On Conversion and The Sinner's Prayer

If you prayed a “Sinner’s Prayer” at some point in your journey toward a walk with Christ, you need to examine yourself to see if you’re still in the faith---or better yet, to see if you ever were in the faith---and to make your calling and election sure (2 Cor. 13:5; 2 Peter 1:10).

This is one of the pivotal thoughts I had as I interacted this week with the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) “Affirmation of A‘Sinner’s Prayer’ as A Biblical Expression of Repentance and Faith.”

In June of this year, the delegates of the SBC, in response to a number of theological issues being debated within the denomination, passed the resolution in support of the continued use of this common yet not well-defined “conversion moment act.”

In the water at the time of the resolution’s passing was a firestorm of controversy concerning the influence of Calvinism in the SBC, supplemented by a sermon given by David Platt, and a resolution drafted by several other key leaders concerning a “traditional” understanding of Southern Baptist soteriology.

Among other things, Platt is known as an influential, Calvinist-leaning leader within the SBC. In the sermon, Platt was critical of what he believed to be a dangerous, ongoing use of the so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” in evangelism, leading to what he feared are significant percentages of false conversions.

As Platt rightly points out, to be falsely converted is to not be converted at all. To be falsely converted is to remain dead in your trespasses and sins, and under the wrath of God (Eph. 2:1; John 3:36). To be falsely converted is to find a basis for perceived righteousness and justification in anything other than the Gospel.

There is indeed a danger of eternal proportions to be avoided here.

If you prayed such a prayer, and are beginning to think that I’m singling you out as a potential apostate, know this---every follower of Christ does well to make a habit of preaching the Gospel to themselves at all times, and to always evaluate their standing with Christ through the Gospel’s grid of repentance and faith (Mark 1:15).

I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with a co-worker who spoke of their brother’s conversion. My friend lamented the current trajectory of their brother’s life, how there was no fruit in the man’s life in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8). Still, my friend was certain of their brother’s conversion---they were there when it happened.

This man, said my friend, prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer.”

This is the essence, I believe, of Platt’s concern, and not, as some suggested, a plot to extend the treacherous reach of Calvinism within the halls of the SBC.

In the example cited above, I was faced with the potential reality of a false conversion, precipitated by the idea that because a series of words were spoken, as if an incantation of sorts, that salvation had come to this man’s house. I was also faced with the reality of my friend’s confusion concerning their loved one’s life, and the difficulty of lovingly attempting to bring some biblical correction to the dialogue.

It’s never an easy thing to communicate to someone that perhaps they’ve been deceived, and that either they or someone they love may be in danger of entering an eternity separated from God (Rev. 20:15). But, if we say we have love for others, then there is no other message for us to give, for in this message we extend to them the hope of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16).

Put another way, it is the antithesis of love, an expression of hate and disobedience even, to withhold the Gospel from our neighbor on account of such things as pride or fear of rejection (Matt. 5:11). Faith without works is certainly dead, and there are few works that we might perform as Christians that are greater than obedience to the Great Commission---and few sins of omission greater than disobedience in this regard.

Can you see it now?

Whether or not you prayed anything that might fit the framework of a “Sinner’s Prayer” during a televised revival is not the germane issue so far as salvation is concerned. The biblical foundations for conversion from the kingdom of death into the kingdom of God remain forever grounded in genuine repentance and faith in the Gospel---both precipitating gifts of God rather than acts of man’s intellect or will (James 1:17).

Repentance and faith may be evidenced in a moment through a crying out to God for mercy in the form of a prayer (and this is a good thing), but they are more certainly evidenced by the fruit of a changed life (Lk 18:13; Gal. 5:22-24). As missionaries, this is our heartbeat---that the lost would taste and see that the Lord is good, and begin walking as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6).

The merits of a “Sinner’s Prayer” not withstanding, our mission as followers of Christ is to make disciples who make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Tim. 2:2), and not to coerce people into merely “repeating after us.”

Having said all of this, and along with Platt, I affirm the SBC’s resolution.

But, like him, I remain as concerned for the proper, biblical application of prayer in conversion, rather than an application of prayer for conversion.

Questions for your walk:

1) Did your own conversion experience involve a “Sinner’s Prayer”?

2) If yes, have you ever had any reservations about the authenticity of that event?

3) How would you present the role of prayer in conversion to an unbeliever?