Is the Sinner’s Prayer in Bible?

It’s not an overstatement to claim that most folks in American evangelical churches have been invited to “ask Jesus into their heart” to be saved. Many sincere, well-meaning believers in Jesus, convicted by their sin and seeking the grace of God, have offered the sinner’s prayer in response. But, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the sinner’s prayer is a very late development in the history of Christendom. No one was saying the sinner’s prayer before the 1950s. If it is indeed a late development, this leads to an important question: is the sinner’s prayer in the Bible?

The Origins of the Sinner’s Prayer

We can trace the history of the sinner’s prayer back to a few influential American preachers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  In the mid-eighteenth century, Eleazar Wheelock developed a technique he called the “Mourner’s Seat.” He reserved the front bench of the church for sinners who became the subject of his attention throughout his sermon as “salvation…(loomed) over their heads.” In the nineteenth century, Charles Finney promoted the use of an “Anxious Seat.”  He reserved a pew on the front row of a church meetinghouse where penitent sinners would sit during the sermon as they awaited baptism. Finney’s method was criticized for its manipulative nature. Late in the nineteenth century, Dwight Moody developed the “Inquiry Room.” Penitent sinners would meet with counselors privately to study about salvation, after which they would pray together.

Billy Sunday Leads to the Sinner’s Prayer

In the early 20th century, a preacher from Chicago, Billy Sunday, developed his spin on these techniques. First, he popularized what has become called “crusades” — preaching to large crowds in a tent or other venue. At the close of a fire-and-brimstone, “come-to-Jesus message,” Billy Sunday would extend salvation to sinners and offer a prayer. Sometimes he would invite the penitent to walk to the front of the assembly. Later on, Billy Sunday shook the penitent’s hands, claiming that shaking his hand signaled their intent to follow Christ (the idea of extending the “right hand of fellowship”). Sunday also developed an influential tract entitled “Four Things God Wants You to Know.”

Billy Graham Develops the Sinner’s Prayer

Billy Sunday connects us to Billy Graham, the famous crusader of the 20th century. Converted by a Billy Sunday type crusade in 1935, Billy Graham implemented the crusades pattern popularized by Billy Sunday. Billy Graham also adapted Sunday’s tract “Four Things God Wants You to Know.” Graham’s formula was called “Four Steps to Peace with God.”

A prayer followed the “Four Steps”:

Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.

This is the origin story of what we now call “The Sinner’s Prayer.”

This history lesson illustrates that “the sinner’s prayer” is a tradition developed and popularized in the last one hundred years in the American evangelical community.

The Sinner’s Prayer: Asking Jesus into Your Heart

The sinner’s prayer is also a tradition without Biblical precedent. Many quote Revelation 3:20 to invite sinners to “ask Jesus into their hearts.”Billy Graham’s website tells me, “You cross the bridge into God’s family when you receive Christ by personal invitation.” It goes on to tell me to “RECEIVE, through prayer, Jesus Christ into your heart and life.” The instructions quote Revelation 3:20 to justify praying the sinner’s prayer.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into him and dine with him, and he with Me.

But here is the problem with Revelation 3:20:  Jesus is talking to Christians, not to sinners in need of salvation.  The church at Laodicea had grown lukewarm. Materialism and affluence made them apathetic. Jesus “knocking at the door” invites these lukewarm Christians to repent. They previously received salvation, but their sins have placed their souls in danger. To invite sinners to receive salvation through prayer by using Revelation 3:20 takes the passage out of context.

No Examples in the Book of Acts

In addition, we find no examples of the sinner’s prayer in the conversions recorded in the book of Acts. When the multitudes asked Peter, “What shall we do to be saved,” in Acts 2:37, prayer is noticeably absent. The apostle commands repentance and baptism in verse 38.

As Philip preached Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:35, they happened upon some water. The eunuch desired baptism, so Philip baptized him. The convert “went on his way rejoicing.”

Paul baptized both the household of Lydia and the household of his jailer in Philippi when they believed. And when Paul discovered the Ephesians had never heard of the Holy Spirit, he urged rebaptism in the name of Jesus Christ.

In all of these conversion examples from the book of Acts the sinner’s prayer is never mentioned. Scripture commands belief, repentance, and baptism.t.

Paul Did Not Offer the Sinner’s Prayer

Practitioners of the sinner’s prayer liberally quote from Paul’s teachings on faith and grace. But he had a remarkably different conversion experience.

Paul had his “come to Jesus” moment on the road to Damascus; blinded by the light, he was led by the hand to Damascus, where he spent three days fasting and praying. Then, a disciple living in Damascus, Ananias, received a message from Jesus by a vision:

Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight (Acts 9:11-12).

When Ananias found Paul — who had been praying for three days — here is what he said to him:

And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16).

Paul had been praying for three days, but:

  • Ananias told him to stop waiting.
  • He still had sins to wash away.
  • He had not yet “called on the name of the Lord.”

If prayer is how one “receives Jesus into one’s heart,” why did Ananias say all these things to Paul. And remember, Acts 22:16 is Paul’s account of his conversion in his own words.

The conversion practice modeled by Billy Graham and others differs substantially from Paul’s conversion. Based on what I can see, the practice of “asking Jesus into your heart” appears to be a very recent manmade tradition without Biblical or historical precedent.

The Sinner’s Prayer is a Work

My final objection is the sinner’s prayer is teaching salvation by works. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confronts three “works” used by the Pharisees and scribes to demonstrate their righteousness:  charitable giving, praying, and fasting. It is clear from the teachings of Jesus here and elsewhere that he considered prayer a work.

If prayer is a “work,” and one tells others to receive Jesus by the sinner’s prayer, isn’t the sinner’s prayer, by definition, a “work?”

Many people who teach and practice the sinner’s prayer are very concerned about receiving salvation by works.  The Bible teaches a much different view of the role of works in salvation, specifically baptism. However, the troubling part about the sinner’s prayer is the internal inconsistency.  In an earnest attempt to avoid preaching salvation by works, American evangelicals adopted the work of prayer to be the mechanism to receive salvation.  How can one claim we are not saved by works while preaching “we must ask Jesus into our hearts” through prayer?  If works do not save me, why should I pray the sinner’s prayer? Thus, the sinner’s prayer promises salvation based on two assumptions our neighbors consider mutually exclusive: “we ask Jesus into our hearts because works do not save us.”

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Wade Stanley Written by:

One Comment

    July 13, 2022

    Thank-you for using the scriptures to show how a person is saved. And establishing that the sinner’s prayer is not in the Bible. Act 22:16 is really profound after reading earlier in the chapter that Saul (Paul had been praying and fasting without water or food for 3 days–an indicator of true sincerity.)
    Some say “Baptism is a work.” But 1 Pet 3:21 makes it clear that God is doing the work not us. “…an appeal to God for a clean conscience.” May the Lord bless you.

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