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Is the “sinner’s prayer” a legitimate way to get saved?

April 18, 2013 2 comments

If you’ve been in the American church for any amount of time, you are probably familiar with the concept of the “sinner’s prayer.” Basically, a preacher asks people in the congregation to repeat after him if they are interested in having Jesus Christ come into their hearts and save them. The prayer will generally go something like this: “God, I know I’m a sinner, and without you I am destined for eternal punishment. I repent of my sins. Please forgive me and come into my heart. Be my Lord and Savior. Amen.”

Poof! If you’ve repeated this prayer, then you’re now magically saved, right? Well, not exactly. It doesn’t work like a flu shot.

People will often point to the fact that when they repeated these words, they “meant it” and therefore, it has to be legitimate. Well, maybe or maybe not. The problem is, the words that come out of our mouths can often be at odds with what’s actually in our hearts—even if we feel like they are the same.

People can be swayed very easily by their feelings, whether it be the lovey-dovey atmosphere created by the powerful preaching, dim lighting, or soothing music. It could also be peer-pressure-induced, where friends or loved ones nudge you into saying the prayer or answering the altar call. Either way, the Bible warns us in Jeremiah 17:9 that human hearts are deceitfully wicked…who can know it?

There is not one place in the Bible that tell us that repeating a formulaic prayer will grant us salvation. A simple man-made prayer does not have special abilities. However, these prayers often contain a lot of correct elements that clue us in on how to actually find Jesus. Using my sample prayer, let’s break it down a bit.

“God, I know I’m a sinner, and without you I am destined for eternal punishment.”

The first step toward real salvation is acknowledging and understanding fully that we are sinners. This is more than saying “I’m not perfect” or “I have done wrong at least once in my life.” Everyone in the world could admit to that! No, this means recognizing that we have broken God’s law and that as sinners, we are broken beyond repair. This is letting go of the secular idea that we are essentially “good people” who slip up sometimes. Rather, it’s a realization that our sin nature leaves us in a very grave situation. We are rotten to the core, and there’s nothing we can do about it on our own. In light of a fully just God, we deserve hell.

Do you really believe that? Or do you look at other people around you and say that you are comparatively “good”? Do you secretly think, “If God turned me away from heaven, that would be unfair!” If you feel this way, you are not ready.

“I repent of my sins.”

Do you really? In addition to genuine remorse for your sins, are you ready and willing to do whatever it takes to turn completely away from that lifestyle? Do you see those things in a different light now, as dirty and serious? Or do you cling to your desire to dabble in sin, do enough “good” to cancel out the bad? Do you wish to be saved but have no desire to be sanctified?

Do you think this way? “Of course, I want to go to heaven! But while I’m here on earth, I don’t need to be a saint or anything. I’ll live it up because Jesus loves me and forgives me.”

If this is your mentality, then you are not genuinely repentant. Someone who is ready to be a Christ-follower may slip up time to time, but they do not brush it off as if it were nothing. When they slip off the narrow path to life, God comes for them and they continue fighting their flesh. If this is not you, you are not ready.

“Please forgive me and come into my heart.”

Let’s think about our own lives for a minute here. Let’s imagine you are married and you’ve had a heated argument with your spouse. Hurtful words were hurled and you’re still stinging from the pain.

Now, let’s say he or she comes up to you and says, “Please forgive me.” You look at them, and they are not truly sorry, nor do they have any intention of trying to improve themselves in the future. They just want the fight to stop so you can cook them dinner or give them other benefits. Would you forgive them?

In the same way, God is not interested in idle words and empty gestures. As Paul Washer once said, “the greatest heresy in the American church is that if you ask Jesus to come into your heart, he will definitely come in.” No, this isn’t how it works. If Jesus sees your heart and you are not ready or willing to do what it takes to make it work, he will not come in. He does not force himself upon you just because of some words you’re repeating in an instant of conviction.

There’s a reason why many will come to the gate and say, “Lord, Lord,” only to hear Jesus say to them: “I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:21-23) How do you know this isn’t going to happen to you?

“Be my Lord and Savior. Amen.”

People often think about Jesus as their savior, but that’s it. They are glad he will whisk them away to heaven and save them from the flames of hell, but they forget about the other requisite part.

He has to be LORD.

Most people in America will call themselves Christians, but they are the furthest thing from Christ-followers. They prayed a prayer and called him “Lord,” yet they live their lives as they see fit.

When someone is your LORD, that means he is your master. You are his servant/slave. Does your mentality really reflect this at all?

If the Bible says something is sinful or commands us not to do certain things (or support them), do you brush it off as outdated “advice”? Do you regard the opinions of man and culture more highly? Do the things that scientists proclaim to be true take precedence in your life?

Do you gloss over the uncomfortable portions of scripture that do not appeal to you, but rather focus heavily on God’s grace and love? Do you profess to love God but fail to live out his commands? John 14:15 tells us that if we love Him, we are to obey.

If you have the (surprisingly common) mentality of “I’ll follow, but only when I really agree,” then Jesus Christ is not your Lord. ANYone will follow someone’s commands if they fully agree with them already. Are you willing to obey even when you don’t fully understand or it rubs you the wrong way?

If God is not your Lord, then He is not your savior. Please don’t fool yourself.

So…

If everyone who calls themselves “Christian” is capable of deceiving themselves and feelings are an unreliable measure, then how in the world can you know if you are really saved? Well, the Bible says that a good tree will bear good fruit (and a bad tree will bear bad fruit…and be cut down and thrown into the fire) – Matthew 7:17-19. It exhorts us to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5) to see if we are in the faith. The test is not whether we prayed a prayer one time in our life, but rather whether our lives are truly changed and on the narrow path in this world. Are we being sanctified? Are we convicted of our sin and repenting continually?

Granted, change is a gradual process for most people, but the trend should be unmistakeable over time. If you were “on fire” for Christ for a short period of your life but have fallen back to a secular lifestyle, there is a possibility that you are like the second or third (unsaved) soils in the Parable of the Sower.

James calls faith without deeds useless and dead. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14)

If we are living our lives just as we were before, or we appear just like the world around us, then this is a serious symptom of a “dead” faith. This doesn’t mean that you are simply living a feeble Christian life, but rather, it means you are not His at all!

In conclusion, reciting the so-called “sinner’s prayer” has no magical powers on its own (though it does have some useful elements in it). This is not the way to test if you are a Christian. The true test and evidence comes in the way you walk and talk, the way you think. Is it conforming to God’s Word, or do you still belong to the world? Remember that you cannot serve both the world and God; it’s one or the other.

In fact, if you are truly a child of His, chances are at some point, the world will hate you or find you foolish (e.g., Matthew 10:22; 24:9; John 15:19). If the world finds you perfectly agreeable, then raise the red flags…there’s something wrong.

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Why not wait to be saved? What’s the rush?

July 5, 2011 5 comments

In the previous few posts, I’ve talked about how different it is to be a true believer of Christ. For almost all practical purposes, it sounds a lot more difficult than the prevalent “say the prayer” plan, so I can understand how it would be a turn-off to some. Even believers might ask, “Who’s going to be interested in Christianity if it’s this hard?” Of course, how easy or difficult something is has no bearing on this issue. Truth is truth regardless of whether we like it or hate it.

So let’s accept that being a true believer results in drastic changes in that person’s life, and that their life will become much more disciplined and restrictive in some sense. What’s the rush, then? Why not wait until we near the end of our lives so that we can have all the fun we want now?

Right off the bat, we need to establish a simple truth: there IS such a thing as a genuine “death bed conversion.” People can be truly saved as they near death, even if they don’t have any time or opportunity to demonstrate the fruit we’ve mentioned. This is because salvation truly is by the Holy Spirit, and not by works. Of course, we may not be able to tell if all of them are true because there’s no way for examining or demonstrating the faith. Perhaps the best-known last-minute conversion is the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus promises, “Today, you shall be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43b)

Now, let’s examine some reasons for urgency. Why should we want to become a follower of Jesus Christ as soon as possible?

1. We don’t know how much time we have left.

This is something we all know…”yea yea, we could get hit by a truck tomorrow.” But I think it’s a little more complex than we think. Let’s examine it from a number of angles.

First, even though we might know about our mortality in our heads, in our hearts, most of us assume that we are going to live until a ripe old age. Hardly anyone honestly expects to die anytime soon. But what if you really did get into a car accident and died tomorrow (or tonight)? Even if there is less than a 1% chance that on a given day you will pass away, are you really willing to risk your eternal destiny on that chance? If you keep pushing off your search for truth, you’re not getting any closer to being saved. Those small percentages are eventually going to catch up to you, and you may never get the chance to consider matters of faith consciously on a nice hospital bed somewhere.

Second, there is the very real possibility of Rapture during our lifetimes. I know people have been saying that for a long time, and kooks will claim to know the exact dates (and invariably will prove to be false), but what if it does really happen soon? Things really are starting to come together.

There will be many people who won’t be ready in time, and as a result, they will face great hardship and danger during the time of tribulation. It would be far easier to accept Jesus before this all happens and be assured of heaven immediately. Plus, the Bible makes it clear that after some initial surge of interest in faith, most of the world will fall away and be doomed (and possibly subjected to God’s full wrath, not measured justice). No one can be sure that they will be one of the few who makes it through with their souls intact.

Finally, it’s not all about us. If you decide to wait until your death bed before you consider accepting Christ, what about your loved ones? What about your parents and children? You may find salvation, but you won’t have a chance to tell anyone you love about this saving grace. Your parents may be closed-minded to random strangers with smiles on their faces, but they may be willing to consider what you have to say (or see the evidence of change in your life). Same goes for your friends or spouse. Waiting could be the most selfish thing you end up doing in your life, even if you can’t see it yet.

2. Salvation is not purely a decision of our will.

Let’s say that you could somehow know with 100% certainty that you will die at the ripe old age of 90. Fine. So that gives you more than 89 years to live your way, and then before your 90th birthday, you can just accept Christ then, right? Sorry folks, this is usually very wrong. This is a very dangerous and risky road to travel.

If it were completely up to our willpower or a simple spoken decision, this last-minute strategy could partially work. But the problem is, the more we live our own way, fuel our pride, and reject the gospel throughout our lives, the harder it is for us to come to God. You’re basically distancing yourself from Him with every step, thought, and action. You’re putting up a wall between yourself and God brick by brick, and expecting it to be easy to get to the other side on a moment’s notice. Things simply don’t work this way, and God cares enough to warn us directly.

Ephesians 4:17-19 says: “17So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18being darkened in their understandingexcluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.”

Reversing a lifetime of rejecting the gospel is not an easy process. It’s easier to repair a heart of short-term, mild neglect than it is to fix decades of indulgence and excess. People who live by the flesh are decreasing their chances of ever coming around by hardening their hearts and becoming callous. When the end of the road is coming, they will be unable to see the error in their ways. A dying man with a pragmatic mind who hedges and claims to accept Christ “just in case” has not acquired a saving faith.

Consider the thief on the cross. It’s amazing how much theology is packed into such a short space.

Luke 23:39-43: “39One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

Notice what the second criminal displayed to find his way to true salvation. He feared God, realized his own sinfulness, and knew he fully deserved death. Then, hanging on that cross, he knew there was absolutely nothing he could do to earn his own salvation. No good works, no rituals, or even an independent decision of his own. He knew that Jesus was the only way, and it is up to Christ himself to allow us in or not. This was not an act of his own volition! It was a desperate plea with the right understanding, and God’s grace showed favor to this man.

3. True belief in Christ leads to an abundant life.

It’s a flat-out myth that true Christians have lives to be pitied. “Ignorance is bliss,” others suppose. What they don’t know is how much purpose and fulfillment believers can have that makes their earthly lives better immediately. A true believer would never, in a million years, trade his joy in the Lord for that Ferrari or a vibrant sex life with beautiful people. Even persecuted Christians or martyrs consider it joy and an honor to suffer for Christ.

The so-called restrictions or hardships we encounter can become a pleasure. James 1:2-4 says: “2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Sure, the teachings of the Bible may be painful to follow sometimes, but it produces greater rewards that are both immediately experienced and enjoyed in the long term. With the Holy Spirit’s help, it doesn’t always feel as hard as you might expect anyway.

Since this may sound far-fetched or even masochistic to some, consider these two analogies.

Some people love working out at the gym regularly. Others can’t even begin to comprehend why or how. Those who are active and fit will tell you that even though it’s hard, sweaty, and sometimes painful, they love doing it. The short-term “joy” is the rush of endorphins, filling them with relief or even a slight euphoria. The long-term pleasure comes from the clean and healthy way your body feels. No pain, no gain. Life is just better overall, and it’s worth the price of gym membership and sacrifice to achieve that kind of fulfillment. That hour on the couch or the chocolate cake, while appealing, are worth giving up.

Another analogy for our relationship with Christ is a healthy, happy marriage. There may be swinging bachelors out there who urge you not to get married, not to take on that ball and chain. “Say goodbye to your freedom,” they might say. Why would you give up your ability to do whatever you want? Stay up as late as you want, play video games all night, or sleep around with whomever you want? To some people, it’s impossible to see the appeal of a “restrictive,” monogamous, and committed relationship.

People who are happily married know all too well the cost they paid, but the reward is great enough to justify it all. Giving up “freedom” and a “fun” lifestyle is rewarded with a different level of happiness. What once seemed so appealing as a single person becomes dull or even repulsive to your eyes.

The same is true of entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Sometimes it seems to make no sense to give up the appealing world around us. The cost of entry may seem unattractively high, but the longer you wait, the more you miss out on what true satisfaction is on this earth.

4. The kingdom could always use more workers, and it’s our privilege to take part.

God is doing work in this world, and He chooses to use us to do some of it. Wouldn’t you want to contribute and be a part of the movement?

Imagine if everyone had this last-minute mentality. Who would be spreading the message of the gospel to people? Who would be the one coming to your hospital bed to instruct you and pray with you? I, for one, don’t want to be a leech that benefits from the work of others. I want to do my part, and I think deep down, most of us feel this way also. The good news is, God always has room for more workers, more soldiers.

5. God promises eternal rewards for the faithful.

OK, so the last one wasn’t really a “what’s in it for me?” reason, per se, but this one is.

God promises rewards for those who do his work and are faithful. Sometimes, the reward can manifest during our lives here on earth, but every time, we are assured to receive eternal rewards in heaven. (By the time you enter into a relationship with God, you may not need much extra motivation anyway.)

Matthew 5:11-12 says: “11Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 6:20: “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal;”

What are these rewards that God promises? The Bible doesn’t say specifically, but my guess is that if God is the one rewarding us, it’s something we would enjoy. Granted, we’re not going to be lacking or covetous when we’re in heaven, but again, if God is giving it out, I want it. It’s eternity we’re talking about here. It’d be wise for us to plan ahead and make the ultimate investment while we still can. Like any good investment, the end result will be better the earlier we get started.

Conclusion

This post was just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it’ll get some people thinking about treating their salvation with more urgency. There is literally nothing to gain by waiting, and there is everything in store for those who take the plunge. Finding Christ can sometimes happen overnight, but it may also take months (or even years). It’s safer to get started NOW, don’t you think? Don’t be like the virgins in the parable who aren’t prepared and are locked out from the feast. Don’t prepare too late.

If there are things you are afraid of losing or giving up, let me assure you that no true believer regrets the trade after it happens. No one ends up saying, “I’ve found Jesus, but I sure wish I could go back to my old ways again.” Besides, depending on what you’re holding onto, there’s no guarantee that God will ask you to give it up completely anyway. Perhaps He will refine it for his glory, or just push it down on the priority ladder. Maybe you will have to give it up. Either way, you won’t be sorry.

“Spiritual abortion”? Another look at the Parable of the Sower and the Seed

June 22, 2011 1 comment

I always have a number of topics floating around for my next post, but I felt like I had to address this further. This is an extension of my recent “Are very few ‘Christians’ actually saved?” post.

It amazes me that so many of us can fail to see plain spiritual truth, even when we’ve read certain passages countless times before. I’ve probably read this particular parable 10+ times before, but only recently did it become clear (spiritual blindness is a crazy thing). Jesus can give us such an important parable, and even take the time to explain it himself, and yet we never think to learn what it means. God must be facepalming up there in heaven, wondering how much he has to beat us over the head before we’ll finally listen! “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9). Indeed!

ANYhow.

Let’s take another look at the parable. I’m taking this one from Matthew, though you can find it in two of the other gospels as well.

Matthew 13:3–8: 3 And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. 7 Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. 8 And others fell on the good soil and *yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”

Then Jesus thought it was important enough to explain it himself. Here’s his explanation (emphasis added by me), this time from Luke:

Luke 8:11–15: “Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God12 Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved13 Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away14 The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity15 But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.”

Let’s break it down one by one, each type of person (“soil”):

1) “Beside the road” (hard): This first type of person is clearly referring to nonbelievers, and they are not saved. They may have heard something about the word of God, but they didn’t believe it and never professed faith. They immediately rejected it.

This includes atheists and people of other religions.

2) “Rocky places” (shallow): This type of person is someone who immediately received the word with joy, and they even believed for a while, but then they fell away. Many people believe this refers to a false conversion, perhaps fueled by emotions or some hasty, shallow acceptance of the gospel. These former believers did not consider the price to be paid, such as repentance (perhaps the “root”) and giving up one’s supreme position in life. People say salvation is “free,” but it’s kind of a yes-and-no situation. It’s supposed to cost us something, and these people in rocky soil did not position themselves to bear the fruit of salvation. The end result is the same as the person who immediately rejected the word…there is no longer any seed, and no fruit or life can sprout from it.

This probably includes former believers or people who no longer live out their faith at all. These people may or may not specify themselves as “Christian” on surveys and such.

3) “Among the thorns” (impure): These people are similar to the “rocky” ones above, though these people most likely consider themselves to currently be believers. The thorns represent the world’s influence. The Bible mentions on multiple occasions that you cannot serve both the world and God, that you cannot have two masters. The thorns in this situation are the world’s way of choking out faith, whether it’s through sexual temptation or other vices. The clearest example of these “thorns”—as mentioned here and in other parts (like the parable of the rich man in Luke 16:19–31)—is greed. Money in itself is not a bad thing, but it’s the love of money and wealth that supersedes God’s rightful place in our hearts. Unfortunately, the people who fall to the allure of this world will “bring no fruit to maturity.” The end result is the same as the nonbeliever and the “rocky” person.

This includes nominal Christians, churchgoers who display little difference from the world, and people who treat Christianity as a kind of accessory in their lives, but mainly live for the world.

4) “Good soil” (fertile): This is the true believer, a fertile soil for the seeds to take root and bear much fruit. This type of person represents the only scenario where the word of God is not wiped away.

This includes Christians who genuinely strive to please God and grow increasingly sensitive to sin.

Now, scenarios #1 and 4 seem extremely clear and obvious. But what about #2 and 3? Are these people really lost, or could they be saved but simply backsliding and not bearing fruit? To answer this question, let’s refer to other verses that clear up the issue.

Matthew 7:15–20: “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire20So then, you will know them by their fruits.”

It’s clear from these verses that a lack of good fruit is a serious issue. It’s not a minor point. In fact, verse 19 couldn’t make it any clearer. If a person is not bearing good fruit, like the “among the thorns” people above, then I find it hard to believe they are saved.

Another place that shines light on this issue is Hebrews 6:7, 8:

7 For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.

No good fruit means a person is a bad tree (or ground). If a person is a bad tree, they are cut down and thrown into the fire for destruction. It’s simple logic.

What about the “rocky places” person? Well, contrary to the fertile soil that persevered, this type of person has fallen away. And Hebrews 6 teaches us that the true test of a Christian is not how one starts the journey, but how he/she finishes it.

Furthermore, John 15:6 says: “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”

Simply put, if a person falls away from the faith, that person was never on the “good soil” to begin with.

I’ll let gotquestions summarize for me:

To summarize the point of the Parable of the Sower: “A man’s reception of God’s Word is determined by the condition of his heart.” A secondary lesson would be “Salvation is more than a superficial, albeit joyful, hearing of the gospel. Someone who is truly saved will go on to prove it.” May our faith and our lives exemplify the “good soil” in the Parable of the Sower.

Keep in mind…

Matthew 7:13, 14: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14 For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

For further reading on this topic, these two places are a good start:

“Spiritual abortion”: http://www.preachitteachit.org/articles-blogs/ask-roger/post/archive/2011/february/article/spiritual-abortion/

http://www.gotquestions.org/parable-sower.html

Also, check out this video sermon by Lon Solomon: (2010) http://mcleanbible.org/media_player.asp?type=large&messageID=56902