The Sinner’s Prayer

I was listening to the radio this morning and heard a disturbing sermon or exposition. The radio station and speaker will remain nameless – to protect the guilty, innocent or as yet undetermined. The main thrust of the message was the gospel being preached and taught in many churches was wrong. That what is commonly taught about salvation is inadequate and sometimes misleading.

That did pique my interest and I listened for the entire program. I am concerned enough to write this exposition.

I must confess, I’m not sure if the speaker is ill-advised, flat wrong or simply meandering in his thinking. Some points he made were valid and reasonable, others sounded fallacious and indefensible. However, I shall reserve my final judgement.

Yes. I do have judgement. I do get to judge teachings and doctrines of others. I am commanded by the Lord God of Armies to ‘judge’ spirits in 1st John 4:1. The word used in the text is translated ‘test’, but it means to “to make a critical examination of someth[ing,] to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine.” If that doesn’t mean ‘judge’, I’ll be switched.

The text in Matthew 7 (verses 1 to 7) reads
7:1 “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.1  7:2 For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive. 2  7:3 Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? 7:4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own? 7:5 You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. 7:6 Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.

Jesus in this passage is warning about criteria of judgement. Further He is talking about judging people, not issues, doctrine, logic or purported ‘facts’. So, when Jesus says in verse 2 the standard ‘we’ use to judge others will be the standard by which we are judged. Consider that Christians are judged in the light of mercy and forgiveness; should we judge other people without mercy?

On the other hand, First John 4:1-3 commands us – Christians – to ‘test the spirits’. In short, John, inspired by God to write this, is saying to double check anything that sounds contrary to Biblical teaching. This is why Christians do not put much stock in ‘reincarnation’ or ‘good luck charms’ or such. The teaching is contrary to the Bible message and discredits the power of God.

I don’t think it is out of line to read it as saying we are to analyze various sorts of claims – including sales pitches. I used two dabs of Brylcream for years and women NEVER chased me. (Which is not to say it didn’t work for keeping hair in place within reason.)

However, ‘judgement’ in terms of theology, doctrine and Christian dealings is not only allowed, but commanded.

“Gospel” is an interesting word. As most readers probably know, it comes from the Greek word “euaggelion” (pronounced ‘you-an-ghel-ee-on’ with a soft ‘g’ in the middle syllable; not like ‘hair gel’) and literally means ‘good news’. In the Greek, this could mean any good news, like “You got the raise” or “Our team won the playoff” or “Mother and child are doing well” and so forth.

In Christianity, the New Testament, it refers usually to the ‘good news’ of Salvation. Rather than me re-type it all, please go to BlueLetterBible.org; find the Strong’s Lexicon and check entry G2098.

What the speaker was attacking in the guise of poor gospel was specifically the evangelical concept of ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’. I have to admit, the attack has some merit; but it can be misleading.

The Sinner’s Prayer usually takes on some variation of the following:

“Lord, I admit I am a sinner. I know I cannot save myself from the eternal penalty for my sin and poor conduct. I know you sent your Son Jesus to die as a sacrifice for my sins. I accept the atonement of Jesus on my behalf and accept Your forgiveness. I will live according to your commandments to the best of my abilities and allow You to control my life.”

As mentioned, this is one variation, but it hits the high points. Some variations are shorter and some are longer and more detailed.

This usage has been attacked in the past few years as inadequate. Again, there is some merit to the attack. Yet the usage is not completely without effect or merit, either.

Here’s the explanation:

The Sinner’s Prayer is not, nor ever has been, promulgated as a “Magic Spell” which binds God to our will, or ‘forces’ God to save anyone from sin. Secondly, this approach seems to end the matter of the Christian life with salvation, only.

However, it does seem to be advertised that way at times. The impression one gets is that if anyone merely repeats these words, God is forced to act and all is well. Not ever spoken, but somewhat inferred is reciting this ‘spell’ is all that is required and one can go back to normal life – whatever that may be – and has a total and unrestricted ‘get out of jail – or hell – card’ for the remainder of one’s life. And, this is the goal and end of the matter.

This concept is simply not so.

The Sinner’s Prayer is also attacked in that it is not specifically recorded in the New Testament (or anywhere else in the Bible, for that matter.) This is correct, as far as it goes. No where is Jesus – or any of the other writers of the New Testament – recorded uttering these words. Nor do any of them suggest reciting a particular order of words (in any language) to secure forgiveness of sins. Of course, the composite ideas are espoused and with some repetition.

Just for the record, the term ‘Trinity’ does not appear, either. All Christian fellowships, denominations, groups, sects, sub-divisions and so forth concur on the triune nature of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The composite ideas are espoused and with some repetition.

So how does the Sinner’s Prayer work? It is the outline of an oral contract. Some object to the word ‘contract’. Too bad.

Presumably, the reader has heard the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” on occasion? Further presuming, the reader has heard the terms Old and New Covenant as well?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary (look on line, it’s easy to find) lists ‘testament’ as having an archaic (for example, A. D. 1611) meaning of “…a covenant between God and the human race”. Testament and Covenant both in this context mean “…a usually formal, solemn, and binding agreement”. A compact. A contract.

Even though in the modern world we think of contracts as documents to be signed, current U. S. law – and the world in general – recognize oral contracts where both parties agree on a specific agreement.

The Sinner’s Prayer can – should – be used to outline a specific and binding agreement between an individual human being and Almighty God.

The individual human being – called the ‘sinner’ for brevity – agrees to depend upon God for life, both temporal and eternal. Further the sinner agrees to follow God’s will, commands and directions for the rest of his life.

God agrees to remove the guilt and penalty of sin from the sinner. God further agrees to remake the sinner into the ‘reflection’ (image) of God in this life and for eternity. God also promises not to impose a ‘breach of contract’ penalty upon the sinner.

So why the Sinner’s Prayer for this?

A quick review of the elements of the Sinner’s Prayer, as presented here.

“Lord, I admit I am a sinner.”
The simplest verse to justify this statement is Romans 3:23; “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” However, this is merely a snippet and if anything, is rather understated. A couple verses prior, (verse 20 of the same passage) reads “For no one is declared righteous before him   by the works of the law…”
Romans 10:9-10 reads, “…because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10:10 For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation.”
So, some declaration of the matter is recommended in the matter.

“I know I cannot save myself from the eternal penalty for my sin and poor conduct.”
See the above paragraphs. Note the passage in Romans 3 again. There is no declaration of righteousness other than by the Grace of God.

“I know you sent your Son Jesus to die as a sacrifice for my sins.”
One of the keystones of Christianity.
Romans 5:6 and following (entire paragraph): “5:6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 5:7 (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.)  5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 5:9 Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood,* we will be saved through him from God’s wrath.  5:10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life? 5:11 Not only this, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.”
* “blood” is used here as a euphemism for death.

“I accept the atonement of Jesus on my behalf and accept Your forgiveness.”
This is the meaning of the word ‘believe’ in the New Testament. To rely upon and depend on the subject for what is needed. More than mere assent of existence, ‘belief’ includes acceptance and full dependence upon the subject of ‘belief’.

“I will live according to your commandments to the best of my abilities and allow You to control my life.”
First Corinthians 5:11-21 speaks of the ‘change’ concurrent with the transformation from non-believer to Christian. Christians are a ‘new creation’, yet there is a progression of the individual involved.

So, there is nothing in the Sinner’s Prayer which contradicts Jesus’ teaching or the doctrine of the New Testament.

The only potentially misleading concepts are two. One, it can be misinterpreted as a ‘magic spell’ which binds God to grant the speaker forgiveness. It is not. Second, it should never be presented in such a way to suggest this transaction – even as a binding, oral contract – is the end of the matter. This is the beginning of the Christian life and a transition to recreation in the image of God.

************************
The following is a bit of further explanation of some the issues involved herein. It is a bit random in organization, but are important in a general knowledge of the Bible fashion.

In the NET Bible website search function, I find twenty-eight pages of Bible references using the word ‘saved’. I counted a random page and found twenty verses using the word ‘saved’. That is 560 verses (more or less). In the words of a famous television commercial from a number of years ago, “I think I’m going to need a bigger box.”

The verses range from Genesis to Revelation. Some verses refer to physical salvation – as in “…saved us from the Philistines…”. Many refer to spiritual salvation and quite a few have double meanings – both physical and spiritual. Obviously I didn’t use all of them in this essay. Hopefully I’ve hit the main points.

The NET.Bible website also shows this definition:
Webster’s
SA’VED, pp. Preserved from evil; injury or destruction; kept frugally; prevented; spared; taken in time.

A favorite text of those who seek to impose greater restrictions on Christians is in Matthew 7, verses 21 to 23.

“21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven – only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’

These are the words of Jesus indeed. However, they aren’t as vague as some suggest. Look at the actual wording; those denied are all claiming to have done things in their own power. “…didn’t WE …” do this or that. Nor do any of those herein denied come to the Lord and say, “I gave You my allegiance and obedience. I trusted Your death and resurrection for my forgiveness.” This seems to be the key to the unspoken lesson of the passage.

None of this is to say prophesy and demon casting are NOT important. However, the only important work in Christianity is that work which is individually directed and empowered by God.

Another aside.
The words ‘belief’ (noun) or ‘believe’ (verb) and the word ‘faith’ (noun or verb depending on usage) are rather weak words in the modern English language. They were stronger words in Greek usage of Jesus’ day.

All to often, the term ‘believe’ is equated with ‘casual opinion’. Something like “I believe Jingles will win the third race at Hialeah today.” A closer meaning is “I believe I’ll have another beer”. The latter suggests a certainty of and intent of action which is a bit stronger than mere opinion or whim.

Strong’s Lexicon shows the Greek word to be G4100 pisteuo, (pes-too-oh). Strong’s reports as meaning:

To think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in [a ‘thing’ either physical or intellectual] in general life.
When used in a moral or religious reference:
* used in the New Testament of the conviction and trust to which a man is impelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative and law of soul
to trust in Jesus or God as able to aid either in obtaining or in doing something: saving faith
mere acknowledgment of some fact or event: intellectual faith.
This last alternative is used as a comparison to the ‘belief’ which is steadfast.

Likewise the word ‘faith’ does not in the Greek signify ‘wishful thinking’. There are two words in Greek translated ‘faith’ in the KJV and can be misleading.

The stronger word is G4102 pistis (pis-tis). It is linguistically connected to G4100 (above) and is similar in meaning. “Conviction of the truth…”
The weaker Greek word is G3640 oligopistos (ah-lee-gawp-ess-toss) and refers to ‘little faith’ or something akin to wishful thinking or a neutral acceptance, not amounting to full support.

One should also note that both ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are much like strength and ability. They all come in degrees or levels. All of these concepts grow over time and use. The more pushups one does, the stronger one’s arms and shoulders become. The more one knows and relies on God, the stronger belief grows.

End of aside regarding faith and belief.

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