Leading people in the sinner’s prayer.

When people come to Jesus, they gotta pray something. This is it.

Among the very first Christians, when people wanted to become Christian, they got baptized. Right away. Soonest they could find water, in they went. Splash, and you’re Christian.

By the end of the first century, Christians insisted new believers oughta fast a day or two before baptism. By the third century, there was a whole catechism thing: You had to learn everything Christianity teaches, and then if you still wanted in, you’d get baptized, and you were in. Lotta churches still work that way. But this process could take weeks, even months—and when we compare the whole catechism/baptism process to what we read in Acts, it’s like, “If people wanna follow Jesus, why are we making ’em wait so long and jump through so many hoops? The apostles didn’t.”

Weirdly, instead of dropping all the fasting and catechism and preparation, and just baptizing newbies straight away, a lot of churches kept all that and just added the sinner’s prayer—the first prayer we pray to Jesus, asking him to become our Lord, promising to follow him. And then, we figure, we’re in. We’ll do that catechism/baptism stuff later. But we start with the sinner’s prayer. ’Cause “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Ro 10.9 NLT So there ya go. Easy-peasy-follow-Jeezy.

Well, it’s a little tricky. Y’see, those very same churches who push the sinner’s prayer idea, also like to push the extemporaneous prayer idea. They believe rote prayers are sorta dead religion—you don’t pray them because you honestly mean them, but because they’re what’s expected of Christians, and it’s more important to pray from your heart than recite somebody else’s prayer. So even though it’d be extremely useful for there to be a standard sinner’s prayer, there’s not. If you wanna lead people to Jesus, and you want them to pray the sinner’s prayer, you’re gonna have to come up with one. On your own.

…Nah, you don’t really. I’m not gonna leave you hanging. I’ll teach you one.

Repeat after me.
Lord Jesus Christ,
have mercy on me, a sinner.
I cannot save myself.
I cannot fix myself.
I cannot rescue myself.
You can.
Please take charge of my life.
You are Lord and I am not.
Show me where I’ve gone wrong.
Teach me to follow you.
Send me the Holy Spirit to guide me.
Thank you for seeking me and finding me.
Thank you for saving me.
Thank you for everlasting life.

That should cover everything.

No, you don’t have to use mine. Write your own. Borrow someone else’s from a prayer book. Swipe one from a gospel tract. Memorize it, and have it handy in case you need to lead anyone who needs to pray it.

But this isn’t a formula. Don’t worry about doing it perfectly. If you’re new to helping people through sinner’s prayers, you might get flustered and forget some details. Relax. You won’t undo their salvation because of it. The Holy Spirit has been leading them towards himself for a long, long time. He’s not gonna let you get in his way. (Thank God.)

Winging it.

Remember, we’re saved by God’s grace. This being the case, you don’t have to get a sinner’s prayer perfect. So if you’ve not bothered to memorize anything, but someone wants to turn to Jesus, you can lead ’em in some form of sinner’s prayer on the fly. Won’t be perfect, but the prayer doesn’t need to be. God is perfect, and he does all the saving.

The essence of every sinner’s prayer is “Jesus is Lord.” Make sure that’s in there, at the very least. Jesus is Lord. Jesus must be Lord. That’s the whole point: He’s our Master, and we repent of whatever it was we were doing before (usually sin), and follow him instead. Get that in there somewhere, and the rest will turn out just fine.

Try to include these other things, if you remember ’em. And when in doubt, lead ’em to pray what you’d pray if you were just turning to Jesus yourself.

SAY IT TO JESUS. I’ve met certain Christians who are really particular about who we’re praying to. Y’see, they’ve deduced what each person of the trinity does when it comes to salvation: Jesus made it possible, the Holy Spirit applies it to our lives… but the Father’s in charge, so they insist we gotta specifically pray to him. Not Jesus; he’s the wrong person of the trinity.

To which I say you don’t wanna start a person off in the Christian life by turning them into a little legalist.

And bluntly, this sort of thinking about the trinity is stupid. The trinity isn’t like three guys working in an office, and when you put a letter in the wrong guy’s inbox, stuff doesn’t happen. God is One, and the trinity’s a relationship: It’s love, communication, partnership, personified. When you talk to Jesus, you talk to God. Not just one person of God: You talk to God. There’s no miscommunication whatsoever.

Plus this newbie wants Jesus. So talk to Jesus! It makes no sense whatsoever to tell them, “No no; don’t talk to Jesus. Talk to the Father. Jesus doesn’t do that.” Jesus does so do that. He has no trouble with us praying to him directly. Stephen did it; Ac 7.59 anyone can. Go right ahead and speak with him. Don’t confuse the newbies.

CONFESS WE NEED HIM. Yeah, Jesus is Lord, but it doesn’t hurt to get specific as to why Jesus needs to be Lord. We wanna make it clear: We aren’t the master over our own souls. We tried that, and make a mess of things. We need to surrender that control to Jesus.

Unconditionally, too: We don’t just hand over the big things, but keep control of the small things; or hand over the messes yet keep hold of the things which “work.” Our surrender needs to be total. Jesus needs to be Lord of all, and we need to quit this job altogether.

Like the folks in the 12-step programs say, our first step is to admit we have a problem: We’re sinners. We can’t run our lives without running them into the ground. So in the sinners prayer, this needs to be said: “Jesus, I can’t run my life anymore. I’m no good at it. I can’t save myself. My sins are making a mess of things.” Whichever words are appropriate.

If new converts wanna get really specific, and list particular sins which are holding them back, let them. It’s up to them. Not you: It’s not your job to make ’em feel like awful, depraved sinners, so they’ll realize all the more how much they need Jesus. Conviction is the Holy Spirit’s job. Let them confess sins only if he makes ’em feel they need to. Otherwise, move along.

TURN AWAY FROM SIN. But if they do wanna confess sins, because they’re struggling with those sins in particular, help them along.

Repent means to turn away from whatever we’re doing. It doesn’t just mean to feel sorry. Sorry isn’t enough anyway. It’s not enough to feel sorry for lying: We gotta stop lying. It’s not enough to feel sorry for cheating: We gotta stop cheating. It’s not enough to feel sorry for murder: We gotta stop murdering. (Not that your convert has been murdering, but you get the idea.)

If they wanna repent, have ’em tell Jesus they want to make the effort. “I want to do better. I want to stop sinning. I want to stop running my life wrong. I want to quit whatever vices are holding me back. Jesus, help me do better.”

I’ll tell you what is your job though: Make ’em aware Jesus forgives everything. Absolutely everything. ’Cause too many people refuse to turn to Jesus because they think he won’t forgive them. They think God’s grace can’t extend that far. Make it clear it does. Tell them: “God forgives you for that. Jesus took care of that. You’re forgiven. Now go and sin no more.”

Bonus stuff.

Beyond that, let the newbie say whatever they want to tell Jesus. If they wanna thank him, great. If they have more things to confess, be patient and keep reminding them Jesus forgives all. If they wanna cry, okay. Be there for them. Help them along.

Many new converts wanna make a lot of gratitude-filled promises—like they promise to pray a lot, or read the bible, or go to church, or perform other acts of devotion. Now, you and I both know they’re gonna slip up. We did; they will too. And they’re gonna feel just awful about it. So on the one hand, don’t discourage their enthusiasm. But on the other hand, remind them about grace. They want to thank God for their salvation, and that’s great! But we all make mistakes—which is why we need grace in the first place—so they mustn’t beat themselves up when they make the very same mistakes every Christian does.

For obvious reasons, God likes to do freaky things to brand-new believers. Your convert might suddenly be healed of something, like an illness or an addiction, or start speaking in tongues on you. Seriously. So don’t be surprised when the miraculous happens.

Though more often newbies are just really emotional. Or shell-shocked, like “I can’t believe I just committed myself to Jesus. Me, of all people. Who’d have thought?” This could very well happen in mid-prayer, or after the prayer. In either case, feel free to keep praying. Take the time to deal with it, and comfort or encourage your newbie. Thank God for it.

Don’t worry about capping off the sinner’s prayer with an “Amen” or “In Jesus’s name.” You were, after all, praying directly to Jesus; of course it was in his name.

And there ya go: The sinner’s prayer.

The hard part is next. That’d be follow-through. Talk is cheap, and so are sinner’s prayers when you only mean them in an emotional moment. Get your newbie into a church, and started on following Jesus.