A student asked an interesting question about the Sinner’s Prayer, its origin, and my thoughts about it. I thought I’d share this response with everyone, in case it is helpful:
Depending on who you ask, the “sinner’s prayer” (in various forms) was either present in the early church (e.g., Romans 10:9-10) or originated around the 17th century. Interestingly enough, D.L. Moody used such prayers, and especially due to the ministry of Billy Graham, the prayer became quite popular in Evangelical churches.
I do not have an issue with the prayer per se. The prayer is a synopsis of what Christians should affirm. Althought there is not a “formula” for this prayer in Scripture, I see it as a theological prayer that expresses essential Christian beliefs. At the same time, it is not a golden ticket to heaven. For that reason, it should not be a simplistic requirement, and we need to be open to people becoming Christians without reciting a certain prayer. I also think it’s wise to tell people that merely reciting words does not save you; it is a matter of the heart.
Overall, our emphasis should be on holistic conversion — i.e., not a “single” confession but a life of confession (Rom. 10:9-10). Sometimes, this may mean taking a step of faith, for example, and planning an evangelistic event that does not invite people to repeat the prayer. After all, if our evangelism is effective, then people will want to convert, even if there’s not a prayer time immediately afterwards. We can trust that they will pray to the Lord at a later point. In some cases, we ask people to repeat the prayer because we’re nervous that if we don’t do that then people won’t respond, which is actually a lack of faith on our part.
Further, we don’t want to “over use” a single prayer, since it can limit faith to a simplistic expression. The Kingdom of God is so grand that using the same prayer each time is not necessarily helpful. After all, think of how many parables that Jesus used to explain the Kingdom of God. When we invite people to respond after an evangelistic sermon, it would be wise to use different prayers — e.g., “Lord, I believe in Jesus, and I pray that He would be my treasure and joy” (Mt. 13:44) or “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lu. 18:13).
I also get worried about the prayer being “tacked on” at the end of a sermon — such as what Joel Osteen does — without much context or explanation. I think that can be more harmful than helpful. To me, that simplifies conversion beyond what Jesus intended (i.e., calling followers to leave everything).
So, as with many things in life, when, how, and why matters. Blanket statements don’t often take into account ministry context, personal motives, and other such variables, so each use (or non-use) should be thoughtfully considered.