The "Sinner's Prayer,""altar calls," "bowing your head and raising your hand,""signing a card" are UNBIBLICAL
The “Sinner’s Prayer”?
By Dr. Edward Dalcour
Recently, a doctrinal lightning bolt has struck the Southern Baptist Convention. It centers on the open declaration of some Arminian SBC members affirming their doctrinal position and thus openly denying the doctrinal position of the Calvinistic members of the SBC—namely, denying Four of the Five Points of Calvinism or, what is called, the doctrines of grace. Headed by Pastor Eric Hankins of FBC Oxford, MS, a statement of faith entitled, “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” was developed by a number of pastors and professors within the SBC. It consisted of Ten Articles of Faith affirming Arminian doctrines anddenying Calvinistic ones. A Petition was attached for SBC members to sign. As expected, Arminian concepts and texts (esp. John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:9; etc.) are merely cited in the Articles with its “traditional” understanding assumed. Ironically, Article Three uses the phrase (in agreement) “penal substitution.” But this is completely inconsistent—for this phrase is a borrowed phrase from the Reformers and thus a decidedly Calvinistic concept.
Undeniably, the Southern Baptists have enjoyed a long history of biblical scholarship; scholarship, however, which has been purely Calvinistic in soteriology. Josh Buice, pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church in Douglasville, GA, rightly asked: “Have we forgotten our history as Southern Baptists where we had Calvinists such as Lottie Moon, James P. Boyce, John L. Dagg, A. T. Robertson, John A. Broadus, and many others who served in our convention along with those who were less Calvinistic (Reformed) in their doctrine? They didn't fight over it, throw mud, and pull out the heresy sword to use on one another.” For decades SBC Calvinistic and Arminian pastors have co-existed with no problem. Now, by aggressively promoting this anti-Calvinistic Petition, the promoters of the Articles are causing a divisive and an unnecessary fraction within the SBC.
In the same Arminian pool, at this year’s SBC the so-called “sinner’s prayer” was happily “affirmed,” but not by all. The Calvinists have always seen the “sinner’s prayer” and its theological “implications” as a departure from the biblical view of salvation by grace-alone. For those not completely familiar with the “sinner’s prayer,” it is usually a prayer of repentance and “inviting Christ into your heart,” which is led by the evangelist/ minister/pastor in which the “unbeliever” (i.e., the “sinner”) is instructed to repeat. This has been the standard and traditional method at most evangelical events/revivals. However, as many have pointed out, not only is the traditional “sinner’s prayer” a relatively recent part of contemporary evangelism, for there is simply no historical evidence for it (or the accompanied so-called, “alter-call”)before the eighteenth century, but, there is absolutely no biblical evidence supporting the concept of it.
Proponents of the “sinner’s prayer” typically point to Matt. 7:7; Luke 18:13-14; and Rom. 10:9-10 to make their case. However, none of these resemble in any way, shape, or form the traditional “sinner’s prayer.” Also note, the words in this “prayer” are not the words of the unbeliever, but rather, they are the words of the minister, which are repeated by the unbeliever as directed. In response to the lack of biblical proof, some proponents will argue that just because it is not in Scripture or a recent method, it doesn’t make it invalid or wrong. True, but the real concern is not the lack of biblical (or historical) evidence, thus being “non-biblical,” rather, it is the “un-biblical” (contrary to Scripture) implications of the “sinner’s prayer” that is the heart of the issue. There is a difference between something “non-biblical” and something “un-biblical,” that is, something that opposes Scripture.
The Erroneous Implications of the “Sinner’s Prayer”
We use the term “implications” in order to draw a distinction between something that is comprehensibly promoted and something that isindirectly promoted or supported. With that said, some of the main biblical defects associated with the “sinner’s prayer” (in terms of its implications) include:
1) Decisionism. Decisionism is the teaching that one’s “decision”causes regeneration, that is, it is the cause of one being “born again.” It teaches that when an unbeliever makes a decision to accept Christ as his or her Savior, God then responds by regenerating him or her (bear in mind, theologically, regeneration is not justification, which is through, not as the cause of, faith). The idea that man does his part (the faith-act) and “after,” God does His part indicates man cooperating with God in salvation (i.e., synergism). It places a work (viz. the decision or faith-act) as a contributing work in addition to the work of Christ. Hence, it becomes (by implication) a grace + works system. This concept is also called “decisional regeneration,” which is similar to Rome’s doctrine of “baptismal regeneration,” where the act of water baptism is said to be the necessary cause (laver) of regeneration.
In contrast, Scripture teaches that regeneration is the gracious act of God alone—not God’s grace “and” man’s work (faith-act, decision, etc.). It is God alone who justifies and makes alive the spiritually deadunregenerate man (Rom. 8:29-30, 33; Eph. 2:1-3)—through the preaching of the gospel as normal means (Rom. 1:16). It is this act of God, then, that is the cause of one being born again in which, as a result, the now regenerated person believes by which is “declared” righteous (justified). Thus, man’s faith in Christ (which is grated as agrace-gift; see Acts 13:48; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29) is the result, not thecause, of regeneration—without the corporation of man as Rome teaches.
2) The “sinner’s prayer” opposes the biblical teaching: Regeneration precedes Faith. Passages such as John 1:13; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:29-30; 2 Thess, 2:13; 1 John 5:1; etc., teach exegetically that regeneration comes before faith. Before any unbeliever is regenerated, he does not naturally want to make a decision to believe or seek for God; he does not have the ability to have faith/belief in Christ—he only “loves darkness” (John 3:19), for he is a slave to sin, spiritually dead, radically deprave.
3) The “sinner’s prayer” presents a false view of the state of the unregenerate.Scripture teaches that because of the Fall of Adam, man has lost his ability to make spiritually good choices (John 6:44; 8:34-47; Rom.3:10-18; 8:7-8); the unregenerate man can-not come to Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44, 65); he is spiritually dead—not sick (Eph. 2:1-3); thus, his will is not free, rather, it is a slave to sin (John 3:34, 36); it wills (thelō) to “do the desires” [epithumia, lit., “lust”] of the devil (John 8:44); it is “held captive by him [the devil] to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:26). The unregenerate man, then, has no ability or desire to submit to or please God. Paul said in Rom. 8:7-8 that “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; forit does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Paul also affirmed that “there is none righteous,” none “who seeks for God,” none “who does good”—“not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12).
Therefore, the concept of the “sinner’s prayer” where an unregenerate person doesrighteous “good” acts such as repenting and “inviting Jesus to come into his heart, thus pleasing God and submitting to Him while “in the flesh” is clearly an unbiblical idea. Jesus said, “The flesh profits nothing”! (John 6:63) and “this ‘nothing’ is not a little ‘something’" (Luther). Only if God, by His grace alone, first regenerates (makes alive), through the gospel, the spiritually dead, “in the flesh,” sinner, granting him faith and repentance, will he then choose to believe and come to Christ. It was “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God. . . .” (Rom.5:10). While traveling on the road toDamascus, Saul was not “seeking” God nor was contemplating Steven’s message—for he hated Christ! It was when Christ first appeared to him, thus making him spiritually alive, that he asked: “Who are You Lord?” and then obeyed Him forever more. Thus, it is entirely by God’s grace alone that He regenerates anyone.
4) The "sinner’s prayer" introduces the idea of a "second" mediator—namely,the minister becomes the “mediator” by directing the unbeliever to repeat after him the “sinner’s prayer" to God consisting of repentance and inviting Christ into his heart. As a result, the minister becomes the “go-between" mediating between the “sinner” and God in the prayer. Passages such as 1 Tim. 2:5 show this Romish idea as patently false—God needs no “assistance” from a minister to help get Jesus in one’s life.
There are many other theological problems associated with the concept of the “sinner’s prayer,” however, these above suffice. Again we are not suggesting that all who practice the traditional “sinner’s prayer” and the Charles Finney “alter-call”deny salvation through faith alone or promote the Roman Catholic doctrine of “another” mediator other than Christ. Nor are we saying that genuine salvation has not occurred at revivals that include the “sinner’s prayer.” But anyone that confesses (believes in) Christ in a biblical sense has already been saved, thus, no need for a subsequent “sinner’s prayer.” We are simply saying that whether or not something seems “to work,” if it is based on teachings or concepts that are unbiblical, it should not be practiced—“Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6).
“Believer’s Prayer” of Thanks Giving!
So, how are we to record new converts for the purpose of follow-up at evangelical events? Answer: Turn the unbiblical “sinner’s prayer” to a “believer’s prayer” of celebration or thanks giving prayer. In other words, at a revival during the close—after the clear preaching of the gospel—the question that can be asked, should not be, “Who wants to invite Christ into your heart?” but rather, “Who here based on proclamation of the gospel, put their faith in (believe) Christ for the very first time?” (or something similar). Then, any following prayer is for “new believers” thanking God for saving them, making them alive, giving them faith, sending Christ to die for them, etc. This way, it glorifies God in that it publically proclaims: “It is His doing you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:30) and by “grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). It also affirms the gospel as “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16) and correctly acknowledges the total inability of man due to the inherent effect of sin, thus openly affirming that salvation is exclusively by God’s grace alone.