Over the years, I’ve become increasingly concerned with one practice of well-meaning Christians: using the “sinner’s prayer” to lead someone to Christ.
The prayer goes something like this: “Lord Jesus, I’m a sinner. I believe You died for my sins so I could be forgiven. I receive You as my Lord and Savior. Thank You for coming into my life. Amen.” The prayer itself is fine. I prayed a version of it myself to start my own walk with Christ, and I’ve used it since to help others trust in Jesus.
It has a liability, though. For example, when I ask a parent if her kids know the Lord, I often hear, “Well, they prayed the prayer.” The kids might be living godless lives, yet the parent’s attitude seems to be, No worries. They said the magic words. They’re in. But maybe they got an inoculation to Christianity and are now immune to the real thing.
Here’s the antidote: Don’t press someone to pray a prayer. Instead, encourage them to follow Jesus. When we emphasize deciding for Christ instead of living for Him, we often get spiritual miscarriages instead of spiritual births.
How, then, do we know if any person truly belongs to Christ? Our confidence comes from three sources.
The first is entirely subjective. The Holy Spirit gives us an ineffable awareness that we belong to God: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). John echoes the same thought: “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (1 Jn. 4:13).
Some put the greatest emphasis on this subjective element, but Scripture emphasizes it the least. The reason why is that it’s the most unreliable. Folks from LDS to New Agers claim this confidence. It’s possible to have tremendous inner tranquility even when in extreme spiritual danger. Conversely, even the sturdiest spiritual warriors have periods of dryness and doubt (e.g., John the Baptist, Matt. 11:2–3). Something more is necessary.
The second source of confidence in salvation is the promise of Scripture based on the merits of Jesus. The New Testament repeats this promise many times, e.g., John 3:16 famously and 1 John 5:13: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.”
The third—and most telling—evidence of salvation is our dogged perseverance in faith and godliness. Paul warns, “If we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us” (2 Tim. 2:12). John writes bluntly, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar” (1 Jn. 2:4). Peter tells us to “be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble” (2 Pet. 1:10).
Faith and holiness are not opposed, but rather go hand in hand. Paul’s insistence on justification by faith alone is so radical it can be mistaken for license, a charge he defends against (Rom. 6:1–2). There’s another side to the coin, though. To paraphrase James 2:26, the human body without breath is nothing but a corpse. The same is true for anyone who says he has faith but doesn’t back it up with a changed life.
Our deepest confidence that we belong to Christ is based on faith in God’s promise, evidenced by our perseverance. It is the engine that pulls the train. Our feelings are the caboose. The caboose is dispensable; the engine is not.
What makes a person sure his salvation is in force? If all he can say is, “I prayed the prayer,” he may be in trouble. If he’s not actively following Jesus, we can give little assurance. The most loving thing we can do for him is give him a sober warning.
The next time you speak to someone about Christ, consider bypassing the sinner’s prayer. There’s no precedence for it in the Bible anyway. In the New Testament, baptism served the function of heralding one’s entry into the body of Christ.
Rather, enjoin the one who is spiritually hungry to satisfy his appetite day by day by trusting and following the Savior. Don’t let him forget that being born again is the beginning, not the end.