“Ministers frequently tell lost people that they need to ‘pray the sinner’s prayer.’ Exactly what is this ’sinner’s prayer’? Is this prayer biblically based? If not, what is its origin?”
The so-called “sinner’s prayer” is a popular phenomenon in Protestant circles. It is employed at the conclusion of various denominational “revival” services in appeals to convince sincere people to “get saved.” It frequently is found as the ending in “gospel” tracts, urging folks to “repeat these words from the bottom of your heart.”
The “Sinner’s Prayer” takes various forms, all of which have the same general thrust. Here is one form of it:
“Heavenly Father, I know that I am a sinner and that I deserve to go to hell. I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. I do now receive him as my Lord and personal Savior. I promise to serve you to the best of my ability. Please save me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
The following observations concerning this “prayer” should be carefully considered.
Is the “Sinner’s Prayer” in the New Testament?
The sentiments of this prayer are found nowhere in the literature of the New Testament that pertains to the sinner’s responsibility under the law of Christ. A careful study of the cases of conversion in the book of Acts will reveal that in not a single instance is the sinner instructed or encouraged to “pray” for his or her salvation.
Rather, those honest souls who longed for redemption were admonished to “believe” on the Lord (Acts 16:31), “repent and be immersed ... for the forgiveness of [their] sins” (Acts 2:38; cf. 22:16), in order to enjoy a relationship with Christ (Gal. 3:27), and enter his spiritual body (1 Cor. 12:13).
What about Acts 2:21?
Some claim that Acts 2:21 is a prooftext for the so-called sinner’s prayer. Let’s compare this verse with several others from the same book, the same author.
“And it shall be, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:21).
“And Peter said unto them, Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
“And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling on his name” Acts 22:16).
The claim that Acts 2:21 provides authority for the “sinner’s prayer” is baseless. The “call” contemplated in this passage was fulfilled when penitent sinners surrendered to the terms of the gospel plan of redemption, explicitly announced later on the same occasion.
The “forgiveness of sins” (38) is the equivalent of “saved” (21). Accordingly, the “call” of verse 21 is obviously a generic term which embraces the “repent ... and be immersed” which was commanded of believers in verse 38.
Moreover, this calling-obedience connection is further established in Acts 22:16. Note that the very act of submitting to the Lord’s command to be immersed is the manifestation of “calling” on his name.
Saying “Lord, Lord” Is Not Enough
Scripture elsewhere makes it very clear that the mere act of “calling” out the Lord’s name, in an attempt to access divine mercy, in the absence of obedience, is an exercise in futility.
“Not everyone who says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he who does [present tense—persistently does] the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21).
Again, the Savior pointedly inquired:
“And why do you call me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things that I say?” (Lk. 6:46).
Prayer Is for the Child of God
Prayer is an avenue of communication between a “child of God” and his heavenly Father. The model prayer begins: “Our Father in heaven ...” (Mt. 6:9). One becomes a child of the Father by means of the “born-again” process (Jn. 3:3-5), not by praying.
Saul’s Prayers Did Not Save Him
Saul of Tarsus prayed for three days after arriving in the city of Damascus, yet his sins were not “washed away” until he was immersed in water in obedience to the divine command (Acts 9:11; 22:16). If there ever was a case of the “sinner’s prayer” being exercised, surely this was it; yet it was for naught.
Where Did the “Sinner’s Prayer” Originate?
The “sinner’s prayer” probably evolved, in some form or another, in the early days of the Protestant Reformation movement, as a misguided reaction against the Roman Catholic dogma of justification by means of meritorious works.
For example, Jacobus Faber (c. 1450-1536), who has been called “the father of the French reformation” (though he never formally left the Catholic Church), wrote a commentary on the epistles of Paul in 1512. (This was five years before Luther’s break with the Roman Church in Germany.) In this volume Faber argued that justification is obtained through faith without works (see McClintock & Strong 1969, p. 441).
Later, rebelling against the “merit works” system of Romanism, Luther would contend that salvation is on the basis of “faith alone.” According to one biographer, Luther exclaimed:
“I, Doctor Martin Luther, unworthy herald of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, confess this article, that faith alone without works justifies before God” (D’Aubigne 1955, p. 56).
So convinced was Luther of this proposition that, when producing his own translation of the New Testament, he altered the text of Romans 3:28 to read: “a man is justified by faith only.” The word “only” is not in any Greek manuscript available. Luther even rejected the divine origin of the book of James because of its emphasis on “works,” in addition to faith.
To believe, therefore, that one may be justified from sin, by simply praying the “sinner’s prayer” as a substitute for obedience to the plan of salvation, is to labor under a delusion that is void of biblical support. Undoubtedly, many who offer the “sinner’s prayer” are exceedingly sincere. Sincerity alone, however, is unavailing (Prov. 14:12; Acts 23:1; 26:9).
See our article on the The New Birth: Its Necessity And Composition.