When I was a new believer in Christ, I questioned why there are many schisms found in Christendom. I began to find answers to this question when I started reading about church history.
Later, as an evangelist, I began to identify schisms in how the gospel is presented. A pastor lent my husband and I an excellent book called, “Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858” by Iain H. Murray, which gave us a much deeper understanding of the two Great Awakenings and how they affected American culture inside and outside the church. In the book, Murray asserts that the First Great Awakening was a genuine movement of God’s Spirit which affected people through the bold preaching of biblical, gospel-centered preachers and much prayer, while the Second Great Awakening was often an attempt to set up an environment where the spirit might work but was actually a way of manipulating people’s emotions in order to get people to make decisions for Christ.
This history has led to two competing methods of evangelism which contain two different messages: Man-Centered Gospel presentations versus God-Centered Gospel presentations.
Through Murray’s book, I was introduced to Charles Finney, a preacher from the Second Great Awakening who advocated the use of the alter call and the sinner’s prayer in evangelism, methods that, early on, were called the “new measures.”
Yet not all men during this era adopted Finney’s methods. Many were in opposition to these “new” methods and were not afraid to state that the alter call and the sinner’s prayer are not in the Bible. Prior to the 1830’s, there was no historical evidence that an invitation system in evangelism was ever used.
What Finney advocated in the 19th century was man-centered evangelism tools which watered down the gospel and these tools have continued to be used to the present day. Finney’s most popular sermon, “Sinners Bound To Change Their Own Hearts,” captured the type of message that was commonly adopted by Finney and others. The message is, “God has done His part, now you must do yours,” or “It’s all up to you.” Another name for these types of messages when communicated to unbelievers is called synergism, the false teaching that God does His part and man cooperates with God in salvation. Christ waits for you to make your decision. Hopefully, you can see the errors in this type of thinking. Finney’s teachings mirror a 5th century Christian heresy called Pelagianism, which is a false teaching that stressed the essential goodness of human nature, and the freedom of the human will.
Finney was less than orthodox in his beliefs. He opposed the doctrine of original sin and called it a “nonsensical dogma.” He rejected substitutionary atonement and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. He rejected Reformation teaching on justification and saw the sovereignty of God in salvation as having no power or influence.
A Closer Look At The Sinner’s Prayer Method
Another name for the Sinner’s Prayer is Decisional Regeneration, which is defined as a prayer of repentance, inviting Christ into your heart. Decisionism’s teaching states that one’s “decision” causes regeneration or is the cause of one being “born again.”
To be clear, a person who is saved must decide to put their faith in Christ, but regeneration does not occur because of the decision that the person has made or a prayer that they may have prayed at the time. If an evangelist uses the sinner’s prayer either in conversation or as they distribute gospel tracts that contain a prayer on the last page of the tract a dilemma exists. Their message is anti-biblical and reduces the gospel to a 5-minute decision. The Bible teaches that regeneration proceeds faith and is the gracious gift of God alone. (Romans 8:29-30, Ephesians 2:1-3, Romans 1:16, John 1:13, Acts 13:48, 1 John 5:1) The other problem that must be addressed is that the Bible clearly shows man does not naturally want to make a decision to believe or seek for God. Man instead loves darkness and is spiritually dead. (John 6:44, 65, Ephesians 2:1-3, Romans 8:7-8)
Hebrews 9:14 tells us clearly, “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God,” this is a true picture of regeneration where only God delivers a person from sin and its pollution, and He also cleanses their hearts and consciences too.
Bible Verses Used To Support The Sinner’s Prayer
- Matthew 10:32-33 “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Jesus in this passage is addressing those who already professed allegiance to him (e.g., 12 disciples) and Jesus was instructing the disciples on their missionary journeys. Jesus was not standing before a mass of unbelievers urging them to make a “decision.”
- Revelation 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me.” This verse is a popular verse that often gets taken out of context. Jesus is speaking about lukewarm or half-hearted members of the church of Laodicea, he is not speaking to the universal call to outsiders. Another vital truth is that people cannot open their own hearts, only God can.
What Have Others Said About This Method?
“The cause of any person believing is the will of God; and the outward sound of the gospel strikes the ear but in vain until God is pleased to touch the heart within.” (Loraine Boettner, also read the Parable of the Soils to see this truth in Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)
“We must not only preach to men a biblical gospel, but we must also not cast them out into eternity clutching to nothing more than a sinner’s prayer, with only our feeble words of assurance ringing in their ears.” (Paul Washer)
“The hard heart must be broken, or it will still refuse the Savior who was sent to bind up the broken-hearted… There must be a holy fear and a humble trembling before God, they must acknowledge their guilt and petition for mercy. If we do not plough the heart, we cannot expect the seed to bring forth fruit.” (Charles Spurgeon)
“This unbiblical system has produced the greatest record of false statistics ever compiled by church or business.” (Ernest C. Reisinger)
“The Sinner’s Prayer is a contemporary form of incantation, mystical formula that magically brings forth the desired result. Although modern evangelists may not see it as crudely as this, far too many of them treat it as a powerful key that unlocks the doors to salvation. However, we ought never to trust in pre-subscribed prayers or religious exercise, but only in Christ alone who possesses the power to resurrect sinners to new life. Our focus must be on Him and what He can accomplish, not upon what we can do.” (Darryl Erkel, “Errors In The Invitation System”)
What An Evangelist Must Understand
- An evangelist should have a basic grounding in Scripture, systematic theology, hermeneutics, and church history in order to articulate the true gospel message and communicate God’s character as a Holy Judge.
- An evangelist cannot be preoccupied with numbers.
- We should not use and/or rely on emotions. “Emotions are a poor indicator of inward regeneration and by doing this we can dishonor the gospel. The cross itself is dramatic enough.”
- “The Sinner’s Prayer brings great confusion into the life of the person when fruit does not appear, and sustained victory over sin never comes.”
- The danger of using a sinner’s prayer or alter call is that these methods will most likely give a person false assurance and create false disciples.
- We need to be honest Christians/evangelists who openly and faithfully declare the gospel.
- We must urge sinners to flee to Christ for refuge.
(Source: Darryl Erkel, “Errors Of The Invitation System.”)
The Alternative To The Sinner’s Prayer
After sharing the gospel with someone an evangelist should allow the person themselves to pour out their hearts (using their own words in prayer) before the Savior or encourage them to do that at home. The evangelist can also pray for them, not a repeat after me prayer, but asking God to send His Holy Spirit to use the power of His Word to quicken a dead heart. The evangelist also should exhort them to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10) by explaining to them the meaning of “counting the cost” of following Christ and one must point people to Scripture to evaluate their salvation. Lastly, the evangelist needs to follow up in discipleship, invite them to his/her home and/or church.”