The title of this article may seem like an overstatement but it is not. Some may object, “But surely the sinner’s prayer has worked for some people. Even if many have fallen away after praying to receive Christ, not all have.” I happily concede the point that there are many Christians who continue to walk with the Lord and grow in their faith many years after having said the sinner’s prayer. But what I question is this, “Was it really the sinner’s prayer that converted them?” 19th century revival preacher Charles Finney, who is largely responsible for popularizing the use of the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, would probably have said yes.
In Finney’s theology, God’s grace only brought people to a point of moral neutrality. God did not push anyone in one direction or the other but only made it possible for them to decide. Whether they would accept or reject God’s salvation was up to them. People sinned but human nature was not inherently evil (contra many Scripture verses such as Rom. 3:10, Rom. 3:23, Jer. 17:9, Eph 2:1, Gen. 6:5, & Psalm 51:5 among others). Finney taught that a person’s will, including their decision making power, was not held captive by sin but only hardened by continual habitual sin that they had fallen into. Therefore, as Finney saw it, it was the the evangelist’s job to convince his listeners to change their mind. God had done all he could (or would) and now the eternal destiny of people’s souls lay upon the shoulders of the preacher. Therefore it was a preacher’s duty to use any means necessary to convince a person to decide to become a Christian. This included whatever sort of psychological or emotional manipulation that was necessary to get people to make a decision. If the preacher could persuade people to exercise their free will and turn to Christ (as expressed in saying the sinner’s prayer), then they would be saved. Finney told people that if preachers were to adopt his “new methods” (i.e. the altar call and the sinner’s prayer), then worldwide global revival that would hasten the return of Christ within a generation was certain to follow.
But Finney had his theology backwards. Becoming a Christian is not something that you do but it is something that is done to you. There is no true Christian who has said the sinner’s prayer who did not have saving faith in their heart before they prayed “the prayer”. For those who turn out to be truly converted and mark the beginning of their Christian life as saying the sinner’s prayer, it is a mistake to think that saying the sinner’s prayer is what made them into a Christian. That prayer was merely an expression of the faith that they already had. Before they ever opened their mouth, God had regenerated them and worked saving faith in their heart. When Nicodemus asked Jesus how a man can be born again, Jesus did not give him a list of five things that you need to do in order to be born again. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). His point is that the Holy Spirit causes people to be born again and we don’t know when, where, or how He does it. There may be secondary causes for conversion that we can point to, such as a crisis in our lives or a particularly convincing Gospel message that we heard. But there are many people who have a crisis or hear the Gospel and never believe. So what is it that causes some people to become Christians, while others don’t? It is God changing a person’s heart. Previously they didn’t want God, but now they do. Why the change of heart? Again, we can point to secondary causes but ultimately there is no other answer other than, “God did it. I don’t know how I came to see things differently but it is clear now and I know that God is true.” The reason why anyone becomes a Christian is mysterious. God just does it and we don’t know how or why other than the fact that he wanted to out of His abundant grace (Eph. 1:7) and for His own glory (Eph. 1:6, Is. 43:7)
In his own way and his own time, God convinces people of Himself - that He is true and the Gospel is true. This was certainly true for Nan Inta, the first Christian convert in Chiang Mai in 1868. After recounting some peculiar circumstances that led up to Nan Inta’s conversion, Daniel McGilvary, pioneer missionary to Northern Thailand, writes that “[w]hile the truth dawned gradually on his mind, the full vision seemed to be sudden. His own account was that afterwards, when walking in the fields and pondering the subject, it all became very plain to him. His doubts all vanished. Henceforth for him to live was Christ; and he counted all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Him.” (McGilvary, Daniel, “A Half Century Among the Siamese and the Lao”, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1912, p.98). The sinner’s prayer never came into the equation. God convinced him of the truth and no additional step of “praying the prayer” was necessary. He was later baptized and went on to become a leader in the church in Northern Thailand.
Unfortunately, our historical memory is really short and many Christians and churches are unaware that there is any other way for people to become Christians besides getting them to say the sinner’s prayer. Finney’s new methods have prevailed throughout most of evangelicalism but newer is not always better. The old Biblical way of relying upon God to convert people in his own time and in his own way is much preferable to taking matters into our own hands and using a man-made ceremony to help move people along towards salvation, as if it were really possible to do it ourselves. And when we try to do it ourselves, we may unwittingly help people deceive themselves into thinking they are a Christian when they are really not.
It is high time to do away with the additional step of having people pray the sinner’s prayer. When someone believes, we should go straight to baptism for adult converts from a non-Christian background (or for those who were never baptized previously). For those who were baptized as infants in a Christian church, an affirmation of faith before the congregation and admission into church membership (and therefore communion) should certainly be sufficient. Before the sinner’s prayer was introduced, this is more or less how evangelical Protestant churches integrated into the church community those who professed faith in Christ. The altar call and the sinner’s prayer are now considered “traditional” methods of evangelism even though they were developed only two hundred years ago. If the church can renew it’s historical memory of how evangelism and church membership used to be done and renew its faith in God’s sovereign work in people’s lives, then churches and Christians everywhere can confidently abandon the sinner’s prayer with no negative impact upon evangelism and church growth. Our churches will be much healthier and much more Biblical because of it.