Paul Washer has declared a war on the sinner’s prayer. He even goes so far as to call it the “golden calf” within some Baptist circles (Washer is Baptist mind you). I agree with much of this shocking sentiment. Hear me out: Though I believe the biblical reasons are manifold, I also have personal reasons for my particular distaste. I don’t believe I am alone.
Here is the way the sinner’s prayer is presented in many church (Vacation Bible School) contexts:
Towards the end of the week, the children (K-5)are herded into a big room where a pastor is waiting for them. They are greeted, seated, and told to have “every head bowed and every eye closed.” There the pastor gives a very brief Roman Road-ish gospel presentation and prompts the children to a decision in this way:
“Now you don’t want to spend an eternity in hell apart from Jesus do you? (only the spawn of Satan would really want this) Well, of course you don’t. All you have to do is repeat this little prayer after me and you will be saved. Say this:”
Usually the recitation involves a brief acknowledgment of sin, faith, the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After the pastor is finished he asks everyone who repeated the prayer to raise a hand up or stand up or look up or give a thumbs up. To those who do he gives assurance of their salvation and welcomes them into the family of God forevermore.
In third grade, this was almost verbatim the way I was presented the gospel during VBS. And I prayed that little prayer. And I prayed it again the next year. And the next. And the year after that.
Between the third and eleventh grade I probably recited the “Sinner’s Prayer” over 100 times but to no avail.
I was a bit confused (I know many others who have experienced this confusion).
The summer before my senior year I still had no assurance that little magic prayer did the right trick for me even though numerous pastors assured me it did. Around that time, during a summer camp I went to as a student leader, it pleased God to do a sovereign work in me. There, during worship, the utter ugliness of my sin and beauty of God’s grace crashed like a train wreck in my soul to produce in me true conversion. God granted me what the puritans used to call “the gift of holy tears.” I finally knew I was changed. I felt it. I was assured of it.
I don’t remember reciting any specific prayer during the whole ordeal other than maybe, “God don’t kill me.”
I have never been the same since that decisive moment. His cross and relentless grace haunts me on a daily basis, in my dreams and thoughts. I found out later the Bible confirmed what I experienced. It was true repentance.
I began to learn a staple in cultural Christianity had little or no biblical basis. Jesus never said, “The time is fulfilled the kingdom of God is at hand, so everybody bow your head and pray this prayer with me….”
But unfortunately, the “sinner’s prayer” remains as a simple effective church strategy to “win souls.” I believe this reveals our true golden calf in many evangelical churches: Pragmatism. If it works (or seems to work) it must be of God. If it gets results/decision cards it must be the Holy Spirit. So much of our church traditions are not Bible-driven but simply results-driven.
But instead of parrots and decision cards we better start looking for heaven born Fruit (Galatians 5). We need only the Holy Spirit to be saved not man-produced incantations (John 3).
Some call it easy believism. Some call decisional regeneration. Here is the really subversive thing about it: Later in life when this person feels real conviction over their sin and lost state they will go to a Christian preacher/counselor/friend about their troubled soul. And instead of giving the lost one a biblical assurance of faith (through 1 John) the counselor will ask “Did you ever ask Jesus to come in to your heart? Did you ever pray that prayer?” To which the hell raising lost sap will say: “Yes, in VBS a long time ago…” And the misguided Christian/pastor will exclaim “Well, then you’re saved!”
And another false convert heads to hell with a false comfort clinging to a false gospel understanding. Real repentance and faith must produce a life of real works and fruit (The whole book of James!). As the Reformers used to say, “We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.”
So let’s pray for true conversions this VBS season. Let’s pray for a genuine understanding of repentance, faith, and the discipleship road with Christ. Even in six-year olds. Six year olds who grow to be sixteen year olds who have matured into deeper revelations of faith and repentance and grace.
I’ve heard it said VBS is the greatest tool of evangelism in the life of the church. I believe that is and can continue to be true. That is, only if we are patient enough to not sacrifice our children on the altar of religious pragmatism.
Keep sowing the gospel seed to those kids my VBS peeps, God is faithful to produce a harvest! No psychological techniques or arm twisting needed. : )