Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner and need Your forgiveness. I believe that You died for my sins. I want to turn from my sins. I now invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as Lord and Savior.
In Jesus’ name.
I think many of us, at some point in our lives, have prayed a prayer similar to this. Maybe some of us have led others in a prayer like this. But can we actually have the confidence to base our eternity on repeating these words after our mom, dad, or youth leader? As leaders or parents, should we be assuring others of their eternal salvation merely because they recite these words?
Put simply, what are we to think of the sinner’s prayer?
We must understand several things:
First, the act of prayer in and of itself does not save.
Proponents of the sinner’s prayer often state that by simply praying this prayer, you can have full assurance of immediate and eternal salvation. Indeed, to doubt your salvation after praying this prayer is portrayed to be wicked unbelief in the promises of God. However, Scripture never identifies prayer as the means of either our justification or our assurance.
Any experience—no matter how well-worded or emotion-filled—that does not result in the grace-empowered production of fruit is not genuine salvation.
In the New Testament, we see people who are saved without praying (e.g., Luke 23:39–43; Acts 10:34–48), and we also see those who pray and yet are not saved (Matt 7:21–23; Luke 18:11–12). Throughout the Bible, it is made clear that prayer is not the switch that activates salvation. Faith alone is the means of our justification. Salvation occurs the moment someone turns from his or her sin and places their hope for salvation in Christ. This is accomplished solely by the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and it is based upon the finished work of Christ. A repentant person must understand that the basis for salvation is repentant faith in Christ alone.
This is not to say sinners should not pray. True repentant faith will express itself to God in prayer. The tax collector of Luke 18:13 prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” and Jesus says he went to his house justified (Luke 18:14). Significantly, though, it was in the total abandonment of any works—including prayers—that brought salvation to this man.
Second, we cannot assure someone of their salvation.
Salvation is not the result of external actions (1 Sam 16:7). So, if we assure someone of their salvation merely on the basis of a verbal commitment, we may bring great confusion into the life of that person when fruit does not appear and sustained victory over sin never comes.
Jesus tells a parable with this very point in mind. In the parable of the soils, Jesus illustrates that we cannot know the condition of a person’s heart solely by their initial response to the gospel, but only by the fruit that marks their life (Mark 4:1–20).
Third, we can assure someone that if they repent, Christ will save them.
What we can—and must—assure people of is that if they genuinely repent of their sins and trust in Christ, He will in no way cast them out (John 6:37). But how can someone know if he has truly repented?
A new believer must look to Scripture to evaluate his salvation. If he fails to do this, then he will continue to look back to an external action—like coming forward at a meeting or praying the sinner’s prayer—as the verification of his salvation.
Assurance comes from comparing the life of the one who has repented to the Scripture in the following areas:
Patterns of Obedience
The life of the true believer will be marked by patterns of obedience. As he grows in love for God, he will grow in obedience to the commandments of God (cf. John 14:15, 23; 1 John 2:3–6; 5:3). A true believer will also have continued and sustained faith in the promises of God (1 John 3:23; 1 Thess 2:13).
The Fruit of the Spirit
As a believer applies the Scriptures and grows in Christ-likeness, the Holy Spirit produces within him “fruits in keeping with repentance” (cf. Luke 3:8; Gal 5:22–23). These steps may be small at first, and may be slowed by sin, but sanctification will never completely stall (Phil 2:13; 1 Thess 5:23–24). The attitudes and actions of believers will even change and mature as they grow in Christlikeness.
This is illustrated by Jesus’ remarks that a good tree will bear good fruit (Matt 7:17). Any experience—no matter how well-worded or emotion-filled—that does not result in the grace-empowered production of fruit is not genuine salvation.
The Ministry of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit takes up residence in every believer and is actively involved in sanctification. By His very presence, He comforts, convicts, and gives resolute confidence that we are indeed children of God (cf. Rom 8:16; 1 John 3:24).
Alternatives to the Sinner’s Prayer
So what do we do then?
As you end an interaction with someone who has responded positively to the gospel, you should seek to do so in a way that does not give false assurance but, at the same time, does not cast unnecessary suspicion on their profession.
If not the sinner’s prayer, what should you do? Here are several alternatives.
Pray for them yourself.
Often, the best thing to do at the end of an evangelistic encounter is just to pray for the person yourself. It’s not merely a formality; you’re genuinely asking God to send His Spirit to use the power of His Word to quicken a dead heart.
Even if someone is truly converted, they likely don’t know how to pray. Your praying with them begins to teach them how.
Ask them to pray in their own words.
If the person you’re evangelizing does express a desire to pray along with you, better than a “repeat-after-me” prayer is just to let them pray to God on their own. You’ve likely covered a lot of ground in your gospel presentation, and this can serve as a helpful gauge of their understanding of the gospel and its implications.
Exhort them to make their calling and election sure.
Rather than making them feel like you are suspicious of their desire to repent and believe, be sure to explain what it means to “count the cost” of following Christ (Luke 14:25–33). Then, as Peter says, exhort them to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). Call them to confirm what God has done today by bearing fruits in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:8). By putting it this way, you frame the issue positively while still emphasizing their responsibility to walk in faithfulness.
Follow up with the beginnings of discipleship.
If they live reasonably close to your local church, invite them as your guest. You might also invite them to your house for dinner, coffee, and dessert. Perhaps there is another way to follow up with them that makes more sense in your context. The important thing is to be available to follow up with them and to introduce them to a sound local church.