(The author referred to the “Sinner’s Prayer” as a “work of genius”). It comes in many flavors, but it generally contains two elements: repentance for sin and trust in Christ’s redemptive work at the Cross for forgiveness.
The prayer assumes absolute dependence on God’s grace (we do not “cooperate” with grace); trust in Christ’s lordship (“accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior”); and union with Christ (as in, “inviting Christ into my heart”). Some versions are theologically better than others, and there are often more felicitous ways to express its truths. But if we recognize that the Sinner’s Prayer is not a systematic theology but a heartfelt expression of faith in Christ, we needn’t quibble.
The prayer at the end of the classic Four Spiritual Laws is as good an example as any:
Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.
The Sinner’s Prayer, in short, summarizes the gospel that so many desperately long for. It gives people a concrete and simple way to respond to the Good News and appropriate the grace of God. So what’s the problem?
Some people worry that the Sinner’s Prayer fails in its purpose because some say it many times as they periodically repent of “backsliding.” Well, of course. In fact, the Sinner’s Prayer might be said every morning as we get out of bed and every night as we climb back in. The Sinner’s Prayer is not just the electro-shock machine to resuscitate the dead, but an oxygen machine that keeps us going and going. This is a staple of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, which encourages daily, hourly, and even breath-by-breath use of their Sinner’s Prayer, “the Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
Some believe the prayer is often used superstitiously—If I just say this prayer, my eternal destiny is secure! No, that’s not good. Then again, we often fail to recognize that when we’re afraid, we’re all superstitious to one degree or another. We count on some human word we’ve said or deed we’ve performed to assure us of God’s good will toward us, when in fact, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, our only comfort in life and death is that we belong to Jesus Christ. The good news is that Christ’s forgiveness covers even our superstitions.