Monday, December 17, 2012

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The Sinner's Prayer: Spiritual Abortion?

I had a single experience with Evangelism Explosion back in 1990 as a young enlisted Airman in the Philippines.  Together with three other members of the Clark Air Base chapel community, I traveled to Manila and attended EE training for a week.  In the culminating exercise I went out tracked down eight unsuspecting souls, to whom I presented the gospel in the prescribed fashion.  Encountering no objections (Filipinos are generally very polite), I invited them to pray the "sinner's prayer" with me, which they did.  Afterwards I congratulated them and headed back to the mother ship to report eight new "PRCs" (prayed to receive Christ) to general approval and applause.

The only problem was, I really didn't believe a word of it.  While I'm sure I contributed toward EE's metrics for 1990 (they reported 7.25 million "professions of faith" in 2011), I have no idea what happened to those eight people.  If any of them have been truly born again into God's Kingdom, it is indeed a tribute to God's mercy.

I know many honest and mature Christians who began their walk with Jesus with a seminal moment marked by praying a a "sinner's prayer", which has become such a popular tool in evangelical churches that it has its own Wikipedia page.  I will not try to deny the reality of their experience, but I find myself agreeing with Miguel in Ecuador, who asked, Shouldn’t We Be Terminating Life Support for the “Sinner’s Prayer"?.

In other words, is our cumulative use of this popular evangelist's tool doing more harm or more good?

Miguel points us to several prominent authorities both past and present who have asked some version of this question, such as whether "We’ve taken Christianity and boiled it down to witchcraft." (Matt Chandler)  This may seem harsh, but let's consider:  In our desire to package salvation into an exportable, shrink-to-fit size so that we can use to train our legions of Junior Evangelist warriors for battle, we are in many cases destroying that which we have come to save.

How many still-lost souls are wandering the earth with one or more completed sinner's prayers in their back pockets?  How many have been set up for a horrible shock when our Lord assigns them a place with the goats on the Day of Judgment, after we've supposedly punched their all-expense-paid ticket to heaven?  I shudder to think.

It is logical to ask whether the prayer's apparent success in bringing many to saving faith in Christ is not a powerful argument in its favor.  Certainly it is.  But it is hardly decisive, and begs the question:  are these success stories examples of people who "prayed to receive Christ", or are they better understood as regenerate souls who responded in faith?  This is a nuanced but important distinction.  The first is a man-centered understanding of salvation (they prayed the prayer and gained the Spirit), the second is a God-centered one (He gave them the Spirit and they responded in prayer).

Moreover, we must also be willing to look at the cumulative costs of its widespread and careless use.  Most importantly, are we leading the lost in large numbers to false assurance, that the mere profession of faith is automatically equivalent to the possession of faith?

Miguel refers us to the late Christian singer Keith Green.  With his well-known passion for evangelism, you might have expected Keith to be a fan of such tools (after all, he had a song titled "Altar Call").  Well, it would appear the years of outreach ministry taught him a thing or two:
"The greatest reason I believe that God can be grieved with the current use of such tools as the 'altar call' and 'sinner’s prayer' is because they can take away the conviction of the Holy Spirit prematurely, before the Spirit has time to work repentance leading to salvation. With an emotional splash that usually doesn't last more than a few weeks, we believe we’re leading people into the Kingdom, when really we’re leading many to hell--by interfering with what the Spirit of God is trying to do in a person’s life. Do you hear? Do you understand that this constitutes 'spiritual abortion'? Can’t you see the eternal consequences of jumping the gun, trying to bring to birth a baby that isn’t ready?" (What's Wrong with the Gospel)
Miguel also points us to the most strident voice which rose this past summer in opposition, prompted in part by the Southern Baptist Convention's decision to endorse the prayer's continued use as an evangelistic tool. Pastor David Platt drew fire for challenges like this:  "Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer in the New Testament? Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrase 'accept Jesus into your heart,' or 'invite Jesus into your life?'"

 

I wonder if our preference for tools like the sinner's prayer boil down to the church's desire for metrics and positive feedback.  Perhaps we could poll the 7.25 million new Christians on EE's checksheet.

16 comments:

  1. I might not be a believer today if a lifeguard at a YMCA day camp didn't walk me through the sinner's prayer when I was 8 years old. I had no idea what I said, but it started me on the journey of discovering what it meant when I "received" Jesus.

    Every time I hear criticism of evangelistic tools (like the sinner's prayer, or fire and brimstone, etc.), I am reminded that our job is share the Gospel. It is the Holy Spirit, and only the Holy Spirit, that changes hearts. I say that if tools like the sinner's prayer get you to talk with others - and it is not in error - do more of it. If it is fire and brimstone preaching from the back of a van in North Carolina (that's what led Lon Solomon of Mclean Bible Church to the Lord), then do more of it. Follow the Holy Spirit's leading and be His instrument to lead 1, or 100,000, to an eternity with our most wonderful Savior.

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  2. Ingar - a couple of thoughts on this.

    First, I'm grateful that the sinner's prayer was an important milestone in your walk. As I say in the linked article, I don't deny the reality of your experience. However, I think it's important to note that it wasn't the prayer that saved you, but the Holy Spirit's work in your heart and your response in faith to the gospel as presented by the lifeguard. This may seem like a technicality, but I think it's important for us to recognize this point, or else we may rob the gospel of its power by over-emphasizing particular methods and tools.

    Second, the fact that any evangelistic approach is effective--to whatever degree--shouldn't mean it is above critique by the church, or else Priscilla and Aquila would not have taken Apollo aside to explain why his preaching John's baptism was incomplete.

    I appreciate your thoughts.

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  3. I'm not familiar with EE but the "sinner’s prayer" isn't a "fire and forget" item. You can't just throw a seed on the ground and expect it to produce without some cultivation, fertilization and moisture. That's why when "missionaries" go to an area, conus or oconus, you can't just coach someone to say a prayer and leave. There has to be a system in place to continue to feed and cultivate, to expect anything to grow from your efforts. I know that in my home church, it is not the number of people that come to the front or kneel at an alter that counts. It is how many shows up for the next service and the next and the next.

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  4. Having grown up in (and out of) a denomination that pushes such tools as the "Four Spiritual Laws" and the "Sinner's Prayer" as the main components of evangelism I really appreciate your article Ray. In days gone by I have used them with great effectiveness when I was speaking with someone who was already ripe for the harvest, but I've also been guilty of pushing them upon people who weren't ready and, like your experience, wonder now how many of those truly entered into a relationship with the Lord rather than simply responding for the purpose of taking out some "fire insurance" or getting me to shut up and leave them alone.

    I now think of the "Sinner's Prayer" method of evangelism as "Gag 'em and Drag 'em," and see many of the converts ending up like those who Jesus described as having no root or falling away when things got too difficult.

    Matthew 13--
    3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”

    I'm afraid we are often so results oriented that we forget that our role may be to plant a seed, or water a seed, and not always to harvest the seed; and we push people into decisions that they are not ready for. Then we wonder why so many people fall away from their faith when the going gets tough. Well, maybe because their faith was never really in the God but in the church's methods.

    Your series "Born Again: The Complete Works" is one of the best examples I've ever seen of how evangelism needs to be accomplished--by simply speaking and doing as directed by the Holy Spirit while He woos the individual, even if it takes time. We get so nervous that the person won't make that all-important decision before it's too late that we often try to take the Spirit out of the equation, forgetting that He knows best. We must remember that a true relationship with the Lord is a romance, and often the "dating process" is longer with some than with others--after all, the better you know and trust someone before you marry them, the more likely you will have a successful marriage and not bail out when the inevitable conflicts come.

    (I'll add more in another comment because I'm running out of space here...)

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  5. One of the things that astounded me when I "grew out" of my denominational box was that many of my friends who are the most amazing and mature Christians I know came to the Lord through processes that did not involve "The Prayer." In fact, my best friend cannot remember a time in her life when she did not know God, and she cannot even remember a time when she ever prayed the sinner's prayer; yet she is one of the most mature believers I have ever met. That's the kind of relationship with God that I pray my grandchildren will have (a 3 year old boy and identical twin girls who are due to arrive early in 2013).

    When my own son was little I was still trapped in the method box and was so concerned that he got it right that I totally missed knowing when he accepted the Lord. We were in church one morning and he wanted to take the Lord's Supper; he was causing such an uproar that I took him out into the lobby to explain that he couldn't partake until he made that all-important decision. I proceeded to explain "the method" and was astounded when he responded, "But Mom, I did that a long time ago." As it turns out, he'd been in a chapel service at school a year or two before, and during an invitation time he'd made a commitment to God but never even thought to say anything to me about because it was such a normal and naturally occurring part of his growing faith that it wasn't the great big deal I expected to see.

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  6. Observations:

    1)- It seems that "HOW" the sinners prayer is used is critical.
    2)- It seems that we must "TRUST" God with the results.
    ________________

    How we use the sinners prayer...

    Agreed, there are no such examples in the Bible; therefore, a "sinners prayer" is not a Scriptural mandate.

    I may be mistaken, but long ago I read that our modern "altar calls" (and resulting sinners prayers) began with Charles Finney. I also read that after Finney gave his altar calls, he would often spend an hour or two trying to talk people out of their decisions. By this I mean, he taught them the cost of following Jesus. He taught them that they needed to count that cost as well.

    This is likely why Finney's follow-up statistics are so impressive. On one occasion, 100,000 people became Christians. 15 years later, there was a follow up with this group and 85% of them were still walking with Jesus!

    In general, I am in agreement that there is no spiritual magic in praying a simple prayer. But I am not willing to throw away the practice when the true Gospel of the Bible is presented and responded to and then we pray together a "sinners prayer".
    ________________

    "TRUST" God with the results...

    As for "wondering how many of them really got saved"... trust God!

    As long as I preach the true Gospel of the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-6)... I am content to trust God with the results.

    I heard a powerful evangelist say something like this:

    "Every single time I share the Gospel, I am 100% successful!"

    By this he stated that his job was to preach the Gospel... the rest was up to God. Therefore, every time he tells someone about Jesus, he has successfully fulfilled his responsibilities.

    This evangelist, like this thread, stated that a "sinners prayer" is not essential. Sometimes he uses it and sometimes he doesn't (as the Lord leads).
    ________________

    For me personally, I see no fault with preaching the true Gospel of the Bible and asking if respondents would like me to lead them in a prayer of repentance and faith.

    I do see a problem with telling people, "Pray this prayer and you are guaranteed to go to Heaven."

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  7. I accepted Christ as my Savior through the sinners prayer about 41 years ago and have been a Christian ever since...however I wish the person who explained th four spiritual laws to me ha been a little more clearer...

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  8. I wonder if the purpose of EE's approach was to give believers a simple way to share Christ. Some feel so overwhelmed concerning what to say and how. I responded to an altar call because me husband did, and I didn't wish to be left sitting alone. I really didn't know what I was doing. It was through relationships with and nurturing by other Christians that I really entered into a relationship with Christ. Being in constant association with other believers was the key for me. I was constantly reinforced in my walk by my pastor, church leaders and friends. Having someone say a prayer is one thing, getting them to a place where they are taught is another.
    I appreciate Reinhard Bonnke's approach. He has seen over one million people at a time time come Christ in Africa. His organization does not consider them a statistic until they have be integrated into a local church for a period of time and exhibited a true salvation experience.

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  9. Anything that helps establish a bridge of love to the unsaved is good. God is hiding behind the last one.

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  10. The problem I see with the sinners prayer is this. It reminds me of a situation where a man commits adultery outside of marriage. You walk him up to his wife and you tell him the following...

    you -- okay, now look at your wife and say "I'm sorry."
    man -- I'm sorry

    you -- Now, tell her you will never do it again
    man -- I will never do it again

    you -- Please forgive me dear
    man -- Please forgive me dear

    This might sound farfetched but what it lacks is sincerity. If a man is truly sorry for what he has done to his wife, it should be burning within him to ask for forgiveness from her. In the same way, when the gospel has been properly taught, a person should see his fallen state and recognize that he has sinned against God. When properly taught, he will cry out to God on his own seeking forgiveness for offending a Holy God. He will repent of his sins because he knows now why Jesus died on the cross. When sin is not being preached and all you have is a feel good message or a prosperity message, you will not get a true conversion. Good article, keep up the good work! God bless

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  11. Jesus said that we are to make disciples of all nations. Belief can happen in a minute, but to make disciples takes dedicated time. Jesus spent three years with his disciples. A Christian is a Christ follower. Belief alone does not make a follower. If we are going to lead others to Christ, we must know what that truly means according to God's word, according to Jesus' words. Most of us are ill-equipped to lead people through the Scriptures. Check out Good News of Jesus Christ on Amazon. Jesus came to redeem us from all of the bad news. This book is a good instructional for leading anyone into a truthful understanding for coming to Christ.

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  12. I was once asked if a then recently deceased relative was a Christian. She had said something to me a few weeks earlier. She responded to the news that my dad had undergone emergency heart bypass surgery. Her comment was "God doesn't hear the prayers of a sinner." She knew she was a sinner. I responded to the gentleman asking me about her spiritual state by telling him, "She knew she was a sinner. There are people in church every week who don't realize that." One of my regrets in life was that I didn't pick up on the fact that she needed the Lord because I was afraid to carry that conversation further, I would have started with the "Sinners Prayer " and gotten her some materials so she could go from there in her journey.

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  13. Altar calls and sinner's prayers aren't bad - quite the opposite. But they must also must be followed up on. The same is true of a marriage. The wedding day is only the BEGINNING of the marriage, not the beginning and end of it.

    Only the Lord knows if someone's heart has changed. We should be less worried about statistics (only the Holy Spirit can "save" someone), and more concerned with following the great commission. Personally, I like to leave the big stuff to the Lord. He has broad shoulders.

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  14. No Alter Calls and sinners prayers are not bad of course, but I have to be honest people are popishly declaring people to be saved and we have no right to tell people they are saved. before I was saved 5 years ago in prison I prayed a prayer and someone told me I was saved but I continued on in my sin in little under a year. I WAS NOT SAVED. The writer is correct in bring up a matter that no one wants to touch on.

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  15. I knew (because the Holy Spirit made me know) that I was a sinner in need of Christ Jesus. A few weeks later I was in a congregation where a 'sinners prayer' was used. It helped. God worked in me first, though, then God worked through others.

    I do wonder about, also, the Gideon's 'great successes' that they trumpet in giving out so many Bibles - "Yeah... so loads of people took a Bible, and...?"

    I'm not saying that people shouldn't have God's Word, and that giving Bibles out isn't valuable - but giving them and taking them proves nothing and saves no-one. I'm not saying that praying to God for forgiveness isn't valuable, and that people shouldn't do it - but telling people the prayer and them saying the words proves nothing and saves no-one. ONLY God brings salvation to any sinner.

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  16. THE APOSTLE PETER AND THE THIEF ON THE CROSS?


    When the apostle Peter preached the first sermon under the New Covenant, on the Day of Pentecost 33 AD, what did he preach?


    1. Peter preached Jesus as a miracle worker. (Acts 2:22)
    2. Peter preached Jesus crucified.(Acts 2:23)
    3. Peter preached Jesus resurrected from the grave. (Acts 2:31)
    4. Peter preached Jesus ascended into heaven. (Acts 2:34)
    5. Peter preached Jesus as Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:36)


    When the men at Pentecost heard Peter preach, they ask Peter and the rest of the apostles what they should do. (Acts 2:37)


    What did Peter tell them they should do? Did Peter say "You can be saved just like the thief on the cross, simply ask the Lord to remember you when He comes into His kingdom?" NO, Peter did not say nor did he imply they could be saved like the thief on the cross.


    WHAT DID PETER SAY? Acts 2:38 Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.(NKJV)


    There are no Scriptures stating that men can be saved like the thief on the cross under the New Covenant terms for pardon.




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