When I came to real faith almost 35 years ago, Billy Graham was in his prime and Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade, was leading people to Christ in elevators. Evangelicals used little booklets like The Four Spiritual Laws and Steps to Peace to introduce people to Christ. The last step of course was to pray out loud a short prayer acknowledging your sin, receiving Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and thanking him for your salvation – “The Prayer”.
So why is it I’m so cautious about asking people to pray the prayer?
Because, even 30 years ago, most people knew the basic storyline of the Bible, including Adam and Eve’s decision to sin. The majority of Americans had gone to Sunday School or church, or their parents had, so there was a general awareness of sin and God’s displeasure with it. And they also knew that Christians believed Jesus died to save us from our sins.
Nobody is exactly sure what happened, but today I find very few non-Christians, especially those under 40, who believe they are sinners and therefore that they have a problem with God. Either they’re indifferent to God, or if they believe in God at all, don’t think they have a problem with him. Guys can be living with their girlfriends and aren’t the least bit ashamed to tell me. The purpose of this blog isn’t to whine about how that happened, but it did!
So, here’s the problem for them and the dilemma for the church: If you don’t know you’re a sinner, you have no need for a Savior! The Danger of The Prayer My church, like many others, has a major music production at Christmas every year, called Festival of Lights. Until about eight years ago, our pastor would get up at the end and give a wonderful 5-10 minute summary of the gospel. Then he’d tell them that if they prayed the prayer he was about to recite to them, and they’re serious about it, they too can be saved from all their sins and know for certain they were born again and be right with God, that night. “Please bow your heads and repeat this prayer silently with me.” Everyone was then asked to fill out a card to indicate whether they prayed the prayer or not. And praise God, I’ve met people who actually became believers that night!
But here’s why our church no longer encourages the prayer, that night. We now believe that unless there is heartfelt brokenness over their sin and a profound desire to live like Jesus from here on out, we don’t want them simply praying a prayer and believe themselves to be born again. We’re not confident that just explaining what sin is and what Jesus did for them is enough to promise them, that praying the prayer will save them.
We’ve actually talked to people who prayed the prayer and took our word for it that they were now right with God, who hadn’t changed how they lived one bit! But they believe they have their get out of hell free card because we told them the prayer would do that for them!
We still explain the gospel story, but we now urge people who’s hearts are stirred to call a specific person in our church to learn more about how they can become a Christian or talk to the person who invited them. Once we spend time with these people, and when we believe they truly understand why they need Jesus and what following Jesus will look like, we then encourage them to personally cry out to God for salvation and pray a prayer of salvation.
Please hear me out, I’ve met people who, by the power of the Holy Spirit heard a very simple gospel presentation, who were radically and wonderfully drawn to Jesus. The Holy Spirit can actually cause them to understand something an evangelist never even said. It’s not that it can’t happen. We just shouldn’t presume it has happened until they begin to exhibit the fruits of true repentance and of the Holy Spirit.
So the issue for me is promising them, “If you pray this prayer you can know for certain that you are saved and are going to heaven.”
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Matthew 7:21-23
We have no way of knowing, and they themselves may not know at that point if their prayer of faith is heartfelt and authentic enough to demonstrate true repentance, leading to true salvation. But, here’s what it looked like in the early church:
“ 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.’”
Acts 2:37,38 When people hear the gospel, they should be convicted and broken – cut to the heart.
All of us have known people who’ve prayed the prayer at camp, or a Promise Keepers event who no longer are living for God. Are they saved? I doubt it. But do they know that, or do they think they have assurance of salvation because we prematurely told them they can take God’s promises to the bank?
So on Thursday, I’ll post an extra blog entitled, Eternal Security and Assurance of Salvation Are Two Different Things. Understanding the distinction is important, not only for others, but for ourselves.
How following Jesus works in real life.
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