Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Question - What is the Sinner's Prayer?

EDIT: It would also be helpful for you to include in your response your definition and view of an "altar call." Is an altar call a Biblical mandate, merely a good idea, a bad idea, a detriment? Why or why not?

For some time now I've had a few posts drafted (namely on assurance of salvation and my personal testimony). I keep starting to compose them mentally, but it is impossible for me to write on either topic without addressing another topic - the sinner's prayer. Then I put the posts aside, because I'd rather not broach that topic. Without fail, though, I will come across more material related to my drafts, and I will feel a tug again that the posts need to be written. When I actually get those posts (perhaps merged into only one post) written, it will be obvious why the topic of the sinner's prayer is pertinent to the other topics. For now, though, I would be grateful if any or all of my blog readers would answer a simple question for me:

What is the sinner's prayer?

Please just respond with anywhere from a sentence or two, to a paragraph or two. Please cite any scripture that backs your answer, or indicate if you are giving your personal opinion, or if you are basing your answer on the practices of your church. I want to know how you have formed your view of the sinner's prayer. My intent is not to generate discussion within this post's comments; this is a survey, so please do not respond correcting anyone else's answer. If you have questions or objections, please wait until I follow up with another post.

My own testimony is closely linked to this question, so I do have personal reasons for asking this question. Thank you!


John Dekker said...

We can conveniently define the sinner's prayer as the prayer someone prays when they are (first) converted.

Although conversion is an instantaneous process, it can look to us as if it's a long process. Hence, a person might be encouraged to pray many times before they (and we) are confident of their conversion. Moreover, the faith and repentance inherent in the prayer are things that every Christian needs all the time. There is a sense in which we need to be converted on a daily basis. It is important to note, however, that faith and repentance are not properly the content of our prayers - it might be appropriate to express our trust to God, but that is not quite the same as having faith in him.

The sinner's prayer should involve confession of sin (1 John 1:9), and a plea for mercy. It may be be helpful to point awakened sinners to the shortest prayer in the Bible - "Lord, save me." (Matthew 14:30). But it is also important to allow people to pray what is in their hearts - if they have been granted faith and repentance, then (in some way at least) that will come out in their prayers.

Lydia said...

Good, thought-provoking question.

In my mind, the sinner's prayer is a prayer of confession and an appeal for forgiveness from sin made to God by one who recognizes the need. It must have elements of recognizing one's guilt before God of breaking his righteous standard and falling short of his glory but also of acknowledging that Christ is the only way to attain salvation from sin and for eternal life. There are no specific words that should be prayed thus making it a mantra. Instead, it should be a genuine prayer of repentance from the heart of the sinner. After all, the words prayed do not save the sinner but God's saving grace as faith is placed in the atoning work of Christ on Calvary.

Those are my thoughts on the topic. However, I'm open to correction if I have committed Biblical error in my verbalization or understanding of such.

Great idea to bring up for pondering. I'm looking forward to your upcoming posts along these lines.

Jessie said...

My first instinct when I hear the term "sinner's prayer" is to think of the one- to three-sentence
"prayers" that "spiritual leaders" will ask a person who is seeking conversion, to repeat. "If you just prayed that prayer, you're saved now, and you'll go to heaven when you die!" I do believe that God really has saved people in this way, but I think the theology behind it (however good the "leader's" intentions may be) is sorely wrong. This type of sinner's prayer implies that you are saved because you just prayed something the other guy told you to say. Now you can live your life happy, knowing that "God likes you now" and He won't let you go to hell when you die- so just go live as you please.
Again, I'm not saying that anyone who has prayed such a prayer is not saved or lives as an antinomian, just that the theology and thinking behid such a prayer lends itself to that sort of train of thought.
On the other hand, I believe every sinner who is now saved has prayed a "sinner's prayer" in some form or another. It's natural for a soul being saved to cry out to the Lord, as Peter, "Lord, save me! I perish!" So, by definition this could also be termed a "sinner's prayer."

As for altar calls (the preacher asking for people who want to be saved, to walk down to the front of the church to pray with someone, most likely to repeat a "sinner's prayer"), to me altar calls like this seem to lend themselves to a show. Again, please note! I'm not saying in the least that someone who dates their conversion to an altar call is not saved! Praise the Lord for your salvation, wherever you were, whoever you were with, whatever you said!
But it would be easy for a person to have his emotions hiped up and to have him walk down the aisle in the excitement of the moment- all the while having his heart, his sould, remain unchanged.

I like the way my church handles this situation. My pastor doesn't give "altar calls" in the typical sense, but at the end of his messages (either before or after he prays, while are heads are bowed and our eyes are closed), occasionally he will make special mention that if anyone is concerned for the state of his soul to please remain behind and speak with him or another elder, or his wife, and they will talk and pray with that person.

I would like to comment more (and e-mail you! That's what I came down here for!) but I have to be off the computer now.

Hope you get some good responses to your question, and I hope no one is offended in my comment here. I mean no harm or offense. These are my preferences and beliefs on this subject, and it's not a huge deal if someone disagrees with me. I can love him or her as my brother or sister in Christ anyway.

Good night all, and I haven't proofread this since I don't have time. I hope it's not too "mixy"!

John Dekker said...

Altar calls? I don't even believe in altars...

In fact, one could argue that the altar calls is an (inferior) replacement for the sacraments - when we participate in communion we "proclaim the Lord's death," (1 Cor 11:26). That's the altar (or, table) call that Jesus instituted.

Jessica said...

Late comment from me...but things have been a bit busy lately!

Great question and I can't wait to read your post regarding this subject. My views on "the sinner's prayer" and "alter calls" are pretty well summed up in those "What's Wrong with the Gospel" articles that I posted the links to on my blog several months ago. I know you read them so you know how they viewed them and that's pretty much how I do too.

Ashley said...

Paul and I talked a little bit about this after you posted it. Note, this is going off my previous knowledge of the Bible (to be honest, I am too lazy to look up specific verses right now! that's why it took me so long to comment).

We don't think there's anything WRONG with altar calls, and we believe that God can work through them to reach a person. However, we feel like follow-up is very important, and so more importantly than the altar call is the change in heart afterwards. The danger of altar calls is that they can be more emotional responses than genuine desire to change your life. Should a pastor avoid them? I'm not sure - I've never attended a church regularly where altar calls were frequently done.

As for the sinner's prayer - I think more important than the prayer is the attitude: the genuineness of the desire, the true repentence, the change of heart, the giving to God. If all those things are there, I believe a person is saved. However, it can be really hard to truly keep those attitudes in the right place, and that can be a process of learning. It's not enough to just believe that God exists - but to acknowledge one's own sinful nature ("For all have sinned..."), repent ("If we confess our sins..." 1 John 1:9), and accept Christ's free offer of salvation ("...that whoever believes in Him will not perish..." John 3:16).

If you'd like me to look up references to go along with everything, I can. :-) I just was realizing that I probably would never get around to commenting if I waited for that!

Becky Miller said...

I'm looking forward to reading your future posts on this subject. Growing up I always believed that's how salvation was supposed to happen...person prays a sinner's prayer, often in response to an altar call. The more I've seen, though, of people who respond in such a manner but then later go back to living like unsaved people has made me wonder about the effectiveness of the altar call and the sinner's prayer, especially if it's encouraged (by a pastor, friend, evangelist, etc.) before the person is truly ready - "Have doubts about this Jesus thing? That's okay, just pray this prayer!" I think that approach can trivialize the gospel and "hide" from a person what true sacrifice and change is required with such a decision.

Keith Green wondered a lot about the sinner's prayer idea, and his changing perspective is documented in his wife's biography of him, "No Compromise." (Which my husband and I both just read, and it's excellent.) Keith came to understand that the whole process of discipleship is really important, as is an understanding of the Lordship of Christ.

I think a lot of a person's perspective on this depends on whether they are Reformed or not. I grew up a pretty typical evangelical, I guess, and as I have started to consider the Reformed position this past year, it has certainly challenged some of my long-held thoughts on salvation, the sinner's prayer, etc.