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

9 comments so far

  1. Michael Pailthorpe on

    Thanks Jonathan. This is great! I had a crack a while back too. I wanted to have something to use in public confession. I don’t think it has a good rhythm but it works OK.

    in Christ’s faithfulness,

    Mike

  2. Byron Ball on

    Pastor Jonathan, I read with great interest your take on leading a non-believer to “believing” through communion and community which seems most reasonable. However, you seem to imply that the Trinity would not have communion with an individual prior to his being “physically” brought into the church of believers. Perhaps you can clarify that for me. Also, you wrote, “If the non-believer is participating in the the Church then I encourage him to be baptized.” If one is participating in the Church, I would think that he is more likely to be a believer. And aren’t believers rather than non-believers baptized?

    Thanks for helping me gain a deeper understanding of our most loving and compassionate Father, Son, and Spirit.

  3. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks for the encouraging words, Mike.
    Byron, thanks for the questions. I don’t mean to imply that the Trinity does not have communion with non-believers prior to their participation in the Church – obviously they are included in Christ, the Father’s children, and the Spirit is at work in their lives otherwise they would never be able to take even the first step toward belief. What I do mean to say, however, is that the work Jesus is doing in the Spirit in people’s lives is a work to lead them towards full participation in the communion he has with them which means he is leading them towards his body, the Church. As for non-believers participating in church, perhaps I should call them “seekers.” The whole basis of the church’s evangelism and children’s ministry is to reach out to people who don’t believe, invite them into the life of the church, and invite them to believe. Unless a church has a policy of only allowing people who have confessed belief (through baptism, a sinner’s prayer, or some other means) to attend its worship services then church will always be a mix of people who believe and those who are growing towards belief (such as children) and perhaps would be better classified as “seekers.” And, of course, you’re right, it is believers who are baptized. What I was saying is that if there is a non-believer attending my church (i.e. a seeker, a person growing towards belief) then I would encourage that person to be baptized as he becomes a believer.

    • Byron Ball on

      Thanks, Pastor, for additional insight into the matter. I like the term “seeker” for it bridges the gap between non-believer and believer; absolute states.

  4. shadowspring on

    The truth is, the moment someone crosses from “don’t believe” to “believe” may not be noticeable. I think of C.S. Lewis autobiography Surprised by Joy in which he state that when he left for the zoo that morning he was still undecided and yet by the time he arrived he knew Jesus Christ was who He claimed to be.

    So it seems to me that no one can “lead” another person in a prayer to cross them over from undecided to believing. It is a highly personal and intimately interior change that can’t (shouldn’t) be coerced.

    Manipulating someone to commit to a belief that is not honestly theirs is dishonest. A person so converted could be just as easily deconverted in response to a different argument, no? Such a faith rests on the compelling logic of the presenter, rather than on anything happening internally in the converts heart.

    A sinner’s prayer? I propose that the words of gratitude one pours out spontaneously when they realize how truly and deeply God loves them is the only true “sinner’s prayer”.

    Such a prayer is NOT the “prayer of salvation” because prayer secures salvation for no one. The Lord Jesus Christ has brought salvation to all. To Him alone belongs the credit for that! =)

  5. Pastor Jonathan on

    Good points, shadowspring, I appreciate your comments – especially your statement that prayer doesn’t save anyone!

  6. Rick Stillwell on

    Hey brother. Sometime ago I googled sinners prayer.What I found was a bit of history as to how this made its way into main stream Christianity.This is the link http://www.bible.ca/g-sinners-prayer.htm .According to this article modern western christianity has supported this through well known evangelists Billy Sunday and later Billy Graham. Not sure how accurate the article is,but this has a start somewhere.

  7. Boyd Merriman on

    I think another form of evangelizing, which I think is even more questionable, is the sense of panic I see among many in getting as many people “saved” before all hell breaks loose.

    As one pastor friend told me, “I feel I must go out there and save as many as I can because that is what God wants me to do” If he doesn’t, God will be angry with him and he will suffer punishment.

    So my obvious question was, is he trying to “save” people because he fears punishment, or is he saving people because God cannot, or did Jesus fail in his mission to save the whole world in one universal class action against sin?

    Is God really depending on this one man among a few others to actually do what Jesus could not do?

    Why are we trying to talk to people about “getting saved”? What is “get saved” anyway? Where is that in the bible? Did any of the apostles ask anyone to “get saved”? I know it says to “be saved”. But that is a whole new dynamic.

    Were the apostles in panic mode while trying to save everyone? Were they trying to save everyone? Were they feeling the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads while preaching the “good” news?

    The sinners prayer I think is a quick way to appease the ones who are proclaiming the gospel because once they get someone to say the sinners prayer, they can now move on to the next person. No accountability. It’s like a bad network marking company who drives their team to “recruit, recruit, recruit!” but no real growth or positive life changing results.

    Just get someone to “get saved” and get them to church. All’s well in the “get” world.

    On the other hand, I do understand the power of personal prayer and what that “sinners” prayer CAN do to help others. It’s a “starter” prayer for those who do not have the habit of prayer, which the “Lords Prayer” can also be. The prayer helps people actually say something that can pull a response out of them that otherwise will probably be left out. So I do see some power in that canned confession. Not everyone is able to speak what is on their minds and hearts. And I also see the need to go out and evangelize, but a good evangelist needs to help people realize (make the objective become subjective) that the Truth “out there” is now the Truth inside all of us.

    That is when the “sinners prayer” becomes real. And true “saving” from within becomes subjectively real and that changes everything.

    Boyd

  8. Pastor Jonathan on

    Hi Rick,
    That is an interesting article. I don’t agree with its polemical tone, of course (I know you don’t either) but I think his basic history is right. The sinner’s prayer is a relatively recent novelty rooted in the theology of the Second Great Awakening and 19th century revivalism, which is to say it is rooted in theology that is not very good.
    Boyd, as always, I appreciate your thoughts – especially thinking of the sinner’s prayer as a starter prayer like the Lord’s prayer. Something that also makes me think about is the value of the Lord’s prayer since it is the way that Jesus himself teaches us to pray.
    One of the problems I have with 19th century revivalist theology (carried over into the 20th century by such notables as Billy Graham) is the way it elevates novelties over Jesus’ given actions. So, the sinner’s prayer is elevated above the Lord’s prayer that Jesus gave us, coming forward to recommit to the Lord is elevated over coming forward to receive the bread and wine of communion, and altar calls are elevated over baptism. Jesus gave us his prayer, communion, and baptism. 19th century camp meetings gave us the sinner’s prayer, recommitments, and altar calls.


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