Is the Sinner's Prayer biblical or not?

by Tony Miano and Matt Slick

Is the sinner's prayer biblical?  Yes and no.  It is biblical for a sinner to pray to Jesus to forgive him of his sins.  It is not biblical to say someone is saved "because of reciting the Sinner's Praye." It is biblical to confess one's sins and ask for forgiveness and put trust, hope, and faith in Christ and his sacrifice on the cross. But, again, it is not biblical to give someone assurance of salvation based on reciting a prayer--on simply saying the words. Salvation is the work of God and the manifestation of that work is sometimes seen in people publicly confessing--even publicly praying to receive Christ as Savior.

So, we want to be clear that elements of the sinners prayer are biblical. However, we also want to be very clear that a person is not saved "because he prayed a prayer." Faith, assurance, and hope should never be placed in the prayer. Instead, faith, assurance, and hope should be placed in Christ via the proper presentation of the saving message which consists of presenting the Law (that we are sinners before God and deserve judgment) and the gospel (that only through faith and trust in what Christ has done on the cross where he bore our sins and died with them can we be saved from God's righteous judgment).  People must repent of their sins and believe the gospel.  That is what the Bible says. 

  • Mark 1:15, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
  • 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, "Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures."
  • Acts 16:30, "and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household."

What we are not saying about the Sinner’s Prayer

Many Christians have a prayer of repentance and faith as part of their conversion testimony. We know there are genuine, Christ-loving, born-again followers of Jesus Christ who will forever testify that someone shared the gospel with them and asked them to repeat a prayer, which they did, and they were saved. This article should in no way be interpreted or construed as an effort to bring into question one’s salvation because he “prayed a prayer.”

That being said, no one is saved because they “prayed a prayer.”  It is not reciting a phrase or the words of a prayer that saves anyone.   We are against formula salvation.  Those whom God sovereignly chooses to save (1 Peter 1:3; 2 Thess. 2:13) and draw to Himself (John 6:44) may pray a prayer--on their own or at someone else’s urging--as part of the first fruits of their salvation.

There are many Christians who will testify to the glory of God that they prayed a “Sinner’s Prayer” the day God saved them.  But there are also people in the world who, as a result of being led in a false “Sinner’s Prayer,” are now apostate; they were false converts (Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26-31). They have turned their back on Christ and have left the faith they thought they had because they had never really come to genuine repentance and faith in Christ. They are and were false converts because they put their hope of salvation in "saying words," in "reciting a prayer," in "doing the Christian prayer thing" instead of truly trusting Christ to forgive them of their sins against God. 

The purpose of this article is not to discourage genuine Christians or cause them to question the authenticity of their faith because their conversion story includes a “Sinner’s Prayer.” Many people have truly been saved along with saying the Sinner's Prayer.  Rather, the purpose of this article is to warn Christians--to plead with Christians to preach the gospel biblically; and if/when a person wants to trust in Christ and receive him as Savior, that it is done properly.

A Familiar Story: Sinner’s Prayer Evangelism

  • "So, do you understand what I've shared with you?"
  • "Yes."
  • "Is there any reason why you wouldn't want to receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior, right now?"
  • "Umm. No. I guess not."
  • "Great. Then just pray this prayer after me. There's nothing magical about the words. What matters is the condition of your heart."
  • "Out loud?"
  • "Yes. Jesus said that if you confess me before men I will confess you before my Father."
  • "Right here? Right now?"
  • "Well, it's up to you, of course. But what could be more important than making sure you're right with God. After all, tomorrow isn't promised to anyone."
  • "Okay."
  • "Great! Just pray this prayer after me. Lord Jesus . . . "
  • "Lord Jesus . . . "
  • "I know I'm a sinner . . . "
  • "I know I'm a sinner . . . "
  • "I want my sins forgiven . . . "
  • "I want my sins forgiven . . . "
  • "I don't want to spend eternity in Hell . . . "
  • "I don't want to spend eternity in Hell . . . "
  • "I want to be in Heaven with you . . . "
  • "I want to be in Heaven with you . . . "
  • "Please forgive me . . . "
  • "Please forgive me . . . "
  • "Come into my life . . . "
  • "Come into my life . . . "
  • "Save me . . . "
  • "Save me . . . "
  • "Make me a new creature . . . "
  • "Make me a new creature . . . "
  • "Be my Lord and Savior . . . "
  • "Be my Lord and Savior . . . "
  • "In Jesus' name, I pray . . . "
  • "In Jesus' name, I pray . . . "
  • "Amen."
  • "Amen."
  • "Praise God! Welcome to the family, brother!"
  • "Thanks."
  • "Now, it's real important you start reading your Bible and praying every day. And you've got to start going to church. You need to be around other believers. You need to be discipled. You need to begin the life-long process of growing in your faith. And I'm here to help in any way I can."
  • "Okay."

Please note that we have underlined those parts of the prayer that are biblical. So, there are biblical elements to the sinner's prayer; but it is not the sinner's prayer itself that saves, and again, it must be made clear that it is not reciting the prayer that saves anyone.

It happens thousands of times every day around the world. It happens in one-on-one conversations between friends, relatives, and even strangers. It happens in pastors' offices. It happens via email. It happens in online chat rooms. A well-intentioned Christian shares the gospel with someone (hopefully a gospel that is consistent with the Word of God). The listener seems to understand and even seems emotionally moved by the conversation. The Christian, with eagerness and sincerity, asks the person if he wants to know Jesus as his personal Savior. If the other person responds favorably, then the Christian leads him in a "Sinner's Prayer."

The Sinner's Prayer, False Conversion, and Tradition 

This is important.  Many Christians make the cataclysmic and unbiblical mistake of giving the other person a false sense of assurance of salvation by asserting the person is saved because he prayed a prayer. So, many people walk away from such a conversation still dead in their sins but believing what they've been told. "I believed what my friend told me, and I prayed a prayer. So, now I'm a Christian!"

It is unbiblical confidence in the "Sinner's Prayer" (instead of repentance and trust in Christ) that often leaves me thinking American Evangelicalism is much closer to Rome than she realizes. The reason is that like the apostate Roman Catholic Church, which holds up church tradition as equal or superior to the Word of God, American Evangelicalism sometimes does the same with its own traditions. The "Sinner's Prayer" is a case in point.

My presupposition regarding this is an easy one to articulate. Simply put . . .

There is not a single verse or passage in Scripture, whether in a narrative account or in prescriptive or descriptive texts, regarding the use of a “Sinner’s Prayer” in evangelism. Not one.

However, proponents of the use of the "Sinner's Prayer" will cite several verses/passages of Scripture in a failed attempt to support the unbiblical practice. Here are several:

  • Matthew 7:7, "Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you."
  • Luke 18:10-14, " “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. 11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. 12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 “But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
  • Romans 10:9-10, "that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; 10 for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation."
  • 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
  • Revelation 3:20, "‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me."

A brief exposition of each of the above texts will show they should not be used to support the practice of the "Sinner's Prayer."

Does Matthew 7:7 support the Sinner’s Prayer?

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you." (Matthew 7:7).

When trying to interpret Scripture, especially if one is seeking to establish or support a belief or practice as biblical, never simply read a verse. Read many verses. Read passages. Read chapters. Read books. Allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. Let's look at the verse in its entire context.

"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:7-11).

The first step in biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) is observation. In this step the student asks three basic questions of any given verse or passage: What does the verse say? What doesn't the verse say? What questions come to mind as I read this verse?

Matthew 7:7 says nothing about evangelism. It says nothing about the conversion of the lost. It says nothing about what, if anything, the unsaved person should or could do to be saved.

In order to rightly understand the verse we must not only look at the surrounding verses but also must go all the way back to the beginning of the "Sermon on the Mount"--back to Matthew 5:1.

"Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.” (Matthew 5:1)

Jesus' primary audience during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) was His disciples. His extended audience was the crowd that followed Him (Matthew 4:25). Jesus began His sermon with the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes served as Jesus' description of the Christian life. The Beatitudes were not instructions for becoming a Christian. Jesus' primary audience remained the same in Matthew 7:7--His disciples, believers. This truth is further evidenced by what Jesus said in Matthew 7:11.

"If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:11).

"Your Father who is in heaven . . . " Unsaved people have no Father in Heaven. They have a Judge in Heaven. Jesus' words about "asking" in Matthew 7:7 are words of instruction and encouragement to believers--not the lost. Therefore, to suggest Matthew 7:7 supports unbelievers asking Jesus into their heart or to save them is utterly contrary to what the verse actually says and means.

Does Luke 18:10-14 Teach the Sinner’s Prayer?

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).

This is another passage, with specific emphasis placed on Luke 18:13, that many Christians use to justify the implementation of the "Sinner's Prayer" in an evangelism strategy. After all, the tax-collector cried out to God in prayer.

Again, context is critical to understanding this beautiful and important parable.

Who was Jesus' audience when he shared the above parable? Yes, it was His disciples. But there were others present, so we must go back to Luke 17:20-21 to discover who else was there.

"Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20-21).

If one looks closely at the parable, the prayer is not the primary focus. Jesus' point is to emphasize the self-righteousness and sinful arrogance of the Pharisees. The parable was an indictment against the Pharisees--not a treatise on how one should pray to enter the Kingdom of God.

Look closely at the parable. Why was the tax collector justified? Was it because he prayed? No! It was his humility that exemplified the justification He had received from God (cf. Romans 8:30). "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14).

God opposes the proud (the Pharisees), but He gives grace to the humble (the tax-collector). (See James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5). It is far better and far more accurate to use this tremendous parable as an encouragement to call unbelievers to humble themselves before God than to errantly convince unbelievers they can be reconciled to God if they pray a prayer.  Again, it is not simply the prayer that saves anyone.

Does Romans 10:9-10 Teach the Sinner’s Prayer?

"that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation." (Roman 10:9-10).

Who is Paul's audience? Believers or unbelievers? He is writing to believers, the Church, in Rome. The recipients of his letter would have never taken from this text that Paul was instructing unbelievers to pray a prayer in order to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Nor would his readers have received Paul's teaching here as a suggestion, much less a mandate, to lead the unsaved in a "sinner's prayer."

I could not find one legitimate Bible scholar who suggests that Paul's words in Romans 10:9-10 is an example of either a "sinner's prayer" or a suggestion that believers are to lead unbelievers in such a prayer or to "ask Jesus into their heart."  In fact, there is no place in the Bible where it says we "ask Jesus into our hearts."

It is also interesting to note how Paul switches the ideas of confession and believing from verse 9 to verse 10. Paul makes it clear that justification by faith (Romans 1:17) comes before confession. Justification does not come as a result of confession.

Both verbs in Romans 10:10, "believes" and "confesses" are in the present-passive-indicative in the Greek text. This means that those who are truly born again will continue to believe by faith, and they will continue to confess Jesus as Lord. The wording in Romans 10:10 in no way whatsoever supports the notion of praying a one-time prayer as a means of receiving salvation and the gift of eternal life.

Romans 10:10 ends with these words: " . . . and with the mouth he confesses and is saved."

I appreciate what John Gill wrote about this phrase.

"This is to be understood not of confession of sin, though that is proper and requisite to be made, both with respect to the participation, and enjoyment of salvation, particularly pardoning grace and mercy, and to an admission to Gospel ordinances; but of confession of Christ, as appears from the preceding verse, which lies in a frank and open acknowledgment of what Christ is in himself, as that he is truly and properly God, the Son of God, the true Messiah, the Mediator between God and man, and the only Saviour of lost sinners, and of our faith in him, with respect to ourselves, to our pardon, justification, acceptance and salvation in him and through him; in ascribing the whole of our salvation to him, and giving him the glory of it; in declaring to the churches of Christ what he has done for our souls, and in subjecting ourselves to his ordinances. This confession must be made both by words and facts, must be open, visible, and before men; and also real, hearty, and sincere, the words of the mouth agreeing with the experience of the heart; and such a good profession made before God, angels, and men, highly becomes all that believe with the heart. This was the practice of the primitive saints; yea, all nations own, acknowledge, and profess the God they worship; and should not we confess our God, Saviour and Redeemer?" 1

Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is the pattern of the born-again follower of Christ. Those who are saved, those who will forever be saved, are those who confess Jesus as Lord--not as a means of salvation but as evidence that the salvation to which they cling to has been wrought by God and secured in heaven by Him for all eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9). Those who claim to be Christians but do not confess Jesus as Lord as a regular course and pattern of their lives should examine themselves to see if they are even in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Does 1 John 1:9 Teach the Sinner’s Prayer?

"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9).

Who are the "we" in this verse? The "we" are John's audience. John is writing to Christians in the Church of Ephesus as well as believers in the region. Unbelievers are not included in the "we" as indicated by Paul's warning to the brethren about false teachers (1 John 2:18-27).

God is faithful and righteous to forgive the sins of His adopted children (Romans 8:12-17). Until God causes the unregenerate person to be born-again (1 Peter 1:3), their prayers are an abomination to Him (Isaiah 1:15). Christians should call unbelievers to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15; Luke 13:1-5)--not to pray a prayer of confession and trust in it as the means by which they are then saved.  Instead, people need to trust Jesus and what he did on the cross.

Does Revelation 3:20 Teach the Sinner’s Prayer?

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:20).

We prayerfully long for the day when pastors, evangelists, and Christians in general will stop proclaiming a man-centered gospel by misusing Revelation 3:20 and drawing an emotional and often-times false response from the hearer.

Jesus is not standing at the locked door of any sin-corroded human heart longing to be let in. Jesus doesn't need the acceptance of anyone. Everyone needs His.  Jesus isn't the blonde haired, blue eyed, surfer standing at the door of your heart waiting for you to let him in.  He's God.  He is sovereign--not you.

The context of the before-mentioned verse finds Jesus not speaking to the unsaved but to a disobedient church. It is not an evangelistic verse, nor should it be used as such.  It is a call to repentance to the church.

Jesus never asked people to let Him come into their hearts. Jesus is not lonely without the unrepentant sinner. Jesus is not chasing after people and hoping that He will one day catch them and save them. Jesus needs nothing from His creation. He demands everything from His creation.

Jesus commanded people to repent and believe the gospel. He is not looking for acceptance. He is demanding obedience. And those who obey the commands of Christ, those who repent and believe the gospel--by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone--will be saved.

Conclusion

Walking down an aisle in response to the emotional and caring invitation of a pastor does not save anyone. Asking Jesus into one's heart does not save anyone. Writing the date in the back of one's Bible to commemorate the day a decision was made to follow Jesus does not save anyone. And praying a prayer does not save anyone.

But can God use even the sinner's prayer in his sovereign work of salvation?  Of course. But we need to be very careful and not urge someone to recite a prayer and have them put their hope in that so as to be saved.  In that sense, the "Sinner's Prayer" has done a great disservice to Christ and the untold millions of people who, as a result of praying a prayer but never being converted, will one day hear Jesus say, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." (Matthew 7:21-23).

What's Next? 

If you have read this article and are asking yourself, "how should I end a discussion with someone if not with the sinner's prayer," please read: "Closing the Deal: An Unbiblical Element of Modern Evangelism."

  • 1. John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible. Comments on Romans 10:10b.

 

 

 

 
 
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