In Christian circles, the “Sinner’s Prayer” typically refers to a non-Christian’s initial prayer of repentance and faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus; thus, it is often associated with the moment of conversion into the Christian faith. In some cases, however, it has created some confusion and misunderstanding regarding the nature of saving faith and one’s assurance of salvation.
What Are the Steps of the Sinner's Prayer?
A true sinner's prayer is simply spoken to God as a way of conveying an understanding and belief of sin and the need for salvation. The ability to see the truth of our sin and the need of a savior drives us to repent. Dr. Charles Stanley highlights three aspects of repentance:
Conviction. The Holy Spirit will reveal the areas in which we've sinned and convict us of wrongdoing. Through Scripture, the Spirit shows us God's standard and what needs to change. Repentance begins with understanding where we have gone astray.
Contrition. The next step--grieving over our iniquity--is followed by confession to the Lord. Genuine sorrow arises from the knowledge that we've sinned against Him. In contrast, human unhappiness often comes from being caught misbehaving. Other times we are miserable because of where our choices led us, or feel shame that people know about our sin. True contrition is followed by humble confession.
Commitment to act. Real repentance is complete when we wholeheartedly pledge to turn from our old behavior and move toward righteous ways. God knows we won't live perfectly, but He looks for a surrendered heart that diligently seeks to obey Him. (excerpt from InTouch Devotionals)
Confessions in the Sinner's Prayer
The message of the Gospel is the message of Jesus, God in flesh, who lived a perfect life, died on a cross as a payment for sins, and was physically raised from the dead. Now, Christ “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Act 17:30) and place their faith and trust in his work alone for the forgiveness of sins.
The Bible says that saving faith is a repentant faith (Luke 24:46-47; Acts 2:37-38; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10), involving mental assent to the truth of the Gospel (Rom 10:7), a conviction of one’s desperate need for the free gift of salvation, and a yielded trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord. This response is only possible by the grace of God (Eph 2:8-9).
The association between this initial moment of saving faith and a spoken prayer finds support in Romans 10:9-10, “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 on confesses and is saved.” A few verses later we read the guarantee, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v. 13).
In Luke 18, we read Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, who are both praying in the temple. While the Pharisee’s prayer is filled with arrogance, pride, and boastfulness, the tax collector’s prayer is one of humble repentance: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus concludes, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Vv. 13-14). This “Sinner’s Prayer” was viewed by Jesus as the prayer of saving faith, resulting in the man’s justification.
So, inasmuch as the term “Sinner’s Prayer” refers to the prayer of repentant faith from the heart of a convicted sinner, it is a very biblical concept. However, what is often the popular understanding of the “Sinner’s Prayer” can be dangerous.
“The Sinner’s Prayer” is often reduced (perhaps not intentionally, but practically) to a formulaic, repeat-after-me approach toward conversion. In many church settings, the prayer itself is considered the entirety and assurance of salvation. In other words, as long as someone prays the right words of the “Sinner’s Prayer” and “really means it,” he can rest assured that he is saved. Consider a prototypical example:
Jimmy is an 8-year-old boy listening to a fiery evangelist preach on the horrors of hell. At the conclusion of the service, an invitation is given to come forward and accept Jesus. Not wanting to go to hell, Jimmy goes forward and talks to the pastor. The pastor sits Jimmy down and says, “If you want to be saved from hell, repeat these words after me: Dear Jesus…I’m a sinner… I believe in what you did for me on the cross… Please come into my life and save me…in Jesus' name, Amen.”
Jimmy repeats these words and opens his eyes. The pastor says, “Praise the Lord, you’re saved! Now, whenever you doubt your salvation, remember this day and the decision you made. Write it in your Bible so that you’ll never forget you prayed this prayer.”
Example of the Sinner's Prayer
Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. I know that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. No longer will I close the door when I hear you knocking. By faith, I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. I am ready to trust you as my Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth. I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life. I believe your words are true. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and be my Savior. Amen. (Source: Dr. Ray Pritchard)
Problems with the Sinner's Prayer
Because it’s basing one’s confidence and hope, not in Christ himself, but in a point of decision. It’s equating saving faith, not with a continuing, persevering faith (1 Cor 15:1-2), but with a recited prayer spoken in the past.
One author who helped promote and establish this view once said that if a believer is doubting his salvation, he must “note the very day and hour of such a decision and then believe in the decision itself enough to thank God for His saving grace and faithfulness, and in every thought, act and word thereafter treat the decision as final and real [emphasis mine].” [1.]
J.D. Greer puts it this way: It’s not the prayer that saves; it’s the repentance and faith behind the prayer that lays hold of salvation...It makes sense to express these things in a prayer, as repentance and faith in Christ are in themselves a cry to God for salvation. I am not trying to say that the sinner’s prayer is wrong in itself. After all, salvation is essentially a cry for mercy to God: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Paul says that those who call on God’s name will be saved."
Prayer-less Conversions in the Bible
What is helpful about the “Sinner’s Prayer” is that it boils down to the Scriptural response one must have toward the Gospel and gives him an opportunity to voice his belief and confession to God. For this reason, I believe it’s a good thing to encourage someone whose eyes are opened to the Gospel to respond in prayer to God. However, there are many examples in the Bible where people come to a saving knowledge of Christ without repeating a formulaic “Sinner’s Prayer” or writing a date in their Bible.
- The response of the thief on the cross was a simple “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
- The Ethiopian eunuch, after being evangelized by Philip, believed the Gospel and said, “What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36).
- When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved,” they didn’t say, “Repeat after me”; they simply said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Assurance of Salvation
I fear that there are many professing Christians out there who place their assurance of salvation in a “Sinner’s Prayer” when they were five years old, while they exhibit no evidence of belief in Christ. They’re clinging to prayer, not to Christ.
Christians, prayer doesn’t save you—Jesus does. If you believe in who he is and what he has done, placing all your hope and confidence in him alone, then you are saved by his grace. Praise God for his glorious Gospel!
The Author’s Testimony
There was a time in my life when I prayed a “Sinner’s Prayer.” And I believe that it was at that moment that Christ graciously saved me. However, I don’t remember when it was, where I was, what I said, or who I was with. But that isn’t the source of my assurance. My hope isn’t placed in something I prayed about 20 years ago. My confidence isn’t sourced in something I once believed—it’s sourced in Christ, the one in whom I believed, continue to believe, and will believe. My confidence is sourced in the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, who “bears witness our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16) and produces his fruit in my life as evidence of new birth (1 John).
Aaron Berry is a writer at Pursuing the Pursuer, a Christian blog committed to providing resources with sound theology, practical truth, and devotional fervor. Aaron has a BA and MA from Bob Jones University and an MDiv at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. He, his wife, and two kids live in Lincoln Park, MI, where Aaron serves as a pastoral assistant at Inter-City Baptist Church and as the recruiter at DBTS. You can follow his blog on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
1. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Salvation (Philadelphia: Sunday School Times, 1922), 80.
Photo Credit: GettyImages/shironosov
This article is part of Christianity.com's prayer answers including famous, topical prayers and information about the power of prayer. Find more related articles in the collection of prayers below: