Despite the fact that no such thing as the "Sinner's Prayer" appears anywhere in the Bible and despite that fact that no one was ever told to "pray through" for salvation in the New Testament, most of the evangelical world embraces the "Sinner's Prayer" as God's "plan of salvation." Upon searching the Scriptures, one can only find two prayers that even begin to resemble the "Sinner's Prayer" used by many in the 21st century. One example is the Publican's Prayer recorded in Luke 18 and the other is Peter's demand that Simon the Sorcerer "repent and pray for forgivness" in Acts 8.
When one examines the Publican's Prayer in Luke 18 in context, one quickly discovers that both the Pharisee and the Publican were already in covenant relationship with God via the Jewish blood flowing through their veins. The Publican was praying, not for salvation, but for forgivness of sins committed under the Law of Moses. As a result, the Publican's Prayer cannot be prototypical for non-Christians today seeking salvation.
When one examines in context the strict request of the Apostle Peter to Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 to "repent and pray for forgiveness" one quickly discovers that Simon was already a Christian! He had already been baptized for the remission of sins in the name of Jesus Christ, had received the gift of the Holy Spirit and had been added to the church of Christ by God Himself. As a result, the Prayer of Simon cannot be prototypical for non-Christians today seeking salvation.
Despite the facts, many today still are trying to pound theologically "round pegs into square holes" in order to justify false assumptions made by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al regarding baptism. These men, despite their heroic definance of Catholic dogma, over reacted to the radical works-based Catholic system by creating an equal over reaction by embracing a so-called "Reformed" doctrine of faith only...minus obedience. These men assumed that baptism was a "work of man" and therefore could not possibly be included in God's plan of salvation. Unfortunately they failed to realize that baptism is a WORK OF GOD. (Colossians 2:11-12) Baptism is the place and time where God chooses to separate us from our sins much like when 8 day old Jewish boys were circumcised.
During the time of the "First Great Awakening," there was a reformed preacher by the name of Eleazar Wheelock that began using what has since become known as the "Mourner's Bench." Sinner's who "mourned for thier sins," as well as their friends and relatives would come to the "altar" and "pray through" for salvation. This was an emotional experience and was not accepted by most Protestant churches of the time.
Nearly a 100 years later, another reformed preacher from western N.Y. sought to discover a method by which more people could be "converted." His name was Charles Finney. He took the "mourner's bench" concept and renamed it the "anxious bench." Those who were not church members were seated up front where Finney could use psycological manipulation to convince the "sinner's" to convert through prayer and repentance. Finney readidly admitted that he had replaced New Testament baptism for the remission of sins with the "Anxious Bench."
The church has always felt it necessary to have something of this kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles, baptism answered this purpose. The gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ, were called out to be baptized. It held the place that the anxious seat does now as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians.(1)
The Finney "Anxious Bench" was still not accepted as a "mainstream" approach and was left on the theological sidelines until the time of Dwight L. Moody in the latter 1/3 of the 19th century. Liking Finney's approach but thinking it too extreme, Moody took aside respondents to what he called the "Inquiry Room." There trained persons led the respondents on a process of repentance and cofession of sin, ending with a prayer.
In 1899, R. A. Torrey took over from the late Dr. Moody and took the "Inquiry Room" concept onto the streets of Chicago where "on the spot" conversions were made. Torey's approach bridged the church building based work of Moody with the yet to come modern day "crusades" held in huge outdoor stadiums.
Soon after World War I, a former baseball player by the name of Billy Sunday took up where R. A. Torrey left off. He took the church "on the road." He was the first to combine entertainment with preaching and gained a huge following. Sunday was very pragmatic in his approach and wanted to make the "salvation experience" easier and simpler. As a result he told the folks at his rallies to just "come down the sawdust trail" and "take my hand." Despite the changes that evolved from Finney to Moody to Torrey and to Sunday, the "plan of salvation" was unclear and loosely defined.
After World War II, the most famous of all evangelicals, Billy Graham, stepped in to take Billy Sunday's place. Graham believed that Sunday was too heavy on the entertainment and too light on theology. He did, however, embrace the overall concept of big outdoor rallies that featured an altar call enhanced by mood music and dire predictions of an unprepared eternity. Graham wrote a pamphlet called The Four Things God Wants You to Know. Currently, the website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has this version of the "Sinner's Prayer."
Pray a prayer like this: Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as my Lord and savior. In your name, Amen.(2)
Finally, in the late 1950's a co-worker of Grahams, the late Dr. Bill Bright, further articulated the concept and wrote a defining work on the subject called The Four Spiritual Laws. The work of Graham and Bright solidified the "Sinner's Prayer" salvation experience among Evangelicals and most of the Protestant world. Bright founded Campus Crusade for Christ and today the crusade has this version of the "Sinner's Prayer" posted on it's web site:
Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be. (3)
As anyone can clearly see, the two prayers are radically different. Which version is correct? How would one determine? Into what church would one be added by saying one or both of these prayers? Could one become a member of two or more denominations by articulating these two distinct prayers? There are as many versions of the "Sinner's Prayer" as there are preachers who preach it! Words vary between preachers amd denominations. Who has the right words? What happens if the words are incorrect?
Sadly, the "Sinner's Prayer" never saved anyone, nor will it. Jesus Christ died, was buried, rose from the dead, appeared to over 500 witnesses and assended back to His Father. (I Corinthians 15) After His return to Heaven His Will was read on the Day of Pentecost. That will was clearly articulated by the Holy Spirit through Peter and the rest of the apostles. That will has been in effect ever since and will never change! "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the Name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and you will receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit." The work of God is accomplished in baptism and no where else. Any plan of salvation that leaves out baptism is not God's plan!
(1) (“Measures to Promote Revival” located at http://www.gospeltruth.net/1868Lect_on_Rev_of_Rel/68revlec14.htm).
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