Conversion Confusion

Part 1: The Sinner's Prayer

By Jim Allen

This blog posting is part one in a three-part series about the salvation prayer and its role in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Is the salvation prayer the decisive moment when God saves a person? If so, then why do so many people who pray to receive Christ fall away from the Savior in one form or another?

The following is a true story about a televised church event showcasing the Great Commission in action. The televised event began with a Sunday school teacher asking her class of seven-year olds how many would like to receive Jesus into their hearts. Immediately, all the hands went up! "Repeat this prayer after me" said the teacher, "Dear Jesus, I love you! Please come into my heart and make me a new creature in Christ; and, I will serve you forever. Thank you Jesus. Amen!" "Now boys and girls, you have been born again and have become children of God," said the teacher who had just led several children in a simple prayer to receive Christ. "Next Sunday," said the teacher, "I will give each of you a certificate to identify when you received Jesus into your heart."

Clearly, the practice of the salvation prayer has worked its way from the sanctuary and modern day stadium into Sunday school classrooms where innocent children are now partakers in the practice. For as long as I can remember, countless evangelical leaders have upheld the notion that a person can be born again by simply praying to receive Christ. One television minister, in Texas, often at the end of his sermons says, "You cannot be saved until you recite the sinner's prayer." This pastor, along with so many others, upholds the salvation prayer as the "only way" to become a Christian. As a result, the church today is overflowing with people who have walked the aisle, knelt at the altar, and prayed to receive Christ without undergoing any change whatsoever.
According to a Gallup Poll in 1990, seventy-four percent of Americans thought they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, and ninety-five percent of those were willing to call it a "born again" experience. Although many evangelicals believe water baptism is not necessarily an indication of saving faith, they do believe that going forward in an altar call and repeating the salvation prayer is an indication of saving faith. [1]
Is going forward in response to an "altar call" and "praying to receive Christ" the way God saves people? Gregory Koukl, president of Stand to Reason, said the following about the salvation prayer:
On occasion, though, I notice something alarming. When I ask if a particular person is a Christian, the response I hear is, "Well, they prayed the prayer." It's as if the words were magic; if someone just recites them, they're in. I fear we have inoculated a whole generation of people who got a partial injection of Christianity and are now resistant to the real thing. Here's the antidote: The goal of an ambassador (Christian) should never be getting someone to pray a prayer, but rather to follow Jesus. When we emphasize deciding for Christ instead of living for Him, we often get spiritual miscarriages instead of spiritual births. Our sense of safety can't come from simply saying a prayer. [2]
William J. Stewart said: "As we search the Bible for just one example of a person saved as the result of a sinner's prayer, we end our quest with no results. The sinner's prayer, as taught in most churches today, is foreign to the Bible." [3] If the apostles, Paul, and other believers did not pray to receive Christ, then how were they born again to undergo the change from sinner to saint?

Without question, many evangelicals wholly enthrone the practice of praying to receive Christ as the "decisive moment" for the new birth. Is it? While it can be for some, it is not the "decisive moment" for most and herein the deception, a clever ploy to replace scripture with "sound-good" doctrine. The strategy leading up to the salvation prayer is replete with persuasive narratives and soft music. The evangelist or pastor uses swaying oratory technique to tug on heart-felt emotions, compelling people to come forward and recite the prayer leading to eternal life.

One individual went forward during an altar call and recited the salvation prayer. Afterward, the church accepted her prayer as "proof of salvation," baptized her into membership, and gave her a certificate to validate her birth date in Christ. Soon after, she left the church and entered into an adulterous relationship. The prayer left her deluded and powerless to overcome her old lifestyle. Apparently, she did not undergo a spiritual change and now lives deceived and betrayed by the very people to whom she entrusted her soul.

Pastors and evangelists passionately defend the practice of the salvation prayer by quoting Romans 10:13 that says, "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." While the verse means what it says, they often gloss over the deeper meanings in Romans 10:9 through 12. The context of all five verses, in concert, clearly teaches that only those who genuinely "believe with the heart" will call upon the Lord for salvation. In other words, a person who truly believes will call upon the Lord without the compelling narrative encouraging them to do so. The Bible, inclusively, defines "believing with the heart" to be a matter of learning and embracing foundational truths that guide a person in the steps leading to salvation. The ability to believe the gospel is indisputably by grace-through-faith in Christ and rests solely on a pyramid of revealed truth the unregenerate must come to embrace, line-upon-line and precept-upon-precept.

Godly conviction produces in the unregenerate a cry for deliverance, a mournful state resulting from recognition of one's sinfulness and need for salvation (Luke 18:13-14). Calling upon God for mercy is the beginning of repentance, a genuine change of mind about who they are apart from God (2 Corinthians 7:10). People who do not grasp the reality of their sinfulness, separation from God, and need for deliverance available through Christ are not ready and should not be forced to call upon the Lord for salvation. For these unprepared souls, the Lord needs time to cultivate the soil of the heart with Godly conviction until it becomes broken soil, made ready to receive the good seed of God's Word (Matthew 13:23).

In my next post, I will talk about the reality of a false conversion originating from the salvation prayer and its lethal impact on the church.

1. The Goal: Effective Evangelism
3. LookinguntoJesus.Net

Conversion Confusion, The Series
Part 1: The Sinner's Prayer
Part 2: False Conversion
Part 3: True Conversion

Image Credit: Hernan Pinera; "Camino/Way"; Creative Commons

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Published Jun 2011