Over the years I have noticed the importance Christians place on the sinner’s prayer (usually associated with the 4 spiritual laws). Here is the basic formula: Jesus I admit I am a sinner and believe you died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins; come into my life and save me.
Many seem to believe when you share Jesus with a person all you have to do is to get them to pray this prayer and they are saved. It is as if the sinner’s prayer is equal to the magic chant abracadabra. Say the magic words and you’ll be saved. I recently had a parent tell me her atheist son is okay, he’ll be in heaven because when he was younger he prayed this prayer.
I vividly remember sharing Jesus with two friends and felt the pressure to close the deal and have them pray the sinner’s prayer. My thinking at that time was if they say these key words and if they really mean it, they will be in heaven someday. After intense discussions with the two of them, I got them both to pray the prayer. In each instance I left with a sense of success. I thought I had opened the door for two new Christians to enter into God’s kingdom when they die.
This occurred over 20 years ago and my friendship with these individuals has continued. What I noticed was nothing changed in their lifestyles; they are exactly the same before and after praying the prayer. One never went to church and has continued that pattern and the other is religious on Sunday’s and lives like a pagan the rest of the week. How is this possible? How could both of them pray to follow Jesus and yet continue living as if He never existed?
What we have to realize is the sinner’s prayer saves no one! That’ right, nobody has ever been saved by saying some scripted words. Salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit. Nowhere in the Bible are we given a formula to pray with people to get them into the kingdom. The sinner’s prayer is a recent human development, within the last 150 years.
In my own personal spiritual journey no one shared a prayer of repentance with me. I was reading the Bible and the Holy Spirit convicted me of my sin and need for forgiveness. The next time I heard a pastor ask people to receive Christ I knew in my heart I’d already done that. At the time I didn't know how but I did.
Salvation is between God and the individual. He doesn’t need our help. And yet God chooses to use us as His ambassadors to present the gospel. We get the privilege of sharing Jesus with others and participating in the work of the Holy Spirit. We then get the privilege of watching God convict the person of his sin and apply what Jesus did on the cross to his account.
When I teach people how to evangelize, I remind my audience it is our job to share and it is God’s job to save. I tell them over and over again, I have saved no one; it isn’t my job. I am given the task by God to be an ambassador for Christ, as if God is making His appeal through me (2 Corinthians 5:20). I am to be His witness (Acts 1:8).
Over the years I have had a few spiritual conversations where I have given resources to people to read and study. Meeting months later I discovered through asking questions they were dramatically changed. They went from being an opponent of Christianity to becoming a follower. When I asked them who they are trusting in for the forgiveness of their sins they said Jesus Christ. No one gave them the sinner’s prayer; the Holy Spirit utilized the specific resources to convict them of their sin and bring them to Christ. All I did was point them in the right direction and then let God the Holy Spirit do His saving work. As far as I know they are still following Jesus.
As I am sharing Jesus, if someone starts to agree with me and shows interest, I go through a series of scriptures to confirm what God is doing. I usually talk them through the Roman road: 1) Romans 3:23 to establish they are sinners, 2) Romans 6:23 to show the penalty is spiritual separation from God for all eternity, 3) Romans 5:8 to teach them Jesus died on the cross for them, and 4) Romans 10:9, 10 to help them realize Jesus is now in charge of their life. These scriptures save no one but can help the person realize what it is to be a follower and help me to understand what the person is trusting in. God uses the Scriptures to bring individuals to Himself.
The confirmation of the work of the Holy Spirit is whether or not the person is becoming more like Christ. As James says faith without works is dead. The major sign of true belief is who are you following? Are you following the Biblical Jesus? Or do you following Buddha, yourself, or some other god? Are you committed to the truths of the Bible? Jesus said John 10:27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” All true new believers will begin a new life in Christ. The Apostle Paul writes about believers in Romans 8:9, “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Our lives and our beliefs will reflect whether or not we have the Spirit of Christ. The sinner’s prayer either can confirm what has already happened or God will use the shared Scriptures to bring or reconcile her to Himself. 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” It is God who saves, not the sinner's prayer.