Sometimes people ask, "How many people have you led to Christ?" My answer: "All of them." When I share the gospel, I bring everyone with whom I speak to the foot of the cross, where I leave them in the hands of the sovereign Creator and Savior. Salvation is of the Lord. I am simply one of his ambassadors.
During the earlier years of my Christian life, from time to time I would share the gospel with people. I was more evangelistic than some, but nowhere near as evangelistic as I should have been. On rare occasions, a person would indicate a desire to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. So, I would do what I was taught to do: lead the person in a "sinner's prayer."
I would say something like this:
If you really want to receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then it is as simple as asking Him to come into your life. Are you sure you want to do that? Then, why don't we pray. I'll pray and then you just repeat after me.
I assumed the awkwardness on the part of the other person was just nerves, or maybe a little embarrassment. Maybe he had never before prayed aloud. While those things might be true, it never dawned on me that the person might not be coming to genuine faith in Jesus Christ.
It wasn't uncommon for the other person to shed a tear or two as he repeated the prayer in which I led him. Even the toughest street cops expressed emotion through prayer during that intimate time of vulnerability.
The moment would end with a handshake or a hug and some words of encouragement from me. And then I would leave them with words like these:
The devil is going to try to convince you that what just happened to you isn't real. And get ready to have your new-found faith in Jesus challenged by family, friends, and co-workers. You may even feel a bit silly and start to question it yourself. Don't worry. That's normal. Do you have a Bible? You should start reading it every day. And you need to get into a good church. It would be great if you started coming to church with me.
Needless to say, I would walk away from such conversations rejoicing and praising God.
Waiting for the New Convert
The following Sunday, I would look at the doors of the church, anxiously waiting for the new convert to arrive. It rarely, if ever, happened.
"Hey, I missed you yesterday at church. What happened?"
"Umm. You know. It just didn't work out."
"Oh. Okay. Maybe next week?"
"Sure. Maybe next week."
It was not uncommon, particularly among my law enforcement brethren, to see no appreciable, tangible Christian fruit in the new convert's life. In fact, I often watched as their lives spiraled out of control as they pursued a deeper walk with sin than with Christ. It was very discouraging.
I am often asked what I do at the end of an apparent good conversation with an unbeliever -- especially when the person gives an outward expression of a desire to repent and believe the gospel. I am often asked, "How do you close the deal?"
The question itself is a tragic and unbiblical byproduct of one of American Evangelicalism's most cherished traditions -- the "sinner's prayer." And let's be honest. That's all the sinner's prayer is: a tradition -- a tradition created by sincere Christians who want lost people to come to genuine faith in Jesus Christ.
Again, let's be honest. There is not a single verse or passage of Scripture, whether expressed in a command from Christ or one of the New Testament writers, or expressed by example in one of the many New Testament narrative passages, that gives any credence to the belief that the "sinner's prayer" is biblical. It is simply not in the Bible.
Common Defenses of the "Sinner's Prayer"
"But I came to faith in Christ when I prayed the 'sinner's prayer!'"
That may have been the time you came to genuine faith in Jesus Christ, but it was not as a result of praying a "sinner's prayer."
"But I've seen many people saved who have prayed the 'sinner's prayer!'"
Your personal experiences and/or observations do not make what you've seen and heard biblical. No one is saved as a result of a "sinner's prayer," nor is the remembrance of the utterance of a "sinner's prayer" any assurance of salvation.
"You're wrong! What about Romans 10:9-10?"
Well, let's take a look at 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 will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation."
Even a cursory look at the text reveals there is no "sinner's prayer" to be found here.
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."
Again, there is absolutely no biblical support or justification for the implementation of the "sinner's prayer" in any evangelistic effort.
The Gospel Is Not a Sales Pitch
The worst example I've ever seen or heard with this salesman approach to evangelism was employed during the memorial service for a dear friend.
My friend was a fellow deputy sheriff, so the church was filled with friends, family, and uniformed personnel. It had been a nice memorial service that brought honor and fond remembrance to my friend's courage, faith, and love. His family had asked me to sing one of my friend's favorite songs.
At the end of the service, the pastor gave a brief message which culminated with this invitation: "Why don't you try Jesus for 60 days. What do you have to lose? If you would like to give Jesus a try, just raise your hand."
A half-dozen people raised their hands. The pastor rejoiced that those who raised their hands had come to faith in Christ. I knew some of those people who raised their hands. Years after the memorial service and the show of hands, those I knew who raised their hands seemed no closer to Christ than they were before the memorial service. They were offered a sales pitch and a few unsuspecting souls bought what the pastor was selling--a relationship with Jesus, with a "100% satisfaction guaranteed" return policy.
The Gospel Cannot be Sold
The gospel cannot be sold because the gospel is not for sale. No sales pitch offered by man will ever give the recipient anything more than a false hope and a false assurance.
If you are reading this and have bought the sales pitch that walking down an aisle, or bowing your head and closing your eyes, or raising your hand, or repeating a prayer, or putting a date in the back of your Bible, or trying Jesus for 60 days, or any other man-made gimmicky tradition is the way to receive eternal life, then you must understand none of these traditions of men provide any assurance of salvation. Salvation is of the Lord.
Now, are there genuine followers of Jesus Christ who have done the above-mentioned things (except trying Jesus for 60 days)? Yes. I know many Christian brethren who, as part of their salvation testimony, have done some of the before-mentioned man-made, man-initiated responses. But none of them are saved because they did one or more of the before-mentioned things. They were saved by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. The assurance of their salvation is found in Jesus Christ--not in any prayer uttered, or by any other act of piety, or outward response to the gospel.
God and God alone saves, and God and God alone seals those whom He adopts into His eternal family. Those whom He saves He keeps. No work of man saves a man; and no work of man keeps a man saved.
You may be asking yourself, "Well, then what? You've poked a finger in the eye of all my evangelistic traditions. So, what should I do if someone seems ready to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?"
Closing a Gospel Conversation
I've spent much more time laying the foundation for my answer to the question--much more time than it will take to actually answer the question.
When I find myself in a conversation in which the person with whom I am speaking seems to be tender toward the things of God; when I find myself at the end of a conversation with a person who seems to have been affected by the presentation of the law and the gospel; then I will ask a few simple, probing questions.
The first question I ask is: "Is there any reason why you wouldn't turn from your sin, turn to God, and receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior right now?"
The question is ultimately rhetorical in nature; although the person with whom I am speaking does not know that. If the person does not receive Jesus Christ at that moment, it is simply because the Lord is not yet drawing that person to Himself (John 6:44). But, for the person with whom I am speaking, the question causes him to consider the reason(s) why he does not want to submit to Christ as Lord and Savior.
More often than not, the before-mentioned question gives the person a moment of pause. While he contemplates why he will not repent and believe the gospel I ask, "Is there any sin in your life that you love so much you are willing to die and go to Hell so you can enjoy that sin in this life?"
The typical answer is, "No." But, from time to time, I find a person who is very candid about the sin in his life.
I remember talking with a young lady on the campus of Cerritos College. She had listened patiently to me as I shared the law and the gospel with her. I then asked her the above question. Tears began to fill her eyes. A few moments later she answered, "Yes. Adultery."
She was in a sinful relationship with a young man, and she knew it. The young lady, broken over her sin and understanding her need for the Savior, would come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ that day.
When I ask questions like this, I always carefully watch their demeanor. Are they looking around to see if anyone is watching, as if they would be embarrassed to make a profession of faith in front of other people? Do they seem uncomfortable--not with their sin (that would be a good thing to see)--but with the discomfort that comes from feeling pressured to do something they are not ready or willing to do?
These are indications to me that the Spirit of God is not, at that moment, moving on the person's heart and mind. And the last thing I want to do is create a false convert by compelling the person to do something entirely fleshly, and not as one moved by God and His gospel.
Ending a Gospel Conversation
Sensing the conversation is coming to an end, I will often say the following to the person with whom I am speaking, if he is not going to come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ at that moment:
- I will briefly summarize the law and the gospel one more time.
- I will remind him of the certainty of death and judgment.
- I will let the person know I care about him and that I will be praying for him.
- I will encourage him to read the Gospel of John, so he can see that what I'm telling him is true.
- I will give the person my business card and encourage him to contact me if he has any questions.
- I will say good-bye with a friendly handshake (when appropriate).
If the person with whom I am speaking seems broken over his sin, contrite, and seemingly desiring salvation through Jesus Christ:
- I will once again call the person to repent and believe the gospel.
- I will encourage the person to call out to Christ, seeking His forgiveness and asking Christ to save him.
- I will ask the person if I can pray for him. I never lead a person in a prayer. I will pray the Lord saves the person by drawing him to genuine repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I will pray if it be the Lord's will to save him that he grows in the grace and knowledge of Christ. I pray the Lord will place him in a Bible-believing, Bible-teaching, Christ-glorifying church. And I pray the Lord will use him to bring others to genuine repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
- I will give the person my business card and encourage him to stay in touch.
- I will give the person a Bible or a Gospel of John, if the person does not have a Bible.
- Whenever possible, I will suggest good churches in the area. I will also point him to my "follow-up" blog where people can find several church finders and other information for new believers.
- I never declare a person saved. I never welcome a person to the family of God and Christ's Church. I never want to do or say anything that leaves the person with a false sense of assurance if he is not, in fact, soundly saved. After all, I do not know any person's heart. I don't know if the person's outward appearance is an indication of genuine repentance and faith or nothing more than a worldly sorrow.
Closing gospel conversations this way leaves me completely trusting in the sovereignty of God for the person's salvation. It is not manipulative. It doesn't leave the person with a false sense of assurance. It keeps me from taking any credit whatsoever for any work the Lord accomplishes in the person's life. After all, I am merely one of the King's ambassadors. Only the King has the power and authority to forgive and to save. I have no such power.
Remember, God does not need your help to save anyone. Yes, He uses the preaching of the gospel to convert souls. But salvation is of the Lord. He doesn't need us to emotionally prep or prod lost people. He doesn't need us to make the gospel more palatable. He doesn't need us to add prize packages (Your best life now; health, wealth, and prosperity; a purpose you'll get a kick out of; mended relationships; etc.) to the gift of eternal life. In fact, I believe these kinds of "gospel helps" are an offense to God.
Simply proclaim the gospel to the lost. Bring every single person with whom you speak to the foot of the cross. And trust, really trust, God to save.