The Unpopular Truth About The Sinner’s Prayer

It is written:

“And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10  Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11  So the Lord said to him, “Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying.” (Acts 9:9-11)


“And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’” (Acts 22:16)

Saul of Tarsus (also known as the Apostle Paul) was a believer in Jesus Christ who repented of his sins (Acts 9:1-9). He then prayed for three days and nights before the Lord (Acts 9:11).

If anyone could have ever been saved by a sinner’s prayer, it should have been Paul! Yet he was still in his sins until he was baptized into Christ (Acts 22:16). Was the baptism in the passage an immersion in water, or a baptism in the Holy Spirit?

First, this must have been water baptism because the Greek of the passage is in the imperative (meaning that this was a command). Holy Spirit baptism is always a promise to be fulfilled, and it is impossible for a promise to be a command to be obeyed (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5; 10:47-48).

Second, the grammar and wording of this passage is what was used in the first century to specifically reference baptism in water.

What is truly amazing about this passage in Acts 22:16 is that it shows us where the REAL sinner’s prayer takes place.

“The memorable moment was the baptism. Ananias said, “What are you waiting for? Get up [cf. 9: 18], be baptized [βἀπτισαι] and wash away [ἀπóλoυσαι] your sins, calling on his name [ἐπικαλεσἀμενoς τò ὄνoμα].” Paul’s account lays the emphasis on what he was expected to do. Once more, he had to “get up.” “Be baptized” is actually middle voice. The middle voice expressed what one did to oneself, for oneself, or to involve oneself. 559 The latter two would express the force of the middle voice here. In the Jewish context of ceremonial purification, one would translate, “Baptize yourself.” In the Christian context of an administered baptism, however, the meaning of the middle voice would be brought out by the translation, “Get yourself baptized” or “Experience baptism.” Such a translation keeps the emphasis on what Paul did but also brings out that the action was something done to him but in his interest. That a water baptism is intended is underscored by the next verb, “wash away.” This is the verb we found in Josephus and others to describe the baptisms of the Jews and of John. The use again of a middle imperative verb may mean “you wash away,” or, to give it the same force as the verb for baptize, we could translate, “get your sins washed away.” The washing away of sins is associated with the baptism. Special interest attaches to this verse, not only because it associates baptism with forgiveness of sins, but also because of the further statement that the baptism was accompanied by a “calling on his name.” Is this God or the Righteous One (22: 14)? According to the flow of thought probably the latter, for the pronouns at the end of verse 14 and in verse 15 refer to him. The language picks up the quotation from Joel 2 that introduced Peter’s sermon in Acts 2: 21. In Joel the “name of the Lord” was God, but in Peter’s application the reference was to Jesus Christ (2: 38). The salvation that comes to those who called on the name of the Lord is associated here, as in Acts 2, with baptism. In Acts 22: 16 the calling on the name is clearly done by the one being baptized, not by the baptizer. It may refer to a prayer (cf. Luke 3: 21) or to a confession of faith (Acts 8: 37 in the western text); as an invocation of the Name it may be considered an equivalent to “baptism in the name of Christ.” 560 The wording here may give some indication that the formula “in the name” refers to what was spoken or affirmed by the baptizand rather than to something pronounced by the administrator. The accounts of Paul’s baptism include a calling on the name of Jesus, the removal of sins, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and reception into a local community—all characteristic of Luke’s understanding of Christian conversion baptism. Paul’s conversion occurred not long after the beginning of the church in Jerusalem; his baptism (supported by his own statements about baptism—chap. 9) at Damascus confirms that baptism was an established Christian custom quite early.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, 3752-3756 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company)

Friends, the modern denominational teaching of salvation for sinners being granted through praying a prayer at an altar is not found in the Word of God. It is a modern invention of man. One man traced the origin of the sinner’s prayer historically:

“It is clear from this study that a theology that could support the use of the Sinner’s Prayer emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century. This is evident in the teachings of Methodist preachers, such as James Caughey and, especially, William ‘California’ Taylor. It was a crucial component of D. L. Moody’s preaching from the mid-1870s. At the end of that century, it would also seem very likely that the use of spoken Sinner’s Prayers was being encouraged in Moody meetings by some counsellors and by officers in The Salvation Army. This practice seems to have become common in the first half of the twentieth century, especially in America, with printed forms certainly appearing in books in 1922 and 1945. Cards, booklets and tracts with Sinner’s Prayers were being used from the late 1940s and 1950s, and they became common in the 1960s. Billy Graham and Campus Crusades’ Four Spiritual Laws have done more than anything else to popularise this method of evangelism, taking it to most countries in the world. Sinner’s Prayer evangelism, therefore, can be regarded as first emerging in the late nineteenth century, developing in the first half of the twentieth, before becoming a major form of evangelism from about 1960. Yet it is not good evangelism. As we suggested in chapter 2, there are better and more biblical ways to evangelise. It is recommended that you read chapter 2 again to become more familiar with those practices. Jesus said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19). This we must do and do it well.” (David Malcolm Bennett, The Sinner’s Prayer: It’s Origins And Dangers, 4039-4050 (Kindle Edition); Capalaba Qld; Even Before Publishing a division of Wombat Books)

One of my favorite authors, Michal Shank, describes how amazed he was when he learned that the “sinner’s prayer” salvation taught in so many churches today is not found in the Word of God.

“Throughout my entire life I’d heard that faith only saves. I didn’t have a clue that the only place the phrase faith only appeared in the Bible is was a place that said that man is not saved by faith only (James 2: 24). I was beginning to realize that I’d spent a lifetime being taught that all denominations were going to Heaven. That is not the Bible truth. It isn’t found in the Bible, but it’s easier to believe a lie that one has heard a thousand times rather than believe a truth that one has never heard before. I’d spent an entire lifetime attending church and never once hearing any preacher talk about the church that Jesus built, began, and bought with His own blood. The one church found in the pages of the New Testament. I’d been taught to repeat the Sinner’s Prayer and to ask Jesus into my heart. The reality is that the Sinner’s Prayer isn’t in the Bible, nor is the principle found. The Sinner’s Prayer is a foreign doctrine to the New Testament. I had depended on my personal feelings and emotions as a confirmation for my personal salvation; yet, as I read and studied the Bible I found that this too was not in the Bible. I found that the opposite was true. The Bible warns mankind of the deceitfulness of the heart and feelings. It teaches that human emotion is not a reliable guide toward Truth. Before I started reading my Bible I had no idea that being born again was to be born of water and of the Spirit (John 3: 1-5). As a Baptist, if someone asked me, “How is one born again?” I would reply, “Ask Jesus into your heart and you’ll be born again.” Asking Jesus into your heart is false because Jesus said that to be born again one must be born of water and of the Spirit. And the fact that I taught someone something different than what the apostles taught was to be accursed (Galatians 1: 8-9). Why didn’t I know these simple truths? Because I’d spent an entire lifetime cutting off the end of the ham. Why had I been so ignorant of the Truth? Because it takes muscle and a shovel to read the Bible. It takes a heart that’s willing to dig. It takes an honest heart (Luke 8: 15) that’s willing to lay aside preconceived ideas.” (Michael Shank, Muscle and a Shovel: 10th Edition: Includes Randall’s Secret, Full Index, Q&A’s, 3820-3843 (Kindle Edition); no publisher cited))

God’s Word calls on believers in Jesus Christ as the Son of God Who died for them, was buried, and arose from the dead on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8) to believe in Him (Romans 10:17; John 8:24), repent of their sins (Luke 13:3), and be united with Him in baptism (Romans 6:3-4) upon a simple confession of faith in His Divine Nature (Acts 8:37). God will then add you to His church (Acts 2:37-47)

If you have been baptized into Christ but have since turned away from Him, isn’t it time now to return? Repent and pray, confessing your sins to the Lord, and He will forgive you (1 John 1:8-2:2). Your church family is ready to assist you today (James 5:16-18; Galatians 6:1-2).

Why not obey Him today?

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