T h e S i n n e r ' s P r a y e r
What is the relationship of prayer to salvation? What is the connection between saving faith and a sinner calling out to God? Must a person say a specific prayer in order to be saved? These are important questions if we are going to have a good testimony for the Lord. The cardinal doctrine of salvation by faith alone is a recurring theme from Genesis to Revelation. No matter where you look in the Bible, if a person is saved from his sins, it is by faith alone. It is true, God does all of the saving and we do all of the sinning! Yet, what is the sinner's responsibility when it comes to receiving the great gift of salvation? Here are a few verses which remind us that the sinner is required to have faith in order to be cleansed from his vile sin.
And he [Abraham] believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. Genesis 15:6
For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Romans 4:3
But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness...
Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Romans 4:5,7
Abraham is God's chief example showing salvation by faith alone. God granted righteousness to Abraham on the basis of faith plus nothing else. Personal faith in the Lord's work for us is our way of salvation. Paul explains the same thing by using Abraham as his example. We know one is saved by placing his trust in the gospel of Christ. Jesus Christ died on the cross for us sinners. He was buried, showing that he really died. On the third day, Christ rose from the grave. He was seen by his disciples, showing that he really was alive. By placing one's faith in the cross-work of Christ, one is saved from sin. This same one is declared righteous. He is justified in the sight of the Lord. The one who is counted as righteous is the same one whose iniquities are forgiven. His sins are covered. When a person is forgiven of his sins, he is also made righteous. What a wonderful Lord we have who is willing to forgive all our iniquities! This forgiveness is free to all who trust Christ as saviour.
But, what about prayer? Is it true that one must pray a certain thing in order to be saved? We must admit the verses concerning Abraham's justification do not say: "Abraham prayed to the Lord and it was counted to him for righteousness" or "his prayer is counted for righteousness." So, where does the sinner's prayer fit in? Remember, those prior to the cross were saved in the same way as people after the cross - by faith. We have been given a more detailed explanation of the Lord's saving work in the New Testament than is provided in the Old Testament. One thing we can be assured of is that God is always the one who does the saving. Salvation is of the Lord (Johan 2:9). In order to get to Heaven, God must do the saving, and we must do the believing. As was true with Abraham and with Paul, the same is true for us.
Are there any examples of someone praying to God when they needed to be saved? Sure there are. Here are some of those times. We find these sinners understood their need of a saviour and talked to the Lord about it.
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying,
God be merciful to me a sinner. Luke 18:13
It was a good thing this man viewed his sinfulness in light of a Holy God. He understood his lack of righteousness. He was concerned about his spiritual condition before God. He was probably fearful of dying before he could be washed clean from his sins. This sinner prayed the simple prayer: "God be merciful to me a sinner." This is perhaps the greatest sinner's prayer of all. The man knew there was a God and that he was accountable to him. He wanted God to do something for him. He recognized his life did not line up with the perfect standards required of an almighty, all-seeing God. He was a sinner and deserved to be punished. Yet, he desired mercy to not get what he deserved for his sinful behavior. His faith in a merciful God was personal: "be merciful to me." God is always personal. He is either personally repulsed at the filth of our sins, or he is personally pleased with us because of our relationship with his Son Jesus Christ. Yes, salvation is personal. Personal faith is required for personal salvation, and this man had it. He demonstrated personal repentance (recognized he was a sinner) and showed his personal faith (prayed to the one who could forgive). We should be careful not to make more out of it than is there. We also need to be careful not to make light of this portion of the Bible. It is true that salvation is by faith alone. It is also true that those wanting to be saved pray to the Lord concerning their need of forgiveness. What was the outcome of this sinner who prayed? Our Lord himself explains the results.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified... Luke 18:14
Thus, we are given the connection between faith and prayer. Those who have faith in the Lord will be the same ones who desire to pray to the Lord. We need to watch that we do not disregard this Biblical relationship. There are other passages which shed light on the sinner's faith and the sinner's prayer. Consider these.
And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. Luke 23:42
There were two men who were hanging on their own crosses when our Lord was crucified. One of the men changed his mind in regards to his sinful condition before the Lord. Understanding his need of forgiveness, he cried out to the saviour. He wanted mercy from the Christ who would one day set up his glorious kingdom. The above verse is his prayer requesting forgiveness. Talking to the Lord about his spiritual condition, he saw he was lacking and desired mercy. Did he get mercy? Did this man die with forgiveness? Did this man get a clean heart before he died? Our Lord's reply to this dying man's wishes is as follows:
And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. Luke 23:43
Yes, this man received forgiveness of his sins. The saviour was dying for the thief's sins on the cross. The saviour was dying for all of our sins at that time. He is willing to answer the sinner's prayer today just as eagerly as he was that day.
Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. John 4:10
Here we witness our Lord speaking to the woman at the well. The Lord himself said that if she had asked for a certain thing, he would have given it to her. She did not yet realize to whom she was speaking. She didn't see how much she needed what Christ had to offer. In John 4:14 the Lord said he had everlasting life to offer. If the woman had asked for everlasting life, the Lord would have given her the gift of salvation. What a wonderful thing, salvation free for the asking. Of course, if the woman did not think she needed salvation, there would be no reason to ask for it by faith. In these examples, we see the sinner's prayer of reception. They are sinners who placed their trust in their wonderful saviour. Needy sinners instinctively pray to their Lord, gladly receiving him as their saviour. Paul explains this process more so in Romans chapter ten.
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:13-17)
Here the relationship of faith and prayer is listed. The Scripture is not shy when it proclaims: "whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." This verse invites a sinner to call upon the Lord to save him. That sounds like a sinner's prayer. However, just who is this person who is calling upon the Lord? It is the one who has believed. This is the Biblical connection. Those who pray are those who believe.
Caution must be taken not to make prayer the way of salvation. Christ himself is the way of salvation. Our responsibility is to trust him as our saviour. Any child recognizing his need of salvation can be saved by faith. Surely, none would deny the simple childlike faith so popularly quoted in John 3:16?
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16
We must be careful not to disagree with John 3:16 and say: "whosoever believeth in him AND..." While it is true people call upon the Lord with a prayer of reception, we are not at liberty to change the requirements of obtaining everlasting life. John simply says that whosoever believeth in him. Let's not make receiving salvation to be a complicated thing. It does not say whosoever prayeth to him. We understand that believing is a personal trust in the Lord. Saving faith is not just believing about him or knowing what he did for us. Paul agrees with John when he answers the Philippian jailer.
QUESTION: And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? Acts 16:30
ANSWER: And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. Acts 16:31
Salvation is by faith alone, in Christ alone; nothing more, nothing less. May we be mindful not to add to what God has clearly stated in his Word. Those receiving Christ as saviour should not be discouraged from praying to God. That would most likely bring great sorrow to our Lord. The other extreme should be avoided as well. That danger is to make the sinner's prayer the soulwinner's prayer. This happens when the prayer of the soulwinner becomes the prayer of the sinner. Can't a sinner himself pray to the Lord? The fear may be that if the sinner doesn't pray the right thing, then salvation will not take place. Think about this for a minute. Would you want someone to put words into your mouth? That is virtually what a soulwinner does when he tells the sinner what to pray. Doesn't it make more sense that if a person who is truly repentant of his sin will also know what to talk to the Lord about? The soulwinner doesn't know all the specific sins of the one needing saved. Let the sinner himself pray to the Lord without another's interference. God knows how to listen. God knows the condition of the heart. God is not willing that any should perish. It is most likely that when a person knows he is going to hell and understands that Christ is the only way out, you will not be able to keep him from crying out to the Lord! We don't need to do the praying for him. When the soulwinner tells the sinner what to pray, it may give a false sense of what is truly taking place. Even with a true conversion, the soulwinner's prayer may lead to a lack of assurance of salvation. It is easy for someone to think the prayer saved him. Instead, it is the saviour who does the saving. Let's do our job and continue to preach what sin is. Let's also proclaim the gospel of Christ as what the sinner needs to hear. Let us then allow the sinner do his part by responding to the Lord in faith.
James Utter 1/2013
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