“I spoke with him for about an hour, and then at the end of the conversation, he prayed to receive Christ!”
Applause fills the church as the pastor wraps up the story of how he witnessed to someone recently. But do I clap? No, I sit there awkwardly, not sure whether to join in the praise is right or wrong.
Why do I hesitate?
Because. How can I praise God for the salvation of a lost soul when I do not know whether that soul is actually saved?
“But he said a prayer!” you start to say.
So? That really tells me nothing.
There are many, many people who repeat the Sinner’s Prayer – and then go on living their lives with no real change. Some say it just to please whoever’s witnessing to them. Some say it because they think that if they do, they’re good to go and will make it to Heaven. Some will respond to the alter call every time it is offered, just in case they did it wrong the last time around. And some say it just because they want to “try this Jesus thing” to see how it goes. It is a very small percentage left over who actually surrender their lives to the Lord and have a complete turn-around.
Look at these statistics from Ray Comfort’s God Has a Wonderful Plan For Your Life:
“At a 1990 crusade in the United States, 600 ‘decisions for Christ’ were obtained. No doubt, there was much rejoicing. However, ninety days later, follow-up workers could not find even one who was continuing in the faith. That crusade created 600 “backsliders” – or, to be more scriptural, false converts.
“In Cleveland, Ohio, an inner-city outreach brought 400 decisions. The rejoicing no doubt tapered off when follow-up workers could not find a single one of the 400 who had supposedly made a decision…
“In 1985, a four-day crusade obtained 217 decisions. However, according to a member of the organizing committee, 92 percent fell away…
“According to Pastor Elmer Murdoch, ‘Chuck Colson. . . states that for every 100 people making decisions for Christ, only two may return for follow-up a few weeks later. George Barna says that the majority of people (51 percent minimum) making decisions leave the church in 6-8 weeks.’…
“Charles E. Hackett, the national director of home missions for the Assemblies of God in the United States, said, “A soul at the altar does not generate much excitement in some circles because we realize approximately ninety-five out of every hundred will not become integrated into the church. In fact, most of them will not return for a second visit” (p. 75-76).
And the list goes on and on.
Where did the whole idea of the Sinner’s Prayer come from anyway?
Some suspect it developed during the Protestant Reformation. It seems to have become popular during the revival meetings of the last few centuries, especially being popularized during Billy Graham’s crusades. But while it may have been created with the best of intentions, it certainly is not found in Scripture. Why, it didn’t even surface until over a century after Christianity was born!
So how on earth were people saved before then?
Well, let’s look at the Bible. The book of Acts tells of thousands coming to Christ. How were they invited to the Lord, and in what way did they respond?
Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s the Day of Pentecost, and Jesus’ disciples have just been filled with the Holy Spirit. Peter, totally empowered by God, preaches his first sermon to an observant multitude, showing them how they have sinned by condemning their own Savior to death. Cut to the heart, they ask, “What shall we do? (Acts 2:37)”
To which Peter replies, “If you truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and if you are truly sorry for your sins, repeat this prayer after me….”
Is that how it went? Not quite.
No, the very first altar call went like this, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Receive the Holy Spirit.
It was all about life change, from the very beginning. The instructions were never simple confession of sins – they involved a complete turn-around.
“Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
In Acts 8, we see Philip witnessing to the Ethiopian eunuch. “Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may'” (8:35-37). This man was sincere, and excited about what he had discovered. His faith was evident by the eagerness with which he jumped into following the Lord. The first chance he got, he demonstrated his obedience and was baptized.
In Acts 9:42, we see that “many believed on the Lord.” Notice that wording “on the Lord.” I recently read this paragraph and loved how it explained this, “To believe does not mean to simply give intellectual assent to the claims of Christ. It means to transfer our trust to Him alone for our salvation. The most pointed question in the entire Bible is asked of the apostle Paul by a Philippian jailer: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ (Acts 16:30). Paul’s immediately reply follows in the next verse: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.’ I believe in George Washington, but I don’t believe on him; I don’t trust my life to him…” (The Joshua Code, p. 22).
In Acts 10:34, Peter explains that, “in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.” Again, it isn’t just about a simple prayer or even a basic belief. It’s about a lifestyle.
In Acts 17:30, Paul tells the men of Athens, that God “now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained…” It’s about repentance.
In Acts 22, Paul shares his testimony, and how Ananias had come to him, shared God’s plan for him, and then said, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (22:16).
Isn’t it interesting how so many of these verses refer to repentance and baptism? Saying a prayer is easy – going the extra step of repenting and being baptized: those are more of a commitment.
I also find it interesting how in Acts 24:14 and 22, Christianity is referred to as “the Way.” It’s not just a religious label. It is a Way of life.
We could go back even earlier, to what Jesus had to say about salvation. We see that we must be born again. We see that we must know Him. We see that we must hear His voice and follow Him. We see that we must take up our cross daily.
Being a Christian isn’t about playing “Follow the Leader” in words only – but in all things. It isn’t about signing up for heaven – only to walk off and not get ready.
And just because you said a prayer as a five-year-old, or a fifty-five-year-old, doesn’t mean you’re getting to Heaven.
Metanoeo. To think differently or afterwards, i.e. reconsider.
Repentance is more than just saying sorry. It’s about turning away from your sins. Have you done this?
Baptizo. To make whelmed (fully wet).
Have you buried your old man and risen anew in Christ through baptism?
Receive the Holy Spirit.
Does the Spirit bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God? Does your life show evidence of change?
If you can meet all of those criteria – if you can share your testimony with me about how the Lord has changed your life – then I can rejoice with you.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).
“…a tree is known by its fruit” (Matt. 12:33).