False Conversions and the “Sinner’s Prayer”: A Damnable Epidemic in the Modern Church

Landon ChapmanChristianity36 Comments

2 Corinthians 13:5 [ESV] “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”

This is a good question for all of us to ponder.  Is Christ in you?  How do you know?  What proof is there of his presence in your life?  Of course, along with Paul, I believe there is a core of belief that surrounds true faith. But this test asks about your subjective awareness.  So, is Christ in you?1

I recently addressed this issue in Episode 003 of Fire Away! but I’m going to take some time to expand on this idea of false conversion and how the “sinner’s prayerdecisionism theology is the leading culprit in creating false converts in today’s churches.

If you are at all familiar with social media I have no doubt you have seen what are known as “memes“.  One particular brand of meme I particularly enjoy bear the hashtag “Things Jesus Never Said.” Most of these include some picture of a fictitious Jesus and then a quote that goes against something Jesus said in the Bible. Recently, R.C. Sproul, Jr. inadvertently created one of these with a quote in one of his speeches and it is as sad as it is funny. Mr. Sproul said, “Be sure to never speak of sin or repentance because that will drive people away. Just love them into My kingdom.” Then of course he insinuated the “things Jesus never said moniker”.

I think what saddens me the most is that many Christians actually believe the content of that quote to be Biblically correct. While we are called to speak Truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), we must not forget that the full Gospel message is more amazing and much more in-depth than American’s concocted “hippy Jesus“. This American Jesus looks like a model in a Vidal Sassoon commercial rather than the man the Bible describes in Isaiah 53:2 as having no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him.  Why is this?  Why does Jesus of the Bible not align with this fabricated Jesus? The simple answer lies in the 2nd Commandment (Exodus 20:4-6) which instructs us to not create graven images. It is a form of idolatry when we create a God to suit our desires and needs rather than bowing the knee to the one true and living God of the Bible! Idols are powerless aside from their use as kindling in stoking the fires of hell upon a person’s eternal soul.

So, how does one become saved? Take a moment to think about how people get saved in your church. Is there an altar call, baptismal call or baptism weekend, or maybe it’s reciting the “sinner’s prayer” along with a Pastor or Elder. It could be that someone convinced you to “ask Jesus into your heart”, or it could be a combination of all the things I listed.

In regards to asking or accepting Jesus into our hearts, it’s a completely ridiculous notion. As David Platt astutely noted, “Accept Him? Do we really think Jesus needs our acceptance? Don’t we need Him? Jesus is no longer one to be accepted or invited in but one who is infinitely worthy of our immediate and total surrender.”

That, dear friends, is an illustration of true reverence for our Savior! That comment illustrates that David Platt has a full understanding of exactly why Jesus Christ died on a tree for sinners such as myself. Could it be that the reason you are not growing to look like Christ is because you’re not actually in Him? Is it possible you have been duped into believing you’ve been granted justification when, in fact, you were fooled into the false concept of “decisionism theology“?

Pastor Platt went on to further expound on this notion. “Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer like the “sinner’s prayer” in the New Testament? Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrases ‘accept Jesus into your heart’ or ‘invite Christ into your life’? It’s not the Gospel we see being preached. It’s modern evangelism built on sinking sand, and it runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls. It’s a very dangerous thing.”

That is very strong language from Pastor David.  Why would he use the word “dangerous” when describing something seemingly so benign; a simple prayer?  The reason is because to lead people to think they are Christian when they have not Biblically responded to the Gospel gives them a false sense of Salvation and makes it very difficult for them to be Evangelized later in life because they think they’re good to go.  He continues, “If we’re not careful we’ll take the Gospel, the lifeblood of Christianity, and put Kool-Aid in its place so it will taste better to the crowds.  It’s not just dangerous, it’s damning.  Then, when we think about making disciples, we think it’s just about going out and getting someone to ‘pray the prayer’ and we spread that.  No, let’s give them the full picture of the Gospel!  Let’s show people the greatness of God.  Yes, he is a father who loves us, he’s a loving father who will save us, but he is also a wrathful judge who may damn us!”

You have got to give the whole picture because if we don’t show both the Law and Jesus then we’re not presenting the full Gospel to the person.  If it’s not the Gospel of the Bible it’s a different Gospel, and a different Gospel does not have the power to save.  Thus, we are not helping to bring people to Christ, rather, we are contributing to their eternal damnation.  As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It should be obvious by now my feelings on the “sinner’s prayer”; that it is anti-biblical garbage good only for the damnation of souls.  For the purposes of this article, the sinner’s prayer is defined as the prayer that contains biblically true elements (repentance, belief, praying to Jesus, etc.) but is then concluded with a statement such as “Because you have prayed this prayer, you are now a Christian.”  That final statement of the assurance of salvation is unbiblical because we are not saved by praying a special prayer.  We are saved by the grace of God who calls us to repentance (Acts 17:30), grants us repentance (2 Timothy 2:25), and grants that we believe (Philippians 1:29).2  The sinner’s prayer is a modern Evangelism concoction that serves merely to bolster baptism numbers in the church and make people feel better about themselves.  To be clear, I am in no way insinuating that some people who pray to God in the form of what is being referred to in this article as the sinner’s prayer aren’t actually having God overtake them and receiving the Holy Spirit and being truly regenerated as a new creature in Christ Jesus.  However, I’d be willing to bet that is not the case for most and if you were to follow them around for a few months following their baptism, I would venture to say you’d be hard-pressed to find continuing evidence of a true conversion having taken place.

Paul Washer has mentioned numerous times that he has “declared war” on the sinner’s prayer.  He contends that it has sent more people to hell than anything else on the face of the earth.  You may be asking, “how can he say such a thing?”  The answer is quite similar to David Platt; search the scriptures and tell me where anyone evangelized that way.  The scripture does not say that Jesus Christ came to the nation of Israel and said that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, now who would like to ask me into their heart?!  No, he said repent and believe the Gospel!

To further illustrate how ridiculous this has become in the evangelical church, I once heard a story told by an itinerant preacher about how he witnessed something he has never forgotten.  He was at a service where there was an altar call and a man had come down to speak to one of the pastors.  After a few minutes of chatting, the preacher asked if the man would like to pray and accept Jesus into his heart.  Obviously uncomfortable and not fully on board, the preacher then said that he would pray the prayer for him and, if he agreed, to squeeze the pastor’s hand.  This scene played out and the pastor proclaimed the man saved!  To date, that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard!  Do you think that man understood he was as sinner?  Do you think that man understood that he’s not a good person and that he’s in dire need of a savior?  How could he possibly know these things when no one ever told him! (Romans 10:14)

Do not make your evangelistic goal be for someone to recite the sinner’s prayer.  Give the full picture of the Gospel which includes the Law.  You’re not being a big meanie because you help someone to realize they are a sinner in need of a Savior.  You’re actually loving that person enough to set aside your personal fear because you care for their soul.

SCR044-G-02The idolatry of decisionism.  Men think they are going to Heaven because they have judged the sincerity of their own decision.  When Paul came to the church in Corinth, he did not say to them, “Look, you’re not living like Christians so let’s go back to that one moment in your life when you prayed that prayer and see if you were sincere.”  No, he said to test yourselves, examine yourselves to see if you’re in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).  Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  It is a work of God.  The evidence of conversion is not just a measure of your sincerity at the moment of conversion, it is ongoing fruit in your life.  Sixty to seventy percent of Americans claim they’re converted and yet we kill how many babies each day?  While that’s incredibly harsh to hear it is not without merit.

So, I’ve mentioned a couple of times that we must present the full Gospel, not just the parts we think people will be okay hearing.  What I mean is that in an effort to “win converts” we tend to water down the Gospel and present it in such a way that it no longer represents the true gospel.  Just because you went under the water does not mean you’re in Christ.  I do not say this to be unfairly critical or self-serving, or that I’m somehow better than you.  All I want is for men to know Christ!

Matt Chandler mentioned the fact that most of us grew up in a “do this, don’t do this” culture.  The simple truth is that is moralistic deism at it’s best.  It does not transform.  People walk away from the church because when we accomplish all these feats of morality by white-knuckling our way through them, you let something bad happen to us and all we can think is, “I was good!  I did everything I was supposed to and this is how you repay me?!”  We are sold and sell others that this is how to put God in your debt.  This is ridiculous, right?  Christians aren’t promised happiness!  We are only promised tribulation (John 16:33).  God is not our divine butler.  Being a good person by worldly standards is worthless.  In fact, by God’s standard, none are good.  Jesus in Luke 18:19 says, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.”

Yet by using the sinner’s prayer and other emotive means to tell people they are saved, we are  promoting moralistic deism and giving false assurance to the lost.  Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t been intentionally trying to send people to hell.  We’ve just gotten sloppy about preaching Gospel, the Law, and the biblical response to the Gospel which is repentance and faith.  Is it not a scary thought that you and I are potentially unintentionally creating false converts?!

The truth is that there are so many ways evangelism can run askew but they all center on biblical illiteracy.  If we know the truth of the Bible, we will not lead people astray.  If we are careful to explain to people man’s sinful nature and the beauty of a Savior dying for our sins, we will not inadvertently push people to eternal torment.

Because I so enjoy reading Charles Spurgeon, I must share a quote a I came across recently that pertains to this idea of false conversion.  Spurgeon was specifically addressing false conversion in the context of people trying to be saved because they fear the idea of hell, not because they want to repent and put their trust and faith in Jesus Christ.  He said, “A wolf may be scared from his prey– yet he keeps his ravenous nature.  He has not lost his taste for lambs, though he was obliged to drop the one which he had seized.  Just so, a sinner may be forced to forgo his beloved lust and yet remain as truly a sinner as before.  He may give up his drinking for fear of losing his job, or dying of disease, but he would be at his liquor again if he dared.  The fear of hell whips him off some favorite vice and  yet his heart pines for it, and in imagination he nourishes it.  In the sight of God, each man is as his heart is!  The muzzled wolf is still a wolf, the silenced swearer is still profane in heart, the lewd thinker is still immoral.  Something is done when a wolf is scared, or a transgressor driven out of his evil ways.  Yet nothing is done which will effectually change the wolf, or renew the ungodly heart.  A frightened sinner is a sinner still.  Like the frightened dog, he will return to his vomit!  And like the sow that was washed, he will wallow in the mire again as soon as opportunity offers.  You must be born again!  This is the only effectual cure for sin!  While the nature is unchanged, it is but the outside of the cup and platter which is washed.  ‘Truth in the inward parts’ is what God desires, and until that is given, we remain under divine wrath.  Any thief will turn honest under the gallows and yet if he were set free, he would rob the first house he came to!  A scare is not a conversion.  A sinner may be frightened into hypocrisy, but they must be wooed by God to repentance and faith.  Divine love tames, and divine grace transforms.  May the God of all grace deal thus with each of us!”

So, how does one get saved biblically?  As it says in Ephesians 2:8-9, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  In order to be truly saved, and truly grasp what Christ’s work on the cross meant, we must first understand that we are sinners.  Every breath we take we steal the air from God and all we’ve ever done is sin against Him.  We are not good people (Mark 10:18), we need rescuing!  Further, we can not work our way to Heaven (Isaiah 64:6).  Spurgeon said, “I cannot endure the sight of God until I seem Him in Christ; and God cannot bear the sight of me until he sees me in Christ.”

Hell will be full of “good people” because Heaven is not a place for people who are afraid to go to hell.  Heaven is for people who desire to honor and glorify Christ in all they do and live solely for him.

Do not let another day pass.  Put your full faith and trust in our savior Jesus Christ and repent of your sins.  Avoid becoming a false convert and join Him in paradise.

Landon Chapman

Landon Chapman

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Founder of Entreating Favor, writer, and host of the Fire Away! podcast. He is an architect by vocation and professes the Bible to be the infallible, inerrant, Word of God. He and his wife Holly have two children.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Hughes, R.K. (2006). 2 Corinthians: power in weakness p. 228. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
  2. Miano, Tony. “What Is the Sinner’s Prayer?” Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Sept. 2014.

36 Comments on “False Conversions and the “Sinner’s Prayer”: A Damnable Epidemic in the Modern Church”

  1. If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9 NIV)

  2. So it is not the prayer that is condemning it is the faith or lack of faith that goes with that prayer. Is that not the same as any other part of our faith. Did Jesus not talk about people thinking they were saved by acts and getting to heaven and not truly knowing Him or having a personal relationship with Him and being turned away.

  3. You’re exactly right, Paul. The issue with something like the SP is the false assurance it can provide; just like the works in the great example you provided. Thank you both for your comments! They really help me grow and test myself even further to scripture.

  4. Right, I agree def can be a problem if we think just repeating a prayer yet no heart/life change happens. Also, just as dangerous to tell ppl they arent saved after praying that prayer as well. I know several people who have become genuine Christ followers after repeating that prayer and continuing to grow in Christ. Good stuff man.

  5. Agreed. Either extreme is erroneous. In fact, that is the reason I included this in the article, “To be clear, I am in no way insinuating that some people who pray to God in the form of what is being referred to in this article as the sinner’s prayer aren’t actually having God overtake them and receiving the Holy Spirit and being truly regenerated as a new creature in Christ Jesus.”

  6. I believe you spent much time writing something that could and will cause much confusion. The short version is Romans 10:9; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and belive in thine heart that God has raised him from the day, thou shalt be saved.

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  12. Thank you for sharing this. I also just recently started listening to the fire away podcasts. I think it is an excellent radio show. Anyways just wanted to say thank you.

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  14. I agree with this article. It has always concerned me when someone “prays the prayer” with someone then declares them saved. How do we know if someone has been truly born again at that moment? My son was recently killed in a car accident. So many people have told me…you will see him again! I hope that he was saved based on his profession, but at the same time do I really know? What causes me distress in this article is to think that WE are sending people to hell by praying with them in a misguided way. If this is true, then who is the author of salvation? Are we the authors of salvation and our poor misguided efforts are sending more people to hell than anything else? If so,what hope do we have? I have to believe that the Lord Jesus is the Author and Finisher of true salvation, that He will save, that the glory belongs to Him alone and that we must do our best to present the true Gospel as stated in the article. I think Charles Spurgeon believed in the ultimate salvation of the elect…I am not sure.

  15. Wow.
    While I want to (and do) agree with your emphasis on “decisionism”, I’m put off by the way that you have misrepresented 2 Corinthians 13:5. You are not alone in misunderstanding this verse, of course, but it is a bit “off putting” and immediately casts a negative light on the rest of your blog post.
    The phrase “whether you are in the faith” makes use of the definite article for a reason, but this is often blithely overlooked. A close reading (in the British sense of that term) suggests that “the faith” isn’t “saving faith” in this context. Rather, it is “the body of doctrine which has been received and canonized by Jesus’ Church.” The exact same construct is used 1 Corinthians 16:13 (“stand fast in the faith”) and should thus be given interpretive preference when we approach 2 Corinthians 13:5. The construct also appears in Colossians 2:7 and Titus 1:13.
    The point is simply that the phrase “in the faith” should most likely be interpreted as “a body of sound doctrine” rather than “the faith which saves.”
    Then there is the problem of the prepositional phrases “in the faith” and “Christ in you.” Note that the nouns are 2nd person plural (“y’all”) and the prepositional phrase is frequently used the collective sense, i.e., “in your midst” or “among you.” This is one instance where English translations often fail the reader.
    There is an argument to be made that Paul is writing to people who are already believers; 1 Corinthians 15:14 is especially on point here, emphasizing the fact that they had believed Paul’s preaching about Christ’s resurrection.
    I apologize for going on at length, but in light of the preceding context of 2 Cornthians and also of 1 Corinthians, Paul’s admonition in the verse in question isn’t to ask the individual members of the church to make sure that they are regenerate believers.
    Rather, he is exhorting them to insure that their conduct accords with sound doctrine. If it does, then Jesus will walk in the midst of that church (cf. Revelation 3:20). If not, he won’t, and they will be deprived of fellowship with him.
    I apologize for going on at length here. It’s just that I’m frustrated by the way that this verse is often misquoted, often to the harm of Christian believers. This may not, in your opinion, by an open-and-shut case, but the exegetical details of the text merit a bit more care than it received in this post (but then, who among us hasn’t been guilty of that?).

  16. Your article got so close, but fell short. In the paragraph, “So, how does one get saved biblically?”, you state many truths. But left out baptism. Jesus was baptized as an example of what we are to do. The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized by Philip as soon as he was taught about Jesus (and as soon as he saw water) in Acts 8.
    In Acts 16, the jailer was baptized in the middle of the night, right after an earthquake freed Paul and Silas, and he was getting ready to kill himself because he thought his prisoners had escaped. Acts 16:29: The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
    Here are a few more verses about baptism (there are more)
    Matthew 28:19, 20 “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
    Mark 16:16 “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”
    Acts 2:37-38 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”.

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  18. I’m a recovering Southern Baptist in a reformed church now (blessed be RC Sproul, our “prophet”), but I have difficulty with this. Why do you say, “don’t let another day pass,” if we are saved by grace alone? Aren’t those who are saved saved regardless of their faith? It’s little circular for me. I am saved by grace but confess Jesus is Lord and I will be saved? No one asked me to pray when I was six. I was playing school with a friend and she wrote John 3:16 on a chalkboard, and it was like scales fell from my eyes and I suddenly understood. At six. I knew I was a sinner, and I knew that I believed. Later, a pastor prayed me through the sinner’s prayer, but I didn’t need him to do that. That was for my parents’ benefit. How does confession and repentance fit in with irresistible grace?

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