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Does the ‘prayer of salvation’ save you?

Tim Keller says, “Most decisions for Christ are not conversions. They’re commitments to get into a process.” Now if you grew up like I did, in a home where family members passed out tracts, that’s a provocative statement, maybe even heresy. Does it mean that if you’ve prayed the prayer o…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
Tim Keller says, “Most decisions for Christ are not conversions. They’re commitments to get into a process.”
Now if you grew up like I did, in a home where family members passed out tracts, that’s a provocative statement, maybe even heresy. Does it mean that if you’ve prayed the prayer of salvation you’re not necessarily saved?
Here’s where I’ve had to struggle through this: The first AIM projects featured a heavy evangelistic component. The whole objective of our effort was to get people to pray the salvation prayer. I believed then and still believe that salvation comes through Christ alone and that we have to repent and embrace forgiveness.
That said, I’m wondering how biblical our evangelism really was. In many instances, for example, we couldn’t guarantee that there would be any kind of follow up with the person we’d just evangelized. So, what do you do with a person who prays a prayer but believes none of the words he just said? Is that making Jesus Lord of your life?
Nowhere in the Bible do we see the prayer of salvation. What we do see is people repenting and following Jesus. We see them assimilated into a local group of believers and a discipleship process. To get someone to pray and then walk away is kind of like creating spiritual orphans.
Today a friend got me thinking. He wanted to know what I thought about his formula for getting saved. Here it is: 

 There are 4 Steps to know God.
#1. Realize – Realize all have sinned.  
We’re all screw-ups, broken and we cannot live up to God’s Holy ways.  (Romans 3:23)

#2. Recognize – Recognize Jesus paid for your sins when he died on the Cross.  
God became man, his name was Jesus Christ and he died on a Cross for your sins, then he rose again so we can be forgiven and have life after death. (John 3:16)

#3. Receive – Receive God’s forgiveness by turning from sins and start following of Jesus Christ today.  (John1:12)

#4.  The Result – The Result is a Transformed Life.  
A true follower of Jesus will have a transformed life. (John1:12)

So this is how we get to know God. Really? Let’s apply this process to realm of normal human relationships. Imagine if you were introducing me to a close friend. You want me to get to know him, but he’s been hurt by something I did. So the way I know him is by understanding how I hurt him, recognizing that he’ll forgive me and then receive his forgiveness – then I know him?? It’s preposterous. The most that I may know about your friend is that he’s thin-skinned.
Now, if your friend spoke to me and listened to me, and I felt he understood my heart, I might begin the process of getting to know him. Over time, as we talk, we might get to know one another. 
People need Jesus, but a spiritual hit job is no way to introduce them to him. It doesn’t show love and doesn’t move the person in the direction of making Jesus Lord of their decision-making process. It looks more like the kind of vending machine faith that we’re trying to get away from: “Just do this and you’ll get this.” We want to  move people away from performance by getting them perform. I’m sorry – it’s too transactional a process for a relational God. Yes, they need to repent, but it needs to be in the context of understanding and relational nurture. Have them pray the prayer embracing Jesus when they’re ready to begin to follow him.
Jesus, comparing himself to a shepherd, said this about knowing him, “His sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). 
In other words, like anybody else, if I recognize your voice, it’s the first step in getting to know you. If I can hear your voice, I might hear your heart. If I hear your heart, I might begin to understand places where our relationship is broken. As we Christians say, it’s all about a personal relationship with God.
We need to take a fresh look at this. 

Comments (25)

  • thanks Seth, ill show this feedback to “J”. he is working through a lot and needs outside opinions. its been a very hard process bringing this to his attention haha… but its working!

  • The only place you see conversions in the Bible is in the book of Acts.

    The common process is pretty clear…

    1. Hearing the message
    2. Believing the message (Jesus died for my sins!)
    3. Repentance (turning from our sins out of gratitude)
    4. Confessing Jesus as Lord (Allowing Jesus to take control of our life)
    5. Baptism (point of rebirth.. Acts 2:36-38.. and many others)
    6. Persevering to the end

    The prayer of salvation is false doctrine. Look up the history of it… it has only been around for about 100 years. It is nowhere in the Bible, and many of the Scriptures supporting it are written to believers (therefore do not apply to conversion).

    Check out this quote from Francis Chan.

    “Some people claim that we can be Christians without necessarily becoming disciples. I wonder then, why, the last thing Jesus told us was to go into the world, making disciples of all the nations, teaching them to obey all that He commanded? You’ll notice he didn’t add, “But,hey, if that’s too much to ask, tell them to just become Christians–you know, the people who get to go to heaven without having to commit to anything”.

  • i also prayed the prayer when i was beginning to know Christ… not inherently a bad thing… it helped me along the journey of getting to know Him and believe the message of Christ. however.. if the prayer doesn’t save us, the name ‘prayer of salvation’ is misleading. perhaps i’m wrong… but i simply don’t see any support for it in the Bible. and nothing similar in any of the conversions recorded in the Bible. salvation is pretty important… this is an issue i’ve prayed over and studied out extensively… and as i said… maybe i’m wrong… but i just know that Jesus has called me to make disciples (not believers)… baptize them… and continue to teach them to obey everything he has commanded. it’s a lot harder to convert people this way unfortunately………….

  • St. Mark of the Cross

    WOW! This is amazing because I have been sharing this for years that repentance is the key to Jesus Christ & salvation! Jesus preached repentance for the remission of sins..the 4 spiritual laws, or prayers like that are only effective when there is true repentance, maybe that is why so many new converts were never really converted at all? I see this in tonight’s bible study I will be sharing at in a local postmaster’s home. The subject repentance+forgiveness…are the independent or inter-dependent? I believe there is a salvation experience…born again…however, I think we all need to not be afraid to ask about our experience in knowing Jesus, whether it was a traditional salvation prayer, or a “process” as some call it. It is still all about repenting,being forgiven, born-again, and a new life in Jesus Christ. There still is a starting point of salvation…then the rest of life is spent realizing how great a salvation he has given us.

  • Some may think it’s judgmental to question someone’s salvation who has “prayed the prayer.” But we see too often the bad fruit of this method of evangelism: attempting to live the “Christian life” without a new heart, new desires and His power to live it out. So, personally they’re disappointed and frustrated and eventually walk away, saying, “I’ve tried that.” OR their lives display the kind of hypocrisy that keeps people from coming to Christ. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” It is “easier” for us to “close the deal” and see we accomplished something when they “pray the prayer.” But the alternative adventure is leaning on the leading and love of the Holy Spirit, and respecting God’s unique work in each one. The book of Acts is exciting because we never see ONE apostle whip out a tract or do ANYTHING the same way twice! So, the content of your blog, Seth, has also been my conviction. Yet I am still LEARNING how to walk this out in reaching people for Christ.

  • What about becoming a new creation through baptism? Putting on Christ in the waters of baptism is a process of salvation, where does it fit in this formula? Rom 6, Gal 3, Acts 2–

    You are right in saying we do not see a prayer of salvation, but all through out Acts and and the NT we see a coorelation between becoming new “in Christ” and taking Him on in baptism.

  • Judith & Lantz,

    I like what you’ve said. Clearly we start somewhere. At some point we pray a prayer. At some point we need to be baptized. And I’m not saying you even have to understand what you’re doing that well.

  • Of course Tim Keller would say that… he’s a Presbyterian. I’ve been on both sides of this spectrum, and I think it’s both/and. Yes, there is a decision that needs to be made at some point to follow Christ, and it’s an important one, but perhaps just as, if not more, important is the decision to keep following him. That’s where the real stuff of relationship (i.e. “knowing God”) happens.

  • Judith,

    I believe we are like minded sojourners. I so appreciate your comments. There is absolutely a beginning point. A baby step that at the same time is a huge leap, but I believe Jeff is correct in saying the real grit is in continuing to follow. This is all great food for thought, prayer, mulling and sharing, and I think I will muse about it on my blog later today…when I have time to really sit and write. Peace!

  • Rom 10:9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
    Rom 10:10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

    Joh 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
    Joh 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
    Joh 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

    Luk 3:16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

    1Jn 1:7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
    1Jn 1:8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
    1Jn 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
    1Jn 1:10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

    Jas 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
    Jas 1:6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.

    Eph 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
    Eph 2:9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

    The spirit or “principality” of religion is insidious, and can deceive us even to the point where we verbalize grace, but still act like “works” is our salvation. We are taught to hold tight to the idea that it is incumbent upon us to change ourselves and others. Very clearly, we believe Jesus saves us, repent and confess (which comes from knowing God, talking with God, listening for Him to speak, ie. relationship), and He cleans us, gives us wisdom and understanding. He cleans us. We believe. He cleanses us. He cleanses us. He cleanses us. Very important to know because if we realize that He cleanses us, it would be easier to rebuke the spirit of legalism and condemnation. Recently, God has been speaking Grace into my life, and in the context of Grace, I asked him to show me why we do good works. Don’t ask me why I could not get past “because it’s the right thing to do,” I just needed more. This is what He showed me…

    Rom 12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
    Rom 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
    Rom 12:3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

    Jas 2:17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
    Jas 2:26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

    So, He gives us faith, we act accordingly to show Jesus to people, this is our worship, or love. Faith is a direct result of salvation; acts are a direct result of faith. I’ve known this for years (logos), but God had to bring this to life for me (Rhema).

    My point being, thanks to institutional desensitization, the starting point of a life in Christ has gone in most cases from “I confessed to the risen Jesus and he changed my life!” To “I’m covered, I said the prayer.” Empty Christianity omits claim to the power of Christ. Huge can of worms opened here…(awesome)

    Lord, let Your Church be awakened, able to focus on you, and not be distracted by life to the point where we won’t focus on you. Let this body not be apart from The Spirit!

  • Salvation comes as a result of Christ’s invitation to come and the response of the heart. we’re taught there are four kinds of heart conditions in the parable of the sewer. let the tares grow up with the wheat..He says…
    Not all will come to faith although Jesus clearly said He would that all would…He just knows it won’t be all. Salvation is a sovereign act of God through Christ and it is confirmed in matthew,John,Luke and mark…you cannot save yourself so you must come to Him…as He says to do.. and repent,(turn) from your sin and receive forgiveness. I think the forgiveness ushers in the Holy Spirit which lets us enjoy the fruits. Many come as broken men, women as I did….The altar call has turned the work of God into fast food self indulgent Christianity with no biblical basis.. other than to enrich the fatcat mega-evangelists who fly aorund the globe in million dollar jets promising bigger houses,cars, and prosperity…look no further than the “crystal cathedral” to see the failure of the modern day easy believism.

  • I agree with one glaring exception. God is not hurt by your sin, you are hurt by your sin. God is holy and won’t accept your sin, but He is not embarrassed by your sin nor is He surprised. In fact, he made a way for you to make it to Heaven before you were even born, so He could not be surprised in any way by sin.

    I like the prayer of salvation because it gives people a “spiritual-historical marker” in their life that they can point back to and say, “This is when it started for me.” It also begins the most basic study of theology for the new believer. Someone who has said the prayer feels included and accepted and are a part of God’s family, adopted as a prince or princess.

  • in 1977 Billy Graham published a now famous work entitled, How to Be Born Again. For all the Scripture he used, he never once uses the hallmark rebirth event in the second chapter of the book of Acts. The cataract (blind spot) kept him away from the most powerful conversion event in all Scripture. It is my guess that it’s emphasis on baptism and repentance for the forgiveness of sins was incompatible with his approach.

    Acts 2:36-41
    36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
    37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
    38 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.
    39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
    40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
    41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

  • I am in need of salvation. I am very weary. I’ve worn myself out praying the sinners prayer. My life is not bearing Christian fruit. I do not want to go to hell. I do not have the power of Christ in my life. I need to stop sinning but find I cannot do right. Somebody please help me.

    • Nick – it sounds like you are in a hard spot. I’m sorry and will pray that God shows up. We need people to grow in Christ. We need the help of Christ-followers to pray for us and encourage us. Do you have anyone nearby? Is there a local church that can help? I can write to you if you’d like to take this offline.

  • I agree with Tim Keller’s statement.
    Conversion is a life-long process. This is absolutely the theology of my chosen faith expression, the Catholic Church.
    But, faith in Christ has a beginning point/leap of commitment.
    Sometimes simple is best.
    I believe Jesus was very simple and direct with those who needed what he had to offer.
    I come fresh from a new commitment right here, in my midst.
    First, came loving, accepting relationship.
    I speak of our young Chinese housemate who came to us in September.
    Then, came planting seeds of love, peace, joy through sharing our life experiences honestly.
    Then, night before last she came to me and wanted to know how to have this God we have.
    And, simply, directly, I told her she could ask Him into her heart.
    I offered to pray with her.
    I led her through the “sinner’s prayer.”
    It’s not rocket science.
    It works.
    It’s not the end.
    It’s only the beginning. It’s a seed embedded that must now be watered and nurtured.
    But, you should have heard and seen here last night when I asked how her “first” day had been.
    It brought tears to my eyes:
    “Oh, Judy…I thought about God all day. Last night I go to bed and I just talk to Him like you told me. I say, “Hold me. Comfort me. I love you, God.” And, this morning I wake up so happy. I feel new all day”
    It works, folks.
    And, after 65 years, I always go with things that work.
    Whether it makes sense or is man’s wisdom or reasoning.
    Love you, Seth.
    And, all your pondering and questioning and seeking to find the truth!

  • I must add that the sinner’s prayer followed discussion with her, listening to her express that “for long time I know I have no faith…it missing from my life.”
    “I want to do right and not wrong, but I not able to.”
    Which enabled me to share that none of us can do right.
    Without God.
    We want to, but we can’t.
    “I have done something wrong recently…I feel bad.”
    “Jesus died on the cross for that wrong and all your wrongs and mine, too.” (lots of tears from me…because I love what He did for us, so much)
    “How can I have this God…this Jesus?”
    “All you have to do is ask Him into your heart.
    Tell Him you realize you can not do what is right.
    That you are grateful He died on the cross for all you’ve done wrong.
    That you want Him to come in and live in you.”
    (“If anyone opens the door, I will come in and sup with Him.”)
    “But I don’t know how to do this…to pray this.”
    “Would you like me to pray with you? I can say the words and if you feel these words, you can repeat after me.”
    “It that simple?”
    “Yes, Rita…it that simple.”

  • Amen, Seth:
    “I’m not saying you even have to understand what you’re doing that well.”
    God fills in all the gaps!
    And, ain’t that the beauty of it?!
    God can and will fill in all the gaps in our entire life, from beginning to end!!!
    Oh, how beautiful and incomprehensible He is!
    Jeff…you are a doll…but, I’ve said that before.
    Absolutely agree it is both/and.
    And, that “keeping on keeping on” is where it’s at!
    Love to all…

  • Salvation in the NT has a “saved/being saved/will be saved” connotation…a process of sanctification that has a beginning but doesn’t end until we’re in Heaven. The Eastern Church calls it Theosis and they seem to be more attuned to the process than we are. It’s dangerously easy for us to boil it down to repeating a prayer but most Christians I know are responsible enough not to leave it at that. I said the prayer once (at least once, probably more) but the way it was presented to me…I knew it was just the beginning. I don’t even “get” the concept of having someone repeat words they don’t understand (as much as it is possible for us to understand Salvation!)

  • The prayer of salvation is a beginning step.
    That’s all.
    I prayed it and it began a new life for me, one that has grown and deepened over four decades.
    I am not willing to throw it out just because others claim it doesn’t work.
    It worked as an introduction to Jesus for me.
    It has worked for countless others.
    Is it to be used carte blanche?
    That’s not how HS operates.
    It also has worked for my little housemate.
    And, many I have known.
    I am not willing to throw out any tool given by God and used to bring millions to Christ…as a beginning to their walk with Christ.
    Nothing I have said discounts discipleship or the long, arduous and narrow road of following Christ.
    Anyone who knows my personal story knows my life is nothing if not about walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

  • I don’t call it the prayer of salvation.
    A single prayer can not save anyone.
    If I were to call it anything I would call it the “sinner’s prayer.”
    But, it doesn’t matter: a label, just like the prayer…just like the label Christian, means nothing if it is not walked out over a lifetime.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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