By Lee Karl Palo
© 2012 Lee Karl Palo
The Sinner’s Prayer, it isn’t to be found in the Bible, yet Bibles are printed where the Sinner’s Prayer is added. What is it then? It is a prayer that confesses an individual’s new acceptance of Christ and conversion to Christianity. By many Christians, the Sinner’s Prayer is seen to effect a conversion to the faith. I have even heard some say that you are never truly a Christian until you say that prayer (no matter your prior level of experience and involvement with the church). Until you say the prayer, you cannot truly be “born again;” once you do, you’re “saved.”
Components of the Sinner’s Prayer
– People are sinful. “Sin” is a religious term for the bad things people do. I’m not sure anyone would disagree that they have done something bad in the past, even if people can’t always agree on what things are “bad.”
– Sin separates us from God.
– God loves all people.
– Jesus is God’s solution to sin and its consequences.
– The consequence of sin is eternal conscious torment in Hell, but…
– Once you recite the prayer, acknowledging your “sin,” asking God to both forgive your sins, and for God to become a permanent part of your life, God will save you from Hell.
I believe the Sinner’s Prayer doesn’t work anymore.
Before I continue, I should say that when I was a child, I said the prayer myself, and found it to be very meaningful. I had grown up in the church, and so I had a sense for what it was about. It worked for me at that time, but I suspect not for most people today.
The first reason is the terminology. There is debate in the church today as to how it works that Jesus is God’s solution to sin and its consequences, but generally those who use the Sinner’s Prayer emphasize that God had to have Jesus killed to be able to forgive us. Jesus’ death makes more sense if you have grown up in the church, not so much if you haven’t. St. Paul says, “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23, Common English Bible).
Many of those outside of the church have such negative views of the church that any “Christianese” words (the terminology) are also thought of negatively. The word “sin” which generally refers to bad things people do, now means to many people “YOU NEED TO FEEL GUILTY FOR THINGS YOU HAVE DONE THAT YOU DON’T EVEN BELIEVE TO BE BAD!” This is often made worse when it is emphasized that all “sin” is equally bad, since that is not at all intuitive to those outside the Christian faith. So, to someone outside the Christian Faith, “because I told that little white lie, I’m just as bad as a repeat pedophile sex offender?” There is no country on Earth, I am aware of, that prescribes the death penalty for all offenses. Not even the Bible does that. This idea is hard for people who did not grow up in the church to understand. I grew up in the church where all sin was understood as deriving from selfishness—when I am selfish, I can do things that hurt others. But that is the point: I grew up in the church, so I was receptive to the teaching about sin!
The Sinner’s Prayer serves as a summarization of what it means to be Christian. What message is the Sinner’s Prayer really sending? If “sin” stems from a self-centered selfishness, that has implications for such an emphasis on the afterlife. What if good things are done, not because all people are of sacred worth, but because by being nice to them people can avoid going to Hell after they die? People could be saying the Sinner’s Prayer to selfishly insure they have a ticket to Heaven. I am reminded of Jesus’ words, “All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them” (Mark 8:35 CEB, also note the variants in Matthew 10:35 and 16:25, Luke 9:24 and 17:33, and John 12:25).
What does that resemble?
In ancient times there were various concepts of magic, and of particular relevance here is the concept of invocation where the point is to get a deity to do what you want. You call on the name of a god, and in using the divine name, are able to manipulate the deity into serving your ends. The Sinner’s Prayer would seem to resemble a magical incantation that invokes the name of God. If it is said, the spell is cast so that when people die they have secured tickets for themselves to Heaven.
There is a lot of depth to the Ten Commandments that is missed when people just stick with a casual surface reading. There are reasons God does not wish to have The Divine Name misused. There are reasons why making and using idols to represent God are prohibited. It is sympathetic magic, among other things, that is forbidden by the first three of the Ten Commandments. One may also ask what that means for how we pray, but that is a conversation for another day. Suffice it to say here that prayer typically acknowledges “not my will, but God’s will be done.”
What then can we say of the Sinner’s Prayer?
Jesus summed up the whole Instruction of God with “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27 CEB, drawing from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). Love, in a Christian sense, is thought of more as selfless love—wanting the best for the other person for that person’s sake. We can want people to say the prayer for their own good, so they don’t go to Hell after they die. But the Sinner’s Prayer can be quite selfish to those saying it. The Sinner’s Prayer also does not address what being Christian is about, here and now, in this life. I don’t believe God wants people to say the Sinner’s Prayer once, as some kind of initiation rite, or for Christians to obsess over getting people to say the Sinner’s Prayer. The God-instituted sacraments of Baptism and Communion already serve the function of an initiation rite in many churches, and have a much longer history of use than the Sinner’s Prayer. I would argue that God instead wishes us “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8b CEB).
In a positive sense, the Sinner’s Prayer can still provide a memorable beginning to a life of Christian faith. Those outside the Church can be put off by the “Christianese” of it. That isn’t really helped by Christians forcing the “Christianese” elements onto those who may not be ready or willing to learn them. Quoting the Bible using archaic translations like the King James Version doesn’t help either.
What if the Sinner’s Prayer could be reinvented?
Perhaps a new version of the prayer could sound something like this…
God, i acknowledge that i have lived my life for my own selfish ends. i recognize Your ends for creation are for good. Your plans are for peace, not disaster, to give us all a future filled with hope, both now and in the age to come. You sent Your Son, Jesus of Nazareth, to teach us how to live and to bring us into reconciliation with You. i desire that You direct my life according to your ends as i choose to become a part of the community You envisioned.
Saying the Sinner’s Prayer is not in any way necessary to salvation, but it can still be used to great effect. It isn’t a “magic spell.” We need to remember what the purpose of the Sinner’s Prayer is, so we would know when and why we would encourage people to pray it. Remember to what “end” you would use the prayer, and it may yet be able to be reclaimed.
© 2012 Lee Karl Palo