I recently attended a church meeting at which someone said, “I grew up in church, but didn’t know until my mid-twenties that you had to actually invite Jesus into your heart.”
That is wrong.
I have a tendency toward speaking too soon or jumping to conclusions, and so I didn’t say anything at the time. It has been close to the front of my mind for quite a while now, however, so I’d like to write a few thoughts out.
Since I became a believer, I have seen countless people led to Christ, and a great deal of those via the “sinners prayer.” Sadly, I have also seen many of those people walk away essentially untouched by the experience, yet sill believing they are a Christian. It’s not difficult to find stories of people who claim they are Christians because they “prayed the prayer” when they were sixteen, or some variant of that story.
This observation leaves me feeling a bit jaded with what seems to be the status quo. I find it hard to sit through recitations of the sinner’s prayer, and when asked to pray for people who are “ready to make a decision”, I will—I pray for the opening of the eyes of their heart to the beauty of Jesus, and for grace to be given to them through faith.
Peter’s explanation of what to do in Acts 2.
The first recorded conversions happened a short while after Jesus ascended into heaven, and the response of the apostle Peter is therefore a helpful place to start. Peter’s second sermon in the book of Acts occurs in Acts 2:14-36. At it’s end, the author Luke records,
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37)
“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 2:38)
Peter very clearly lists only two things: repent, and be baptized. He does not say “pray this prayer with me”, he does not say “invite Jesus to come into my heart and life”, he does not say, ” receive Jesus as my Savior and Lord”. Repent, and be baptized.
Praying a prayer doesn’t make you a Christian.
Repeating words as dictated or read from a screen do not make someone a Christian, any more than I could proclaim myself a millionaire and it become true. If I am not already a millionaire, then my proclamation is false. In the same way, one can say, “I am a Christian” without having been regenerated; it does not make one a Christian.
What’s more, it can be downright misleading to be told that praying a prayer is all that is needed to become a Christian. One of the great tensions in the New Testament is that faith without works is dead, and works without faith are dead. Praying a prayer without true faith and the accompanying repentance is a false conversion.
I will note that not all recitations of the “sinner’s prayer” are false; far from it. I’m simply arguing that saying a sinner’s prayer or inviting Jesus into your heart isn’t how you become a Christian, although they may happen practically at the same time.
What to do?
If we don’t need to invite Jesus into our heart, what do we need to do?
No one will be saved who does not believe that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected from the dead. “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” (Romans 10:9).
That means stop sinning. This will be a lifelong process, but as Jesus is at work in your heart, you now have the ability and growing desire to say no to the things you once reveled in.
Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize believers (Matthew 28:19), and baptism represents our sin being crucified into the death of Christ (going down under the water) and being raised again into Christ’s resurrection (as we come up out of the water). We are symbolically washed clean of our sins and our old self.