The Sinner's Prayer: Biblical or Extra-Biblical

Within the Baptist and larger Evangelical Christian community, there is a debate concerning whether or not a person must pray to receive Jesus as their Savior. Certainly no one should discourage the unsolicited prayer of someone who is genuinely converted by the power of the gospel. Authentic prayer is often an expression of faith. Any time those who believe in Christ wish to pray, they should pray—but the evangelist (or any other person sharing the gospel) should never give someone the impression that a prayer seals the deal or is essential to salvation. The continued theme of the New Testament is “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:31). Where believe is always understood as so much more than intellectual assent—for even the demons believe and shudder (James 2:19). In contrast, those who believe are trusting God to keep his Word in all that he has promised in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 13:32).

The way many tracts and web pages are written, it appears that most believe words of faith must be articulated in a prayer or that the words guarantee something. Some people seem to believe that it is necessary for one to pray a prayer in order to be saved. Invitations at the end of a sermon are frequently conducted in such a way as to give the impression that the recitation of words, led by an evangelist, is effectual unto salvation. Must people ask or articulate words of faith ( to be saved? This “Sinner’s Prayer” is often found at the end of gospel tracts and web pages. Sometimes the person who now believes in Christ is told, with the supposed authority of the Bible, that if they were sincere when they prayed that they are now Christians and have eternal life. Is this true?


Is that the gospel? Read a gospel tract, pray a prayer, and instantly one can be assured of his salvation—he is born again! Most would agree that a prayer doesn’t save the person, yet their gospel presentation and methods imply the opposite. People are told, “Sincerely pray this prayer,” and then they are assured that they are saved if they were sincere as though sincerity can be measured. How sincere is sincere? The evangelist may say something like, “This prayer does not save you. It is your faith that saves you. Would you like to pray to receive Jesus?” If faith saves, what is the point of asking would you like to pray? The better question is: “Do you know what it means to believe that the Lord Jesus is the Christ?” Or, “Are you willing to trust that God is able and willing to do all that he has promised to do in and through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son Jesus?

In reaction to “easy believism,” internationally known Southern Baptist Evangelist Paul Washer, John MacArthur, and others have been publically opposed for their adamant position that salvation prayers do not guarantee conversion. In some fellowships, Washer and others have been accused of perverting the grace of God with a “Lordship Salvation” doctrine. Is this a fair and balanced accusation? Washer discourages people from praying to receive Jesus and argues that no one can gain assurance of his salvation from such a prayer. Is he right? Does God need us to pray a prayer? Do we have a biblical model for a “Sinner’s Prayer?” Are the Scriptures prescriptive in this matter? These are important questions that require answers from the Christian’s only authority in life—the Word. This article will show that articulating a prayer of salvation should never be presented as a necessary component of salvation. It will clarify the role of prayer in a gospel presentation, provide three reasons why people should not be encouraged to pray to receive Jesus, and encourage new converts to begin following Jesus.

Those in the “Sinner’s Prayer” camp use Romans 10:9-10 and 10:13 as their trump cards, insisting that the unbeliever must “confess” and “call upon the name of the Lord” for salvation and that, when they do, they are saved. Who wouldn’t argue that “prayer, confess, and calling” seem to be the same? Indeed, Rom. 10:9-10 describes the “heart believing” and the “mouth confessing.” This seems to indicate there is a need for both. Is that correct? Should we interpret what Paul is saying as two actions—that believing and confessing are two requirements? Or should we interpret one as a requirement (belief) and the other as a result (confession)? Jesus said that if we confess him before others he will profess us before His Father (Mt 10:32). Is that the same as praying, “Dear Jesus, come into my heart?” Is that the confession of faith to which Christ is referring? Certainly not. When Jesus hears those words, do unbelievers receive the gift of salvation by receiving him and then become Christians? Should one be given assurance verses of salvation because he prayed a prayer? Some suggest that because eternal life is a gift one much ask for it (Romans 6:23). Is that what the Bible teaches? Can we find the apostles teaching men to pray to God to come into their hearts? Paul makes it clear what comes first—belief—when he asks, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed?” (Romans 10:14).

Before we consider what John 1:12-13 says concerning how one receives Jesus (in their heart or life), it is interesting to note that those who require confession in the form of a prayer are often the same ones who insist that, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mk. 16:16) does not teach that baptism is a requirement for salvation. They rightly teach that baptism is the outward expression of what has already happened in the heart and does not guarantee salvation, yet they often report people as saved because they prayed a prayer of salvation. Yet early in Christ’s ministry, he warned of “many” who will describe themselves as saved but are not (Matt. 7:21-23). The evangelist needs to acknowledge that in the same way baptism doesn’t guarantee salvation neither does confession of words of faith in a prayer. John 1:12-13 says:

But as many as received him [Christ], to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

According to these two verses people (both adults and children) become children of God by believing—not praying, asking or confessing. They receive Christ and “become sons of God” through their faith in Christ. They are not spiritually born again because of the will of any human, but it is God that gives those who believe the second birth and eternal life.


The Apostle John is so convinced of this theological truth and wants his reader to comprehend this important doctrine, that he provides a practical illustration of this in John 2. In chapter one, John initially packs the chapter full of descriptions of Christ as the Word, God, the Light, the Son of God, the Christ, the Rabbi, the Prophet, the King of the Jews, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Then in chapter two, after Jesus cleanses the temple of those who were robbing the Jews during the Passover, John writes about people who believed on the name of Jesus, but Jesus did not positively respond to their belief. When Jesus was finished cleansing the temple, the Jewish leaders insisted upon a sign of authentication for His authority to cleanse the temple. And Christ promised them a sign—the sign of the resurrection. He spoke of the temple of His body being resurrected. But the Jews didn’t understand His meaning. They thought that he was making reference to the physical temple he had just cleansed. Then John speaks of a group of people whose spiritual followers still exist today. Beginning in John 2:23-25, John writes of many who profess to believe in Jesus. Although their culture was different, it could be America where 80% of Americans consider themselves to be Christians—followers of Christ (America’s Seven Faith Tribes p.29). John writes:

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.

Notice that John uses the same language he used in chapter one: “believed in his name.” In fact, he says that “many believed on his name.” So, from this verse alone, one could conclude these people believed. They “believed on His name” and therefore must be saved. “But Jesus did not commit himself unto them.” What?! “But they believed!” you might say. In fact, they must have articulated belief at some point because John was not a mind-reader. Yet John writes, “but” as a transitional word to create a strong contrast to the “many” and noted that Jesus “did not commit himself unto them.” An examination of the Greek words behind John 2:24 show the use of pisteuō (one of John’s favorite words for belief) twice in this verse. Jesus did not believe (pisteuō) that they (the many) believed (pisteuō) on Him.

Jesus’ response to the many that believed was one of unbelief (or non-commitment). John had already explained to his reader that spiritual birth is not of the will of man, but of God. So John says that Jesus did not believe that they believed because “He knew all”—that is, he knew what they believed. He is God. God is omniscient. God knows whose belief is authentic and whose is not. (The evangelist cannot know what God knows.) God knows who believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (such as Peter’s great confession of faith in Matthew 16) and those whose belief is not authentic. Later John would write: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19). John is well aware that there are pseudo-Christians who are not born again because authentic Christians continue in the faith. Genuine conversion cannot be ascertained minutes after a profession of faith or prayer. The evangelist must be content in realizing all he can do is ask probing questions. Jesus asked: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). If a child or adult articulates faith in Christ as their Savior they should be treated as a disciple of Christ and encouraged to begin following Jesus as their Teacher, Savior and Lord.


Moreover, John writes “and needed not that any should testify of man.” Jesus doesn’t need to hear words of faith to recognize a person’s faith in Him. Only God knows when words are authentic expressions of faith. He knows all men. To use Paul’s language from Romans 10, he knows who is authentic in their belief in the Person and salvific work of Christ in their heart. Yet God enjoys hearing believers pray. New converts should be encouraged to begin talking to God in prayer.

John points out that Christ didn’t believe in those who expressed faith in Him. He doesn’t say that they didn’t “pray” or “call.” Jesus doesn’t need to hear a confession or testimony; he knows. An evangelist should tell a potential convert, “God knows your heart; he knows whether your belief is authentic or or not.” Everyone else will have to wait to see if the one articulating faith in Christ turned to God from idols to serve the living God—repentance (1 Thess. 1:9, John 10:27).

In John 3, John launches into Christ’s encounter with Nicodemus and reinforces that Christ knows what Nicodemus thinks and believes. Jesus interrupts Nicodemus and goes to the heart of the issue. Jesus doesn’t need men to pray to receive Him; God knows whose belief is superficial and whose belief is authentic. When belief is authentic, Jesus commits Himself to the believer—they are born again. When it isn’t genuine, then that person is not born again—regardless of what they testify, speak, articulate or call out to the Lord or to others (see Matt. 7:21-27). The evangelist may have a desire to hear one pray in an attempt to ascertain whether the person is saved or not, but the truth is the articulation of a prayer is never presented as an assurance that one is saved. What role should prayer have in securing one’s salvation? The clear, biblical answer to that question is, “It cannot secure salvation.” People are saved by grace through repentant faith in the Person and salvific work of Christ.

Evangelists should never get in the way of a person wishing to spontaneously express faith in Christ through prayer, but neither should they encourage or require such. This is true for both adults and children. In fact one must be even more cautious in mixing prayer and faith with children. The truth is: It is very hard to determine if a child is born again. There isn’t a single biblical example of an evangelist teaching or leading someone to articulate a prayer to get saved. Tracts should be rewritten, web pages redesigned, evangelists retrained and gospel invitations should be limited to a call to repent and believe (Acts 20:21). Evangelists must be content with the reality that a prayer said well does not guarantee a person believes with the heart (Roman 10:9, 10).


“God said it and I believe it” is the testimony of one who has been converted. Abraham is the model of such faith—he trusted in both the God of the promise and the promise he received from God. Consider how Paul describes Abraham’s saving faith as “being fully persuaded [convinced] that, what God had promised, God was able also to perform” (Romans 4:21). In Romans 1:1-2, Paul communicates that the very gospel of God was promised beforehand by God’s prophets in the Holy Scriptures. By faith, the follower of God believes that the Father will fulfill all that he has promised to his children in and through His Son—the Savior—who is Christ the Lord (2 Cor. 1:19-20). His faith is in both the God who made the promise and the promise. He must have faith in what God promised (the gospel) and believe (trust) that God is able to do what God promised. In Acts 26:6, Paul makes it very clear that his hope is in the promise of God. Peter describes these promises from God as “exceedingly great and precious which are able to make people partakers of the divine nature and deliver them from the corruption in the world” (2 Peter 1:4). And John understands one aspect of this promise to be eternal life (1 John 2:25). Ultimately, those born again become “children of the promise” (Gal. 4:28). Finally, Peter declared: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39).The evangelist preaches and the Spirit of God convicts of sin and calls them to salvation.


One can conclude that there isn’t any value in teaching men to articulate a Sinner’s Prayer to be saved for three reasons. First, the one desiring to be saved knows his own heart—he doesn’t need to articulate a prayer to tell himself what he believes. He knows if he believes. Second, in a similar way, God does not need to hear a prayer that articulates faith—he knows who believes. Third, the evangelist doesn’t know the prospect’s heart—therefore; the evangelist gains nothing from encouraging a prayer that may or may not reflect an authentic belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. If the evangelist wants to determine if the person understands the gospel presentation, he should ask specific questions about the gospel. For example, “do you understand what it means to trust in the promises God has made through the gospel of the Lord Jesus?” Or “Is there anything keeping you from trusting in the Savior God promised for your salvation?” If a person who believes desires to pray—he should pray—but he should never be encouraged to pray to receive salvation. He should be encouraged to repent and believe the gospel. When a person is regenerated (born again) they may sometimes pray. But such a prayer by the newly regenerated person is simply a confession of what they believe.

In Matthew 16, Jesus told Peter that his great confession came from the Father; his flesh and blood (brain or heart) did not come up with it. It was revealed to him. This reinforces the ridiculousness of encouraging a prayer to receive Christ when the Father is the one who reveals the truth that Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16:13-17). Praying to God doesn’t prove that one believes. It is absurd to suggest that the Father needs to be told (via prayer) who he is drawing to the Son (John 6:44). Twenty-first century evangelists should follow the example of the Apostles. They testified to everyone that a person is saved through repentance toward God and faith (belief) in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38, 16:31, 17:30 and 20:21). Those who profess to believe (trust in the promises) on the Lord for their salvation should be encouraged to begin following Jesus in worship, Bible study, professions, prayer, baptism, and church membership.


None of this is meant to discourage anyone from praying. “Men ought to always pray” (Luke 18:1). “God be merciful to me a sinner” and “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom” are examples of prayers expressing faith in the Lord (Luke 18:13, 23:42). When the Spirit leads men to pray, they should pray. However, such genuine prayer is substantially different from prayer prompted by the evangelist. Such prayer may produce a false sense of one’s assurance of salvation. In Luke 23:39-42, the heart of the thief on the cross had already been changed—this can be seen when he began to rebuke his fellow thief dying with him. His prayer was a reflection of what he believed, and he didn’t need someone leading or encouraging him to petition God. He said what he already believed—Christ was a King who was able to save him.

Certainly, there have been thousands upon thousands of people who have been saved and subsequently prayed to receive Jesus. However, the problem with praying to receive Jesus is that it has filled churches with multitudes of unsaved church members—people who are fully convinced they are saved because they “asked Jesus in their heart” but are not believers. Many more are not in any church today despite previously praying to receive Jesus because they were never born again yet have a false assurance of salvation. Paul wrote, “No man can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Certainly Paul is not writing about the articulation of the words “Jesus is Lord.” Anyone can pray a prayer. This is a reminder that it is the Spirit who gives new birth and the Spirit’s work is invisible (John 3:8). Articulating a prayer doesn’t obligate God to save a person. If a person doubts his salvation, praying to receive Jesus again is not the solution. Instead, an admonishment to seek the Lord while he may be found and call upon Him while he is near would be more appropriate with the promise that he will never cast out anyone who comes to Him (Is. 55:6; John 6:37). At some point, the evangelist has said all he can say and must trust that it is God who saves—the evangelist can’t get the person saved. His responsibility is to “preach the gospel” (Mk. 16:15) and trust in the grace of God to give “the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6-7, Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 2:11).

What seems most appropriate at the end of a gospel presentation, or a post-sermon invitation, is for evangelist to close the time with the person in prayer. He or she should express thanksgiving to God for an opportunity to share the gospel and to pray that the Spirit will convict, give faith and strength to follow Jesus (Mk. 8:34). The person who declares the gospel could certainly do well to pray for converts and petition the Sovereign God of the Universe to “grant repentance” and “give the increase” (Acts 11:18; 1 Cor. 3:7). Praying for the conversion of a soul is always appropriate—but no one should ever be told, or allowed to infer from a method or additional requirement, that a prayer saves. Believing (not intellectual assent or empty prayers) on the Lord saves. This is the biblical demand.


  1. Interesting article. The Bible student clearly should understand that words or prayers don't save, as evidenced by the many examples that we have in the NT (some of which you alluded to). There's truly no point of contention there.

    However, I have not been around any Baptist circle that specifically has "required" a prayer, or words for salvation. Yes, it has become church procedure to use the altar call as a road to Jesus, but I've never once witnessed an evangelist/preacher requiring a prayer to evidence the conversion.

    I agree that the waters have been more than muddied concerning salvation in evangelical circles. It's a heart issue. When I realized my desperate lost position in Jan of 1997, and made my way to the altar to make it know that I'd accepted Jesus as Savior, and was now clinging to His life to get me to Heaven, when was I truly saved? When I made it public to all those in attendance? No, not even close. I was saved when I was convinced of my lost state, and need of the Savior. No audible words were exchanged between me and God; it was simply my response to His tugging at my heart. When I responded to the heart's conviction, I was saved, without words or prayer.

  2. It has been said that baptism is an outward expression of an inward confession; I think the same can be said of a sinner's prayer (or salvation prayer). It's an outward expression of the inward confession.

  3. I would like to see you write an article which deals with John 1:12: "But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, (even) to them that believe on his name." John says those who "received" Christ "had the right to become" children of God.

    Thank you, Brad @

  4. (Arminian) Evangelical Christianity teaches that my salvation is dependent on MY decision to accept Christ, and my assurance of salvation is dependent on MY feelings of his continued presence in my heart.

    But what happens during times of hardship and trial when I don't feel saved? Answer: I repeat my born again experience again and again until I finally feel absolutely certain that I am saved!

    Thousands, maybe millions, of Evangelical Christians struggle with doubts and fears regarding their salvation and eternal destiny due to this faulty theology. They have no sure assurance of salvation! They are praying the Sinner's Prayer again and again as if it were a Rosary.

    The Sinner's Prayer:

    "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. In Your Name. Amen."


  5. The Back-Slidden Baptist's Salvation Check List

    Just as there are many orthodox Christians, including Lutherans, who, to their eternal damnation, rely on their infant Baptism as their "Get-into-heaven Free Card", I believe that there are many Baptists and evangelicals who rely on their one time "Decision for Christ" as their automatic ticket into heaven.

    Just to be clear, I am sure that there are many, many Baptists and evangelicals who are much better Christians than I am. As Paul, I am the first among sinners. But I believe that the teaching of Decision Theology accompanied with the horrific teaching of "Once Saved, Always Saved", has damned just as many Baptists and evangelicals to hell as "Once Baptized, Always Saved" has damned many poorly catechized orthodox Christians.

    I was taught growing up fundamentalist Baptist that a born-again Christian who stops going to church, reading the Bible, praying, etc. is a "back-slider". He has back-slidden into sin.

    So let's review the "Back-Slidden" Baptist's and (Baptistic) Evangelical's Salvation Check-list:

    1. Have I attended church in the last twenty years: No.
    2. Have I partaken of the Lord's Supper in the last twenty years: No.
    3. Have I read my Bible in the last twenty years: No.
    4. Have I prayed (other than, "Lord please help me win the Powerball!") in the last twenty years? No.
    5. Have I shared the Gospel with a non-believer in the last twenty years. No.
    6. Did I pray the Sinner's Prayer twenty-one years ago in a Baptist altar call. Yes.

    Conclusion: SAVED!

    Now, if you present this to a Baptist or evangelical of the Baptist persuasion, he or she will say that the person above was never saved. That is why we do not see any "fruit of the Spirit".

    They have a much harder time, however, using that explanation when the "back-slider" is a prominent conservative Baptist or evangelical pastor or evangelist who has "won many souls to Christ" and has preached great moving sermons for years. "How could the person who led me to Christ have been a non-believer??" Situations such as these really rattle these "Once Saved, Always Saved" Christians.

    Listen to this Southern Baptist pastor light the pants on fire of back-slidden Baptists who believe their recitation of the Sinner's Prayer twenty years ago is their "ticket" into heaven:

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    an orthodox Lutheran blog

  6. The Sinner's Prayer has been at the heart of my confusion concerning God's revealed plan of salvation. It is truly a doctrine of man as it can nowhere be found in the pages of Scripture. Growing up Pentecostal and AOG this practice and belief were standards of evangelism. When I was perhaps 12 an AOG evangelist led me in a Sinner's Prayer. It was an emotional response to a sermon crafted for just such a response. Was I saved then? Not remotely. Did God have a plan for me? Absolutely! When I was a young adult I experienced a time of great loss and sickness. I began to read the Bible. It was so difficult to rally understand the promises of God and Christ's words as I was reading through a cloud of Arminianism and Sinner's Prayer theology. Afterward, I returned to a charismatic church and continued to understand little to nothing concerning the implications of Grace in my life. I did not have the bedrock of the Word of Truth under me and subsequently, as I ran into not only struggles with sin, but also the myriad of passages in the Bible that I couldn't reconcile I found myself in a continual uneasy state of little joy and hope and frequently returning to the Sinner's Prayer. Over the following years I lost everything and almost my life and freedom due to drug addiction. Just a couple years ago now God drew me close. He, by Grace, led me into dry places and there spoke comforting words to me. He, by Grace, spoke life into my heart and mind. He gifted me with repentance and faith. He opened my eyes to what His Word truly says concerning His plan of salvation. Like beams of light I saw John 6:44, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day". John 10:26-29 "But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish ; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all ; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand." Romans 3:11 "THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD" or Romans 9:15, 16 "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION." So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy." To finally understand that it is God's Grace, not my own will, that has gifted me with trust in Christ and repentance has filled me with joy unspeakable and the strength to cope with a life that was before incomprehensively difficult. To know that I am in Christ because the Father put me in His hand according to His perfect Will is to have magnificent assurance of eternity to come and the strength to be in the world until then. In John 17:17 Jesus prays to the Father, "Sanctify them in the truth ; Your word is truth." And it is my sincere hope that all who have fallen victim to the bad theology of the Sinner's Prayer will be delivered from such and be sanctified by the Word. God has a magnificent plan. Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) and He Will do just that. God is truly amazing and His Grace in Jesus Christ is bigger and infinitely more powerful than any of man's traditions. Take heart brothers! Thank you for the post Pastor Sean!

  7. After almost 50 years in ministry I sadly think that many of those who just raised their hand and recited some words will here the 9 most terrifying words in the English language " depart from Me you cursed I never knew you" this is very sad and drives me to see people really saved