Author: Ron Graham
Grace and Prayer
—Especially the Sinner’s Prayer
In this lesson we link salvation by grace with salvation through prayer. In evangelical meetings it is usual for sinners to be told to pray the “sinner’s prayer” to be saved. This raises some important questions about the belief that salvation is by grace alone.
1 The “Sinner’s Prayer”
First let us look at the “Sinner’s Prayer” that is provided for sinners to recite. This prayer is not found in the Bible, although its authors would claim it is Biblical in its sentiments. There are many versions of it, some shorter than the sample below. However all versions are along similar lines.
In most versions there's a contrite acknowledgment of sin and the need of forgiveness. There's a confession of faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. There's usually some kind of commitment or contract for a change of conduct. There's a claim to be saved at the very moment the prayer is recited, and thanksgiving for this immediate salvation by grace.
Sample “Sinner’s Prayer”
Dear God in heaven, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I acknowledge to you that I am a sinner, and I am sorry for my sins and the way that I have lived. I need and seek your forgiveness.
I believe that your only Son, Jesus Christ, shed his precious blood on the cross at Calvary and there he died for my sins. I am now willing to turn from my sin.
You promise in your word that if we confess Jesus Christ, and believe in our hearts that you raised him from the dead, we shall be saved.
Right now I confess Jesus as the Lord of my being. With all my heart, I believe that you raised Jesus from the dead. This very moment I accept Jesus Christ as my own personal Savior and I believe that, according to his word, I am saved right now.
Thank you Jesus for your unlimited grace which has saved me from my sins. I ask you Lord Jesus to transform my life so that I may bring glory and honor to you alone and not to myself.
Thank you Jesus for dying for me and giving me eternal life. In your wonderful name I pray, Amen.
Contradicting Grace Alone
Notice an interesting point about such a prayer. It contradicts the claim that salvation is by grace alone and nothing else. The “Sinner’s Prayer” makes faith, repentance, and confession of Christ, all conditions of forgiveness and necessary for salvation by grace. The prayer is correct in this. However it is contrary to the belief that grace is unconditional and salvation is by grace alone and nothing else.
If salvation is by grace alone and nothing else, then the “Sinner’s Prayer” is not necessary. The prayer calls for a sinner’s willing response to grace, before God grants forgiveness and salvation. This means salvation is not by grace alone. It is by grace conditional upon the sinner’s willing response.
So where does this leave us? Those who use the “Sinner’s Prayer” cannot consistently hold that salvation is by grace alone and the sinner contributes nothing to becoming saved. On the other hand, those who hold to that doctrine cannot use the “Sinner’s Prayer” without contradicting themselves.
There's another interesting point about the “Sinner’s Prayer”. It replaces baptism. Jesus said, “The one who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:15-16). But now people say, “The one who believes and says the Sinner’s Prayer shall be saved”. But Jesus didn't say that, did he?
Likewise, Ananias told Saul, “Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins...” (Acts 22:16). But now people say, “Arise and say the Sinner’s Prayer and wash away your sins...”. But Ananias didn't say that, did he?
2 Saul’s Prayers
Let's think about the conversion of Saul (who afterward became the apostle Paul). Most preachers say Saul was saved on the road to Damascus when confronted by Jesus. However, consider the words of Ananias who came to Saul in Damascus.
Here is a part of Luke’s account, followed by a part of Paul’s own account...
¶“9Saul had waited in Damascus for thee days. He was blind and had taken no food or drink. 10There was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’ Ananias said, ‘Behold Lord, here I am.’”
¶“11The Lord said to him, ‘Arise, and go to the street named Straight. Inquire at the house of Judas for someone named Saul, a man of Tarsus. For behold, he is praying. 12He has seen a vision. He saw a man named Ananias coming in and laying his hands on him to give him back his sight.’” (Acts 9:9-12).
¶“12Paul continued, “I was visited by a man named Ananias. He is a devout man according to the law with a good reputation among all the Jews living in Damascus. 13Ananias came and stood before me. He said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ At that moment I looked up and could see him.”
¶“14He said, ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will, to see the Just One, and hear words from his mouth. 15For to all people you shall be his witness and tell what you have seen and heard. 16And now why do you wait? Arise, and be immersed, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’ ” (Acts 22:12-16).
Saul had been three days in Damascus. He was praying —yet his sins were still not washed away, because Ananias said, “Why do you wait? Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins...” (Acts 22:16).
Saul was not saved on the road. He was not saved in his prayers. He was not saved in his visions. He was not saved in receiving back his sight. He was saved, by grace, when he obeyed Ananias’s words.
This does not mean that Saul’s prayers were pointless or useless. Ananias was sent in answer to Saul’s prayers. But this sinner’s prayer was not the moment that his sins were forgiven. The sinner’s baptism was the great moment of grace for Saul. God’s grace had been working for Saul toward that moment.
So we observe that Saul prayed, but he did not pray the modern “Sinner’s Prayer” nor did he substitute it for baptism.
3 Prayers of Other Sinners
Let us briefly mention some other sinners who prayed to God, but they, like Saul, did not pray the modern “Sinner’s Prayer”.
The story of Cornelius is similar to Saul’s. Cornelius was told, “Your prayers and your alms have arisen as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:1-6). But he was not saved in any of his prayers because he was told, “Peter will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved” (Acts 11:13-14).
The Tax Collector
The most famous (and the shortest) sinner’s prayer is “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14). In a parable, Jesus told of a tax collector who went to the temple and prayed thus. Jesus confirms that the man who prayed this prayer “went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).
This was not the modern “Sinner’s Prayer”. It lacked most of the elements. It certainly was not a prayer in which the man invited Jesus into his heart and confessed faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. Nevertheless, the man was granted salvation under the terms of the true religion of that time. He was already a child of God. His prayer is a pattern of humility, and trust in God not self. However, his prayer is not a pattern for becoming saved today.
Simon the Sorcerer
Simon the great sorcerer became a Christian and gave up his magic arts. But he sinned by offering money to buy the same miraculous powers as the apostles. Peter rebuked him severely, and said, “Repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray God that perhaps you may be forgiven for the thought of your heart” (Acts 8:9-24).
Here the “formula” for salvation is repent and pray. However this applies not to a sinner seeking to become a Christian, but to a Christian who has fallen and seeks to be restored. To be saved in the first place, Simon believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13).
The modern “Sinner’s Prayer” is perhaps a fitting prayer for the Christian seeking forgiveness. It is not a fitting prayer for the person seeking to become a Christian. Repent and pray is God’s law for the Christian who has sinned. Repent and be baptized is God’s law when a person first comes to Christ (Acts 2:38).
After Nathan had condemned David’s union with with Bathsheba, David wrote a prayer of repentance which is very beautiful (Psalm 51). This too is a pattern for one who has been saved but has fallen into sin. Notice David says, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12).
The prayers mentioned above show us that the modern “Sinner’s Prayer” is perhaps appropriate for the restoration of a fallen Christian. However it is not appropriate for one who is wishing to become a Christian. The “Sinner’s Prayer” has been made a substitute for baptism. Unfortunately, that substitution has no authority from Christ.
Six Steps to Grace
The words of Paul in Romans (and his agreement with Jesus in the gospels) on what people should do to receive grace
1. Hearing Christ’s word
(Romans 10:8-17, Matthew 7:24).
2. Believing —having faith
(Romans 1:16-17, John 3:16)
3. Repentance from sin
(Romans 2:4-5, Romans 6:1-2, Luke 5:31-32)
4. Confessing Christ
(Romans 10:8-10, Matthew 10:32)
5. Being baptized into Christ’s death
(Romans 6:3-4, Mark 16:15-16)
6. Ongoing commitment
(Romans 12:1-2, Romans 12:11-12, Luke 9:62)