The Bible has a lot to say about salvation, but very little to say about a certain kind of prayer to be saved. However, in the church, it is very common to hear people talk about either praying or leading others in a “sinner’s prayer.” So, is there such thing a “prayer of salvation” or a “sinner’s prayer?” And if not, what is the best way to pray for salvation?
To Have Faith Like a Child
Obviously, the best place to find an answer about salvation and prayer is in the Bible. One passage, in particular, that helps us understand these topics a little more is in Matthew 19. At this point in the gospel, Jesus is deep into his ministry on earth and has been teaching about how he is the Son of God, how to receive salvation, and what the spiritual “Kingdom of Heaven” is. After some straightforward statements about marriage and relationships, a famous interchange takes place between Jesus and his disciples:
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away (Matthew 19:13-15, ESV).
After studying these verses (and the context in which it was written), it is clear that Jesus is not saying that only children can be saved. Instead, he is stating that in order to come to Christ, we must position ourselves like a child in a posture of humility, trust, vulnerability, and need.
Not the Attitude of Deserved Salvation
The other side of this truth is that the kingdom of heaven will not belong to those who try to come to God with any sort of selfishness, pride, and lack of understanding of their need for him. In fact, Scripture teaches that we cannot be saved unless we first recognize our lostness, sinfulness, and desperate need for a Savior.
Then almost on cue, someone comes up to Jesus following this “like a child” conversation with his disciples and asks an interesting question:
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? ...There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:15-22, ESV).
This story (commonly called the “Rich, Young Ruler” passage) illustrates the opposite result of the previous passage because instead of the man coming to Jesus as a child in humility ready to embrace the Son of God, he came in arrogance ready to work himself (or purchase himself if need be) into the Kingdom of God. But it didn’t work.
In fact, Jesus uses this opportunity to make a bold, definitive statement about salvation that helps us understand the answer to our original question about a “sinner’s prayer.” Jesus said to his disciples:
"Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:13-26, ESV).
So, considering these verses, there are three clarifications I want to make about salvation that will hopefully help us think appropriately about it and answer our main question.
1. Salvation Is Not Something We Do, It Is Something That Is Done to Us
Being saved is not a task to accomplish or a notch to put in our belt to just make our lives better. If it were, that would be self-focused and hedonistic. It is not a temporary change of habits, that would be inconsequential. It is not a conversion to a set of religious beliefs, that would be works-based.
Instead, it is a miraculous act of the Holy Spirit to redeem and regenerate our eternal spirits that were dead, forgive us of our sins because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and to justify us before a holy God because of the substitutionary righteousness of Christ.
That is why Luke preached that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Therefore, a prayer, no matter what kind of prayer it is, cannot save us. Only God can save us.
2. Salvation Is Not an Event, But the Beginning of a Process
While salvation begins with the event of spiritual rebirth, it begins the life-long journey of “sanctification” or becoming set apart and made holy for God’s purposes and enables us to move toward maturity by the Holy Spirit’s work. It then culminates in our “glorification” which is our final, physical phase of our salvation which takes place in Heaven when we are given a new body and get to spend eternity with God, our Savior.
Every instance in the gospels where someone accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, they began to follow him. And still, today, even if someone says the right words and checks the right boxes, but if they do not continue in that faith, it is evidence of a lack of true salvation in their lives (1 John 2:19). Therefore, the idea of a one-time prayer to save us to get us into Heaven or keep us out of hell is (if nothing else) a grossly immature and insufficient view of salvation.
3. Salvation Is Not Complicated, But It Is Not Easy Either
One of the simplest presentations of salvation in Scripture is when the Apostle Paul declares, “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved.” (Romans 10:9-10, NLT). That’s it — boldly declare your faith outwardly and fully believe in Christ inwardly.
At the same time, the work of salvation is not only not easy, but it is (as Jesus said in our text above) “impossible.” What Jesus had to do to purchase our salvation is as eternally opposite of “easy” as you can get.
Therefore, since Christ has already done all of the work to offer us salvation, a specific prayer or set of phrases in our prayer is not necessary for someone to be saved. As long as you are responding to God’s grace from a heart of faith and belief, then the rest of the details can be as varied as the circumstances that led you to that moment of surrender to God.
What Does This Mean?
While there is no such thing as a “sinner’s prayer” that saves us (and we should make sure that we never lead someone to think otherwise), there is absolutely a kind of prayer that, in response to God’s grace, results in our salvation.
Maybe it would be most appropriate to call that a “Prayer of Surrender,” because that is really what we are doing. So, if we pray with a sincere heart of faith and belief, then no matter what words come out, Scripture promises us that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).
Robert Hampshire is the Lead Pastor of Village Church in Churchville, Virginia. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, and now lead pastor. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Pastoring a Village: Sermons, Thoughts, Devos. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the Gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.