David Platt on the dangers of the “sinner’s prayer”:
- A specific “sinner’s prayer” like we often think of today is not found in Scripture or even in much of church history. Without question, Scripture tells us to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and to call on the name of the Lord and be saved. At the same time, we never see anyone in Scripture saying, “Bow your head, close your eyes, and repeat after me,” followed by a specific “sinner’s prayer.”
- The use of a “sinner’s prayer” can potentially come across as unhealthily formulaic. I talk with people all the time who are looking for a “box to check off” in order to be right with God and safe for eternity. But there is no box. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Such saving faith is the anti-work (i.e., “not by works, so that no one can boast” in Ephesians 2:8-9), and I want to be careful never to communicate that someone’s work (or words) can merit salvation before God.
- I have seen the “sinner’s prayer” abused across the contemporary Christian landscape as people “pray the prayer” apart from a biblical understanding of the gospel or “pray the prayer” on multiple occasions to ensure their salvation or “pray the prayer” without ever counting the cost of following Christ. I have experienced this abuse in my own life: I can remember laying in my bed at night as a child/teenager, wondering about whether or not I’m really saved, and then thinking, “Well, I just need to pray that prayer again…and really mean it this time . . . and then I’ll know I’m saved.” I have seen this abuse in a variety of evangelistic settings (here and overseas, among children, youth, and adults) where people have been called upon to “pray the prayer” and “raise their hand” in ways that, despite good intentions, were theologically man-centered and practically manipulative. And I have seen this abuse in the lives of many people I pastor who prayed the “sinner’s prayer” at a point in their life and later came to realize that they were not truly saved. Consequently, on both a personal and pastoral level, I have cautions about potential abuses associated with the “sinner’s prayer.”
- It seems that “praying the prayer” is often used in a worship service or an evangelistic conversation to “cement a decision” or “close the deal” regarding someone’s salvation. People are often told immediately, “If you prayed that prayer, you can always know that you are saved for eternity.” Now I certainly believe that justification before God happens at a point in time (i.e., people don’t ooze into the kingdom of God), and it’s helpful (though not entirely necessary) for someone to be able to identify the point at which they were saved. Ultimately, however, I don’t want people to look to me or even to a “prayer they prayed” for assurance of salvation. I want them to look to Christ for this. Assurance of salvation is always based on His work, not ours. Objectively, we look to Christ’s past work on the cross; subjectively, we look to Christ’s present work in our lives; and supremely, we look to Christ’s unshakeable promises regarding our future. This is where books like 1 John biblically ground our assurance as believers. Assurance of salvation is not found in a prayer we prayed or a decision we made however many years ago as much as it is found in trusting in the sacrifice of Christ for us, experiencing the Spirit of Christ in us, obeying the commands of Christ to us, and expressing the love of Christ to others. I want to be careful not to give a person blanket assurance regarding their eternal destiny apart from the fruit of biblical faith, repentance, obedience, and love.
So how does he train people to lead others to Christ? Here is what he teaches his people:
- Share the gospel clearly . . . and call people to count the cost of following Christ. Make sure that the person you are talking with has a biblical understanding of the glorious reality that the just and gracious Creator of the universe has looked upon hopelessly sinful men and women in their rebellion and He has sent His Son, God in the flesh, to bear His wrath against sin on the cross and to show His power over sin in the resurrection so that everyone who repents and believes in Him will be reconciled to God forever. Make sure this gospel is clear. Tell them following Jesus will cost them their life . . . and tell them Jesus is worth it!
- If you are in a personal conversation with someone (and this could be applied in a small group, as well), ask them if they have any questions about the gospel. Ask them if they have ever repented and believed in Jesus (i.e., turned from their sin and themselves to trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord). Ask them if they would like to repent of sin and believe in Christ.
- Invite them to call on the Lord and be saved. If they see God for who He is, their sin for what it is, themselves for who they are, and Christ for who He is and what He has done, then by the grace of God through the Spirit of God they are more than able to call out in repentance and faith…so let them do so. You don’t necessarily need to tell them the exact words to say at that point. You have shared the gospel and the Spirit has opened their eyes to the love and lordship of Christ, so urge them to call out for His mercy and submit to His majesty.
- At the same time, be willing to let them be alone with God, if that is best. In some circumstances, it probably is best to encourage them to be alone with God in order that you might not unknowingly, unintentionally, or unhelpfully manipulate a decision, circumstance, or situation. As you call them to submit to the person of Christ, you can trust the Spirit of Christ to bring them to salvation.
- Most importantly, once someone repents and believes in Christ, be willing to lead that person as a new follower of Christ. Remember, our goal is not to count decisions; our goal is to make disciples.