“Billy Graham has just delivered the gospel to a multitude.
‘If you want to invite Jesus into your life,’ he says, ‘this prayer is for you.
Repeat after me . . .’”
he stadium lights are dim. The sermon has just finished. The crowd is stone silent, but the Spirit’s work has just begun.
Billy Graham has just delivered the gospel to a multitude. Now, row after row, attendees stand with hands clasped and heads lifted toward the sky. Some are forced to sit or kneel, their knees giving way to the moment. Hearts are racing, and many faces are wet with tears. Hundreds of eyes now behold, for the first time, the glory and splendor of Christ the King. They have all heard about Christ; many were raised on His teachings, on the Word. But now for the first time, they see Him. They want Him. They cannot resist Him!
But they lack the words to respond.
But now, Rev. Graham has words for them. They are words specifically designed for a sinner who knows his or her depravity and wants to be saved. Yes, there are many of those here in the stadium. So Graham offers them the “Sinner’s Prayer.”
“If you want to invite Jesus into your life,” Graham says, “this prayer is for you. Repeat after me:
“Lord God, I’m a sinner.
I’m sorry for my sin. I’m willing to turn from my sin.
I receive Jesus as my Savior. I receive Him as Lord.
From this moment on, I want to follow Him in the fellowship of the church.
In Christ’s name, amen.”
This scene is a famous one. It's famous because it happened so often, at so many of Billy Graham's crusades, not to mention countless other revival gatherings. The “Sinner’s Prayer” that Graham presented above is the prayer that marked twentieth-century evangelism, and many evangelists continue to use it today. But the prayer also has its skeptics, and they are growing more and more. Some skeptics deride it as the “magic prayer” and dismiss it as an outworking of Arminian soteriology, with its flawed emphasis on free will. They associate it with “easy believism” and the unbiblical mentality of “Say the prayer and you’re in, no repentance required.” These critics tend to be Reformed Calvinists (like me) who emphasize God’s sovereign role in salvation, and are therefore hesitant to deem somebody “saved” just because he or she prayed a prayer. But traditional defenders of the prayer continue to see value in it. The prayer remains a common feature of most Baptist church services, particularly during the weekly altar call. Leaders in these circles defend the prayer, contending that verbal confession is a biblically prescribed aspect of the conversion process. Scripture lists it as a sign, even a stipulation, of one’s salvation (Romans 10:9, 13). With such a clear biblical basis, how could it be wrong to offer lost people a prayer of confession?
The Reformed Critique
The Sinner’s Prayer has varied over the years, but the version I quoted from Billy Graham is generally reflective of them all. Is there anything in that prayer that Reformed Christians like myself can criticize? I think not! It is short, biblical, and compatible with all varieties of evangelical soteriology—both Arminian and Reformed. So why does the prayer tend to upset Reformed people? The answer goes deeper than the actual words of the prayer. This debate is not over words, but rather over the soteriology that is implicit in the way the prayer is used. Reformed Calvinists often see the prayer as appealing to the unbeliever’s “free will,” which they find unbiblical. Indeed, the prayer has been presented that way far too often. But an Arminian soteriology is not necessary to the actual prayer itself. I am going to argue here that the Sinner’s Prayer is a completely legitimate prayer from the perspective of Reformed theology. But before we get there, I want to affirm where the Reformed reservations are coming from.
There are two main kernels of truth in the Reformed criticism of the Sinner’s Prayer:
1. Words from our mouths cannot in themselves produce salvation.
This is precisely what Jesus taught in Matthew 15, when he quoted Isaiah to the Pharisees.
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me . . .”
Words by themselves, apart from the heart, are meaningless—“vain,” according to Christ. The heart must be engaged in order for our words (or prayers) to be meaningful. The Reformed are strong on this point, and so are most Christians. I don’t know of any Bible teacher who would argue that merely reciting the Sinner’s Prayer will save you. Even the staunchest Arminian will tell you that salvation requires a contrite heart. The problem, though, is that many misinformed Christians think and live to the contrary! They think they are saved because they said the Sinner’s Prayer at age five. I’ve seen this in Baptist churches in the South. Far too many preachers are eager to win x number of “conversions” in order to quantify their success, so they emphasize conversion and deemphasize discipleship and spiritual growth—as if those things could be separated. This is a pastoral failure that is all too common. Their people aren’t taught the importance of holiness and sanctification, which are the truest means of assurance. Rather, they are taught (often implicitly) that their original “conversion” at age five is all the evidence they need, regardless of the lack of fruit in their lives.
Reformed Christians see this whole situation and are rightly sickened. They see people that have been given false assurance, and the Sinner’s Prayer as the means of that false assurance. They recognize that no prayer or confession to God can be taken prima facie as evidence of salvation. Only lifelong repentance and growth in holiness can provide such evidence.
2. Nothing that we do—not even our contrite feelings or our repenting—can produce salvation.
Regeneration of the human heart is a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit (John 1:12-13). “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9), not of man. Everything that we do in the process of salvation—and afterward—is a response to God’s first act of grace on our hearts. We’ve already seen that our words can’t save us. But our feelings and actions can’t save us either! When the unbeliever feels Christ calling him—when he feels convicted by the Holy Spirit, confesses with his lips, and begins a life of repentance—that is all of grace. It is purely a response to God’s kindness toward him. He did nothing to raise himself from the dead; he merely responded to it by living like a man who has been raised to life.
So when it comes to the Sinner’s Prayer, I find that what many Reformed people are criticizing is the confusion of regeneration and verbal confession—that is, of cause and effect. And this is a criticism that I share wholeheartedly. God is the cause of our salvation, and verbal confession (along with contrition and repentance) is the effect of that salvation. When people treat the confession as the cause—or the definitive sign—of salvation, they are mistaken. After all, many people have “prayed the prayer,” and then fallen away.
Jesus gives us a helpful picture of this in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). Some people may appear to be saved early on in life. They may say the Sinner’s Prayer, and even bear what appear to be the fruit of the Spirit! And yet, these same people fall away, showing that they were never truly saved in the first place (1 John 2:19). So we should not place too much stock in someone’s recitation of the Sinner’s Prayer. It is by no means proof of a genuine conversion; it is not even reliable evidence. The evidence comes in a transformed life over time.
Keeping Things in Balance
Even still, none of these truths should invalidate the Sinner’s Prayer as a legitimate form of confession. As with any legitimate practice, its abuses do not negate its proper uses. If a person truly has inward faith, wouldn’t you expect it to come out in some verbal testimony? That is certainly the biblical picture of conversion. Converts are expected to make a verbal confession to God, to cry out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) Certainly, not everyone who calls Christ the Lord will be saved (Matthew 7:21). But every true convert does give verbal testimony.
So, the Sinner’s Prayer is a completely valid form of confession for a new convert. It is simple, and its content is biblically informed. It just needs to be supplemented with good theology—namely, the understanding that God is the one who draws people to Himself, and that not everyone who “prays the prayer” will prove to be a true convert.
While the Sinner’s Prayer is acceptable, we should be careful not to make the Sinner’s Prayer “canonical,” or somehow more special than other prayers of repentance. After all, our typical “Sinner’s Prayer” is not in the Bible! What we find in Scripture, rather, is a range of prayers of repentance that come straight from the heart of the sinner. I already mentioned the tax collector, who cries, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). And that, I would argue, is the heart of any prayer of confession to God. It is when the sinner knows his sin, pleads to God for mercy, and embraces the forgiveness of Christ.
The Bible gives three main criteria for salvation: (1) belief, (2) confession, and (3) repentance. The first two criteria show up in Romans 10:9--
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Belief and confession must go together. Or, put differently, confession must stem from the heart.
But we also see a clear call to repentance.
“Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” (Matthew 4:17)
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8)
“In repentance and rest is your salvation . . .” (Isaiah 30:15)
“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord . . .” (Acts 3:19-20)
“I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” (Acts 20:21)
Repentance means to turn away from sin. When we repent, it is a visible sign that true faith has taken root in the heart. Thus, we should place highest focus on a person’s repentance to see if they have really been saved.
The Root of the Matter
So, is the Sinner’s Prayer legitimate? Yes—and my Reformed brothers and sisters shouldn’t bash it. We should accept it for what it is: one of many biblical formulations of a confession of faith, and one that never guarantees a person’s salvation. Likewise, Christians in circles that emphasize “free will” should not carelessly prostitute the prayer as a quick and easy means of salvation. Leaders in these circles must adopt healthier cautions and be more honest with their people about the demands that Christ places on the Christian—to repent and be sanctified. They must rid their people of the notion that they are saved simply because they prayed a prayer. Rather, they need to call their people to growth and discipleship, and to emphasize spiritual fruit as the truest source of assurance. They must, in the words of Paul, tell their congregants that they are saved, “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Colossians 1:22-23). Fruit is the standard of salvation, not words (Galatians 5:22-23).
If we think carefully and biblically together about issues like this, with love for one another, not making rash judgments about other Christian tribes, we can arrive at closer agreement regarding the Sinner’s Prayer, soteriology, and theology at large. And in the process, we just might heal some rifts within the body of Christ.
 Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation.
 Matthew 15:8-9
Daniel Davis graduated from Wheaton College in 2014 with a B.A. in History, having minored in political science. He loves to study theology, history, philosophy, and politics, and he enjoys writing about these subjects from a biblical worldview. His work has been published by The Federalist, Townhall and Values & Capitalism, and he regularly participates in Ecclesiam's Point of Contact podcast. Daniel is an active member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.