The Sinner's Prayer
By Lance Mosher
The most important question a person could ever ask is, “What must I do to be saved?” In these days, it is common to find many different answers to that question. One of the more popular answers to this question is, “You must pray to be saved.” Before a person is taught to pray to be saved, he or she is usually taught about the seriousness of sin, and sometimes repentance. After the person expresses that he or she wants to be “saved,” the sinner will then be told to say a prayer to ask God for forgiveness and for Jesus to come into his or her heart. This prayer is often, but not always, referred to as the sinner’s prayer. I have searched the Bible for a commandment and/or an example of this plan of salvation. It cannot be found. There are a lot of people and printed material that teach this plan of salvation. I have looked and looked for Scripture references to this plan of salvation from these teachers and printed material, but it was very hard to find. After searching a long time, I finally found one that referenced Romans 10:13, which reads, “[F]or ‘whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” We will examine this passage later in the lesson.
When we believe in God and value the death of Jesus, it is quite natural for us to trust those who have studied about God more than we have. Unfortunately, the men and women who have spent years studying God, even those who have earned Ph.Ds in theology, are still fallible, mistake-prone human beings. It is good to trust people in certain areas, but I would ask you to be careful with whom you trust your eternal salvation. When seeking the answer to, “What must I do to be saved?” should we trust the teachings of men or of God? Of course, the obvious answer is trust the teachings of God!
The New Testament was completed a little less than 2,000 years ago. Did you know that the teachings of the sinner’s prayer started less than 500 years ago? What does that mean? It means that the sinner’s prayer cannot originate with the Bible. In fact, it wasn’t even popularized until the teachings of Billy Graham, who began preaching in the late 1930s. The good thing about trusting in the Bible is that it never changes. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings” (Heb. 13:8-9a). I encourage you to check the Bible for yourself. You will not find a single commandment or example in the entire Bible that indicates that someone who is a sinner and outside of Christ should pray in order to be saved.
At this point in the study, one thing must not go without saying. I do not want you to misunderstand me. Prayer is a vital part of a Christian’s relationship with God. It is commanded and necessary for those who are in Christ to remain in a right relationship with God. After someone is initially forgiven, and he or she sins against God, the Christian is commanded to pray and repent. Notice the example of Simon in Acts 8. When Simon, a new Christian, sins, Peter tells him, “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). That was told to him after he had been saved (Acts 8:13). Of course, even when a Christian is in a right relationship with God, he or she is still commanded to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). However, when someone has never been placed into Christ, one does not begin his or her relationship with God through prayer.
CALLING ON THE NAME OF THE LORD
As mentioned above, the only Scripture reference I have seen someone give on the sinner’s prayer is Romans 10:13, which reads, “[F]or ‘whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom. 10:13). Does this verse mean that all you have to do is verbally “call upon the name of the Lord”? No, because Jesus teaches the opposite. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matt. 7:21). Not everyone who verbally calls upon the Lord will be saved. Obviously, Romans 10:13 has a deeper meaning than a verbal “calling upon the name of the Lord.” Scripture teaches that “calling upon the name of the Lord” means obeying the Lord’s authority. How did Zephaniah define “call on the name of the Lord”? He said, “For then I will give to the peoples purified lips, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder” (Zeph. 3:9). Zephaniah said that they called upon the name of the Lord by serving Him. Notice that Peter did something similar. In Jerusalem, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter was preaching to a group of Jews who handed Jesus over to be crucified. Peter quoted Joel by saying, “And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). After preaching Jesus to them, those same Jews asked the same preacher, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter did not answer them, “Pray that God forgives you, and ask Jesus into your heart.” Instead, he answered, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). How were they to “call upon the Lord”? They were to obey His words (Luke 6:46; 13:3; Mark 16:16). Notice the connection between the two sentences Peter says in Acts 2:21 and 38.
If someone believes that one can be saved through prayer or a verbal “calling,” that person claims that there is a contradiction in the Bible. That is not possible since the Bible is whole, complete, and from God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Instead, I would encourage that person to reconsider his or her evaluation of the Bible, and notice that God has a different plan of salvation than the thoughts of modern man. Pay attention to the conversion of Saul (who was later called Paul, Acts 13:9). The conversion story is told three different times in the book of Acts. First, it was told by the narrator (Luke) (Acts 9), and then later twice by the apostle himself (Acts 22 and 26). Let’s put the details of them together. Although Acts 9 tells us about Saul’s conversion, we don’t know all of what was said and done. After all, we have 3 days summed up in one verse (9:9). After his conversion, as Paul was preaching to the Jews who thought Jesus was a blasphemer, Paul wanted to convince them why he was so zealous for Christ. The best way to convince them was to explain his past and tell the story of his conversion (Acts 22:1-16). This conversion story is the same story as Acts 9, but it fills in a few gaps of information. After Paul had seen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-5), Paul fasted and prayed for three days (Acts 9:9-11). Notice, he was praying for three days. If prayer were sufficient to initially wash sins away, Paul’s conversion would have been finished at this point. But instead, God sends Ananias to Saul to tell him what to do (Acts 9:10-18). After Ananias came to Saul, what did Saul do? “[A]nd he got up and was baptized.” Why was he baptized? What is it that Ananias said to him? Ananias said, “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). Even after three days of prayer, Saul’s sins were not washed away. Obviously, prayer is not the way to receive initial salvation. Trusting in God by obeying the command of baptism is. Again, after baptism, one must pray to stay in that relationship with God (1 Thess. 5:17), but that is not how one initially is put into Christ where salvation and forgiveness of sins are found (Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27; Col. 1:13-14; 2 Tim. 2:10). “[F]or ‘whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom. 10:13). How do we “call on the name of the Lord”? The Bible says, “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).
Does a sinner receive forgiveness through the sinner’s prayer? According to men, yes. According to God, no. Is that how you were “saved”? If so, after taking a closer look at the teachings of the Sinner’s Prayer, do you see that God does not initially save people through prayer? God does not want us to simply verbally call upon His name. Remember Jesus’ words, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matt. 7:21). He wants our hearts, our obedience, and our lives. If you trusted in the sinner’s prayer to save you, do you believe you are in danger because you didn’t trust in God’s plan of salvation, but instead, trusted in the false teaching of men? We are told to believe in Him, repent of our sins, and be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins (John 8:24; Luke 13:3; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38, 22:16). Simply put, Christ is the author of salvation to “all those who obey Him” (Heb. 5:8-9), and He and His apostles never taught the sinner’s prayer.
Millions and millions of sincere people, trying to please God, have believed and obeyed the false teaching of the sinner’s prayer. Though they were sincere, Jesus teaches that it’s the individual’s job to inspect the teaching of others to see whether or not they are true (Matt. 7:13-20; Acts 17:11). Though people may be sincere in following the sinner’s prayer, they are sincerely wrong. Jesus warns that many people will be sadly surprised on the Judgment Day because they did not obey the Father (Matt. 7:21-23). Many of the people who say the sinner’s prayer also get baptized sometime afterward. Their baptism, of course, cannot be the one baptism that God commands and accepts (Eph. 4:5), because they’re getting baptized thinking that they’re already saved. If this describes you, and you were baptized thinking you were already saved, do you understand that since this is not God’s plan of salvation found in the Bible that your baptism did nothing for you spiritually? Now that you examined what God says about the matter, what should you do? In Acts 19, Paul discusses baptism with a group of people who were baptized with a different baptism than what God authorizes. He teaches them about the baptism Jesus commands. What did they do in response to this? “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:3-5). God shows no partiality to people (Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 2:11). What He requires of one person to be saved, He requires of all. What He required then, He requires now. If you have not obeyed the commandment of the one baptism to receive forgiveness of your sins, you must answer God one question: “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16)!
Except where noted, Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation