Sinners Prayer: Is it sending people to hell?

Recently I attended a wonderful concert with one of my favorite praise and worship bands. It was an awesome experience of worshiping with thousands of saints, singing and making a joyful noise to our God. I was loving every minute of it until after one of the sets, one of the worship leaders proceeded to do an invitation for salvation. Immediately it reminded me of a man by the name of Paul Washer.

Its been a couple of years since I first listened to a sermon by  someone who is now one of my favorite preachers, Paul Washer. Anyone who has listened to Paul Washer knows that he has a passion for the gospel, a passion for souls, a passion for truth. Another observation that anyone who’s listened to Washer will note, is that he hates the “sinner’s prayer”. I must admit that I do not hate the sinners prayer, but I do think it is totally abused, misused and misunderstood concept.

The sinner’s prayer, for those of you not familiar is a prayer that someone usually a teacher, preacher, or maybe friend leads someone to repeat in order to become “saved”, or a christian. It usually goes something like this:

“God I know that I have sinned, I believe that you sent Jesus to die for my sins. I want you to come into my life. Amen”

After this, the leader, teacher or preacher who usually leads the prayer says “If you prayed this sincerely you are saved.” Usually but not always, the preacher will recommend to those who prayed the prayer, to tell someone about their decision , to start reading the Bible and then find a Bible believing church.

So what’s the problem with this you may ask?

First, where is the sinner’s prayer in the Bible?  I think the closest thing that comes to it is Romans 10:9-10 which says

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

Case closed right? This scripture clearly says that we need to say with our mouth Jesus is Lord and believe and we will be saved. I would say this is only part of the picture. In all Biblical gospel presentations there are at least three basic elements that need to explicitly be stated, and one that should be implicitly understood and communicated


1.The need to acknowledge and repent of sins

2. To believe that God has saved us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and not through any work of our own. 

3. The implicitly understood principal that true salvation should be accompanied by evidence or fruit.

Here’s some scriptures that provide evidence

Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17, Luke 5:32, Luke 24:47, Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19-21, Acts 17:29-31.

So here is my beef, and its not so much with the sinners prayer but with how it is used. Most of the time this prayer is kind of a thrown in at the end of a church service or in a counseling room with no real teaching or explanation of repentance, why Jesus died, and how we are saved.

Even worse is the pronouncing that those who prayed the prayer are now immediately saved. What usually happens most of the time unintentionally is that those who pray the prayer thinking that “well because I prayed the prayer I’m good with God”. There are many people who think they are going to heaven just because they said “the prayer”. You will have seen this thinking frequently if you’ve ever been witnessing and asked someone “How do they know they are saved? or Why should they go to heaven?

One of my pet peeves that irks me even more is when the pastor will say the prayer for those who go forward to get saved and then asks the whole congregation to repeat the prayer as sort of a safety net or magic wand to save those who may not have said the prayer. I know as a kid I would frequently repeat the prayer, just to be safe. I figured if I prayed the prayer seven or eight times I would be super saved.

As we investigate the issue however we will notice that a fundamental doctrine has failed to be properly taught in many circumstances and that is Assurance of Salvation. In other words the doctrine of How do we know we are saved?

There are many people who sincerely believe because they prayed a prayer sincerely during one time of their life they will go to heaven. There are people who are going to hell partly because they have a misunderstanding of biblical repentance, and have understood the prayer as the one work they need to do to be saved.

We as believers, pastors, teachers, parents need to stress the fact that one of the fruits of salvation is a continued lifestyle of conviction and repentance of sins. There should be an inward witness that both convicts and assures people when they are in sin, but that they are also forgiven.

I think one of the biggest issues that we need to address is that we need to get over the drive through mentality when it comes to counseling for salvation. I know at times we feel that if people have to wait another 30 minutes for counseling they will not want to be saved, but if a person is serious about committing their life to God why wouldn’t they wait 30 minutes. We are consistently trying to eliminate hurdles to coming to Christ and make it as easy as possible. People should come to the altar with everyone’s eyes closed, they just need to repeat a prayer, and then go to a five minute counseling session. They don’t need to make any commitments to church. Here’s the thing Jesus wants people to count the cost, he wants people to give their whole lives  to him, so if a person cannot give five minutes, how do we expect them to take up their cross and give up their lives. This is one of the reasons that there are so many goats in our churches. There is no challenge. We have changed the narrow road into a comfy escalator ride with a latte in hand; one simple prayer escorts us smoothly into a paradise in the sky.

I realize that we don’t always have time allotted to give a 30 minute counseling session, but if I had to explain salvation to someone quickly I would say the following.

God has offered us the wonderful gift of salvation through his son Jesus Christ. He sent his son to pay the penalty for our sins, so that we wouldn’t have to suffer wrath in Hell. Christ proved he was the Son of God by rising from the dead, and promised us that if we repent of our sins and believe in him we could be saved.

Christ tells us to count the cost, because following him will be hard, it will require our willingness to give up everything even our lives. The good thing is that when there are times where we have doubt, or fall into sin, or problems, he promises to be right there and to give us the strength to overcome them. If you are serious about following him Christ asks us to be baptized in his name and calls us to be apart of a local church where we will learn more about how to live and follow him. You can begin this process by  praying with me. This prayer does not save you but is a confession to God of your intent to follow him and your initial repentance for sins.

Here I then could lead them in a prayer very similar to  or even use the “sinners prayer”, get his information and let him know that I would help him in his commitment to follow Christ or connect him with someone who could help him.

So does the sinner’s prayer lead people to hell? No. Their sins do, but when we tell someone that they are saved simply because they prayed a prayer we have aided and abetted them in their sin.The point that we need to emphasize is that following Christ will be hard, salvation is not something we do by praying, but Christ does and  we accept by believing and obeying him. This involves  being accountable and connected to other believers in a local bible believing church.

I’m so glad that God often works despite our own shortcoming and failures. God has saved many people despite us using a prayer, because that is what he does; he saves. Our responsibility is to faithfully communicate how to come to God and prevent any misunderstanding of salvation. I’m hopeful that this may help you and that we all may begin to think more critically about how we lead others to Christ.


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