"There will be plenty of people in hell who said the sinner's prayer."
That's what I told the host of a nationally broadcasted Christian radio program when he tried to force a reluctant caller to "just say this prayer" to be saved. To the host's chagrin I intervened (and for some reason haven't been invited back since!)
A lot of bad theology is hidden behind the phrase, "Just say this prayer and you'll be saved." Think about these Scriptural realities:
-Jesus never led anyone through a sinner's prayer.
-The disciples didn't either.
-Nor did the Apostle Paul.
The Sinner's Prayer is the Bigfoot of the Bible, talked about a lot, but nowhere to be found. This yakking Yeti doesn't even leave a fake footprint.
Listen to this zinger Jesus shot in Matthew 7:21 about those who think they can just say the right words and be saved, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."
And what is the Father's will? Jesus answers that question clearly in John 6:40, "For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."
Saying a prayer is not believing in Christ, believing in Christ is believing in Christ. Now, having said that, somebody may be expressing their faith in Jesus in the form of a prayer which is great! But just saying "the magic words" (aka "Lord! Lord!") doesn't save anyone.
Many, "just say these words" defense attorneys turn to Romans 10:9,10 to make their case, "...if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.'
But it's hard for me to believe that, if saying a prayer is essential for salvation, God would confine this command to just one passage of Scripture. And it's impossible for me to believe that, if saying a prayer is required for salvation, that some form of Sinner's Prayers wouldn't be sprinkled across the Gospels and the book of Acts.
Actually, if you read Romans 10 in context, it has just as much to do with evangelism as it does salvation. Romans 10 is the "How will they hear without a preacher?" passage. Confessing that "Jesus is Lord" in this context was a way of preaching to friends, neighbors and relatives that you were now a follower of Jesus, that you now believed that "Jesus is Lord." This confession was considered heresy by the Jewish community (who believed only the Father, YAWHEW, was Lord) and treason by the Romans (who thought only Caesar was Lord.)
This controversial confession accompanied public baptism in the closest river or lake and was very public in nature. This public confession of faith identified you as a Christian and steeled and sealed your faith and your fate (which could include being mocked, marginalized or murdered by angry neighbors!)
Believing in our hearts justifies us (declared us righteous in the eyes of God.) Proclaiming with our mouths saves us in the sanctificational sense of the word. In other words, our internal faith saves us from hell and confessing our faith verbally and publicly saves us from a stunted Christian walk. Faith gets us in the kingdom. Confession makes us more like the King because we are boldly identifying ourselves with Jesus!
All this to say that I have no problem leading someone through a salvation prayer (and I do it a lot!) with this important caveat. I ALWAYS tell the person that saying a prayer doesn't save them, it's just a simple way of expressing their newfound faith in their newfound Savior to their newfound Father.
No, the Bigfoot of the Bible is nowhere to be found. But what is found is a victorious Savior who died the death that we deserved then rose to offer us the new life we didn't. Let's put our focus and faith in the rock-solid reality of Jesus, not the legends of the mysterious and elusive sinner's prayer.
If you agree then just say these words outloud to God...(just kidding!)