A Trinitarian Sinner’s Prayer?
In most 20th century forms of American Evangelicalism there is a technique for leading people to Christ called the “sinner’s prayer.” A Calvinist professor of mine once called it the “transubstantiation of souls.” Say the magic words and the soul is transubstantiated from lost to saved.
A friend recently asked me if I have a prayer like this that reflects a Trinitarian, Christ-centered theology of adoption. I don’t have a prayer like that and I had to stop and think about why I don’t.
I think the basic reason is that I question the use of such a device at all. I’ve never been talking to a non-believer about the gospel and had him say “will you lead me in a prayer in which I can tell Jesus that I accept him?” I have had non-believers say “will you pray with me?” but it was always specific issues in their lives that they wanted us to pray about. Even though I’ve never had a non-believer ask me to lead him in a “sinner’s prayer” I have been in a lot of evangelism training that says we must encourage the non-believer to pray such a prayer.
So, the desire for a “sinner’s prayer” seems, to me, to have more to do with the felt needs of evangelizing Christians than with the actual needs of non-believers. It seems to me that we have, without even realizing it, come to see our presentations of the gospel as so much of a sales pitch that we can’t stand the ambiguity of presenting the gospel and not having a concrete response in that moment. We have a felt need to have the non-believer “sign on the dotted line.”
When I’m talking to non-believers about the gospel, especially now that I see everything from a Trinitarian perspective, I gauge what I encourage them to do based on where they are in their lives.
If the non-believer doesn’t go to church I invite him to come to my church. This is because I believe that everything the Trinity does he does in communion and community. In the same way the Father, Son, and Spirit live in communion with each other they live in communion with humanity through the Son’s incarnation and Jesus works through the Spirit in the communion of the Church to convert his non-believing brothers and sisters into believers (i.e. disciples.) So I believe the Church, the Body of Christ, is the place prepared by Jesus for non-believers to become believers. From that theological perspective a “sinner’s prayer” could actually be harmful because it runs the risk of encouraging the non-believer to think that his relationship with God is something that he does on his own in isolation from the Church with an isolated, unitarian divine being instead of seeing his relationship with God as a relationship with the Father through the Son in the Spirit that is lived out in the “communion of the Saints.”
If the non-believer is participating in the the Church then I encourage him to be baptized. As the Ethiopian eunuch said to Phillip at the moment he understood who Jesus is for humanity “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” Of course the implicit answer is “nothing.” It seems to me that far more than prayers the Bible presents baptism as the prescribed human response to the gospel. Based on Romans 6 I would say that the reason for this is because the act of baptism points us to the communion of God with humanity and the finished work of Christ. This is in contrast to other forms of response (such as the “sinner’s prayer”) which point to isolated individual action on one’s own behalf. In baptism the Body of Christ takes hold of you and dunks you in the water, signifying that you are not doing something alone but something in communion with the Body. And the symbolism of the dunking is that when Christ died, we died, and when Christ rose, we rose, so it is not about what we are doing to get ourselves in right relationship with God it is about what the Son has already done to us and our acknowledgement of his finished work. And all of this is done in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
All that being said, if I was in a situation where a non-believer wanted me to lead him in a prayer, or if I felt I needed to do so, I would much rather have that prayer be Trinitarian and Christ-centered than be the sort of thing that Son-Life and these other programs have come up with. Such a prayer might look something like this:
Father, thank you for loving me and making me your son (or daughter) through your Son Jesus Christ. Before I even knew you I belonged to you and you adopted me in Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for taking me into the life you share with the Father. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for helping me to know the truth of who I really am. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.
~ Jonathan Stepp