From the March/April 2021 issue of Discern Magazine

The Sinner’s Prayer

What kind of prayer is the sinner’s prayer? Do you need to pray it? If so, where are examples of sinners’ prayers—prayers of repentance—found in the Bible?

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As I was growing up, I would occasionally watch a popular televangelist give a sermon and conclude his message by inviting people to come to the front of the auditorium to commit their lives to Christ. Although my family members were already Christians, I respected the man for urging people to repent of their sins.

What intrigued me about the preacher was the concluding part of his service in which he asked the people who had come forward to repeat after him a version of what he called “the sinner’s prayer.” This brief prayer—usually four or five short sentences—would include admission of one’s sins and the commitment to accept Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior.

Through this process, the televangelist claimed to have brought thousands of people to Christ.

Not being familiar with the “sinner’s prayer,” I investigated, seeking to follow the biblical instruction to “prove all things” and “hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, King James Version). What I found sheds a different light on the subject!

Here are some of the questions to consider.

Do people need to repent of their sins?

Obviously, “Yes!” This is part of the gospel. When Jesus began preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, He said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15, emphasis added throughout).

Another time Jesus was told about people who had lost their lives in terrible tragedies. Then Jesus said, “Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5).

Furthermore, after His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).

The truth is, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This, of course, wasn’t a new revelation when Paul wrote these words.

Even people in Old Testament times realized that there was no one who “does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46; 2 Chronicles 6:36; Ecclesiastes 7:20). So it is clear that we will all need to go before God in prayer to express our sorrow, to repent (commit to changing), and to seek His forgiveness.

Do people need to recognize Jesus as their Lord and Savior?

Again, yes! Paul wrote: “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:9-10).

In the first century, acknowledgement of Jesus as the Son of God was a controversial and critical step for people to take if they wished to become Christians.

Acknowledging that Jesus is one’s Lord—One who must be obeyed—is likewise an important act of faith for people today (Matthew 7:21-23).

How should sinners pray?

The “sinner’s prayer,” also called the salvation prayer, is not found in the Bible. It is an evangelical Christian term believed to have originated in the Protestant Reformation to describe the initial step for becoming a Christian.

Many preachers and churches have since crafted their own specific sets of words—written prayers—for one to speak. Those who say these words (or say “Amen” when someone else says them) are then usually told something along the line of “you are now saved.”

But what does the Bible teach? Two of the best examples of sinners praying to God are found in Psalm 51 and Daniel 9.

King David’s prayer of repentance after he committed adultery with Bathsheba begins: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1-3).

Read the rest of the chapter, where you will see how David continues to pour out his heart to God in serious reflection and repentance. Likewise, study Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9. There you see another example of deeply thoughtful, heartfelt talking with God.

And notice in Jesus’ parable how He described the prayer of the tax collector, who, “standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13).

While he didn’t express many words, there was obviously a lot going on in his mind!

Is more required than just saying the sinner’s prayer?

In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter said, Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Praying a heartfelt and personal prayer of repentance is a good start to becoming a Christian. But more is needed.Praying a heartfelt and personal prayer of repentance is a good start to becoming a Christian. But more is needed. The Holy Spirit, which is given through the laying on of hands after one repents of his or her sins and is baptized, empowers us to live as God desires. We need this help to face the trials, temptations and difficulties that will arise and test our relationship with God.

How often must we pray such a prayer?

But what about after we’ve admitted to God that we have sinned? Will we need to repent again? Some believe you pray the sinner’s prayer one time, and then you’re a Christian forever and no longer need to pray that way. But is this true?

Paul admitted that even though he desired to obey God, at times he found himself doing just the opposite (Romans 7:15).

Likewise, people today who truly commit to living as God instructs find that they struggle to avoid sin even after they have committed to being a Christian. So what must we do when we sin? Pray! A prayer of repentance.

As John explained: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).

The real “sinner’s prayer”

So what does the Bible show? Clearly, sinners need to pray, and all of us have sinned! We need to pray the prayer of a sinner, but nowhere do we find a prescribed “sinner’s prayer.”

Real repentance is very personal, hitting home when we come to see how our sins were responsible for Christ’s death on our behalf. It involves being “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37) and then talking with God in earnest, personal prayer, not merely repeating some short prayer someone else wrote.

This is a critically important, life-changing issue! Learn more in our article “How to Repent” and our free booklet Change Your Life.

About the Author

David Treybig

David Treybig

David Treybig is a husband, father and grandfather. He and his wife, Teddi, have two grown children and seven grandchildren. He currently pastors the Austin, Texas, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He has served in the pastoral ministry for over 40 years, pastoring congregations across six states.

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