What do Protestants really believe about this prayer and why do they say it?
The Protestants who typically say the sinners prayer would be the evangelical Protestants. Within Evangelicalism, there are legitimate uses of this type of prayer and then there are illegitimate uses.
The first thing you should realize is that there is no one single “sinner’s prayer.” You can find many written on the internet, but in the context of church or revival meetings, ministers typically make it up on the spot (while following a well established format) and the person being ministered to repeats the prayer.
The following sinner’s prayer is one published on Billy Graham’s online library:
How to Pray:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name.
This is a pretty typical sinner’s prayer. Notice that it has the following elements:
- Confession of sin
- Asking forgiveness
- Confessing that Christ died for sins and rose from the dead
- Expression of repentance or turning from sin
- Inviting Jesus to dwell within
- Confess Jesus as Lord and Savior
For most evangelicals (with the exception of those Anglican, Lutheran and perhaps Presbyterian evangelicals) this is Christian initiation–not water baptism. Many evangelicals look to the moment when they prayed a prayer similar to this (and sincerely meant it) as the moment they were born again, becoming Christians.
No one has to say a “sinner’s prayer” to become a Christian. Nowhere does the Bible mention this practice. However, the Bible does say the following:
. . . if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved" (Romans 10: 9-10).
The important thing from the perspective of evangelicals is that one believes that Christ died for their sins and rose from the dead and that they confess it openly. The “sinner’s prayer” is simply a method by which people respond to the conviction (i.e. convincing) of the Holy Spirit that they are sinner’s in need of washing by the blood of Christ.
People who are sincere will exhibit godly sorrow for sin and follow through with true repentance. They will have true faith that is evidenced by good works and the fruit of the Spirit.
Where someone has truly put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ and where there is authentic repentance, then the witness of the Holy Spirit comes giving the person assurance that they are truly a child of God (Romans 8:12-17).
There are some churches that present the sinner’s prayer as if it were a magical incantation that causes a person to become a Christian automatically. This is a gross misuse of prayer.
I remember going to church camp when I was about 8 years old and they wanted me to come up and and pray the ‘sinners prayer’ and receive Jesus in our hearts.
It felt so manipulative and fake that I refused to do it.
It is entirely possible that I did not endear myself to the camp leaders.
This happened in the Baptist church that I went to as a little girl. Deep down I also felt manipulated and, because of my experience with the “hellfire and brimstone” sermons there, I could not believe that Jesus would be able to love me there. Even as a little girl, tho, I knew there was much more than that!
The message of “Saved by grace” that I found in the LCMS church changed my life totally!!!
I was baptized the next January (January 29th, in fact. Baptism birthday coming up!!!)
My family kind of looked at me askance when I joined the church, went to an LCMS college, and became an LCMS teacher. They still love me, tho.
As to the “Sinners’ Prayer,” another poster mentioned that some people make it seem as if it’s magical. That type of thought goes right along with the TV evangelists who link the prayer along with sending money in and all your troubles will be solved or God will reward you with some astounding amount monetarily.
We cannot limit God and what He will do but for those who preach that all your troubles will be gone once you’ve prayed this prayer don’t realize that life may be a bit troublesome for them in the future.
This is not a part of historic Protestantism.
This prayer also forms part of the “decisional regeneration” theology of hyper-Arminianism. You become “born again” when you choose. Traditional Protestantism rejects this Pelagian concept and teaches that you are born again if and when God alone decides to raise you from spiritual death.
While much of American Christianity is no doubt semi-Pelagian and even all out Pelagian, not all churches in this tradition are reducing salvation to personal decision. The church that I grew up in was always cognizant of the fact that it was the Holy Spirit, ultimately, who brings people to faith. Faith is not something that arises from within us but comes from God. We can’t even comprehend sin and our separation from God without the power of the Holy Spirit working within us in the first place.
I"m always saddened when I hear people try to justify themselves based off of some prayer they repeated 20 years ago. I’m horrified that there are preachers out there peddling this kind of stuff.
Great job of explaining it from an evangelical perspective, Itwin.
I became “born again” in this manner while watching a Billy Graham crusade on TV in my late teens. A Christian girl in high school was sharing with me about the Lord in the weeks leading up to me turning on the TV one day and flipping the channels to where Billy Graham was having one of his crusades. I turned the channel away from it a few times with an intellectual “Bah humbug” only to be drawn in my spirit back to it.
It was as if God was speaking directly to me through Rev Graham that day. It felt like time stood still as I listened to the message – which had never happened to me before. I will never forget it. I sincerely believe I became a Christian that day and it kick-started my spiritual journey and relationship with Christ that continues to this day decades later.
The bottom line is that God and Christianity up to that time had been just a set of religious rituals, rules, and regulations that I grew up with in the Presbyterian Church that I did as if I was punching my spiritual clock each week. Religion had no real effect in how I lived my daily life up until that time. Religion was something I did for an hour or so each Sunday and had no bearing in my life the rest of the time.
I knew *of *God, I just didn’t know God in a personal way. He became alive in my life that day and in my thoughts and decision-making. I began to feel convicted of sins that didn’t bother me before or that I didn’t realize I even had. I stopped doing those things. People can say what they will about the “Sinner’s Prayer”, but I truly believe my life changed that day in a very real way and I haven’t looked back since.
Now, I am considering Catholicism as a possible enhancement to my existing relationship with God, but the jury is still out on that. I still have a lot of questions and things I need to sort out. All I can say is the “Sinner’s Prayer” can be a special moment in someone’s life if it is initiated from the heart in response to God’s call on one’s life. That’s how it was for me, anyway.
While I generally agree with your post, as a Lutheran the “if” makes me nervous. :hmmm:
I was raised non-denominational with Pentecostal leanings. Though I don’t remember the exact words I prayed, I am more than sure I remember the first time I said a Sinners prayer and invited Jesus into my heart. I was either 5 or 6 years old. My mother took me to a show put on by “The power team” I don’t know if they are still around but they were a group of buff guys that would perform feats of strength such as breaking out of hand cuffs, breaking stacks of bricks, ripping telephone books in half, breaking blocks of ice off each others stomachs with sledge hammers and so forth.
They invited all to say some kind of variation of the sinners prayer. I don’t remember the words, I just remember that I meant the prayer very sincerely and that I remember one of them asking us to close our eyes and not to open them until the prayer was over. I could not resist and I opened my eyes Tell a kid not to do something and it is exactly what he wants to do. I don’t know if I fully understood that I was a sinner in need of a Jesus as my savior, I just remember that I really did believe in Jesus. I remember many years later my mother telling me, while I was still a kid, that I was “Saved” at that power team show. So that is what I believed for years.
I said the sinners prayer many times more throughout my life because when I was a child and a protestant, I guess I kind of evaluated whether I was in Gods grace or not by how I felt. When I felt less enthusiastic about church and God, I tended to think it meant I was not in Gods grace and I needed to repent all over again and ask God to come into my heart. As I got a little older, I did realize I was a sinner (I think I understood this around 7 or 8 years old )
I think some sort of sinners prayer is a good star but it was not until I wanted to convert and become Catholic that I deeply desired to be Baptized. I find it saddening that so many people are being taught that saying “The sinners prayer” is what makes one a Christian and Baptism is kind of pushed aside. Even the Jr. Pastor at a Lutheran Church I was attending for a year as a adult told me that Baptism is not necessary for salvation. I know that is not typically what Lutherans teach. Only one non-denominational Church I was going to for awhile as a teenager seemed to really stress the importance of Baptism. They told me straight up that if I died unbaptized, I was going to hell LOL. They also did some sort of “Confession” they made us write a list of our sins and show it to another person. But their “confession” came before baptism and if you held anything back in your pre baptism “confession” then I think that they considered your first baptism “invalid” and they would re-baptize you. So, there are some non-denominational groups out there that say that you are saved by Baptism. I don’t recall ever being asked to say a sinners prayer in that group. They did seem a little “cultish” though and just to weird for me, so I left that bunch behind quickly.
Well, you’ve got the T and the U at least! I inserted the if at the last minute to guard against any idea that I might be suggesting God is not sovereign in salvation.
The T, yes. The U, well…
From the LCMS:U **(Unconditional predestination) Scripture does teach that it is by grace that God has predestinated the elect to eternal salvation and given them justifying faith. It is not because of any condition fulfilled by them (2 Tim. 1:9; Eph. 1:4-6; Phil. 1:29). However, the Bible does not teach, as do the Calvinists, that some are predestined for damnation. God wants all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4).
It’s interesting that Lutheranism shies away from double predestination when Martin Luther himself seems to have taught it, as Augustine and Aquinas before him, and Calvin and others after him.
The Catholic sinner’s prayer.
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.
Does it have to be those exact words? When I first came back to the Church I brought the prayer card with me to Confession because I had been gone for twenty years and I wanted to be exact. Well, I forgot it one time and the priest said ‘well, just do your best’. I recited it from memory, not quite word for word, but pretty close.
The problem with the fundamentalist ‘sinner’s prayer’ is not the words, it’s the emphasis that is put on the exact words that must be said.
We forget the very first ‘sinner’s prayer’ was “Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner”.