I grew up in churches where an invitation was given at the end of every service. As part of the invitation, people were invited to receive Christ and were led through “the sinner’s prayer”. This prayer was holy and awesome. It was the key to the Kingdom of God, after all. While as kids you might have messed around throughout the service, you didn’t dare misbehave at this point.
Variations of the same prayer have been around for a couple of hundred years and it persists to this day, although it’s use and invitations, in general, are far less common in churches today, especially those of the mega variety. There’s nothing wrong with saying this prayer. It’s one way to confess your need for Jesus. The problem is it’s not Biblical and it’s not enough.
Such a statement can be disarming and even sacrilegious to many. After all, they have based their assurance of eternity on the fact they repeated this prayer at some point in their lives. So many – too many – were never taught there was anything more to it than this. The sinner’s prayer, coupled with a steady diet of “once saved, always saved” teaching, has led people to believe there was a sort of magic to the prayer. Since they prayed the prayer, they were taught and believe they are saved. And since one cannot lose their salvation, praying the prayer means they will spend eternity in Heaven. Except it doesn’t.
The problem is we’ve coupled the Biblical teaching of no one being able to snatch a redeemed soul out of God’s hand (John 10:28-29), with the unbiblical teaching of the sinner’s prayer. For the record, I absolutely believe once one is truly saved and has made Jesus the Lord of their life, the enemy can never steal your salvation away. You cannot sin so terribly God will revoke your salvation. A truly saved person is saved forever unless they purposefully and resolutely renounce their beliefs and the Lordship of Christ. I will say I find it hard to imagine any true follower of Jesus ever doing so, but it is within the realm of possibility given God’s gift of free will to humans.
Which means we must rethink what “being saved” actually means. Since the Bible does not support salvation through a recital of the so-called “sinner’s prayer”, how does one come to a saving knowledge of Jesus? This is where the sinner’s prayer is not such a bad place to begin. We must come to the realization we need a Savior, that we can’t do this thing on our own. We must confess our sins and shortcomings and believe Jesus paid the price for them all when He died on our behalf. The belief in His resurrection must be core to our belief system, as nothing matters if He didn’t defeat death and rise again. It is the hope of our salvation. Death is not the end, but rather the glory of God is.
But this is only the beginning. Our salvation is an ongoing, never-ending quest to obey and know Christ more every day. It is why Paul said we must always be working out our salvation (Philippians 2:12). John told us the way we are sure we are in Christ is by our continued obedience to His commands (I John 2:3-6). He said the proof would be that we walk as Jesus walked. In other words, our words, thoughts, and actions reflect those of Christ. It would be far easier for us if all we had to do was say a prayer. It would also have been far easier for Jesus if He hadn’t had to suffer and die for our sins. Following Jesus isn’t about easy. Nothing worth having ever is.