Southern Baptists—of all people!—recently debated the propriety of the Sinner's Prayer—of all things! What's the world coming to when we can't even count on Baptists to unswervingly defend the faith once delivered to the saints?
They eventually affirmed the Sinner's Prayer by a strong majority, but not without a fight. Yet the Baptist naysayers are not alone; the Sinner's Prayer has recently been suspect in influential evangelical circles.
The Sinner's Prayer rose from the mist of evangelical revivalism, and is in many ways a work of genius, as brilliant as the simple formulations of Martin Luther (Sola fide! Sola Scriptura!). It comes in many flavors, but it generally contains two elements: repentance for sin and trust in Christ's redemptive work at the Cross for forgiveness.
The prayer assumes absolute dependence on God's grace (we do not "cooperate" with grace); trust in Christ's lordship ("accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior"); and union with Christ (as in, "inviting Christ into my heart"). Some versions are theologically better than others, and there are often more felicitous ways to express its truths. But if we recognize that the Sinner's Prayer is not systematic theology but a heartfelt expression of faith in Christ, we needn't quibble.
The prayer at the end of the classic Four Spiritual Laws is as good an example as any:
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.
The Sinner's Prayer, in short, summarizes the gospel that so many desperately long for. It gives people a concrete and simple way to respond to the Good News and appropriate the grace of God. So what's the problem?
Some scholars rightly remind us that the gospel is ultimately about the Messiah Jesus fulfilling the covenantal requirements of Israel, thus ensuring the redemption of Israel and the whole world. Yes! But this sweeping view is appreciated mainly by theologians or those mature in the faith. Most people live with all manner of personal crises, the greatest being an abiding guilt and shame. They wander this earth as sojourners without hope, salving their souls' wounds with the balm of material entertainments. Their profound need is addressed by this simple prayer.
From some pastors, we hear frustration with those who say the Sinner's Prayer, "get saved," and never darken the doors of a church again. To be churchless or "undiscipled" is not a good thing. Still, we may ask whether churches that complain like this should first take the log out of their own eye, and examine whether they are truly loving—and not haranguing—the very people who should be predisposed to attend worship.
Some people worry that the Sinner's Prayer fails in its purpose, because some say it many times as they periodically repent of "backsliding." Well, of course. In fact, the Sinner's Prayer might be said every morning as we get out of bed and every night as we climb back in. The Sinner's Prayer is not just the electro-shock machine to resuscitate the dead, but an oxygen machine that keeps us going and going. This is a staple of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, which encourages daily, hourly, and even breath-by-breath use of their Sinner's Prayer, "the Jesus Prayer": "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner."
Some believe the prayer is often used superstitiously—If I just say this prayer, my eternal destiny is secure! No, that's not good. Then again, we often fail to recognize that when we're afraid, we're all superstitious to one degree or another. We count on some human word we've said or deed we've performed to assure us of God's good will toward us, when in fact, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, our only comfort in life and death is that we belong to Jesus Christ. The good news is that Christ's forgiveness covers even our superstitions.
There may be good reasons to reform or replace the Sinner's Prayer in evangelical "liturgical life." But we have to do better than theological snobbery or spiritual self-righteousness. If we care about the everyday anxieties of everyday people, the Sinner's Prayer can be a wonderful, if imperfect, tool to help the lost know that they have been found, and the found to daily follow the Lord who has saved them from their sin and secured for them life eternal.
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