Originating From a Secret Bunker Dug By William Hosea Holcombe and J.B. Gambrell Somewhere Off the Square in Oxford, Mississippi
At the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, the pastor of Oxford’s First Baptist Church, Dr. Eric Hankins, presented a resolution in favor of what is called the sinner’s prayer (a revised version of that resolution was adopted by the convention). For those who may not know, the sinner’s prayer is an evangelism technique (sometimes called drawing the net) used by Evangelicals, including many Southern Baptists, whereby a person is led to repeat a certain prayer, often word for word. Strangely, the exact wording of the prayer is not really that important so long as it contains language whereby the “convert” admits to being a sinner, says that he/she is sorrowful because of sin, and conveys a desire that God would forgive. Of course, there is nothing wrong with someone praying that God would have mercy on them. What is wrong is to equate praying the sinner’s prayer or any prayer with conversion. In Romans 5:1, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Therein lies the danger – it is faith in Christ, not prayer that saves, and we must not conflate the two. Granted, prayer is the breath of saving faith, but words can be uttered even when there is no faith in the heart. As our Lord said in Matthew 15:8, “This people honoreth me with their lips; But their heart is far from me.” So if we give people the impression that they are justified because they have mouthed some prescribed words we thereby undermine the Gospel itself.
As alluded to above, there is certainly nothing wrong with someone asking God to have mercy on them because of Christ’s substitutionary death for sinners on the cross. But the idea that it is helpful to lead people in a specific prayer and then call that receiving Christ is wrongheaded. Why? Because, at best, it is unnecessary. At worst, it deceives.
We know that such a prayer is unnecessary simply by looking at the example of Christ and the Apostles. In Luke 18:18, the rich young ruler asked Christ, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In Acts 16:30, the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Then in Acts 2:37, those present on the Day of Pentecost who were convinced they were guilty of crucifying Christ asked Peter and the other Apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” While the responses to those questions differ, especially the one made by Christ, it is important to note that no one was told to pray any type of prayer. This would be extremely odd if prayer is in any way necessary for conversion.
Regardless, some may argue from Romans 10:10 that prayer is still necessary in the conversion process. That passage reads, “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Clearly, the confession mentioned in this passage is predicated upon first believing with the heart. But more to the point, the word translated “confession” does not indicate that it has to be a prayer. For example, if a man were to sincerely say, “I am a great sinner, and my only hope is that the blood and righteous of Christ avail for me,” he has thus confessed with his mouth what he believes in his heart and is saved. That is what the Bible calls a “good confession” (1 Timothy 6:12). Granted, this verbal confession could be made in the form of a prayer as was the case with the publican in Luke 18:13, but even there the publican’s prayer was a spontaneous expression of what was already in his heart. It was in no way a prescribed prayer.
Please note, however, that since true faith prays, prayer then is a necessary consequence or fruit of conversion, meaning those who are truly converted will pray, sometimes even without intelligible words (Romans 8:26). This is altogether different from saying that prayer is a necessary component of conversion itself. Prayer is not what brings us from death to life (conversion or regeneration). And it is exactly at this point that the danger of deception lurks. If a man believes he is justified because he prayed a prayer, regardless of the prayer, he has missed Christ and is deceived. Prayer in this case, like the brazen serpent of old (Numbers 21:8-9; 2 Kings 18:4), has been misused and has become an idol.
Dr. Hankins and others would likely argue that the sinner’s prayer is but a helpful tool in leading people to Christ. But if the tool can be deceiving and is actually unnecessary, why use it at all? To put it another way, pretend you’re a physician, and you have a patient with a terminal illness. Also pretend there’s a drug available that many believe might be useful in treating this disease, but there’s a problem. The drug itself can be lethal. Oh, and one more thing – this drug is completely unnecessary because there is another treatment that works just as well, if not better, without the dangerous side-effects. Why then would any doctor use the unnecessary, dangerous drug? And why would any preacher use the unnecessary, dangerous sinner’s prayer?
Sure, if a person wants to pray for God’s mercy, then by all means let them pray. But as a physician to their soul, do not prescribe a prayer. Rather, prescribe that blood-stained cross. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15).