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Should You Recite the "Sinner's Prayer"?

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One of the most commonly known but often misunderstood teachings found in the Bible concerns repentance from sin. But what does it mean to repent? Is there more to this concept than a simple prayer?

It was common 50 years ago to find in phone booths cheap tracts inviting you to recite the “Sinner’s Prayer.” (Yes, there really were small booths with payphones in them!) Sometimes, you would find one of these tracts slipped between your front door and the door jamb. You could also hear radio evangelists challenging you to put your hands on the radio and repeat the prayer after them. This prayer is still popular, and even now you might see a one-minute ad from a television evangelist encouraging viewers to recite it.

What exactly is this prayer? Is it the way to salvation? Do you know? Have you ever prayed it? And if so, are you now saved? Many think they are, but is there more to Christianity than repeating a simple prayer, even with great sincerity? Is salvation that easy? Has it all been done for you? Or does God require something more from you?

Although there are variations, the prayer, as it is commonly worded, usually goes something like this:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior.

Now, lest anyone misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with these words (as far as they go) if they are properly understood. But that is the rub—does the average person listening to the radio, seeing a brief ad on television, picking up a cheap tract on display at a grocery store, or visiting a revival meeting truly comprehend what these words mean? Do you? Don’t be too sure!

It is one thing to say, “I am a sinner,” but another to comprehend the depth of what that means. I once knew an older woman who, seeking to be baptized, declared that she was a sinner—but sincerely could not think of a single sin she had ever committed (not that she needed to confess her sins to any man). She genuinely believed she had never lied, hated anyone, stolen anything that belonged to another, gossiped, or had an evil thought. She maintained that she was a sinner without sin!

Oh, that any of us were that perfect—but alas, all have sinned (Romans 3:23).

So, can the binge drinker or the occasional adulterer, grasping for an easy solution to his or her problem, simply recite the “Sinner’s Prayer” after a guilt-ridden episode—just say a few words—and it’s all okay?

The Bible has the answers. For starters, what is sin? What is meant by “I turn from my sins”?

Shifting Sands of Morality

Many think they instinctively know what sin is, as guilt often follows certain actions. But does the feeling of guilt determine sin? To be sure, going against your conscience is sin (Romans 14:23), but conscience itself does not define sin. After all, not everyone’s conscience is the same. To define sin as going against one’s conscience would be to say that it is left to the fickle attitudes of mankind to define sin! Just consider mankind’s tragic history and the wide range of behaviors that have been considered “acceptable” and you’ll see the problem with that.

Even during my lifetime, behaviors that were once frowned upon have become accepted by most Americans as morally okay. According to a June 2016 Barna Research report, “Cohabitation is the new norm. Shifting gender roles and expectations, the delay of marriage, and a secularizing culture are leading more American adults to believe that moving in together before tying the knot is a good idea.” The report goes on to explain:

The majority of American adults believe cohabitation is generally a good idea. Two-thirds of adults (65%) either strongly or somewhat agree that it’s a good idea to live with one’s significant other before getting married, compared to one-third (35%) who either strongly or somewhat disagree (“Majority of Americans Now Believe in Cohabitation,” June 24, 2016).

This trend of living together outside of marriage is growing in many industrialized nations. Attitudes vary significantly, but according to Population Europe,

The number of couples living together without getting married has been on the rise…. Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia show the lowest incidence of cohabitation among partnered individuals aged 15–44, where less than 20% were cohabiting in 2010. On the other hand, cohabitation is more frequent in Sweden and Estonia where more than half of partnered people under 44 cohabited (“Living Together Without Getting Married,” Population-Europe.eu, accessed August 24, 2020).

Without a concrete definition of sin, how can anyone profess that “I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior?” What exactly is the path that one is to follow? Is it up to each one of us to decide? Has the sinner even looked into this important question? Or is he following his own instincts as influenced by popular but faulty concepts? Asking “What would Jesus do?” is one thing. To know what Jesus would do is another matter.

The word Lord is thrown about by those professing Christ as their Savior, but what does this word mean? In the New Testament, Lord is almost always translated from the Greek word kurios and means “master” or “one who is supreme in authority.” Does the sinner understand that in his salutation “Dear Lord Jesus,” he is saying that it is no longer he himself, but that Higher Power who determines right and wrong? This may sound simple enough, but is it? As we have already seen, most in the industrialized world have a standard of morality different from that of the One many call Lord (1 Corinthians 6:9). So, who decides what is sin—each individual’s conscience as guided by society around him, or the One he professes as Lord?

The average person probably thinks of sin as murder, drunkenness, adultery, indulging in pornography, and stealing. All these are sins, but even pornography is no longer universally condemned in our postmodern world where “your truth may not be my truth.” The man who gets drunk or the woman who cheats on her husband would do well to say a sincere prayer, ask for true forgiveness, and stop that behavior, but there is far more to this subject than meets the eye. It is vitally important that we do not rely on personal notions of sin. We must understand why Jesus “died for my sins”—which means we must understand the Bible’s definition of sin.

Defining Sin

The biblical definition of sin is found in 1 John 3:4: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (King James Version). The New Bible Commentary: Revised makes a striking comment regarding this important verse:

The false teachers seem to have held that knowledge is all-important, and that conduct does not matter. So John insists that sin is evidence of wrong relationship to God. Sin, he tells us, is lawlessness, the Greek construction implying that the two [sin and the transgression of the law] are interchangeable. The law in question is, of course, the law of God. The essence of sin, then, is disregard for God’s law (ed. Donald Guthrie, et al., 1970, p. 1265).

That definition sounds straightforward—and it is. But what are its implications? How many who say the “Sinner’s Prayer” know in detail what the law of God says? How many have memorized the Ten Commandments, even in their shortened version? How many of the ten can you personally name? Do you know where in Scripture they are found? Can one really “turn from” his sins—turn from breaking God’s law—if he does not even know what that law says?

Let us say that you can name five of the ten, maybe even nine of the ten. That’s pretty good—or is it? James tells us, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.” And note the next verse, which is so vital: “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty” (James 2:10–12). Yes, God is going to judge us by the standard of the Ten Commandments, which He, through James, calls “the law of liberty.” So, is keeping nine of the ten good enough?

Keeping the commandments in no way negates grace. Consider: Why do we need grace? Is it not because we have all fallen short (Romans 3:23)? We all have sinned—and as we have already seen, sin is the transgression of the law. The penalty for breaking that law is death (Romans 6:23), and Christ died to pay that penalty for us. But does God’s grace mean we are now free to break the law (Romans 6:14–16)? If so, which of the commandments are we free to break? Shall we have another god before the true God, or shall we murder, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness? If we simply say the “Sinner’s Prayer,” is it okay to violate these commands? Has Christ arranged for us to go out and do the very things He had to die for?

Some claim that keeping the law is a burden. You may have heard someone say this. But what does Scripture say? “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

The Ten Commandments are a list of rules governing righteousness and teaching God’s lovingkindness in all of human behavior, but when one looks at them, they seem pretty simple. That is what the children of Israel thought when they came out of Egypt. Just as the sinner repeating the “Sinner’s Prayer” professes that he will do everything God says without understanding all that may be required of him, so the children of Israel were anxious to profess that they would do whatever God told them. “Then all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do’” (Exodus 19:8). But did they? The answer is an emphatic No!

Two Commands Combined

Four of the Ten Commandments are given in fewer than ten English words: “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal,” and “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:13–16). Two others stand out because they are elaborated, containing far more words by way of explanation.

The first commandment begins with this identifier: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” That is followed by the direct command that many Sunday-school children could repeat: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (vv. 2–3).

Pretty much everyone agrees that is the first commandment, but not everyone agrees on which commandment is the second. It may surprise some of you that the largest “Christian” denomination in the world lumps the next three verses in as part of that first commandment. Most Protestant denominations rightly disagree, looking at those verses as the second command:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:4–6).

Why do some denominations combine these words with “You shall have no other gods before Me?” On the surface, they may seem to be saying the same thing, but they are not. The second command is telling us that even in the worship of the true God, we are not to use icons or images supposedly depicting Him.

Since few people are familiar with the unabridged version of the commandments, it becomes easy to list the shortened form of the first commandment and skip to the third. However, this merging of the first two commands effectively negates the second one. Is it not a curious fact that church denominations that combine the first and second commandments pray before statues of what they think Jesus looked like, or images and pictures meant to represent His mother and various “saints”?

How do we know this is not all one commandment? If it were, we would have only nine commandments, not ten—and God is clear that there are ten (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4). In order to come up with ten, those who combine the first two commandments must artificially divide the tenth into two: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20:17). However, the only other place in Scripture that lists all ten commandments together puts the statements about “house” and “wife” in reverse order (Deuteronomy 5:21). God inspired the last command to be written in two different ways because the tenth commandment is against coveting “anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). The Apostle Paul understood that a single command prohibits coveting (Romans 7:7).

The Most Rejected Commandment

The second commandment, that which is against idolatry, is the first to include significant elaboration. Another commandment that receives such treatment is the fourth:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it (Exodus 20:8–11).

The second and the fourth commandments, forbidding the use of icons and commanding observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, are longer than the other eight combined. Why?

The answer can be found in the history of Israel and that of mainstream Christianity. The prophet Ezekiel recounted Israel’s past and how its people rebelled against God time and again—and the two commands they violated the most were those prohibiting idolatry and Sabbath-breaking (Ezekiel 20). Within mainstream Christianity, there is little debate as to whether it is sin to murder, commit adultery, or steal; but there is much debate over the two commands God most clearly explained. When He said not to bow down to idols, He made sure there were no loopholes. And for Protestants who look down on Catholics and others for their icons, do you have a picture of a false Christ in your home (2 Corinthians 11:4)?

When God said we are to remember the seventh-day Sabbath and keep it holy, He made sure there were no loopholes there, either. This does not mean there are no “ox in the ditch” situations or that we are to take the extreme and unbiblical approach to the Sabbath that the Pharisees did—Christ made that clear (Luke 13:10–16). But He never did away with the Sabbath or changed the day from the seventh to some other day of the week. That was done by the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD, and his unbiblical change has been followed by the vast majority of professing Christianity to this day. Jesus never said He was the Lord of Sunday, but Scripture records three times that He said He was the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:27–28; Luke 6:5). For more information on both the true Sabbath and the false one, read our July-August 2020 article “Who Changed the Sabbath to Sunday?”

Idolatry limits and distorts one’s perception of who and what God is. It reduces the Great and Almighty Creator of all things to something made of paint, wood, stone, metal, or even cheap plastic—and no matter how precious the material, it is powerless. “But it only reminds me of God!” Yet that is exactly what God prohibits, because it reminds one of a false god. The great God of creation cannot be understood by something made by puny human hands. God does not only tell us not to have any other gods before Him—through the second command, He tells us that in the worship of God, we are not to use paltry representations of Him! When people begin to limit God, they lose sight of who He truly is.

The Sabbath command reminds us of God as the Creator, and points to a future millennial Sabbath rest. God knew that human beings need to have one day in seven set aside to focus on their relationship with their Creator. To eliminate confusion, He set the example of resting on the seventh day, and commands us to do the same—not on just any day, but on that same seventh day.

The drunkard or adulterer may recognize his or her need to say a “Sinner’s Prayer,” but does either one realize that turning around and going in another direction also involves turning away from a false Christianity that has sought to change the laws of God (Daniel 7:25) and has effectively turned “grace” into an excuse to break God’s law (Jude 4)?

The Price of Discipleship

There is much more to true Christianity than most people realize. Note these words of Jesus: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). Christ is plain that such individuals cannot be His disciples (Luke 14:26). His disciples must put Him first in their hearts and lives.

It is always good to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, that we are sinners, that our sins can be forgiven, and that He gave His life to pay for our sins. But it takes more than a simple prayer if we truly want to fix what ails us. We must know what those phrases mean, and we must truly follow Christ as our Master—a task that can only be fully accomplished with the help of the Holy Spirit, which God gives “to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:32). This involves a radical change of life, including a change in how we worship Him. As Jesus chided the people of His day, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46), so must we chide the people of our day who profess Jesus as their Lord, Savior, and Master, but do not obey Him.

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