Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What About the Sinner's Prayer?

Someone asked on the Facebook page recently, “What is your opinion on the sinner’s prayer? One of my favorite preachers Paul Washer hates it, and says it is not Biblical.” He also sent me a link to a sermon where Washer talks about it, which you can find here.

For anyone who may not know, the “Sinner’s Prayer” is more of a formula than one specifically worded prayer. It generally includes having the person confess that they are a sinner, ask for forgiveness, and request that Jesus come into their heart. It is common for evangelists to use it to walk people through a conversion. Anyone who responds to their message and wants to become a Christian is told to pray this prayer, and it will save them.

Washer’s sermon is an interesting listen, but if you cannot watch all of it, I think I can summarize. Essentially, he is not directly criticizing the idea of the prayer itself. He says as much at 18:30 in the video. But he is criticizing the way it is used.

If I understand him correctly, Washer believes that salvation is instantaneous with faith. In other words, as soon as someone believes in Jesus, he or she becomes a Christian. Of course, it is not as simple as just believing Jesus existed, since history tells us that. It is not even as simple as believing Jesus is God, since the demons do that (Matthew 8:28, 29). Saving faith in Jesus comes with repentance. It is to admit you are a rebel against God, to ask for forgiveness and reconciliation, and to accept the forgiveness and reconciliation that is only available through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Though there are multiple elements to this, it is all part of one moment of surrender to God, and that moment can occur in prayer. If you think of it, it can only occur in prayer, since it needs to be a cry to God.

In that sense, Washer seems to be saying there is not a problem with the Sinner’s Prayer per se. The issue comes with what it ends up meaning to people. For too many, it is not sincere. It is a response to emotion. People are afraid of hell or greedy for eternal pleasures they don’t understand, and they say the prayer just for the benefits. It is a Golden Ticket, not a change of heart.

There is more than one story like that in the Bible, with Acts 8:9-24 coming most readily to my mind. A man named Simon Magus professed faith in Jesus, was even baptized, but did not become a Christian. He only acted like one because he wanted to be like the people around him, and because he saw miracles being done and wanted that power for himself. His heart was as dark as ever. He didn’t change.

Which is really the point. To become a Christian is to change, because you now have otherworldly priorities. Christians look different from the world. They want to live for Christ. Washer draws his sermon from Matthew 7, which is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In particular, at Matthew 7:20 Jesus says, “by their fruits you will know them.” And this idea becomes a constant refrain of the New Testament. Christians act a certain way, a way is stark contrast with the selfishness and dissipation of the worldly. It makes them stand out. They do not merely say they belong to Christ. They act like it, which proves it.

I always feel it is necessary to point out that this does not mean perfection. No one in this life can be perfect. We are still part of a fallen world, and still have a fallen nature. But the point is, Christians are improving. They look for ways to be more like Christ, and do them. They regret their mistakes, rather than relishing them or making them part of their identity. And they cannot wait for the day when that worthless part of themselves will finally be destroyed. It is a process, a constant process, but a Christian is committed to it.

Sadly, there are more Simon Maguses in the world than Christians (it is actually “Magi,” but “Maguses” sounds better). So many people have said the Sinner’s Prayer, or made a confession of faith, or have been baptized, or have claimed an experience of the Holy Spirit. But they go right on living as though nothing has changed. Because nothing has. They still look like the unrepentant around them because they have not repented. They just gave in to the emotional pressure to do something, without really becoming something new. And because they have not become something new, they do the same-old same-old.

I think that is Washer’s point, and in that, I agree with him. I am not particularly fond of his style. There are also tangents in the sermon that tell me he has other ideas I could not get on board with. And I would not be as quick to condemn anyone who teaches the Sinner’s Prayer. But ultimately, I think he is right. That prayer is misused when it is understood as the starting point and proof of salvation. What it really takes is faith, and what really proves it is the fruit of a life in Christ.

Christians do the things that the Bible says Christians do. People don’t have to doubt their salvation if they said the Sinner’s Prayer. They should doubt it if that is the only thing they have ever done. Apart from a real commitment to Christ, it is worth about as much as the air with which it is spoken. And a real commitment proves itself if it is there. Or if it isn’t.

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