Since we have established the fact that salvation is a spiritual experience and can also involve the emotions or feelings, the question to be asked is what happens when the salvation experience is devoid of any change in emotion or how someone feels? What happens when the person never feels anything, no change, nothing new, after they pray the “sinner’s prayer” and ask Jesus into their heart? What does that mean?
I know, just the mention of the “sinner’s prayer” gives one pause, doesn’t it.
What is the sinner’s prayer and what does it mean? What is a proper “sinner’s prayer”? What specific words have to be spoken in order for true salvation to take place? How much of the actual prayer does the sinner need to quote properly in order to get saved? What’s a passing grade? And how much of the prayer do you really have to believe to make it into heaven? After all, we don’t want to miss the cut by just a few points.
See the confusion? Let’s take a look at the “sinner’s prayer” together.
The Sinner’s Prayer: What it is
In the church today, evangelism is often focused on simply getting someone to say a prayer or a formula that we believe always leads to salvation. Why? Because we have reduced the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to a short creedal statement of mere facts about Jesus, or redefined it as a set of steps or laws, much like a cake recipe, one must follow. If we can get the person to pray the formula or recite the facts, or just agree with us while we mouth the magic words, then our theology states salvation has taken place. Why? Because, we reason, they have “confessed with their mouth the Lord Jesus”— and we assume “have believed in their heart that God raised Him from the dead”— hence, we conclude they “will be saved” (Rom 10:9). And, to be fair, a casual look at this Scripture could give you that impression.
This prayer, popularly known as the sinner’s prayer, can vary widely in how it’s administered or recited, but always includes some required key elements in order to make it valid. It’s a prayer that fulfills the confession requirement in Romans 10:9. And we just assume that to confess means to pray and believe what we feel are key components about Christ and His nature and His atonement. It becomes a sort of short mini-catechism or dwarfed creedal statement.
One of the key requirements in the sinner’s prayer are some words that indicate the person understands they are, in fact, a sinner and in need of salvation. This is obvious. In this part of the prayer they would acknowledge their sin and guilt before the Lord and confess they have fallen short of what God’s intention was for them (Rom. 3:10, 23). There would also be an understanding of their eternal state apart from Christ and His forgiveness and a distinction between heaven, the desired place, and Hell, the default place (Rom. 6:23).
Another required component in the sinner’s prayer would be the understanding of what God has provided for them through His Son Jesus Christ in order to have their sins forgiven and forgotten. The prayer would include some words that acknowledge the fact that their sins were imputed to Christ and His righteousness was imputed to them and they are trusting in His completed work for the atonement for their sins.
The sinner’s prayer might go something like this: “Lord, I know that I am a sinner and that I have lived my life for myself and not for You. I confess my sins before You and ask that You forgive my sins because I believe that Jesus paid the penalty for my sins for me when He died on the cross. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He was raised from the dead on the third day and I’m asking You to come into my life to be my Lord and Saviour. I renounce my life of sin and self and accept the healing and cleansing that only You can give. Thank You for hearing my prayer and forgiving my sins. For the rest of my life I want to love and serve only You. Amen.”
Then, as far as we know, we assume the person praying the prayer was sincere and, therefore, is now saved. But the Scriptures tell us the evidence of salvation is not a verbal prayer, no matter how sincere that prayer may be, but fruits that only the Holy Spirit can bring (Matt. 7:17-20). But as not to get sidetracked, we’ll look into the evidence of true salvation at a later time.
The Sinner’s Prayer: What it isn’t
The sinner’s prayer is not an incantation or mantra that always leads to salvation. More often than not, it leads to a false sense of security for the unbeliever and literally innoculates them from true salvation. It can function as the billboard to the wide road that leads to destruction Jesus warned us about (Matt. 7:13). Let me explain.
For the past century or two we have been taught, both in seminary and from the pulpit, if a person says the sinner’s prayer they are saved. And, under that assumption, we quickly baptize them to somehow “seal the deal” without any observable evidence of their salvation— no changed nature, no redeemed affections, no spiritual fruit, nothing. We simply accept them at their word and on the authority of the prayer just prayed and forge ahead as if everything was fine.
But when warning sirens go off and they say something’s wrong, they don’t think they’re saved, or they begin to doubt the magic prayer worked, we ignore their pleas and chalk it up to Satan “just trying to make you doubt what God has already done in your heart.” We point to Romans 10:13— “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”— and say, “Did you call on the name of the Lord? Are you a whoever? If you did, according to this verse, you’re saved! So just believe it and don’t worry about how you feel. The feelings will come later.”
Really? So it’s more like the Amway slogan of “just fake it until you make it.” No, I believe salvation, as we’ve stated before, radically changes every aspect of your life, and so much so, that you would know experientially if you had truly died and been raised to a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:4).
Reciting or memorizing historical facts about Christ does not, of itself, lead one to salvation. For example, at the end of a Sunday service a young man walks down the aisle and tells the preacher he wants to get saved. The preacher would, most likely, say something like this:
“Young man, do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?”
“Do you believe He died on the cross, was raised on the third day, ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and is coming again in glory?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Are you asking Him to forgive you of all your sins and inviting Him to be the Lord of your life?”
“Yes sir, I am.”
“Great. Then repeat this simple sinner’s prayer with me and you’ll be saved.”
But Satan could also recite these same historical facts about Jesus. He could even pray most of the sinner’s prayer and still not receive the gift of salvation. How can that be if the sinner’s prayer saves?
“Satan, do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?”
“Absolutely! I know it to be a fact.”
“Satan, do you believe He died on the cross, was raised on the third day, ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and is coming again in glory?”
“Yes, I know what He did on the cross and all about His resurrection. And I also know, and dread the day, when He will come back in glory. I know all these things to be true.”
“Satan, are you asking Him to forgive you of all your sins and inviting Him to be the Lord of your life?”
“No. I will not bow my knee to the Lordship of anyone but me.”
As you can see, salvation is much more than a simple prayer, it’s an acknowledgment, a life-long commitment, a fervent trust, a submission, originating from the very core of our being, that Jesus is Lord. We focus on the confession part of Romans 10:9 because it’s easy, and not the object of that confession, the Lordship of Christ, because it’s so hard. Simple, yes. But very hard. For it’s only belief, or faith, in the object of that confession, Jesus is Lord, that brings about salvation and not the simple confession itself.
That if you confess with your mouth (the confession) the Lord Jesus (the object of the confession) and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).
To restate, there’s more to salvation than just mouthing the sinner’s prayer. And we would all like to think by repeating the sinner’s prayer the seeking person is actually declaring to God their total reliance on Christ as their Lord and Saviour and trusting in His completed work on the cross as all sufficient. And we also understand there are no magical words needed to be said in order for salvation to take place. Why? Because salvation is by faith through grace in Christ alone, plus nothing and minus nothing (Eph. 2:8). But there’s more.
The Sinner’s Prayer: The Caboose of Salvation
The reality is that a believer is actually saved before they even utter the first words of the sinner’s prayer. Are you shocked? You shouldn’t be. It’s not the prayer that makes a sinner a Christian, it’s the prayer of a sinner, already now a Christian, giving God glory by testifying what He has already done in their life. And what has the Lord already done? Election, the effectual calling of the sinner to Himself, conversion, regeneration, and much more. Sound confusing?
Regeneration and conversion have already taken place by the time the sinner places His faith in Christ and, based on that faith, utters the words of the sinner’s prayer. Plus, the very faith placed in Christ is faith given by God for that very purpose. Why? Because Scripture states, “there is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God” (Rom. 3:10-11). So the only way someone seeks for God is if God places that desire for Him in them. And the only way we can place faith in Christ, faith we don’t have in and of ourselves, is if God gives us the faith to place in His Son. Because on our own, as Romans 3:10-11 teach, we would not seek God and would not have saving faith to place in the work of Christ. It’s all a gift from Him, a sovereign act of grace.
From start to finish, from election to glorification, salvation is all God. And since this is true, then we’re saved before we even utter the first words of the sinner’s prayer.
Are you confused? Does it seem strange to you?
We’ll look into this topic in greater detail, next.