What is the sinner’s prayer?

You will likely be faced with the sinner’s prayer early on in your Christian walk; perhaps on your first day. But what is the sinner’s prayer?

This is the first of a two-part series on salvation: what it is not, and what it is.

As always, please feel free to like, not like, comment, or question any of my posts. Your opinions are welcome.

The sinner’s prayer is treated as a necessary right of passage, but if you wind up attending a churchsinner's prayer that treats it only as a get-saved-in-3-easy-steps prayer, then you can easily find yourself in the trap of easy-believism.

You will hear the sinner’s prayer at sermons, worship concerts, on YouTube and on podcasts. I’ve also seen it handed out on business cards, and very small pamphlets called tracts.

As the sermon is coming to an end, a balanced church will wrap up an edifying message of teaching and building up of its members with a welcoming to its visitors. Then an invitation of some sort to receive Christ will be extended. Here is where there can be trouble.

“If you are that person today, raise your hand. It’s okay, everyone’s head is down and their eyes are closed. No one can see you but God.

sinner's prayer

“Now repeat after me.”

Here it comes. The sinner’s prayer.

Teaching styles differ, but these are the common components of this prayer:

  • God, I don’t want to go to hell. I want to go to heaven. I acknowledge that I am a sinner. Please forgive my sins.
  • I believe your Son, Jesus, died for my sins.
  • Thank you for dying for me Jesus. I repent of my sins.
  • Jesus, please come into my heart.

…or something like that.

The sinner’s prayer has become an almost cliché encapsulation of the components of the decision to receive Jesus. But this prayer never saved anybody.

The components are mostly biblical and mostly essential. My caution is that you not walk away from such a teaching with the impression that you are on your way to heaven simply for having recited this prayer. At best, it should represent a beginning to a lifelong commitment to follow and serve Jesus Christ. Not one that ends as the prayer ends.

“because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

Yes, we must confess what Jesus has done for us and believe it in our hearts. It is the object of our belief (in this case) that saves us, not the act of our belief.

There are frequent mentions in the Bible of the importance of our faith (John 1:12, 3:16; Acts 16:31).

In fact, Jesus repeatedly recognized the importance of someone’s faith (Matthew 8:13, 9:22, 15:28; Luke 7:50, 17:19, 18:42).

It may puzzle you to learn though that your faith is not what saved you.

And yes, we must repent of our sins (2 Chronicles 7:14; Matthew 4:17; Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 17:30; Romans 2:4). When we come to grips with who God is and who we are, it is only then that we appreciate the severity of sin and truly desire to turn from it.

But repentance doesn’t save you either. Hang in there.

The inviting-Jesus-into-our-hearts part? That’s not too biblical. I’ve heard Revelation 3:20 cited as thesinner's prayer reason for this thinking, but that is a stretch at best. (hint: There’s no mention of an invitation or the heart. It was Jesus who knocked.)

Inviting Jesus into your heart will not save you either.

The church I first attended as I was coming to Christ was a seeker-friendly church. By that, I mean that – as all churches should – the teaching pastor invited people to accept Christ. But he invited people to come speak individually with the pastors at the front of the church. Unknowingly, I was spared the sinner’s prayer and only learned of it later.

At the altar call, I was standing before the teaching pastor, (perhaps too) convincingly moved by his sermon. I explained that I was convinced that I had been wrong all my life about the existence of God. He agreed.

Rather than yank back on his pole and set the hook in my lip with the sinner’s prayer, he instead asked me if he could pray for me.

I nodded and assumed that was something he would add to his to-do list; “put in a good word for Brian.” Instead, he held his hand an inch or two above my head, closed his eyes, and just prayed aloud that I would come to realize the wonders of God’s grace. (Now we’re getting somewhere)

Looking back, this was a far more constructive prayer – his prayer for me – than would have been a prayer on the part of someone (me) who may never have spoken to God before.

I spoke of the dangers of an unbalanced church last week in my blog on church shopping. There is danger in a church that is too heavy on church growth and too weak on church strengthening.

A growth-heavy church will tend to paint a picture that is rosy in all the wrong ways, all in order to attract new believers for all the wrong reasons.

They may describe “blessings” as:

  • A big house
  • A nice car
  • Toys in the garage
  • Money in the bank
  • Your kids going to nicer schools

Many falsehoods can be heard from the pulpit of this kind of church:

  • If you have enough faith you can have whatever you want.
  • Jesus didn’t die so you can be poor all your life.
  • If you are a Christian you are no longer a sinner.
  • Good things (acts, tithing, service, prayer) will lead to more material blessings.
  • If you said the sinner’s prayer just now, you are saved and have eternal life in heaven.

There are some very well-meaning pastors that will preach to you that Christianity brings joy, peace, love, and blessings. Unfortunately, when they leave out the part that these things are matters of the heart and not of your circumstances, and can coexist alongside poverty, terminal illness, or the death of a loved one, the wrong conclusions can often be drawn.

There is no more important question than “how can I be saved?” The answer determines all of our places in eternity. If the sinner’s prayer fully captured this answer, there would be no need for the New Testament, or – for that matter – the entire Bible.

So what is the answer?

Next week, I will answer this question in the second of this two-part series.

Saved for Later is a blog for the recently – or almost – saved adult. To get more of the foundational truths that we were not taught in childhood, subscribe to this blog. Please ‘like’, comment, and share!

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts

  1. In fact, some muslims will try to get non-believers to recite the “shema”…in their version, something like “There is one God and M is his prophet.” If you do this, they believe they have converted you. I don’t think it works that way with the Christian “sinner’s prayer” either, as you suggest.

    1. Brian Michael Kindall says:

      That is interesting. Your comment makes me think of the Christians that refuse to convert to Islam and save their own lives. It has always humbled me to hear of Christian children in middle-eastern countries that are given the chance to live if they would only renounce their faith; only to be murdered for refusing. I don’t know if I possess that kind of strength. Do Americans even know how free we are to exercise our faith in this country and what a gift it is? Thanks for the comment.

  2. ilkin turgut engin says:

    Paul washer once said if the sinners prayer. God saved tou, despite the sinners prayer. I said the sinners prayer and when straight back into the world. Tho I attended an Anglican church went to Bible study. I didn’t understand or know who God was/is. I love the Lord but I’m so down with guilt and sin, that soon hearing and being explained to about God and whinge is, I just pray that I’m not trying to earn my way. There’s also the 2 step thing, salvation and sanctification, as we walk with God and learn to trust him we will be slowly transformed into the image of his son, to be like Jesus Christ. I know it’s nothing I can do, but I still feel this sense of fear and dread.

    1. Brian Michael Kindall says:

      Hey Ilkin,
      I think you got the point of my post, which echoes the Washer quote; you’re saved by God, not by your commitment to be Christian. Unfortunately, churches treat that prayer as the “main event” when it should be no more than your recognition and acceptance of the true “main event.” That is that God loves us and saves us, through Jesus Christ, despite the fact that we are sinners.

      As a new Christian, I battled with some of the same feelings you’re having now. God’s grace saves us, not our actions. The enemy (Satan) makes us feel guilty about that and we’re left with trying to “earn” God’s grace and failing, then feeling like we failed.

      Be careful, however. There is a great deal of messaging in the church that tells us that we are saved by God and now it doesn’t matter how we act. I think you know by your feelings that this can’t be true. It’s God, not us, that saves us. But we are left with much responsibility once we are saved. We are already saved, but Scripture makes it clear that we now are expected (by God) to reflect God through our actions. We are to love others (including our enemies), forgive others (including our enemies), and pray for others (including our enemies). “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) This action does not save us, it is a proper response to our awareness that we are saved.

      Thanks for the comment, Ilkin. God bless you.


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