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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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Are very few “Christians” actually saved?

June 16, 2011 2 comments

There is a potentially disastrous lie that has been going around in Christian circles for the past few decades. The lie is this: If you say a certain prayer and say you accept Jesus into your heart, then you are guaranteed salvation for eternity. No one is telling this lie intentionally, but good motives aren’t going to matter in the big picture if we don’t have our facts straight.

Paul Washer is a controversial preacher who is the opposite of feel-good ministry (a la Joel Osteen). He is probably most famous for this “shocking” sermon he delivered to a bunch of youth: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cncEhCvrVgQ. (For a bit of context, I urge you to also check out this video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrCvO8Elsis.) He’s often misinterpreted as a works-based-salvation preacher, but that’s not what he’s actually saying. In my opinion, he’s the reality check that our flaky, entitled modern culture needs. Sure, he’s a bit extreme sometimes in his wording, but at least it grabs your attention and forces you to think.

Anyhow, according to Washer, up until about 50 years ago, the measuring stick to check if you were saved used to be whether you accepted Jesus into your life AND whether you as a believer are bearing fruit inside and out. But in modern times, pastors will normally say this to their members: “Did you at any point in your life pray for Jesus to come into your heart?” “Well, yes, but…” “Then you are definitely saved.”

Let’s look at some scripture and see what it has to say. Maybe our modern perceptions of salvation reflect our increasing desire for easy, obvious tests rather than difficult assessments.

Matthew 7:19: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John 15:6: “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.”

Matthew is saying that saved people (the trees in this metaphor) should be bearing good fruit. If it does not, it will be thrown into the fire. John is saying that believers “remain” in Jesus. Falling away or perpetually bearing no fruit is not possible with real believers. Note that they are not talking about earning your salvation through good works, but rather are saying that if you are truly saved, you should be bearing good fruit (like love, increasingly righteous and sanctified lives, etc.). The “fruit” are not the cause of salvation, but rather are the symptoms or the external result of being a good tree.

Now, this isn’t to say that Christians—even the “real” ones—are perfect, but there should be some difference in their actions and in their thought life. Moral backsliding is possible, and can persist for a short amount of time (to some extent, anyway), but there should always be an inherent, Holy Spirit–driven desire to repent and sanctify ourselves as we mature in the faith. It’s like a tugging on our hearts, and as we grow and trim the sin from our lives, we find it easier to follow its lead.

Many people who call themselves Christians treat salvation like a flu shot. They felt emotional one night at a retreat or camp of some kind, they prayed that Christ come into their lives, and now they think they’re vaccinated from Hell. Then, once the feelings wear off, they dust themselves off and go right back to their old lives, no different from the rest of the world. A crucial missing ingredient here is repentance or a turning away from their old sin nature. Without it, their salvation is called into serious question. That emotional high is not always from the Holy Spirit, even though they might think it was. I hate to be the cynic and bearer of sobering news, but it could have just been the music, dim lighting, or whatever else. The Holy Spirit can stir feelings in your heart, true, but he’s much more than that.

Let’s examine a few more passages that are important to this topic.

Luke 8:4-8: 4 One day Jesus told a story in the form of a parable to a large crowd that had gathered from many towns to hear him: 5 “A farmer went out to plant his seed. As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it.6 Other seed fell among rocks. It began to grow, but the plant soon wilted and died for lack of moisture. 7 Other seed fell among thorns that grew up with it and choked out the tender plants. 8 Still other seed fell on fertile soil. This seed grew and produced a crop that was a hundred times as much as had been planted!” When he had said this, he called out,“Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”

This parable is showing us four different scenarios of a person’s faith. The first, verse 5, refers to nonbelievers. Perhaps they read the word and then they either didn’t understand it or they abandoned it, choosing to believe in something else. The “seed” was eaten up by the birds (the evil one) and had no chance to grow and bear fruit.

Two (or possibly even three) of the remaining scenarios refer to people who call themselves Christians. Verse 6 and 7 refer to people who thought they were saved—even having accepted the word “immediately and joyfully”—but their faith proved to be false when distractions and difficulties came their way.

Verse 8 is referring, of course, to genuine believers with a saving faith in Christ. In this fertile soil, the plant can grow and bear fruit, showing itself to be real. (For a fuller explanation, read on in verses 11–15, or read Matthew 13:18–23. Roger Barrier also does a clear interpretation here: http://www.preachitteachit.org/articles-blogs/ask-roger/post/archive/2011/february/article/spiritual-abortion/)

Matthew 7:13-14 says: 13You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell[f] is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. 14 But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.”

Note that being a genuine believer is not supposed to be a walk in the park. You can’t just go in, get your flu shot, then run around in germ-ridden environments to your heart’s content. Sometimes, people say the prayer hastily and THEN are led to true salvation, but it is not necessarily BECAUSE of it. Sometimes, it just a starting point, an agreement to consider the narrower path from now on. If there is no difference at all between a “Christian” and the rest of the world, then yes, there probably is no difference. Both are probably not saved.

The Bible says that the gateway is narrow and “only a few ever find it.” I used to wonder about this passage when I was younger, in light of the statistics that the world has 2 billion people who call themselves Christians. Sure it’s less than half, but by no means did it seem “very narrow.” But now I know the sobering and sad reality that many of these people are probably lost.

My guess is that these 2 billion people were either born into a Christian family and never formally separated themselves from their upbringing, or they weighed some evidence and superficially determined that the likelihood of Christ’s deity is more likely to be true than not. “Sure I believe in Him,” they might say. “But I’m not religious or anything like that.” (You’ll often hear a defensive tone when they quickly add this disclaimer at the end. This has happened more times than I can count.)

Remember that the Bible says that even the demons believe in God, so mere probabilistic belief is not enough. There has to be a submission and a living relationship, not just a casual intellectual assent.

Here’s one last sobering passage for today, Matthew 7:21-23:

21 “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. 22 On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ 23 But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.'”

Billy Graham once said that if even 5% of the people who were “saved” through him were genuine believers, he’d be happy. My cousin, who just got her masters from seminary, told me there are stories of some pastors finding out they were truly saved only after 30–40 years into their ministry! Now, there’s no way for us to really accurately judge who’s going or how many are going (maybe it’s less than 5%, maybe it’s higher), but we all need to heed the Bible’s wake-up calls and reexamine our faith with a deep, honest look.

Let’s stop spreading the myth that a warm feeling and reciting a quick prayer is the end-all formula we need to follow. Let’s ditch the placebo—there’s a dangerous threat out there, and we need the real thing to combat it.