Thursday, March 22, 2012

THE GOSPEL & the sinners prayer

This is a topic that is sensitive to many, it is personal and it is important; and it is because of this importance that I feel we need to step back and take a much closer look. The sinners prayer is an issue that we must wrestle with, but we must first understand just what the issue is surrounding it.

As was the case with the article regarding altar calls, this may be the very way in which you came to know the Lord. Your testimony may certainly be that you "invited Jesus into your heart" by uttering the words of the sinners prayer; and if you have a wonderful relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, Praise Him! It is, once again, not my intention to disparage the testimony of those who have come to Christ in this way. It is my hope to draw attention to the multitudes who have spoken "the sinners prayer" and gone on into lives of sin, with no relationship in Christ, yet believing in their minds that they are Christians. It is my hope to encourage you to strive to do the work of discipleship to the greatest of your God given ability, using His Word as the foundation of the Truth that it is.

The question is, just because something is pro-active and achieves large numbers of apparent converts, does this qualify it as Biblical or sufficient? At the risk of sounding like a broken record; Biblically speaking, our best is not sufficient (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 3:10), so our mediocre is certainly not. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is worth taking the time to communicate well. It is my contention that "the sinners prayer" is the product of a desire to evangelize (in our minds) that does not express adequately our understanding for the need of solid Biblical discipleship that reflects our own beautiful, rich and maturing relationship with the Saviour. It is not my contention that the sinners prayer is wrong or sinful. It is my contention that "the sinners prayer", as it exists in evangelism today, misses the mark and is most often unwise. Bare with me, this will become apparent.

There is no single specific written example of the sinners prayer (in scripture or otherwise), generally speaking it is some incarnation or another that includes the major "points of salvation", but more often than not it neglects some important facet of a relationship with Christ, while it tragically over-simplifies the richness of a relationship with the Lord of the Universe. The following example was taken from a children's evangelism booklet and is indicative of an average presentation of the sinners prayer (note that it completely disregards any mention of a need of repentance);

"Dear Jesus, I know you are God and you created all things. You are perfect; I am a sinner. You are the only one who can save me. I believe you died on the cross and took the punishment for my sin. I trust you as my Saviour. Thank you for loving me so much. I know you will keep your promise to take me to heaven to be with you."
The dangers of such a gospel presentation can be very similar to that of the altar call. Below I have revised Pastor Ryan Kelly's list to reflect some issues with the sinners prayer.
1. The sinners prayer is simply and completely absent from the pages of the Bible.

2. The sinners prayer very easily confuses the physical act of “praying” with the spiritual act of “coming to Christ.” These two can happen simultaneously, but too often people believe that coming to Christ is uttering a prayer (and vice-versa).

3. The sinners prayer can easily deceive people about the reality of their spiritual state and the biblical basis for assurance. The Bible never offers us assurance on the ground that we “uttered a prayer.”

4. The sinners prayer can mislead us to think that salvation happens only by a prayer that is spoken aloud.

5. The sinners prayer can confuse people regarding “sacred” things and “sacred” words. The prayer itself can become an idol, and a totem to cling to.

6. The sinners prayer is not sensitive to our cautious and relational age where most people come to faith over a period of time and often with the interaction of a good friend. The sinners prayer is something that is most often rushed into and pressured to be spoken for humanistic reasons.

7. The sinners prayer is often seen as the "way to come to Christ", and the important distinctives of repentance and submission are lost.

8. The motivation to speak the sinners prayer is most often a selfish one, strictly to keep the individual out of hell. This condition of the heart has not achieved a level of surrender to the Lord that He requires.
As with altar calls, the connection between the sinners prayer and easy believeism is in the timing and pressure. The church at large has been seeking for hundreds of years to develop formulas and edicts from scripture to simplify every aspect of Christian living; including but not limited to, Church structure, Bible version, rules for living, evangelism & Gospel, business, culture etc. It is far easier to follow a set of rules laid down by church leadership than to seek the Lord in His Word daily as we are commanded (Psalm 34:10, 1 Chronicles 16:11, 1 Thessalonians 5:17). This attitude of "simplifying" our relationship with God has spilled over (as it is wont) into the way in which we evangelize. (I say evangelize so that you will know what I am talking about, but Biblically speaking, evangelism is not simply something we "do", we are all called to evangelize in our very lives. Matthew 28:16-20) Yet we have reduced evangelism, or perhaps better - discipleship, to a formula, and in doing so we have done the greatest injustice to our Saviour and His Gospel. The over-simplification of this facet of Christian living is a reflection of a deeper problem within the church. Christianity is about a relationship with the Lord of the Universe, yet we do not value our relationship with Him enough to come before Him daily with our everything. We make our rules, so that instead of coming to Him we can simply look to our rules and move on, missing His leading in our lives. This shirking of relationship is reflected in the way we worship, the way we live, the way we evangelize and the way we understand Him. This misunderstanding of who God is (as He is described throughout scripture in His attributes) then warps our presentation of Him to others and very easily allows us to misrepresent what it means to have salvation in Him.

Living Christ, surrendered to him or not, is a reflection of our relationship with him. The following spoken word video most graphically expounds the absolute necessity of taking up our cross daily and following Him. Our attitude in Christ will affect the way in which we disciple others.

Biblical discipleship is a lot of work, and involves building relationships and teaching through the Gospel. It is done out of a desire to minister and bring the Gospel in a permanent and multiplying way. That it might be understood for the beautiful Truth that it is, and grow.

Last summer I had a teenager tell me she had "become a Christian" every summer for nine summers at Bible Camp - but she couldn't tell me the first thing about the Gospel other than she "prayed the prayer" every year. It begs the question, had she missed the Gospel of Jesus Christ because we were far to focused on the end of the story instead of the context of the story - the details?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ begins with God. It must. Christianity is about a relationship with Christ, yet we glaze over who He is and skip right to the end, encouraging people to engage in a relationship with a God they do not know. Doing them (and the Gospel) the greatest disservice in the process. The idea of "Get them saved and teach them later" is not a Biblical one, is dangerous and is all too common. It forsakes the necessity of having any understanding of the rejecting our sin for the sake of Christ... this Truth of the Gospel is not something that can be "done later" it is part and parcel in coming into a reconciled relationship with Him.

This may shock you, and if it does, this series of articles has been written for you. Speaking the sinners prayer does not save people, it does not usher masses of people into the kingdom. Just like walking the aisle to an altar call doesn't save, the sinners prayer can so often be a path to a "false conversion". Yet we evangelize as though these magic words will usher people into the Kingdom of Heaven. We do no work to teach or to ask our young "convert" any questions about what they understand of God or sin or mankind, but we goad them into muttering a half hearted sinners prayer as though this is indeed sufficient to save. Then we wonder why so many fall away.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’" ~ Matthew 7:21-23
A missionary friend of mine who serves through street evangelism encountered a woman on one occasion and presented her with a Gospel tract, as so often he does. She happily accepted it announcing that she had already "said the prayer". In fact she was so excited about this prayer that she had it tattooed on the calf of her leg. You see, she had no real understanding of the gospel, yet she had made an idol out of the words themselves; as though it were those very words alone that had saved her, when in fact she had not been "saved " at all. With no understanding of God in His Holiness, and man in our separation from Him by sin, and repentance of that sin before the Cross, there can be no reconciliation, no matter what words may be spoken.

Here are a few more statistics from Ray Comforts book "God Has A Wonderful Plan for Your Life", these, again are taken from chapter six "The Motive and the Result":
• Between 1995 and 2005, Assemblies of God churches reported an amazing 5,339,144 decisions for Christ. Their net gain in attendance was 221,790. That means that 5,117,354 (over five million) decisions could not be accounted for.

• In Sacramento, California, a combined crusade yielded more than 2,000 commitments. One church followed up on fifty-two of those decisions and could not find one true convert.

• In Leeds, England, a visiting American speaker acquired 400 decisions for a local church. Six weeks later, only two were still committed and they eventually fell away.

• In November 1970, a number of churches combined for a convention in Fort Worth, Texas, and secured 30,000 decisions. Six months later, the follow-up
committee could find only thirty still continuing in their faith.
You can read an excellent example of Christ avoiding a "simple" Gospel presentation for the sake of a false conversion in Matthew 19:16-22. Christ, could very easily have led this young man in a prayer, he was clearly "Interested in things of the Lord". But He didn't, he challenged the young man with surrendering his life, this challenge brought out the true heart of the young man and he ultimately chose to follow that with which his affections truly lay. How many of us would simply have led the man in the sinners prayer and pronounced Him saved? God did no such thing.

Another excellent example of a Gospel presentation is Paul and the Phillipian jailer in Acts 16:25-34. The jailer asks what he must do to be saved, concerned with saving his physical self, Paul and Silas answer him with respect to how he could be saved spiritually. The two men then taught Him from God's Word and implored Him to Believe on the Lord. They did not sit him down and ask of him to "repeat after me", they taught about God and His Word and what salvation in Him is.

When we presume to say "repeat after me" what position do we put ourselves in Spiritually between the person we are discipling and God? We presume upon them to make a huge assumption.

If we have done the work commanded of us, to disciple and to teach, there will be no need for us to teach a prayer to anyone, or have them "repeat after me". The convicting Word of God will do it's work. When a person, in whom the Holy Spirit is working, comes to understand the Holiness of God, they will all but collapse in humility and joy for their salvation. They will mourn for their sin and seek to place it at the foot of the cross; there will very seldom be a need for studied words of "salvation" from the back of a booklet. There will be a complete and utter change of heart, that is salvation.

This is an excellent comment from a missionary "With all of the controversy around the sinner's prayer I have encountered over the years, I have finally come to the conclusion that I have no problem with the sinner's prayer... as long as it is prayed by the sinner. It is not called the "Saint's Prayer" for a reason. In Luke 18 we find a publican praying a sinner's prayer that I can not find fault with... and he was not coaxed, bribed or enticed by someone else as far as we know to pray it." (You can read this example in Luke 18:9-14.)

The repentant prayer of a sinner, not as a written creed, but as an honest outpouring of a contrite heart for the Grace of a Holy God is not something that should be condemned, criticized or snatched away. As I mentioned at the outset of this blog post, I am not seeking to condemn, but to implore; that we might all seek to disciple and to teach not seek to convict and to save. I will begin to talk about just how this might be achieved in the next blog.

Please take the ten minutes to listen to the below illustration from Paul Washer, it may help to clarify where I have not.


Jessica Kramasz said...

Thank you for this very thorough explanation of the issues surrounding the sinners prayer.

The Fawcetts said...

Thank you Jessica. These are important issues, and broaching them can certainly be unpopular... but as believers who value the Gospel of Jesus Christ... I think we must.

2 Timothy 2:15

Anonymous said...

I like the way this man put it.

Unknown said...

Right on. I have sibling who have been deemed Saved by my parents because they have prayed the prayer as kids, who are living like there is no God. I have pleaded with my parents to err on the side of caution and urge my siblings to examine themselves in light of God's word instead, to no avail.