. I fast in accordance with the law, and I tithe. I am not like that tax collector over there.”
In the other corner of the Temple, the unrighteous tax collector could not even lift his eyes toward heaven. He made no pretense of being able to keep the law. He knew how far short he fell. All he could do was beat his breast in contrition and say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said that man went home justified rather than the one who tried to keep the law. The law-keeper impressed no one, least of all God.
Notice the simplicity of the tax collector’s prayer? No flowery prose, no King James English unless you are reading the KJV. No theological explanation. He just knew that he needed God’s mercy.
God’s salvation does not come to those who pridefully think they are made right with him by keeping his law. Only Jesus could do that. The law was never designed to save, only to show us our need for mercy and drive us to Christ. One man exalted himself and went away unjustified although in his own mind he kept the law. The other humbled himself, threw himself on God’s mercy and went home justified.
The problem with “praying the prayer” is that you may deceive yourself into believing you are saved, when you are not. You have never repented of your sin, and you are trying to justify yourself in God’s sight by your good deeds. Ephesians 2:8-10 says that we are saved by grace through faith that is a gift, not of works so that boasting is excluded. We are not saved by works, but for works. Have you “prayed the prayer” or did you get saved?