The Gospel Observer
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations...teaching them to observe all that I commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:19-20).
February 4, 2018


1) The "Sinner's Prayer" (Tom Edwards)
2) News & Notes


The "Sinner's Prayer"
Tom Edwards

A common misconception among many denominations, which is often taught and practiced today, is that non-Christians can be forgiven and become Christians by praying a “sinner's prayer” to invite Jesus into their hearts.

Here is one such example from a very popular tract, entitled, Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?, written by Bill Bright, back in 1952, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ in 1951.  In this tract, the reader is told, “You can receive Christ right now by faith through prayer...” The following suggested prayer is then given: “Lord Jesus, I need you. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.” The tract then goes on to say, “Does this prayer express the desire of your heart? If it does, I invite you to pray this prayer right now, and Christ will come into your life, as He promised.”

Out of curiosity, I searched to find how many of these tracts have been printed and distributed since its beginning.  Here is what some different  sources said: "well over 25 million printed copies being distributed by 1980" (R.K. Johnston, Four Spiritual Laws).  Another source stated, "over one hundred million copies have been distributed in all the major languages of the world" (Crustore.org, 4 Spiritual Laws),  while others have placed the number at "Approximately 1.5 billion" (Mike Riley, Four Flaws in the Four Spiritual Laws), and even "over 2.5 billion" and in "over 200 languages" (Steve Murrell, A Short History of Campus Ministry, December 2016).   So I can not give an exact answer, but definitely many have been printed and distributed over all these years.

I'm sorry to say that before becoming a Christian in 1977, I had also mistakenly passed out many of these tracts and others that contained a similar kind of “sinner's prayer.”

I cite from this particular tract because I was overwhelmed with how many people it has been distributed to.  And that is just one particular tract!  But then when we add that to the many other tracts that also teach the "sinner's prayer" to become a Christian, is there any wonder why so many people do not see baptism as having any connection with conversion -- but as only for those who are already "saved"?

Where in the Bible, however, can we find the verses for the New Testament Age, which began after the Lord's crucifixion, in which prayer is shown as being the means whereby a non-Christian can be forgiven and become a Christian?

The scriptures often cited to attempt to prove the “sinner's prayer” are verses that pertain to Christians who have sinned and need to be forgiven. For instance, when John writes, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9), he was writing to Christians: “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God...” (1 Jn. 3:1-2).

Another passage often misused is Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” But to whom is Jesus saying this? Not to the world in general, but to the church at Laodicea that had become  lukewarm (indifferent toward spiritual things); and the Lord was about ready to “vomit” them out (v. 16, NKJV).

Another passage that is often misapplied today is Acts 2:21 in which Peter is quoting Joel's prophecy and ends by saying, “And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Though that might sound like a “sinner's prayer,” what does this same chapter show that individuals did in order to be forgiven and become Christians? Did they pray a "sinner's prayer"?  Were they instructed to?

In reading on, we see that they were told by the apostle Peter to “know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified” (v. 36). So they were to believe in who Jesus was -- but was that all?

Notice that “when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'” (v. 37). The use of the word “Brethren” was in the sense of just being fellow Jews -- rather than fellow Christians.  For it was mandatory for all the male Jews to be in Jerusalem to observe the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which they had been doing.  So these who asked that question were not yet Christians – and that is why they are asking.  Also, the fact that they were “pierced to the heart” indicates they had believed the message about Jesus and were now feeling conviction for their sins.

So how did Peter answer their question of “what shall we do?” As noted, he already told them of the need to believe in Jesus, before they even asked that question; but now Peter is showing that it takes more than merely a belief toward whom Jesus is -- and, apparently, they understood that, too. For in answering them, Peter instructed, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins...” (v. 38). 

The Greek word for "for" (eis), in the phrase "for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38), does not mean "because of" (dia).  Rather, it is a word that means "into," which is its most common translation in more than a thousand verses of the New Testament.  It is also seen, for example, in Matthew 2:11: "After coming INTO [eis] the house they saw the Child..." In addition, the phrase "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38, KJV) is also seen in Matthew 26:28, where Jesus declares, "for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many FOR [eis] the remission of sins" (KJV, emphasis mine).  Did Jesus suffer and die because sins had already been forgiven -- or did He do so in order that they could be?  Baptism, when preceded with the other necessary steps, is that which is "unto" or "into" the forgiveness of sins.  This can also be inferred from the fact that the need to be baptized is coupled with the need to repent.  For why does one repent?  Do we do so because our sins have already been forgiven?  Or is repentance one of the steps toward obtaining that forgiveness? 

Notice in Peter's response (Acts 2:38) to their question of "what shall we do?" (v. 37), that he did not instruct them to pray a “sinner's prayer” — nor do we see them doing that.

The Bible shows that baptism is that last step that puts one into Christ (Gal. 3:26-27), after believing, repenting, and confessing faith in Christ. Baptism is, therefore, also shown to be the way in which we “call” upon the Lord to be forgiven and become a Christian. Corresponding to that is what Peter declares in 1 Peter 3:21, when he says, “Baptism...now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience...”  Webster shows that the word “appeal” means primarily “an earnest plea” or “entreaty.” And Peter is showing that baptism (when preceded by the other steps that lead to salvation) is how we are making that “plea” – or, in other words, “calling” on the Lord in a non-verbal way.

This is actually what we also see in the case of Saul of Tarsus who was told by Ananias to “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name" (Acts 22:16). So baptism was involved in Saul's calling on the Lord.

Some folks, however, might think that Paul's “calling on His name” was a “sinner's prayer.” But let us back up a few days in Paul's life from his baptism. In Acts 9, 22, and 26, we have the accounts of Saul meeting the Lord on the road to Damascus. It was at that time that Saul came to believe in Jesus, but was not yet forgiven of his sins. Saul had asked, “What shall I do, Lord?” And Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do” (Acts 22:10). Because of the great light that had blinded Saul, he was then led into Damascus by those who had been with him (v. 11). For three days in that city, Saul fasted – even going without drink (Acts 9:9). And during that time he was praying (v. 11). What do you think he was praying about? For this man who had always strove so diligently to do what he believed was right in his service to God, and then to learn how wrong he had been in persecuting Christians and consenting to their death – a major error that caused him to think of himself as the “chief” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) – what would you imagine he was probably praying again and again? Would it not be something like, “Lord, I have sinned greatly.  Please have mercy on my soul and forgive me of the sins I have ignorantly committed against you and your people”? Surely, Saul would be wanting forgiveness and praying for it. Yet, he wasn't forgiven by praying a “sinner's prayer.” For as we just saw in Acts 22:16, in order to be forgiven and wash away his sins, he had to also be baptized!

Cornelius, too, was another whom the Bible speaks of that prayed before he had become a Christian; but it wasn't by a “sinner's prayer” that he then became one – and even though he is referred to as having been a man who “prayed to God continually” (Acts 10:2). Yet, he still needed to hear the gospel message and respond to it in order to be saved (cf. Acts 11:13-14).   The conversion to Christ of Cornelius and his household is the first instance of Gentiles becoming Christians who had not been proselytes to Judaism (cf. Acts 10, 11, 15:7) as Nicolas had been (Acts 6:5).  So neither Jews nor Gentiles could become Christians by simply praying a "sinner's prayer."

It is also interesting to note that even though Jesus had appeared to Saul, and an angel had appeared to Cornelius, that these men were not saved by having such a genuine, religious experience! Rather, they still had to hear the gospel plan of salvation and submit to it – just like any of us also need to.  And what are those steps that lead to salvation? They are as follows:

1) Hear the gospel, for that is how faith comes (Rom. 10:17; John 20:30-31).
2) Believe in the deity of Christ (John 8:24; John 3:18).
3) Repent of sins (Luke 13:5; Acts 17:30).
4) Confess faith in Christ (Rom. 10:9-10; Acts 8:36-38).
5) Be baptized in water for the remission of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:26-27; 1 Pet. 3:21).
6) Continue in the faith, living for the Lord; for, if not, salvation can be lost (Heb. 10:36-39; Rev. 2:10; 2 Pet. 2:20-22).

As we have seen in this article, no where does the Bible teach, for our Gospel Age, a “sinner's prayer” in order to be forgiven and become a Christian. Rather, we see those steps mentioned above that are required.

We do, however, have instruction in God's word for the need of the Christian who sins to repent and pray for forgiveness, such as in the case of Simon (Acts 8:12-23). The Christian who falls away through sin does not need to be baptized again, but there is that need to repent and pray to be forgiven and then strive to maintain a right relationship with God (cf. 1 Jn. 1:6-7).

What the Bible teaches on the plan of salvation is not a popular doctrine -- even among millions of religious people who would profess to be Christians.  For how many denominations and individuals include baptism as part of the plan for being forgiven to become a child of God? 

Perhaps the idea of going against the belief of the majority can make it difficult for some to actually accept what the Bible teaches on the plan of salvation.  But if we truly love God and want to please Him, we will do what is right -- and at whatever the cost.  

Jesus says, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction; and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matt. 7:13-14).

(All Scripture from the NASB unless otherwise indicated.)

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News & Notes

We are thankful and glad that Charles Crosby’s surgery went well. The infection actually made it easier to remove the knee, and he is now being treated with antibiotics. He has very little pain and is feeling good. According to his doctor, in about 6 to 8 weeks, depending on when the infection clears, Charles will be receiving a new knee. Let us continue to keep him in prayer.

Michelle Rittenhouse's surgery went well on her neck, in which 4 discs were fused and 4 spurs were eliminated.  

Melotine Davis has not only been having trouble with her back lately, but also with the fibromyalgia that is giving her pain in her legs.

Let us continue to also remember the following in prayer for their health problems or other ailments: Jim Lively,  A.J. & Pat Joyner, Shirley Davis, Cedell Fletcher, Meadern Anderson, Mary Rogers, Belinda Medlock, James Green, Bennie Medlock, Judy Daugherty, Misty Thornton, Rachael Gerbing, Jarvis Williams, and Mary Vandevander in the nursing home.

Tebeau Street
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Tom Edwards (912) 614-8593
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