Although many people concede that there are problems associated with the sinner’s prayer, many can not conceive of not using it. “If we don’t give an altar call and ask people to pray the sinner’s prayer,” it is asked, “how else can we call people to respond to the Gospel? Despite the fact that many fall away, we still need to use this evangelistic method in order to give people an opening shot into the world of Christianity.”
I would contend, however, that it is completely possible to give people an “opening shot” into the world of Christianity without the sinner’s prayer. Whether from the pulpit or personally, we urge people to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We urge them to flee from sin and from God’s wrath, to depend on God’s gracious promises, and to trust Him alone for salvation. We tell them to examine their hearts to see if they are truly trusting in Christ’s promises. Do their warm feelings (or guilty feelings) wear off after a while, or is there a continued desire to seek God, to read His Word, and to throw oneself at the feet of the Savior to escape God’s wrath?
When God, in his own time, changes a heart and “turn on the lights” so that someone believes, the overflow of that joy of salvation will likely come out in a verbal profession sooner or later. Professions do not need to be coaxed out of people and do not need to happen in the form of a prayer. The first expression of newfound faith can happen in a myriad of ways.
However, when someone says, “I believe”, we need not instantly assure them that they are saved. But we don’t need to be an unkind skeptic either. We can say “That’s wonderful, let’s get together and learn more about God from the Bible.” If the person wants to, you could pray a prayer of thanksgiving, “Lord, thank you that so-and-so wants to trust you as Lord and Savior. Please help them to trust in your promise of grace and forgiveness and change their lives. Produce the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of repentance in their lives so they can be confident that you are working in their lives.”
Just because we don’t have someone pray the sinner’s prayer with us, it doesn’t mean that the front door to the Christian faith is closed. It just means that we don’t prematurely declare that they have entered it. We walk with them together to look for God’s work in their lives as they attend church, study the Bible and grow in their faith. If God has regenerated them, it will be obvious over time. And if God has not regenerated them yet, then that will become obvious too. The sinner’s prayer, however, confuses the process of discerning God’s work in a life by prematurely declaring a certain prayer as evidence of salvation (and it is almost always used like this).
But does such an alternative to the sinner’s prayer really work? Lest some think that the idea of people being saved without the sinner’s prayer is merely theoretical, I will give two examples of conversion without “the prayer”, one modern and one historical.
1) Saved in the Street
Before I met him, a Thai friend had been seeking out the answers to his pressing questions about life. During that time, he started studying the English with some missionaries and attended a Christian camp (which he didn’t particularly like, at the time). He never said the sinner’s prayer with anyone nor did he respond to an altar call. But as he was walking down the street one day, he realized that all that he had learned about God was true. God switched on the lights and this man has been following hard after the Lord ever since.
2) Saved in a Field
The first convert to Christ in Northern Thailand (1869) was a man named Nan Inta. Studying the Bible and the Westminster Shorter Catechism with missionary Daniel McGilvary, he was constantly comparing the claims of the Gospel and the claims of Buddhism, mulling them over in his mind. After McGilvary’s prediction of an eclipse seriously shook his inherited belief that eclipses were caused by a monster eating the sun, he realized that what McGilvary had been teaching from the Bible was true as well. McGilvary recorded a detailed account of the events leading up to his conversion (read here) but Nan Inta’s account of his conversion was much simpler. It was without any fanfare and said nothing of the sinner’s prayer, which had yet to be introduced to Thailand. McGilvary writes that Nan Inta’s “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.” (Daniel McGilvary, "A Half Century among the Siamese and Lao: An Autobiography", Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1912, p.98)
For those who have hesitations about giving an altar call or asking people to pray the sinner’s prayer, there is another way. And it works. It works because God is in it. Love people. Share the Scriptures with them. Urge them to repent and turn to Christ. And wait for the Holy Spirit to do his amazing work in changing hearts.
It is really just that simple.