28 June 2021

The “sinner’s prayer.” And how to lead one.

In the scriptures, whenever someone wanted to become Christian, how’d they get initiated? Simple: They got baptized. Right away: They found some water and baptized ’em right then and there.

Acts 8.35-38 KJV
35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. 36 And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 37 [And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.

Splash, and you’re Christian. But by the end of the first century, ancient Christians got it into their heads there oughta be more delay than this: Too many people were getting baptized, yet didn’t continue to follow Jesus. And baptism is a sacrament, right?—it ought not be something we take lightly. So maybe we oughta delay those baptisms till people prove they really mean it. Maybe delay it a year. Make ’em take a catechism first.

Yep, this is why churches work this way. Make you memorize a catechism first. Make you take a Christian Initiation class, or at least baptism classes where they explain to you why baptism’s such a big, big deal. But this process can take weeks or months—and when we compare our whole initiation process to what we read in Acts, it’s like, “If people wanna follow Jesus, why do we make ’em wait so long and jump through so many hoops? The apostles didn’t.”

Correct. No they didn’t. And I wouldn’t either. Same as Philip and that eunuch: The dude wanted to be baptized, so Philip baptized him. The Textus Receptus (and KJV) added a verse where Philip double-checked whether the eunuch really believed in Jesus, which is why most churches still require a profession of faith before you get under the water—and that’s cool. If you wanna baptize new converts yourself, right away, without waiting for your church to schedule their beginning-of-the-year 12-week baptism classes, go right ahead. Philip did.

But popular Christian culture has come up with another way of initiating new believers: Make ’em say the sinner’s prayer.

The sinner’s prayer is the first prayer we formally pray to Jesus. We might’ve made informal prayers to him before, or begged him for stuff, or tried to bargain with him. This one is where we ask him to formally become our Lord, and promise to follow him. And then, we figure, we’re in. ’Cause

Romans 10.9 KJV
That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

So there ya go. Easy-peasy-follow-Jeezy.

Though sometimes the sinner’s prayer can get a little tricky. Y’see, most of the churches who push the idea of the sinner’s prayer, don’t tell you how the sinner’s prayer goes. They don’t have a formal, written-down, memorize-this, pray-it-by-rote sinner’s prayer. Some of ’em don’t believe in rote prayers, and think of them as dead religion. They insist whenever you pray, you gotta do it extemporaneously: Make it up. Pray it from the heart. Pray what you feel; don’t just recite someone else’s prayer.

Which is dumb. Newbies don’t know how to pray, much less pray extemporaneously! Sometimes they’ll do it wrong. And even if they do just fine, they’ll feel like they did it wrong; like there was more they could’ve and should’ve said, but they didn’t, and maybe now they can’t make up for it. Don’t add to their stress level! You come up with a sinner’s prayer, then have them repeat after you. And if they wanna add anything to it, that’s fine.

We tend to say “the sinner’s prayer,” as if there’s only one version of it, like the Lord’s Prayer. (Which has three versions of it: The Matthew version, the Luke version, and the Book of Common Prayer version.) Many churches have their own sinner’s prayer; sometimes more than one, in their denomination’s prayer books. Many evangelistic ministries have their own sinner’s prayer too. There’s no standard prayer. You can compose your own if you want.

A sinner’s prayer.

And if you don’t wanna compose your own, you don’t have to. I’ll teach you a simple one.

Repeat after me.
Lord Jesus Christ,
have mercy on me, a sinner.
I cannot save 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 and finding and saving me.
Thank you for everlasting life.

That should cover everything.

No, it’s not 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 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.)

If you’re about to lead a newbie in a sinner’s prayer, and utterly forget the one you’ve memorized (and can’t call it up on your phone, and haven’t bookmarked this page either), yeah you can wing it. But there’s stuff you gotta make sure you include.

JESUS IS LORD. The essence of every sinner’s prayer is “Jesus is Lord,” so it’d better be in there somewhere. Jesus has to be Lordl it’s the whole point. We repent of whatever it was we were doing before (usually sin), and follow him instead. Get that in there at the very least.

Once that’s in there, the rest will turn out just fine. But try to include the other things if you can. And when in doubt, lead ’em to pray what you’d pray if you were just turning to Jesus yourself.

SAY IT TO JESUS. If you’re asking Jesus to be your Lord, shouldn’t he be the one you’re addressing? Yet newbies won’t always think to do this. They’ll address you. After all, you’re telling ’em what to say. So start by reminding them they’re talking to Jesus. Not you; you can’t save them. Jesus.

Yeah, I’ve met certain Christians who insist whenever we pray, we can only address the Father, not the Son. I don’t know where they got that, ’cause Stephen explicitly prayed to Jesus, Ac 7.59 ’cause there’s nothing wrong with doing so. He’s God. It’s cool.

Besides, I don’t think it’s the best idea to start people off in the Christian life by teaching ’em legalism. This newbie wants Jesus. Give ’em Jesus!

CONFESS WE NEED HIM. 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 our 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 the reins on 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 have left me completely f---ed up.” Whichever words are appropriate.

If new converts wanna get really specific, and go through all the particular sins which hold them back… okay, let ’em. But don’t require it of them. 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.

REPENTANCE. You wanna have some repentance in there, but you might not want to use the word “repent” just yet. Because in popular culture, “repent” only means you feel sorry for your bad deeds… and that’s not properly what repentance means. Repent means to turn away from what we’ve done, and stop doing it. It’s not enough to feel bad about cheating on our spouses; we gotta stop cheating! (Not that your convert has been cheating, but you get the idea.)

Hence in my sinner’s prayer, I used different words to express the proper idea of repentance: “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.” That’ll get ’em to actually repent… instead of just feeling sorry, and wrongly figuring all they had to do was feel sorry.

Besides, it’s not your job anyway to make ’em feel sorry. Sometimes they don’t feel that way! Yet. They will; the Holy Spirit will work on ’em. And when they get there, remind ’em 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 as far as them. Make it clear it easily 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 those basics, let the newbie say whatever they wanna 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 swear to God they’ll read the bible, or go to church, or perform other acts of penance and devotion and commitment. Now, you and I both know they’re gonna slip up. (Just like we did!) 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 they might 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.” Those are formulas; formulas are the custom, but unnecessary. Besides, if you were praying directly to Jesus, of course this request 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 don’t really mean them. Or when you meant ’em in an emotional moment, but once the emotions pass, this weepy newbie might turn back into a hardened pagan. That’s why we have to follow through: Get your newbie connected to a church, and get ’em started on following Jesus.