Friday, February 6, 2009

Sinner's Prayer

The following question was posted on my blog several months ago: "The thief on the cross was told he would be in Paradise with Jesus that very day. He did not pray "The Sinner's Prayer." All he said was that Jesus had done no wrong. And Jesus eternally saved him.Why do we in modern times feel we need to "pray a Prayer" in order to be saved? When did this practice start?"

A little caveat: I am not a church history expert (my doctorate is in New Testament), but church history is so important that I have tried to learn as much as possible.

The Sinner's Prayer is, as you suspect, a fairly modern invention. If you walk through the conversion accounts in the book of Acts (or the rest of the NT), you find no reference to such a prayer.

I believe it was Allen Carden's book on Puritanism that pointed out that Puritan preachers sometimes told would-be converts to go out and pray all day to find out from God if they were elect. I'm not sure if most modern evangelicals would consider that a sinner's prayer!

Charles Finney, the famous evangelist of the early 1800s, began using a number of new conversion rituals, including the "Anxious Seat," a pew where seekers would come to repent. Finney described it as a replacement for baptism as a public display of one's initial faith. In the late 1800s, D.L Moody took this practice and moved it to the "Inquiry Room," where the seeker could be counseled and prayed with by Moody's assistants. Apparently, this was the first time that a formal "sinner's prayer" was used. Evangelists of the 20th century used many of Moody's methods, as anyone familiar with Billy Graham's crusades can attest. (Here I am relying on my imperfect memory of a collection of Finney's writings, George Marsden's history of American fundamentalism, and a book on the history of evangelism whose name escapes me - so don't take me as an authority on this).

If we take a walk through all the NT passages on conversion, we find several items emphasized. 1) Repentance - a change of our spiritual orientation away from sin and towards God. 2) Faith - belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is able to bring forgiveness and right standing with God. 3) Receiving the Holy Spirit / regeneration - Whether perceived by others or not, the new convert receives the Spirit, who enables transformation. 4) Baptism - new believers were always baptized immediately (if possible) in Acts.

The second-century church began delaying baptism for several reasons, both practical and theological. This created a problem that we still deal with today: genuine converts, who have repented, believed in salvation through Christ, and received the Holy Spirit - but have not yet been baptized. We have artificially separated baptism from conversion. Now, an unbaptized convert is nonetheless a real Christian. Many passages in the NT on conversion that omit baptism remind us of that truth, including the story of the bandit on the cross (he was not being crucified for theft, but that's another blog post). But the nature of conversion as an act of turning towards obedience makes one wonder why any new convert would not want to obey the command to get baptized.

One of the reasons that so many genuine converts delay baptism so long, or avoid it altogether, is that other modern rituals - raising a hand, walking down the aisle, the sinner's prayer - have replaced the role of baptism as the primary ritual marking one's passage into fellowship with God.

Is the sinner's prayer a bad thing? It is if we communicate that the prayer itself brings salvation. Salvation comes to the one who repents and believes - and that may happen with or without a formal sinner's prayer. In many cases, emphasis on the sinner's prayer can give the idea that the prayer is a ritual formula that all by itself gives the invoker access to heaven (shades of ex opere operato?). On the other hand, someone who repents and believes will very naturally be ready to pray, so we certainly shouldn't discourage new converts from praying through the ideas involved in conversion!

The picture: from Tomus primus homiliarum super Euangelia... by Johann Eck, 1534.


  1. Thank you for this blog. I have wondered for quite some time (probably since I first ever read through the gospels and acts) why there is such a separation between acceptance of Christ and baptism in the church culture that I have been exposed to. And also why the way of acceptance in the churches I have experienced seem to follow such a rigid formula of raising a hand, looking up at the pastor, or coming to the "altar". Seems these practices are much more emphasized than baptism...which seems opposite from the bible.

  2. I understand what you are saying, Keoki. However, I don't think that the semi-replacement of baptism with other conversion rituals is as bad as it first seems. Even Paul downplayed baptism at times (1 Cor 1:13-17). In fact, Paul's logic seems to be that response to the gospel is more important than baptism, especially if baptism threatened to become an agent of division in the Corinthian church.

    What the NT really emphasizes for conversion is faith in Christ and repentance. My feel is that if our modern conversion rituals assist faith and repentance, they are not necessarily a bad thing. However, they sometimes have the effect of replacing faith and repentance, and that is dangerous. Then it has the same effect as allowing baptism without faith or repentance - it makes people believe that they are converted on the basis of a ritual rather than on the basis of the faith behind the ritual.

  3. I find it interesting that people view baptism as a new thing, that started with John the baptist and continued after the messiahs ascension to heaven. It is taught that John the baptist was, in a sense, foreshadowing baptism that brought with it the indwelling of the spirit. This does not answer the question, where on earth did John get this idea from? I would suggest, that just as the children of Israel were told to bathe before hearing the voice of the Lord from Mt. Sinai, people were bathing before hearing the voice of the Lord in person. The repentance that John was teaching was that of turning back to his Torah. The baptism in Acts, the mass baptism at Pentecost (Shavuot) is the same Mikvah bath that Torah observant Jews would perform every year for the festival of Shavuot. Most Christians just accept this baptism, without asking where the idea came from. I would suggest that people should start truly learning the old testament, that way the things that are written of in the New Testament might make a bit more sense.

  4. Good point. In this post, I did not talk about the OT background for baptism, although I did comment on it in another post on baptism. I agree that John's baptism is derived from Jewish baptisms or ritual baths, perhaps even the baptism for new converts to Judaism. However, John was also making some important modifications, as revealed by the Pharisees' question, "why then are you baptizing, if you are not the messiah, or the prophet, or Elijah?"

  5. The thief on the cross did not require baptism, because he was under the old law. Heb. 9:16-18 shows us that a covenant is not in effect until the death of the testator.

    It is amazing how people so quickly explain away the clear teaching of Scripture:baptism is necessary for salvation. (I Pt. 3:21, Rom. 6:1-6, Acts 2:38). It's not a work, anymore than faith, and it is necessary.

    Faith saves us. Repentance saves us. Confession saves us. Baptism saves us.
    Which is it? The answer is all of them! (Ps. 119:160 - the sum of thy word is truth.)

    "Call on the name of the Lord" to be saved is used in Romans 10. Did you also know its used in Acts 2:21, then the people are told to be baptized to receive forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit (vs. 38).
    SEE ACTS 22:16 - why do you delay, arise and be baptized, CALLING ON THE NAME OF THE LORD!"

    Baptism is how we call on the name of the Lord. IT IS NECESSARY FOR SALVATION!

  6. Baptists vote to keep the Sinner's Prayer...again

    Preuters News Agency

    Meeting today in London, a convention of the world's Baptists narrowly endorsed the continued use of the Sinner's Prayer as the hallmark act of Christian conversion. Here is the final draft of the convention's statement on this issue:

    "Baptists today again affirm the Sinner's Prayer as the act by which a sinner is justified before God. To be clear, it is not the recitation of the prayer itself that saves, nor is it necessary to endorse a set order of the words to be prayed, nor must the prayer be verbalized to others. What is necessary for salvation is this: A genuine, heartfelt prayer that 1.) acknowledges one's sinfulness and hopeless state of perdition before God 2.) cries out to God with true repentance of one's sins 3.) petitions God for his free gift of salvation 4.) asks Christ to indwell his heart/soul 5.) commits to abandoning his prior sinful lifestyle and promises to follow Christ and his righteousness."

    Controversy over this statement simmered for the entire three days of the convention. A group of younger Baptists from the developing world pushed for the removal of the Sinner's Prayer from the Baptist Statement of Faith, declaring that it was unscriptural and lacked any evidence of use in the Early Church. These young people read statements from the Early Church Fathers from the convention podium, noting that requiring a prayer (spoken or thought) for salvation was unheard of in the Early Church. This assertion created quite a stir as many of the older convention attendees were not accustomed to hearing appeals to the "catholic" Church Fathers as a source of authority for Baptist doctrine.

    The younger group put forward a new, brash, proposal as the new official Baptist Act of Christian Conversion:

    "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins."

    This proposal prompted outrage from the majority of convention attendees. One prominent Baptist pastor from the United States summed up the majority's sentiments by this statement:

    "Too Lutheran."


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