Thursday, August 2, 2012

Praying the Sinner's Prayer

In the Old Testament, when God did something significant people would put up a monument to commemorate it (Genesis 28:18,19; Joshua 4:8,9; 1 Samuel 7:12). This reflects a common human tendency to want to do something to commemorate an event or decision. Now according to Scripture, a person is saved when they put their faith in Christ (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; Philippians 3:9). But we want to mark that with some kind of act. In the New Testament that act was baptism, which is why it is closely associated with faith (Acts 2:38; 10:43-48; 16:30-34). But the problem today is that we have so complicated baptism with theological issues that we use other acts, such as praying the sinners prayer, raising one's hand, or walking an aisle, as a replacement for marking the initial expression of faith. These can be controversial, as shown by the recent discussion among the Southern Baptists about the sinner's prayer. The problem is that it is possible to confuse going through an external action with a genuine response to God (Romans 2:25-29; Malachi 1:10; Zechariah 7:3-7).

Therefore, we need to make sure people understand what is meant by putting their faith in Christ and are ready to do so. We should avoid manipulation and pressure. We should not be too quick to give assurance based simply on the external act. Scripture does teach assurance of salvation (1 John 5:11-13; Philippians 1:6; John 10:27-30), but this is based on genuine faith, not just the act of praying a prayer or walking down an aisle. Also, real salvation produces a change of life, not perfect but real (Titus 2:11-14; Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Further, there needs to be a process for instructing new converts (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:11-16; Colossians 1:28,29). With such follow-up it is easier to determine if the individual really meant what they did. There should also be an appropriate challenge made for even older believers to examine their lives and decide if they actually trust Christ (2 Corinthians 13:5; Revelation 3:17-20; James 1:21-25). In this, I have found helpful to use what I call the Lot criterion. Lot in the Old Testament did many questionable things. Yet we are told he was a saved individual (2 Peter 2:7). But we are also told his soul was tormented by the things done in Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Peter 2:8). A true believer can do sin, but they are not at home in sin. Now Scripture says there will always be false believers until they are separated on the last day (Matthew 13:36-43; 7:15-23; 1 John 2:19). But we need to take a careful approach, not making assurance so high it is unattainable or so easy that people assume they are saved just because they have gone through some action. The remedy is, not necessarily to throw out the action, but to be sure it is rightly understood.

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