30 June 2021

The sinner’s prayer isn’t proof of your salvation.

Back in grad school I heard this ridiculous story from a preacher. I’ve shared it before; now again. Goes like so.

There once was this Christian who felt unsure of his salvation. He hoped he was saved, but he was just so full of doubts. A little voice inside his head kept telling him, “Oh you’re not saved. Not really.” Of course the preacher assumed this voice was Satan, but considering how such baiting will simply drive us Christians to make certain we’re saved, I’m pretty sure Satan abandoned this tactic long ago as stupid. But I digress.

This uncertain Christian came up with a clever plan: First he said the sinner’s prayer again. (He no doubt said it ages ago, but bear with me.) Next he made a sign with that day’s date on it, fixed it to a stake, and pounded the stake into his backyard. Now every time the voice in his head told him, “You’re not saved,” he could look out the back window at his sign, and say, “I am so saved, devil. Get thee behind me.”

Followed by a rash of my fellow students placing signs with various dates on ’em in the yard behind their dorms… Nah, just kidding. Nobody did that. Because this uncertain Christian posting signs in his backyard is, to put it kindly, dumb. “Yeah I know what’ll confirm my salvation: A sign in the yard!” Say the wind blows it away some day; then where will he be? Wouldn’t that surely look a sign from God suggesting no, he’s not saved?

Signs in your yard may indicate all sorts of things. Like whom you voted for, who installed your solar panels, who does your lawn, whom you voted for, whether the house is on the market, when the garage sale will be. Of course they mean nothing if they’re not true; if the sign says “Garage sale Saturday” but it was actually a Saturday in 2019. A sign can tell you the date of your sinner’s prayer, but did the sinner’s prayer even work?

Because sinner’s prayers don’t save people. Never did. God saves us, by his grace and through our faith. Does he automatically do this whenever a person says the sinner’s prayer? Well some evangelists claim he absolutely does, every single time.

Romans 10.13 KJV
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Jl 2.32

Of course they forget to quote the context of this verse—namely the verses following.

Romans 10.14-16 KJV
14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! Is 52.7 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? Is 53.1

If a petitioner lacks faith in God—as proven when they don’t live the gospel after they prayed the sinner’s prayer—calling upon the Lord won’t save you. “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?”

It’s like claiming, “I don’t know whether my checking account has any money in it. So I’m gonna send the bank a letter, then put the date I sent the letter on a sign. And every time I’m not sure there’s anything in that account, I’m gonna look at that sign and tell myself, ‘No you do have money. ’Cause you sent ’em a letter on this date!’ ”

Like I said, dumb.

Got fruit?

You want proof there’s money in your checking account? Go withdraw money from it. You want proof someone’s been saved? Go withdraw fruit of the Spirit from them. They should have some. Ideally plenty.

The sinner’s prayer doesn’t prove we’re saved; the Holy Spirit does. You got him, you’re saved. You don’t?—you aren’t.

Ephesians 1.13-14 KJV
13In [Christ] ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, 14 which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.

When ancient Romans formally adopted their kids, i.e. declared them theirs, they gave them what the ancients used instead of signatures: An exact copy of their signet ring, used to put their stamp on stuff, meaning their father’s full authority as master of the family estate. God does something similar: He gives us his Holy Spirit to live in us. And if the Spirit’s in there, we should see plenty of evidence of his life affecting our lives. God’s attitudes and character should infect us. We should grow better at patience, kindness, goodness; we should have more love, joy, peace, and faith. We should find it easier to hear God when we pray. We should have more God-experiences. We should have fewer reasons, if not no reason, to doubt God’s existence, our relationship with him, and our salvation.

The reason Christians doubt their salvation? They don‘t have these things. They’re the very same a--holes they’ve always been. Maybe they slapped Christian labels on all their bad behaviors, and call ’em fruit now; maybe they actually fool others with this, though not as well as they think. Any discerning Christian can detect when their testimonies are lies, and when they’re faking tongues. We can tell, and they know deep down, they’re hypocrites.

When they can’t honestly point to the Spirit’s activity and say, “God’s involved in my life,” they got nothing. All they can really do is stick signs in the yard. And celebrate their “spiritual birthday.” And because they’re still jerks, they can make as big a deal of it as they do their birthday month. ’Cause it’s all about them, isn’t it?

Nudge newbies towards fruit.

Too often, evangelists try to “seal the deal”—get people to say the sinner’s prayer, and once that’s done, figure they’re now going to heaven and our job’s done. On to the next potential convert!

Yeah, no. Jesus didn’t tell us to go make people say the sinner’s prayer. He told us to teach them what he taught his first students.

Matthew 28.18-20 KJV
18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

If we don’t teach ’em “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” stands to reason they think there’s nothing more they need to do… so they do nothing more. And don’t listen to the Spirit. And don’t grow. And think they’re Christian, but aren’t.

No, it’s not because their inactivity drives the Spirit away. It’s because the Spirit foreknew they’d be as inert as a brick. So he’s not living in them yet. They’ve gotta mean it when they say the sinner’s prayer: They gotta act as if Jesus is Lord and they’re inheriting his kingdom. Fruit’s a collaborative process, and we gotta give the Spirit something to work with.

So once the sinner’s prayer gets said, we gotta plug the new believer into a church. Some church; whichever church they’re most likely to attend regularly. Get ’em worshiping. Get ’em praying. Get ’em reading bible; get ’em to a bible study. Answer questions. Provoke questions. If you don’t have answers, get them. (If your answers don’t match anyone else’s answers, sometimes that’s okay; sometimes Christians are allowed to believe diverse things. But sometimes we’re not, so make sure they learn what’s orthodox.)

And if you personally can’t do this—hey, sometimes we’re busy—find someone who can. You find someone. Not just someone who claims to know it all; someone who produces good fruit. I know various fruitless pastors who know plenty, but they have all the patience of a three-year-old after you just turned off Disney+ in mid-cartoon, and they suck at encouraging good fruit in others. So don’t just assume your newbie’s new instructor should automatically be someone with the title “pastor,” and any ol’ pastor will do. They’ll give that title to anyone. Pick a spiritually mature Christian.

If the newbie grows, great!—the sinner’s prayer took. If the newbie bails on the whole discipleship thing, not so great; see if you can find out what went wrong, and whether there’s anything you can do to get ’em back on track.

But sometimes they never really did mean the prayer. They said it on impulse, like when they bought that exercise bike they never use, and now drape clothes over. They thought they meant it. And someday they might say it again, and mean it, and follow Jesus. But not now. It sucks, but it happens. Don’t presume it doesn’t.

Worried about your own salvation?

Now if you’re one of those people who, like the numbnut with the backyard sign, aren’t so sure about your salvation, and think the sinner’s prayer marks your “spiritual birthday”: Stop that. Psyching yourself into thinking that marks the time you made your deal with God, and now you have full-coverage afterlife insurance, isn’t gonna work as well as you imagine. If anything it’s gonna develop a big fat blindspot where our fruit should be. And blindspots have a bad habit of multiplying.

The reason people doubt their own salvation is not because the devil’s trying to steal our peace. It’s because the Holy Spirit himself is making them doubt. He’s trying to slap ’em out of their complacency. He’s tired of do-nothing Christians who take him for granted. He wants us hot or cold; he wants someone who will act when he tells us to. If that’s not yet you, clearly he’s got work to do on you. Doubting your relationship with God is how he starts: If you don’t really have much of a relationship, shouldn’t we doubt?

But too many Christians only want full-coverage afterlife insurance, and little more. They don’t wanna burn in hell. But they don’t really wanna follow Jesus either. Too hard. Too life-changing, and they’re quite happy with their lives as-is. They don’t wanna love their neighbors, so they’re quite happy to imagine Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as an ideal reality, or the future, or anything which keeps ’em from having to actually do it.

It’s not at all what the scriptures teach. God has good works for us to do. Ep 2.10 Jesus wants us to make more disciples, cure the sick, raise the dead, preach good news to the poor, love our neighbors, and love one another. As we do these things, he shows up, and we stop doubting we have a relationship with him, ’cause obviously we do.

But when we do nothing, and have nothing, we see nothing. Suddenly the sinner’s prayer feels like a really big deal… ’cause it’s the only thing we have.

The solution’s both simple and (if we’re not in the habit of following Jesus) difficult: Start. Start developing fruit of the Spirit and eliminating works of the flesh. Start loving your neighbors—and don’t just passively think nice thoughts about them, but find something to do for them. Start loving your fellow Christians; go to church, quit badmouthing other churches, get involved, help people. Quit wishing people would get well, and instead go to them, and pray God cures them right now. Quit imagining you know God well enough, and read your bible.

Worried you’re not saved? Sounds like it’s time you started behaving like a saved person.