In the July, 1999 Fulton County Gospel News, edited by Ted Clarke, Thomas F. Eaves, Sr., comments very appropriately upon "the sinner's prayer" from a booklet entitled God's Simple Plan of Salvation. He points out that "not one single person" was commanded to pray "the sinner's prayer" in the Bible (3). Then he discusses the very first occasion after the resurrection of Christ, in which the Jews asked what to do (Acts 2:36-38, 41). He shows that baptism was part of the plan of salvation and that those who were baptized understood that it was for the remission of sins.
The same day I read this article a tract was hung in a plastic bag upon the door of our house by a local Baptist group. Its title was The Grace That Saves, published by the Fellowship Tract League. It too contains "the sinner's prayer," but the strange thing is that this prayer is different from the one brother Eaves commented upon. In God's Simple Plan of Salvation, the prayer reads thus:
Just pray: Oh God, I know I am a sinner. I believe Jesus was my substitute when he died on the cross. I believe His shed blood, death, burial and resurrection were for me. I now receive Him as my Savior. I thank you for the forgiveness of my sins, and the gift of salvation and everlasting life, because of your merciful grace. Amen (3).
The prayer in The Grace That Saves is shorter:
Oh God, I am a sinner lost and hell bound. I repent. Have mercy upon me and save me for Christ's sake. Amen.
Now the first question someone might ask is, "Why are there two 'sinner's prayers'"? Why do they vary? They are quite similar in that they both acknowledge one's personal sinfulness, but there are differences, also. The former one never mentions repentance, but the latter one does. So, which is it? Do sinners need to repent of sin, or is it "faith only"? The first prayer includes "receiving Christ"; the second omits it.
These discrepancies would not exist IF the writers of these two tracts had presented the truth from the Scriptures. What many people may not realize is that the Bible does not contain "the sinner's prayer" anywhere. If it did, the reader would see book, chapter, and verse following a citation of it. The fact is, however, that neither tract is quoting from a book of the Bible. Both writers have made up what they consider in their own minds to be a version of a nonexistent prayer. That is the reason for the variation.
It is amazing how trusting so many people are--especially with something so important as their souls. If one has been taught "the sinner's prayer," he should wonder why it is never used in situations in which it would be totally appropriate. Why did Peter fail to mention to the multitude on Pentecost: "Just pray 'the sinner's prayer'"? Why was Saul of Tarsus not told to say "the sinner's prayer" instead of being told to arise and be baptized and wash away his sins (Acts 22:16)? Not once does "the sinner's prayer" in any form appear in the New Testament. Yet those who produce these tracts advocate it while promising that baptism (which is in the New Testament) is not necessary.
In fact, the tract, The Grace That Saves, makes these comments, after quoting Ephesians 2:8-9:
If it says not of works, it means NOT of works. Keeping rules, being baptized, praying continuously through to God, or anything else will not save or help save you. The Bible says not of our works, but salvation is a GIFT. All you can do is accept a gift.
Undoubtedly, the confused souls who wrote this tract do not see their own contradictions, some of which follow:
1. They say that a person cannot be saved by praying continuously through to God. But then they offer a prayer as a means to salvation. What kind of sense does that make? A person cannot be saved by lengthy, fervent, devout prayer, but one containing 23 words will do the trick. [It is true that prayer will not save anyone, but there is no virtue in a short prayer to accomplish salvation over a longer one, say, of 46 words. The fact is that Saul of Tarsus had been praying for three days (Acts 9:11), and he still had his sin when Ananias came to him (Acts 22:16.]
2. Which is more of a work that requires personal effort--repentance or baptism? Baptism is a passive act, in which someone lowers the one being baptized into the water and raises him up again. Where is the work? Repentance, on the other hand, requires exercising the will. One determines in his mind that he will give up sin. He also begins to make changes in his life when he becomes serious about salvation. His trust in God will move him to begin to give up those things that are contrary to the will of God. John called this bearing "fruits worthy of repentance" (Matt. 3:8). If anything could be classified as a work, meaning that man puts forth his own effort to achieve it, it would be repentance, not baptism. Yet this "sinner's prayer" includes repentance (remember that the other one did not).
3. The writer(s) of this tract admit that the Bible says we cannot be saved by "our works"; but they fail to take into consideration that baptism is the working of God--not man. Paul reminds the Colossians that they were buried with Christ in baptism and also "raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead" (Col. 2:12). Baptism is not a work of man or a work of merit. It is God's working. God included baptism as part of the process for saving man from his sins; why do the producers of this tract want to exclude it? They intentionally want it omitted as part of God's plan--so much so that they specify it as one of man's works when it is a work of God instead. No one in his right mind would think that being baptized somehow merits salvation (yet these men do).
The difference between this tract and the truth is slight but significant. When it teaches that all men are lost, it is correct. When it sets forth Jesus as the Savior, it is right. When it contends that we are saved by grace and not works, we agree. When it says, "All you can do is accept a gift," we have no quarrel. The argument concerns the way the gift is to be received.
According to this tract's version of the "sinner's prayer," one can receive salvation through this prayer and repentance. According to the Bible, salvation is received as a result of repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). These two conditions are joined together in the Scriptures, but for some reason, Baptists and the producers of this tract want baptism excised when God clearly authorized it.
What is the motive behind this irrational fear of baptism for the remission of sins? It cannot be that baptism is a work or that it nullifies the concept of grace because it is less of a work than repentance, which is not considered a work, nor does it nullify the concept of grace. Furthermore, if salvation is a gift (and it is), and it is "received" by faith and repentance, then why can it not also be received through faith, repentance, and baptism?
The New Testament clearly teaches that salvation does include baptism as part of the process. If it were not, why was Saul told, after he believed, had repented, and prayed for three days, "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16)? And why did the inspired apostle write that "baptism doth also now save us" (1 Peter 3:21)? God made baptism for the remission of sins part of accepting the free gift; man erroneously seeks to remove it, thus becoming guilty of preaching a false gospel (Gal. 1:8-9).
A final point from this tract should be made. It mentions that "keeping rules...will not save or help save you." Such a statement might be perceived as meaning that, after one's sins are forgiven, there are no commandments to keep. This idea plainly contradicts such passages as, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15) and "He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him" (Heb. 5:9). God expects those who are His to keep His commandments and to walk in His ways. If He did not expect obedience, there would be no need for repentance.
Although we are not saved by our works, we cannot be saved without works, either. "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:26). Righteous living and works are the result of salvation. They do not earn salvation, but faith would be barren without them, and salvation is forfeited if they are given up (2 Peter 2:20-22). Would that all men were content to "speak as the oracles of God" (1 Peter 4:11) and quit publishing and distributing tracts to the contrary!
*Send comments or questions concerning this article to Gary Summers. Please refer to this article as: "THE SINNER'S PRAYER (8/8/99)."