Is it possibly a sign of our partisan ways that one of the most divisive things in the SBC today is the Sinner’s Prayer?
I attended a men’s breakfast this morning where a nationally known sports figure was the featured speaker. Around 800 men (well, there were a few women who crashed the testosterone party!) ate a hearty meal then listened to this man share his life story and make a gospel presentation. All in all, I would say it was a biblically grounded message – I don’t think even some of the angriest of the discernment bloggers would have found too much to quarrel with in his testimony and his presentation of the gospel. I might have tweaked a word here or there, but it was solid.
Then, he wrapped up his message by saying that “you are saved by praying this little prayer, if you mean it with all your heart.” That is where a lot of people would have recoiled in horror. That is when the accusations and recriminations usually come in!
- You guys preach “salvation by Sinner’s Prayer.”
- You guys don’t preach a biblical gospel. There’s nothing in the Bible about praying a Sinner’s Prayer.
I’m convinced that fighting about this is manifestly silly and that our differences on the issues are overblown. But in typical modern Baptist fashion, we magnify our differences, coalesce around those with whom we agree, demonize and anathematize those who disagree, and settle into our camps certain God is on our side and that “they” are in the wrong. It gets to be like one of those talk show arguments where everyone is talking at the same time and no one is listening.
I would offer the following observations.
1. The Sinner’s Prayer has been abused – without question.
I’ve seen it. I’ve cringed in meetings as someone on stage has asked everyone to “say this prayer out loud.” Then afterward, he tells everyone that if they really meant it they’d been saved. I’ve heard the Sinner’s Prayer used without adequate gospel explanation and yes, I’ve seen it presented as a means of salvation. To deny that this tool has been abused is to deny reality.
Those who have called us to account concerning the use of the Sinner’s prayer have performed a service to the church, giving us a corrective to these abuses. Instead of giving knee-jerk defenses of the Sinner’s Prayer we should look at the way it is used and make sure it is being done properly.
2. The Sinner’s Prayer is a tool to accomplish a biblical purpose.
Salvation does not come by praying a prayer. It comes by repentance and faith. It comes when a man or women is broken and turns to God in faith. That is what must take place and it is not simply rhetoric. We must never give people the idea that reciting a prayer is somehow a saving act, or that going forward is, or that getting baptized or taking communion or doing good works or anything else is. Salvation comes by the grace of God to those who feel the weight of their sin’s guilt, call to God in repentance and place their faith in Christ.
But how do they do that? Well, it is a prayer, isn’t it? We express our repentance and faith in a prayer. So, if an evangelist gives a person a little help in wording that prayer it isn’t an act of evil, is it? It would seem that it is a good thing to help people find the words to express the repentance and faith that is welling up in their hearts. Of course, no prayer can create what does not actually exist.
We have a tendency to confuse means with ends. God called us to publicly profess our faith in Christ and 150 or so years ago (closer to 200 now?) they came up with the idea of having an altar call and asking people to “come forward” to express their repentance and faith. At first, it was just a way to express faith but at some point it became confused with the very act of faith itself. When I pastored in a Southern town I would ask people when or how they got saved and they often responded, “I went forward when I was 9 years old” or something similar. They spoke of when they went forward as if it was the same as getting saved. I believe that most of them knew the difference but it was something I addressed in my sermons – that we are not saved by going to church, going forward, getting baptized, joining the church or anything else. We are saved by grace through faith.
If kept within that theological context and used carefully, the Sinner’s Prayer is not inherently evil or dangerous, but a tool to use to help repentant sinners express their genuine faith.
3. Sinner’s Prayer opposition has overheated and blown a gasket at times.
There has been some pretty strong rhetoric directed against the Sinner’s Prayer. Perhaps the most powerful is the one attribute to Leonard Ravenhill.
The Sinner’s Prayer has sent more people to hell than all the taverns in America.
Maybe I should avoid remarking on the irony of that comment, for risk of opening another can of worms I’ll regret, but the same people that fight over the Sinner’s Prayer often fight and divide over alcohol – and stand on different sides in Ravenhill’s equation. Never mind. Let’s keep Pandora’s box closed!
Is there truth in Ravenhill’s statement? Of course, there is! When people are told that they are saved by simply reciting a prayer (please don’t say it never happens – I’ve seen it myself too often to listen to denials) they are given a false hope and may be tempted to believe they are saved before they have been converted.
Is Ravenhill’s statement a tad overcharged? I would say so. Of course, neither taverns nor the Sinner’s Prayer send people to hell. Our sin and our refusal to trust Christ for salvation is what condemns. Ravenhill (assuming he did make that statement) was guilty of some intense rhetorical hyperbole. Another well-known conference speaker says, “Declare War on the Sinner’s Prayer.”
But is the prayer itself the problem or is it the misuse and abuse? Have invitations been abused? Of course, they have. Again, I’ve witnessed it too many times. I was asked to be a counselor for an “evangelistic” crusade 15 or 20 years ago and I was assigned to be a 3rd wave guy. Some of us “primed the pump” by coming forward the first time the “evangelist” (I put that in quotes on purpose!) gave the invitation. Then, he’d stop and give a second invitation and the second group would come forward. After his third invitation, I’d go forward. We’d then wait at the front hoping others would follow us – holy peer pressure, I assume. By the end of the week I felt angry at the manipulative tactics I saw employed by this man. It was disgusting. Evil. Totally of the flesh. (No, it was not Billy Graham or any of his associates.)
I remember an evangelist in the church I grew up in. We’d sung several verses of the invitation hymn and no one had come. He basically said we weren’t leaving until some people came forward that day. A few of us went down and “rededicated” our lives on the next verse so that everyone could go home.
Are invitations abused? Indubitably. Does that mean we are morally obligated to cease and desist all invitations? No. Peter gave a pretty forceful invitation on the day of Pentecost. We just have to make sure we do it (if we do it) with integrity and in line with biblical truth. Human manipulation and salesmanship are not appropriate. We proclaim and the Spirit works the heart.
The point? Calm down. Tone down the rhetoric on both sides. Those who use the Sinner’s Prayer have not all rejected the biblical gospel and those who are critiquing it are not opponents of evangelism. There is a legitimate place for helping a repentant sinner pray properly but there is a legitimate reason to question the way many have used it.
A Modest Proposal
If I had any hope that the combatants would listen, maybe I’d be more aggressive. But this is not a place where our fight needs to be as angry as it is.
1. Tone down the rhetoric.
That’s true in about 98% of our issues. There are some extremists on this issue, of course, as is true in everything, but this is not an “us against them” thing. We’ve made it into that, but it isn’t that and shouldn’t be that.
- Both sides believe in salvation by grace through faith.
- Neither side (in the SBC) believes that reciting a prayer saves us.
Our quarrel concerns a method, not the gospel itself. We should stop acting like those who use the Sinner’s Prayer desire to offer a cheap grace or that those who criticize the Prayer are opposing evangelism and the free offer of the gospel. Carefully wording our critiques to give honor to those with whom we disagree is a good first step.
2. Listen to the other side.
We are so defensive today, so quick to play the victim and pronounce ourselves offended and injured. But much trouble could be avoided if we would simply listen to the criticisms of the other side.
- Sinner’s Prayer supporters – please listen! A very good and godly man today gave a clear gospel presentation and then capped it with a false statement. I know very well that he does not believe that salvation is by praying a prayer. He said better! But his gospel presentation was a little careless. You guys could listen and fine-tune your presentation to make sure that this mistake isn’t made. You don’t want to lead anyone astray, do you? Listen! There is wisdom in the other side.
- Sinner’s Prayer critics – please listen! The people you criticize are not enemies of the gospel. They are not desirous of gaining false converts by manipulation (most aren’t anyway). Come away from your insulated conference-going, book-reading tendencies and engage some of the folks who use the prayer on a regular basis. Realize that they love the gospel just as you do and just use a different method. Show grace. There is passion for truth in the other side.
3. Come away from isolation and insulation.
If I were the pope of the SBC, one of the things I’d fight against is all the cliques and splinter groups that are forming. Many people would rather attend their splinter group meetings than our overall gatherings at the annual SBC.
What is the result of that? We become isolated from those who disagree and insulated from one another. How many times have you Calvinists felt like the anti-Calvinist groups accurately and fairly represented your views? Do you in the various non-Calvinist camps ever feel as if the way you are represented by Calvinists is fair? Of course not. Don’t ask a Democrat to accurately describe a Republican’s views or vice versa.
We separate into our camps and we caricature the other side. Of course, since we are with “our people,” no one corrects our straw man and we begin to assume our representation of “them” in indisputably accurate. They don’t evangelize. They preach cheap grace. They don’t believe the gospel is for everyone. They try to do the work of God in the power of the flesh.
And since you have surrounded yourself with only those who agree with you, no one will ever challenge your prejudiced views or correct your misconceptions. You will get loud amens and slaps on the back from your side when you demonize the other side.
One of the healthiest things we can do is bridge those gaps, come out of our secret dens of separation and fellowship across the aisle.
4. Put it in perspective.
The Sinner’s prayer is not a gospel essential. It’s a means to an end, not the end itself. The end is proclaiming Christ crucified and calling sinners to repentance. The Sinner’s prayer is neither a biblical mandate nor inherently a tool of the enemy. It’s a method for helping repentant sinners express their faith in Christ. Can it be abused? Please stop denying that. It happens all the time. Is it inherently evil? A prayer that helps a sinner express repentance and faith is evil? You really want to argue that?
Let’s keep this in perspective folks. We aren’t arguing a gospel essential but a means to an end. And we should lighten up, honor one another, and show some restraint in our rhetoric.