Sinner’s Prayer Strikes Again & Again

March 5, 2014

Methods That Don’t Work, Do.
by Dr. Rick Patrick, pastor
FBC, Sylacauga, Ala.

Although I am told certain evangelism techniques no longer work, nobody bothered to tell Mike and Melissa. I first met them at our church’s Soup (Or Chili) Bowl Fellowship. They showed up on the night the Broncos didn’t. But such events can never be evangelistic, according to Kevin A Thompson:

The greatest pastoral coup of the last 50 years has been convincing deacons that the Super Bowl could be used as an evangelistic event. Evangelistic football? It’s about as likely to succeed as evangelistic dating. 

Several weeks later, Mike and Melissa were still skeptical but searching. They were impressed with the joyful Christian fellowship they experienced at church. When Melissa met with me, her husband Mike was not ready yet—he remained in the car, fighting the conviction of the Holy Spirit. After sharing the gospel of grace with her, I could sense that Melissa was struggling, based upon the baggage in her past, to accept that she could appropriate God’s grace simply by repentance and faith.

Wanting to give her a transferrable witness that she could share with her husband, I found in the church office the well known gospel tract written by Bill Bright back in 1965 entitled The Four Spiritual Laws. I realize such approaches are discredited today by titles like “Honey, We Shrunk the Gospel” by Keas Keasler:  

When did we shrink the gospel? How did Jesus’ announcement of God’s coming kingdom and John’s vision of a renewed world get whittled down to a message about heaven and being rescued from the world?

Following our conversation, Melissa said she was ready to place her faith in Christ for her salvation. We had read the Sinner’s Prayer printed in the gospel tract. Rather than having her repeat it after me, I invited her to pray aloud the words of the prayer. I was careful to explain that these words were neither a mantra nor a spell, but that God was concerned about the attitude and desire of her heart. If she prayed these words and meant them sincerely, then on the authority of the Word of God, Jesus would save her soul and come live in her heart. That’s exactly what she did. Isn’t it peculiar that the Sinner’s Prayer helped this woman express her faith in Christ, when Paul Washer and others are convinced that it sends people to hell:

That Sinner’s Prayer has sent more people to hell than anything else on the face of the earth… (2:25) … the idolatry of decisionism…(3:55).

After Melissa left, she shared that same useless gospel tract with her husband, and later that afternoon, alone in his car, Mike gave his life to Christ, sincerely praying a simple confession like this one: “Lord, Forgive me for my sins. I’m yours.” Five minutes later, Mike received a phone call regarding a job offer he had been waiting for weeks to hear about. We joked about it not always working like that—every time someone is saved they do not receive amazing personal news just moments later—but this was a great day in which both a husband and a wife, separately, placed their faith in Jesus, and also experienced the great joy of God’s provision in their life.

Apparently, God’s sovereign omnipotence is so great that He can even use evangelistic methods that don’t work—like Super Bowl Parties and Gospel Tracts and especially the Sinner’s Prayer. In light of this observation, I plead with the readers of SBCToday to share with me a comprehensive list of all evangelistic methods that no longer work, for I am eager to try them all, that God may again receive glory for doing the impossible.
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Ed.’s note: SBCToday is deeply interested in telling the world about what God is doing in converting lost sinners unto Himself in SBC churches. Please send your report to sbctoday@gmail.com.

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Dan Nelson

Praise the Lord for you giving the opportunity for people to respond to the gospel message. I guess you just didn’t have enough sense but to lead them to Christ. Maybe not as sophisticated as some would say but if God uses it to bring people to a saving knowledge of Christ we all ought to get on board. I love the way you refute these arguments. Decisionism is a word invinted, like homophobic, which has been invented to go after soul-winning. Thank the Lord indeed for the sinner’s prayer.

Norm Miller

Keasler: When did we shrink the gospel? How did Jesus’ announcement of God’s coming kingdom and John’s vision of a renewed world get whittled down to a message about heaven and being rescued from the world?
Well, not perishing and having everlasting life is hardly an invitation to be “rescued from the world,” but it surely is a blessed outcome of salvation. Any pastor I know, who would advocate for the Sinner’s Prayer, would also advocate a discipleship typified by being “in the world and not of it.” Not sure to whom Keasler refers.

Norm Miller

Does Paul Washer truly believe that the Sinner’s Prayer could send the elect to hell? What’s that? He doesn’t? Oh … the Sinner’s Prayer sends only the non-elect to hell. Whodathunkit?

Don’t let my facetiousness obscure Washer’s fallacy. Why do Calvinists rant on this matter? Since the elects’ and non-elects’ eternal destiny is fixed before the foundations of the earth (say the Calvinists), then why, oh, why do they complain about the Sinner’s Prayer condemning people to hell? I thought God, who, according to Calvin and Calvinists, did not create all men equal, but created some for damnation. Is Washer telling us that the Sinner’s Prayer is somehow thwarting or ensuring the decretal will of God? Very interesting!

One Calvinist did answer this by saying that the Sinner’s Prayer can make some unbelievers into trouble-making church members. Well, is this a surprise to God, who ordained all things?

For the record, again, there is not a single Traditionalist in the SBC we know of who believes the insincere repetition of a series of prescribed words gets anyone into heaven. But neither does it send anyone to hell. Rejecting Jesus Christ sends people to hell.

    Mitch Bryant

    Norm
    I have often wondered the same thing as I have listened to people parrot Paul Washer and other reformed thinkers. I have asked this question as well and have yet to receive a reply that made any sense. Most times the main point of concern is that these people will be false converts who think they are saved and then will not respond to the gospel at the predetermined time in their lives or they will think they are saved and yet find out they are not. The whole topic makes no sense and yet it certainly does get lots of air time in the discussions of some people.

      Norm Miller

      Agree, Mitch.
      Washer, et al, try to make a point that flies in the face of Calvinism. I understand their disdain for overt psychological manipulation during the invitation time they claim runs apparently rampant across the SBC. However, I never in my life have heard anyone — pastor, preacher or evangelist — say: “ALL you have to do is walk down this aisle and fill out this card (etc.) and you will be saved.” Never heard it, ever. Nonetheless, I grant that someone somewhere may have said that. But, my point still holds, regardless of any citation of abuses.
      I think Calvinists don’t see the utter mistake it is to decry the Sinner’s Prayer as something that has sent people to hell. Calvin, himself, would chide his sons for such an obvious error as it is diametrically opposed to Calvin’s soteriology.

    Johnathan Pritchett

    The good news, Norm, is that there are some old-school Reformed Southern Baptists, including my 35 year old pastor (who is NOT a YRR type and finds them annoying), who still believe in using Altar Calls, and do so every Sunday. He and they also have no problem assisting people in their first sincere communication with God through the use of a Sinner’s Prayer in some form or other.

    However, I can sort of understand some of Keasler’s misgivings about the “Four Spiritual Laws” approach if this tract is what gave rise to the quoted concern. However, his error is thinking that an aid to evangelistic conversion is supposed to do all the work of teaching and discipleship and further elaboration. That, of course, is beyond the scope and purpose of the tract. Asking something to do something else which it is not intended to do is trivial and silly, in my opinion. It is like deciding a hammer is worthless since it isn’t a nail gun.

    A tract for evangelistic purposes aiding in conversions isn’t meant to teach everything there is to say about death, heaven, resurrection, new heavens and new Earth. So far as I can tell, Dr. Patrick recounted exactly what should be done with such tools, which is using them as aids in the evangelistic dialog, not as a replacement for evangelism and dialog.

    Though I did find this curious. “I was careful to explain that these words were neither a mantra nor a spell…” That seems like an additional disclaimer brought into the conversation by the detractors of the Sinner’s Prayer, and thus unnecessary, if not somewhat lending credence and credibility to the complaints. In all my years of observing people both in the church and out, believers or false converts, I have never once met one of those supposed masses in either category; the detractors of the Sinner’s Prayer seem always talk about those who think it was the prayer that saved them.

      Rick Patrick

      You’re right, Jonathan. I’m bending over backwards to make sure nobody thinks the prayer is what actually saves them, and it turns out nobody really thinks that anyway. I’m not evangelizing Washer and Greear and Platt. Out with the unnecessary disclaimer!

Chuck Williams

Great article. The use of humor and insight along with quotes made it hard to refute. I still use the Roman Road, 4 Spiritual laws, Sinners Prayer, etc and give an invitation. In fact a few months ago I led a local Radio DJ in the Sinners Prayer at his friends office. His conversion was very dramatic spiritually, emotionally and yes even physically. That was 8 months ago. He has not recovered yet. He blogs weekly about Jesus and has started a local weekly radio program to share the love of Christ. He ends every program with an invitation for listeners to pray the “Sinners Prayer”. I sure hope he never gets educated about how he is doing it all wrong. Our church would be poorer for it. BTW if anyone wants more info about him just go to Facebook Lifesong Radio.

Debbie Kaufman

I have nothing against the sinner’s prayer or the altar call. I do have concerns however. Pretty big concerns. Christianity has become more in superstition and less Biblical and that is true among Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, at least as I was raised in one and attended for 35 years. Altar calls are seen as a must to salvation. Sinners prayer is seen as a must to salvation. People will go forward or pray the sinners prayer for other reasons than their need of a Savior. It can and does lead to false conversions.

I am not as radically against the Sinner’s prayer or the altar call as Paul Washer and am fine either way. I am simply pointing out the downfalls that do occur with the Sinner’s prayer and the altar call. Only time will tell whether one is converted or not and even then that can be a false indicator. As humans we think on human terms, when God is great and much greater than we can possibly think. He converts using the above methods and He also converts when someone is sitting in a chair, driving to work, laying in bed, sitting in a pew. People can believe as I believe the Bible is full of passages where it is the work of God not us lest any man should boast. Ephesians 2:8&9 among so many other passages. But we must be sure we are used when the opportunity arises.

I believe the Bible teaches when God lays someone on our heart to pray for, he is getting ready to do a work. And yes, I believe the Bible is full of chapters on the elect and non-elect. God is God. He can do whatever He wants whenever He wants. We however are not God.

Tad Thompson

Dr. Patrick – I do not have a problem with helping someone boldly approach the throne of grace to find help in their time of need. But let me ask you one important question. Do you personally grant these folks assurance of salvation because they voiced a “sinner’s prayer?” If you listen to Paul Washer and read his thoughtful books on faith and repentance, what you will find is a disdain for the misuse of the “sinners prayer” and the practice of leading someone in a prayer and then declaring that this momentary act is the cause of regeneration and therefore one’s assurance is to be forever grounded in speaking “that prayer.” It is this practice that sends many to hell – giving assurance to someone who at some point said a prayer. True repentance and faith in tried in the fires of perseverance. Jesus taught this plainly in the parable of the sower. I also think it is dangerous to talk about any method “working.” We are not trying the “get decisions” we are trying to declare the gospel, planting and watering and waiting for the Lord to bring the increase. If our methodology manipulated a decision, then it is not the work of God. Many people who express their faith in a sinner’s pray are truly responding in faith and repentance, I will grant you that. But, I do think we must be extremely careful in our clarifications and applications of all methodologies. By the way – I do not think most Calvinists in the SBC are against having outreach events – this would be a view of the fringe reformed who view and leisure on the Lord’s Day as unlawful recreation. That view has little to do with Calvinistic soteriology.

    PreachBlackManPreach

    Amen! This has nothing to do Calvin or Kelvin! For the record I am neither one. This method in the hands of those who stand among the people using it without laboring in the “labor of His love” will produce a false profession more often than not. I have no problem with placing the acknowledgment of sin and the heart desire of the sinner to be saved from sin, guilt and certain judgment to come, in the form of a prayer. However the workman and the hell desiring lake of fire doomed sinner should know that apart from work of the Spirit and the word of Truth, godly sorrow and genuine faith there will be no conversion. This is a serious issue beyond the SBC spanning most of the main line denominations. I still believe the greatest mission field is the organized local here in the United States of America. The priority first is to get them unsaved before they can be saved. I have had my fill of eisogetical preachers expecting the miracle of salvation apart from preaching the gospel. Most if not all of you are currently in a sound-doctrinal, Christ centered, Bible believing fellowship but we are the minority and this prayer used by a slothful laborer is Paul’s point.

PreachBlackManPreach

I’m sure within the reach of this site, most would say we do not have a serious problem with this prayer. Most, if not all, of the contributors here would depend upon the Spirit of God using the Word of God to bring the unrepentant sinner to the place of total desperation, having been convicted of sin, righteousness and judgement. Having arrived at the place where they desperately desire to be saved from sin rather to continue to live therein. Let me speak freely of the so-called Black Church where I minister. Most of these parishioners who gather from week to week or on Easter, Mother’s day or a funerals, truly believe they were saved by ‘water baptism’ and some remember some prayer. Why? I’ll tell you why, their pastors placed the emphasis on the above, “joining the church” where this prayer is used along with water baptism . I taught new members class and many of the souls when you ask them the question, provided they even came back, “have you seen a difference in your life”. The overwhelming response “same old same old”. Now listen beloved, No one comes to saving knowlege of Christ Jesus and “its the same old same old”. Many of these members are spread across several churches in the community I grew up in. They consist of family members, school mates etc. and many of them live their lives as if they know “not” the Lord. Everyone here knows the sinner prayer has yet to save anyone and will never save anyone. Christ Jesus alone saves. Those who use this prayer without preaching the gospel practice what they’ve seen others do, especially prominant T.V preachers. I’ve seen this method used in most cases in the absence of the message of repentance in the gospel. I trust we would all agree sin must be dealt with before the repentant sinner comes to Christ. Remember beloved, “all” who have heard of the Father and have learned “Come to Christ”.

PreachBlackmanPreach

No one believes water baptism saves either, yet there are so-called denominations scattered across the fruited plain that do so. The most conservative in this movement believe one must be baptized according to Acts 2:38, the more liberal, just baptism in water will do.

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