Trusting in the Sinner’s Prayer vs. Trust in God’s Electing Purpose
The doctrine of election is regularly a cause for controversy within Christian circles. Particulars of this doctrine cause debate even within groups that hold to the same general school of thought. An example of this can be seen in the debate earlier this week between Calvinists concerning the relationship of God’s love to His electing purpose, found on the Pyromaniacs blog. Christians, of course, seek to avoid an unhealthy interest in controversies (1 Tim 6:4) and to avoid foolish controversies (Tit 3:9); therefore, many evangelicals have concluded that it is better to avoid this controversial doctrine. [This is a misapplication, I would argue, of the verses just mentioned.] Those avoiding this doctrine imagine that they are dispensing with a point of theology that is merely cerebral- something that may be interesting to scholars, but that does not effect a Christian’s daily life. What is often overlooked is the inherent usefulness of this doctrine evidenced by the way it is presented in Scripture. At the end of Romans 8, for example, the doctrine of election is presented as the basis for a believer’s assurance of salvation- that, despite the turmoil of day-by-day experience, the one who has faith in Jesus can live with confidence that he or she will be preserved by God eternally.
Churches in the Southern Baptist denomination have, as a whole, tended to de-emphasize the doctrine of election, and yet remain committed to the doctrine of eternal security (the teaching that the one who is truly born again, as evidenced by sincere faith, need never fear God’s ultimate rejection). Without the foundational doctrine of election, Southern Baptist churches have had to rest the full weight of eternal security on the personal experience of faith.
Contiguous with the developments outlined above, Southern Baptists (and other evangelical denominations) have begun to regularly utilize the Sinner’s Prayer in evangelism. When presenting the gospel, the example of the New Testament is that we should urge listeners to repent of their sins and to trust in Christ. For those who have not been raised in sound churches, these are alien concepts, and so it seems beneficial to present a model on how to call on the name of the Lord in repentance and faith. From this impulse, the Sinner’s Prayer was born. After the gospel has been faithfully presented [and I would argue that the gospel presentations I was taught in Southern Baptist churches were indeed faithful to Scripture- substantially the same as what Mark Dever presents HERE, though even more detailed], then the listener is asked if he or she desires to repent of sin and trust in Jesus; if he or she says ‘yes,’ then the listener is led to repeat a prayer that summarizes the main points of the gospel presentation, applying the gospel to the individual [i.e., instead of saying, "The Bible says that all have sinned," the listener is led to pray, "I confess that I am a sinner," etc].
As presented above, the idea of the Sinner’s Prayer does not necessarily sound like a bad thing; I believe that the practice of the Sinner’s Prayer arose out of genuine concern for sinners and for the fact that there is an objective truth to the gospel. But, as I reflected on this over a number of years, something about the entire gospel presentation leading up to the moment of guiding someone in the Sinner’s Prayer seemed strange to me. For it became apparent that the activity of leading someone in this prayer was considered the most important part of evangelism. “If the Sinner’s Prayer is so important,” I reasoned, “then why do we not find this in the Bible? Why, when we see the apostles presenting the gospel in Acts, for instance, do we not read that they led their hearers in something like the Sinner’s Prayer? Why is there no text in the New Testament that tells us the exact words that should be prayed in the Sinner’s Prayer, so that we can be sure we are doing it right?” These questions were what started me on a journey of theological reflection that has resulted in my becoming more Reformed in my beliefs concerning salvation.
The problems with the Sinner’s Prayer are compounded when joined to the concept that our eternal security is finally based on the personal experience of faith. For, in the Southern Baptist circles in which I was raised, the sincere praying of the Sinner’s Prayer was closely identified with the personal experience of faith. So that when someone considered whether he or she was truly, eternally saved from God’s wrath, he or she was reminded of whether the Sinner’s Prayer had been prayed with sincerity. This situation leads to at least two discernible, negative results. First, I have spoken with many people who are leading lives entirely contrary to God’s Word, yet they are sure that they are saved from God’s Wrath because they have sincerely prayed the Sinner’s Prayer at some point in the past; in other words, they have a false assurance of salvation. Second, those who are more spiritually sensitive and realize something of the deceitfulness of their own hearts live in constant doubt of their salvation, considering the fact that they might be wrong about their own sincerity when saying the Prayer, or that the Prayer may have been worded incorrectly and thus be doctrinally unacceptable to God. In his sermon on election that I linked in a previous post, Dr. Russell Moore gives a great, personal illustration of this second negative result:
I remember growing up in a congregation in which every single time that a visiting revival preacher would come by and talk about praying the Sinner’s Prayer with sincerity in your heart, I would go back home and wonder, “Did I have enough sincerity in my heart the time I prayed it the first time?” and I’d pray it again. And every time that I would hear the Sinner’s Prayer worded a different way, I would re-word it that way, “Lord, I know that I’m a sinner, and my sin separates me from You…” and I would word it exactly the way that evangelist had worded it, and I would try to scrunch up all the sincerity I could possibly have, and I would end it, not just with one, “In Jesus’ name,” but with several: “in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ name…” and somehow that sincerity is just going to hit in there and God was going to recognize it.
Dr. Moore also presented how the doctrine of election is the solution for the turmoil mentioned above:
My problem [in the moment I was fearfully praying the Sinner's Prayer for the umpteenth time] is, that I’m not recognizing and seeing what God is saying here [in Romans 8:26-9:6a]. He is saying that God wants you here [at this point of crying out to Him for salvation]. God is bringing you here. You are not here by accident. You are here because God has a purpose and God has a plan, and God is going to continue that plan to the end.
The one who is concerned over his or her eternal destiny should not look to his or her own sincerity, nor to the form of a scripted prayer not found in the Bible. The one who is aware of his or her sins and seeks freedom from these sins, and pardon from God’s Wrath, must look to God, who delights in justifying the ungodly. The sinner who, like the prodigal son, comes to himself, realizing his sins and desiring to serve God rather than sin, can expect to find God running to him as a loving father, rejoicing to embrace His lost child. The sinner coming to Christ in faith does not need to fear God’s rejection, because Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44 ESV). This truth is foundational to the doctrine of election, a doctrine which gives us great hope- a hope based in what God has done, is doing, and will do for His elect- so that we are moved to worship him more deeply.