Is the “Sinner’s Prayer” a Superstitious Act?

Sharon Philosophy, Theology, Worldview 13 Comments

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Earlier this month the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) voted on a resolution to affirm the use of the Sinner’s Prayer as a means of conversion. For those who don’t speak evangelical lingo, the “Sinner’s Prayer” refers to a prayer of repentance in which the individual “accepts Jesus” into his or her heart. Some version of it is frequently recited at altar calls, but there is no fixed version of it.

Supporting the use of this prayer as a legitimate practice in conversion, the SBC resolution stated,

“We affirm that repentance and faith involve a crying out for mercy and a calling on the Lord (Rom. 10:13), often identified as a ‘Sinner’s Prayer,’ as a biblical expression of repentance and faith,” the resolution said. But it added, “A ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the gospel (Matt. 6:7; 15:7–9).”

When I first heard the news of this resolution, I was a little surprised. It seemed kind of random. However Christianity Today explained that this resolution was developed in response to some statements made by SBC pastor and author David Platt. CT quoted Platt as saying,

“I’m convinced that many people in our churches are simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we’ve sold them as the gospel, i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life,” Platt said. “Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer in the New Testament? Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrase, ‘accept Jesus into your heart’ or ‘invite Christ into your life’? It’s not the gospel we see being preached, it’s modern evangelism built on sinking sand. And it runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls.”

Strong words.

Now I don’t necessarily disagree with the SBC for affirming its use of the Sinner’s Prayer. The practice has its problems, but God can use any tool, no matter how imperfect. What’s more, this resolution seems to shore up some of the theological problems with it.

That said, Platt makes a really good and important point. The Sinner’s Prayer is frequently used as an incantation that assures salvation without requiring any life change. To describe the practice as “superstitious” is no exaggeration for many. Some “Christians” are about as committed to worshiping God after they pray the Sinner’s Prayer as a baseball player is committed to worshiping his lucky socks.

What I appreciate most about Platt’s use of the term “superstitious” is that it recalls a very Biblical concept: syncretism. Syncretism refers to the combination of different religious beliefs and practices (ie. combining Christianity with another religion), and Scripture is very staunchly against it. For instance, in Genesis 28 Isaac was forbidden from marrying a Canaanite woman, for fear that religious syncretism would soon follow. Likewise, Leviticus 19:28 forbids the Israelites from tattooing their bodies because it was a pagan practice.

Today, when Christians talk about religious syncretism they are likely to reference other cultures in which Christianity is combined with indigenous religions. In some cultures, for example, a professing Christian might also seek the help of a witch doctor to heal his ailing child. In the United States, you might think of the Christian who reads (and believes) her horoscope every day. Those are obvious examples.

However Platt’s language gets at the less obvious, yet equally important syncretism at work when the Sinner’s Prayer is used inappropriately. Although the language is explicitly Christian, its implementation is often not.

Syncretism in our country tends to be less obvious than, say, going to a witch doctor, because we live in an increasingly post-religious society in which many Americans’ beliefs are informed by secularism. That said, secularist convictions can be just as strong (and religious) as that of a practicing Christian or Muslim, and they are rather pervasive. Our country’s banner beliefs about personal autonomy, individual rights, and tolerance are all hallmarks of this nation’s secular convictions. That is not to say that these convictions are bad or wrong, per se, but they are so deeply ingrained into our collective conscience that they have become religious in nature. Americans have died defending some of these beliefs.

With that in mind, some individuals pray the Sinner’s Prayer in a syncretistic manner that blends old fashioned superstition with modern ideologies touching on consumerism and individualism. When this happens, I think we need to call this practice what it is.

And the Bible is very clear about syncretism.

This abuse reminds us that as much as Protestants emphasize salvation by grace through faith, the Bible paints a more complicated picture. Salvation is not merely a moment of conversion; it is the inauguration of a new life. Salvation has a holistic dimension to it that encompasses the whole of the believer’s lifestyle, which is why Scripture distinguishes the “sheep” from the “goats” (Matthew 25) according to their fruits.

This aspect of Scripture should not to be confused with works righteousness, but it does press us into a place of mystery, where both faith and works can peacefully co-exist without reducing conversion to a simple prayer, or adding to salvation our own self-justification.

So I am grateful to Platt, not only for identifying a practice in the church that is rampantly misused, but recalling the mysterious and holistic process of salvation as the Bible conceives it. He has reminded us that we are just as prone to religious syncretism as any other culture, and that conversion should not be distilled into a formula.

Comments 13

  1. Jenn Pappa

    Hi Sharon, I love this post and the stuff you are bringing up. Do you have any new testament examples of God’s distaste for syncretism? I think it’s relevant, especially for church planting, to understand how to mix cultures with christianity but not have syncretism. Thanks!

  2. Tamie

    Jenn, what about the Corinthians’ obsession with status, position and ‘shininess’? I reckon that’s an example of syncretism – and fascinating how Paul handles it, on one hand using excellent rhetorical skills (a mark of status) to argue against it, but still arguing against it!

  3. Post
    Author
    Sharon

    Great question, Jenn! I think the early church’s opposition to syncretism is obvious any time you see Paul urging the church to be distinct from the surrounding culture’s religions. Given that religious syncretism was a rampant and accepted part of the Roman Empire, this aspect of Christianity made it very different. For example, in Acts 13 Paul opposes sorcery. In Acts 16 Paul was being followed around by a slave girl who was known for her fortune telling abilities, and even though she was publicly proclaiming things about Paul’s ministry that were true (ie. “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”), Paul didn’t want people to think he associated with her religion, so he cast out the spirit that possessed her.

    There are many more examples, but that should be a helpful start!

  4. Tim

    A couple days ago I saw a comment on another blog where the person was extolling free market capitalism as the only scripturally acceptable economic model, and excoriating all others as anti-God. I read it and thought, “Syncretize much?”

    You’ve captured it here a lot better, Sharon. The way people take cultural norms and slap a Bible passage on it is no better than those Old Testament practices God warned his people about.

    Thanks,
    Tim

    P.S. If you get a chance, Nick just posted a guest piece I did on Bible literary imagery. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, but I hope it might get some thinking or a bit of discussion going: http://theradicaljourney.com/2012/06/28/guest-post-how-to-make-a-memorable-point/

  5. T

    An Old Testament example of syncretism can be found in Laban — He believed in the God of Jacob, but he still had “household idols” that his daughter Rachel took with her. There are more examples in the book of Judges and also in the book of Acts where people were worshipping many gods becuase they did not know who the “One True God” was. Great article!

  6. Susanne G

    Great post! What are your thoughts on “redeeming” certain aspects of culture and possibly other religions (ie; yoga, Harry Potter, Halloween)that some might consider nonbiblical? I’ve heard arguments for both sides and seeing your post on this topic makes me want to dig in a bit more.

    Thanks so much for writing- and congrats on your baby! 🙂

  7. Post
    Author
    Sharon

    Susanne G, What an interesting question! I’m not sure there is a general rule here–more like guiding principles.

    In responding to a comment above, I referenced Acts 16, in which Paul was not ok with a fortune-teller proclaiming the good news and the truth about his ministry. Later, it struck me that he elsewhere affirms the preaching of the good news regardless of the motivations behind it. The two passages almost seem to contradict one another, but I think it just goes to show that each circumstance needs to be addressed individually in light of Scripture and godly wisdom.

    That said, I think there are two things to keep in mind. The first is personal: are you relying on the power of something else, over and against God? This could be anything from black magic, to incantations, to an over-reliance on the power of science. It’s not that science is bad, but when it assumes a God-like authority in our culture, we have to do a check on our practice and belief.

    The second component to consider is our witness in the community. In Acts 16 Paul did not want to be associated with a girl whose religious significance in the community could undermine the credibility and integrity of his ministry. That said, I’m sure there are places where the practice of yoga would conflict with one’s Christian witness, given the religious significance of the practice. I’m not sure the U.S. is one of those cultures, though. I really don’t think Harry Potter falls in that category either. It would be one thing if people read the books because they believed sorcery was real, but that is not generally the case here.

    So those are just two ways to think about your question.

  8. Beth Blamick

    The “sinners prayer” encapsulates, in a concise manner, what we are called to do in scripture in order to be saved. Recognize Jesus as the Son of God, admit our sinful state and ask forgiveness for such, and repent and make Jesus Lord of our lives. It is the best way we have to articulate the process of salvation to those who are at a loss as to how to come to Christ…a verbal affirmation of a heart decision.

  9. Post
    Author
    Sharon

    Beth, I would have to disagree that it is the “best” way though it is certainly one way. The Sinner’s Prayer, as it is currently implemented, is actually a rather new practice within the church. Although historically the church has required some form of profession of faith, the practice of leading someone in a sinner’s prayer and then pronouncing their new salvation is new to the last century or so. Instead, the profession was often accompanied by a far more rigorous process of education and discipleship.

    What’s more, many Christians never pray the Sinner’s Prayer. I am one of them. I was raised in the faith and can’t really remember a time when I didn’t believe Christ was Lord. For me, the process was much more organic, rather than a black and white change.

    All of that to say, the Sinner’s Prayer CAN be helpful as a way of marking the mental assent that accompanies salvation, but to say it is the best way is to discount a bulk of church tradition, and ignore more holistic approaches as well.

  10. Judy

    Sharon,
    Your writing is amazing. You are (and are clearly aspiring to be) a Bible scholar. How wonderfully God led this is.
    I must admit, that as a lay person, many of your thoughts are far too intricate and complex for me to grasp – even though I have been a Christian all my life. I’m thankful that those who study the Bible at what I call the “doctorate” level have you to feed them. I will continue to read your posts, but haven’t done the work that you have done to have a good understanding of your scriptural expertise. Keep up the good work.
    I see your pictures and think of my Cousin Chuck you would surely be excited about a new Grand son. Congratulation and much love. Judy

  11. Tim

    Sharon, I appreciate what you said in your last comment about whether the sinner’s prayer is the best way to go or not. I’ve been thinking more about this post since reading it yesterday (yes, you make me think of stuff even after I’ve left your blog!), and started considering people like the Ethiopian and Philip or Cornelius and Peter.

    In Acts 8, Philip presents the Good News through the passage in Isaiah about Jesus as the suffering servant. The Ethiopian’s response was like this: As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. Not a preayer in sight, just ready and heartfelt acceptance of the Good News.

    Later, in Acts 10, Peter is summoned to Cornelius’s house and in the middle of explaining the Gospel: the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Not a sign of a sinner’s prayer or declaration of repentance, just entrance into God’s family.

    Of course, we don’t know if more was said or prayed, but nowhere does the Bible tell us that praying particular words is prescriptive for salvation. The closest we get is Acts 2:21 and Romans 10:13 where Peter and Paul quote from Joel 2:32 – “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

    Paul also tells us “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,” but the words “Jesus is Lord” are a far more simple declaration than the sinner’s prayer. In fact, I’d venture to say that the Ethiopian and Cornelius both showed through their actions and words that they were declaring Jesus as Lord.

    Sorry this got so long, Sharon, but I told you that you got me thinking a lot on this!

    Tim

  12. Eyvonne

    If I could choose one statement that summarizes what you’ve said here, it would be this: “Salvation is not merely a moment of conversion; it is the inauguration of a new life.”

    I appreciate the clarity you’ve articulated on this issue. I thought the resolution was a bit of an overreaction to Platt’s corrective (and necessary) statements.

  13. Robyn

    Jenn Pappa, an explicit NT example of an injunction against syncretism occurs in Acts 15:13-29, when James sent Judas and Silas to tell the Gentile converts not to worry about Jewish dietary laws—except that they should not eat the meat of strangled animals or consume their blood. These exceptions were made because those practices were associated with idol worship. They aren’t binding on Christians today because in our culture, these practices aren’t associated with idol worship.

    The original post said, “[A]s much as Protestants emphasize salvation by grace through faith, the Bible paints a more complicated picture. Salvation is not merely a moment of conversion; it is the inauguration of a new life…. Scripture distinguishes the ‘sheep’ from the ‘goats’ (Matthew 25) according to their fruits.” I think this is a beautiful and important thing to keep in mind. Acknowledging that Scripture proposes a role in salvation for works that are the fruit of Christ’s grace is not the same as Pelagianism.

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