I call the "sinnerís prayer" a tool because it is a form that God has used many times to bring people into the Kingdom of God. However, you must remember that the "sinnerís prayer" cannot be found in the bible, and is really not the scriptural means for one to come to Christ. There are of course scriptures in the bible that indicate a true heart attitude for which the sinnerís prayer is a proper form, such as Acts 2:21 - "And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved." However, remember that when asked "what must I do?", those seeking salvation were told, not to pray the sinnerís prayer as we tell people today, but rather to "believe and be baptized" (Mark 16:16) or to "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sinsÖ" (Acts 2:38 KJV).
Although the sinnerís prayer is not necessarily the scriptural form indicated for the new birth experience, God has used it many times, just as God has use other forms or tools. I donít know how the sinnerís prayer became so popularized by the modern church in America, but it has taken such root that I do believe when asked by a sinner, "what must I do to be saved?", the majority of Christians would not say, "repent and be baptized", but would rather say, "just pray this simple prayer..." I suppose one could trace the altar call and the sinnerís prayer back to the "anxious seat" of Finneyís day and the second great awakening. The "anxious seat" was a tool greatly used by God whereby those anxious about their souls would sit and wait upon God until the conviction of God would mightily fall upon these inquirers and they would begin to cry out to God for mercy and be converted. Perhaps our modern altar call has its roots in Finneyís anxious seat.
I mention the anxious seat for a very important reason. It was what I call a tool or a form that was used by God. However, a form is of no value whatsoever without the substance that fills the form. In Finneyís day, the mighty presence and convicting power of a holy God filled this form called the "anxious seat" or the "mournerís bench". Were it not for the working of the Holy Spirit, this form would have been as useless as any other religious exercise, and so it is with any form, including baptism, the communion table, or what we call the sinnerís prayer. The substance that fills the form is what is of value and can effect eternal change. The form is only there to hold the substance but is not the substance itself.
I am no church historian, but I believe the sinnerís prayer was popularized during what is commonly called the Jesus movement, or the Charismatic renewal. It may have started farther back than the sixtyís and seventyís, but I know that during this time, it became the means, or a common tool by which many were brought into the Kingdom. God was moving to a certain extent, and God did answer the prayers of thousands when they prayed the sinnerís prayer, and many who were brought into the Kingdom during this time by means of the sinnerís prayer have become pastors and evangelists. These pastors and evangelists have told those seeking salvation under their ministry to pray that same prayer, for it worked for many of them. However, it is a fallacy to believe that God always answers this prayer, or that He is truly under any obligation to do so, especially when those praying this prayer are doing so in a church service where the Holy Ghost is not moving and there is little or no conviction of sin.
Herein lies the impetus of the damage caused by the sinnerís prayer. The false belief that God must hear and answer the sinnerís prayer has caused so many in the church today to mislead many thousands of people into believing, or at least accepting in contradiction to their own conscious, that they are born again children of God. Let me reiterate that the danger with the sinnerís prayer is not the prayer itself, but the belief that God always answers this prayer. I have heard scores of poor lost sinners call into Christian radio shows, searching for peace for their troubled souls, only to be told by the talk show host that they are children of God and that their sins are forgiven and washed away and they neednít fear hell any longer, all because they believe in Jesus, or at one time or perhaps several times, prayed the sinners prayer. Every time without exception, these sinners hang up in the same condition in which they called in: troubled and under condemnation. Why? Because they know in their hearts they are not right with God.
This issue is even more dangerous for the millions in the churches who feel no fear for their souls and are at peace inside, not because their sins are forgiven, but rather, because they have never come under conviction. These have believed whole-heartedly the message that all you do is pray this simple prayer and youíre in. Why not, they donít know they are sinners deserving hell, for the Holy Spirit has never convinced them of "sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment" (Jo. 16:8).
You see, the danger does not lie in the sinnerís prayer the tool, but rather in the underdeveloped blind church wielding this tool. When my sister was in her teens, she went to a popular evangelistic movie called ĎA Distant Thunderíor ĎA Thief In The Nightí Ė one of those; I donít remember which one. It, of course, scared the fire out of her, and she went down front and prayed the sinnerís prayer. She started attending church, and the rest of my family assumed she was born again, for that is how someone is born again, we thought. After all, it worked for us. She, however, always struggled living the Christian life, and didnít seam to have the same hunger for spiritual things that the rest of us kids had. In fact, she was as bound by sin and sorrow as anyone else in the world, and I suppose she fell into sin and then "rededicated her life to Christ" a dozen times or so (which is very common, especially, as I have witnessed, in some denominational churches). My poor sister, she just couldnít seem to live a victorious Christian life. Of course not! She wasnít a Christian! She couldnít overcome the world, for she was not born of God. The scripture says, "Ö whatsoever is born of God overcometh the worldÖ" (1 Jo. 5:4 KJV).
It wasnít until she was around thirty years of age, after trying to live the Christian life for many years, that she was finally truly born again (Jo. 3:3). She was just reading a book of visions, given to a young Argentine girl, when God came into her heart and my sister was suddenly, without trying, born of God.
But why wouldnít God answer a personís prayer to forgive them of their sins and come into their heart? Isnít God obligated by His Word or by mercy to answer such a prayer? Isnít that the only prayer that God has to answer? No, God is not obligated to answer that prayer. The thing you must remember is that man is by nature a religious being. Man will embrace many forms of religion, including a "Christian" form. He doesnít have to have a true heart-changing experience to embrace a religious form, even a proper form. So donít assume that because someone is willing to come to the front and pray the sinnerís prayer that the Holy Spirit is truly drawing him or her. Iíve seen many people in my life time who have "turned to God", for whatever reason, who were not being drawn by the Spirit, and remember Jesus said, "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him" (Jo. 6:44 KJV).
The scripture does not say that no man will pray the sinnerís prayer or be baptized or go to church unless the Father draws him. No, it says that no man can truly come to Christ unless the Father draws him. Many thousands of people have prayed the sinnerís prayer and joined the church who were never drawn by God, or who, though drawn by God, came to God on their own terms, and these are not truly born again. Remember, the scripture says, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Ps. 66:18 KJV). No, God is under no obligation to answer or even hear the sinnerís prayer, especially if there is no faith for salvation, and faith comes by hearing the word (Rhema) of God (Rom 10:17). Rhema means the spoken Word of God. God must speak a word of living faith, a creative word, into the heart of man for man to truly be born of God. "For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it." (Heb. 4:2 KJV).
I want to give you a key scripture. This scripture is very much overlooked, but is a very important scripture indeed. "But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (emphasis mine) (Jo. 1:12,13 ASV). These were born, not of blood (you canít inherit it), nor of the will of the flesh (thereís nothing you can do), nor of the will of man (thereís nothing anyone else can do), but of God. A person is born of God, not by their own decision or efforts, but by Godís decision and working alone.
So, what is manís responsibility? A lost sinner desiring to be saved must do just what the scripture commands: believe and repent (Mark 1:15). I would also recommend that the lost sinner pray the sinnerís prayer, but keep praying it until God answers it! Donít stop until you have an experience with God and you know that you are born of God. When you are, no one will have to tell you that your sins are forgiven; youíll experience that forgiveness. No one will have to tell you that you neednít fear hell any longer; your fear will be gone.
The modern church in America has become so impoverished that she no longer has an experiential relationship with God, but rather, a religion of the mind. Hers is a religion of doctrine, rather than experience, and therefor, when she sees someone "turn to Christ" without a visible experience, she sees nothing strange about it, for that is what she has become accustomed to herself. However, I am always suspect of non-eventful conversions. In fact, if I donít see tears of brokeness or of joy and a radically changed life, I never assume the conversion to be a true one. That doesnít necessarily mean that it is not a true conversion, but I certainly donít assume it to be so.
When my wife and I were dating, she began to have a tremendous hunger for God, and she started repenting of everything she could think of. She wasnít yet converted, mind you, but she started getting rid of her music, she cancelled her cable TV, and she started dressing and talking different. She started attending church and reading her bible and Christian books. I told her that people would surely tell her that if she has prayed the sinnerís prayer, then she is saved (especially since she appeared to be more sanctified that many who call themselves Christians). However, I told her to keep praying and keep seeking God, and when she was born of God, she would know it, and no one would have to tell her.
You know, God reached out to her for months. She could feel the presence of God during the services, and she would weep and raise her hands to God in worship. Then one day, while seeking Him down at the altars, that miracle of rebirth happened in her heart, and she knew it. She knew that something inside her was born of God, and she has been a different person from that very second. Let me tell you, the new birth is an experience, a glorious experience, and not just a doctrine. If you or someone you know prayed the "sinnerís prayer" without an experience with God, then guess what, God did not answer the prayer.
Perhaps now you can see the great damage that has been cause by the underdeveloped church wielding the tool we call the "sinnerís prayer". Many thousands of people are deceived into believing that they are children of God, when they are, in fact, still children of the devil and on the road that leads to hell. I can tell you in all truth, churches today, especially lifeless churches void of the presence of God, are filled with those who believe they are Christians, but have never been truly born of God. They just have never had the experience of the new birth, yet believe they are children of God because they prayed what we call the "sinner's prayer". Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (Jo. 3:3 NIV).
If you want to know if someone is born of God, donít ask if they went to the altar and prayed the sinnerís prayer. Simply examine their life by the criteria held forth in the scripture as the indicators of those born of God. Those who are truly born of God are obvious; itís not hard to tell. If you are wondering if you have truly been born of God, let me ask you a simple question: when you prayed the sinnerís prayer, did God answer it?