In my last post, we saw that the sinner’s prayer became popular because of its supposed success rate in producing Christian converts but that the claimed successes often amount to nothing. However, many evangelists persist on using the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, justifying their preferred methodology by claiming that, “Even if only one person became a Christian, it is all still worth it.” Is it really?
The case has been made that even if many people fall away, it is still effective and worthwhile to use the altar call and the sinner’s prayer because “at least it works for some people.” But what if, as I have argued in a previous post, the sinner’s prayer doesn’t actually save anyone? And if it doesn’t actually save anyone, but does do a substantial amount of damage, then why keep using it? In the remainder of this post, I want to take a look at four negative side effects that come from using the altar call and sinner’s prayer in evangelism.
1. Inoculated Against the Gospel
When people pray the sinner’s prayer, they usually think that they have become a Christian. When someone truly becomes a Christian, it means that the Holy Spirit has regenerated them, or changed their heart, which results in faith and repentance. Their primary allegiance is no longer to self, but to God. Sure, they have a lot of growing in faith to do but there is a fundamental change that occurs in them. When the Holy Spirit enters into a person’s life, changes for the positive begin to happen. Sins that they didn’t feel bad about before seem much more serious and look less appealing. Selfishness begins to become undone. The desire to love and forgive others starts to increase. It doesn’t happen in the same way or at the same speed for every new Christian but a process of sanctification is begun by the Holy Spirit. This is the normal Christian life.
However, when someone thinks that they are a Christian when they are really not, the Holy Spirit is not producing that indwelling change in their life. The power of the Gospel is absent. They prayed the sinner’s prayer with the expectation that something would be different and better after they became a Christian. But nothing is different. After a while they begin to think, “Is that all there is to Christianity?” And the vaccine of a weakened Gospel substitute begins to inoculate them against real Christianity. Although they have the name “Christian”, they do not have an interest in spiritual things, a desire to study the Word, or the motivation to live a holy life. They become estranged from the Christian community because they are not interested in the things that Christians are interested in. The Christian faith that offered such hope and promise before they prayed to receive Christ now looks like a big hoax. They start to think, “I’ve been there, done that. There’s nothing special about being a Christian.” People who pray the sinner’s prayer without really being converted and then “fall away” do not merely return to the same place that they were before praying to receive Christ. They are in a worse place. A place that is hardened and numbed against the Gospel message. Therefore, the next time they hear the Gospel, they reject it like a scorned lover. Their hearts are hardened towards the Gospel message because they think that they have already tried Christianity, and it was a deception. They have been effectively inoculated against the Gospel.
2. False Assurance
This is probably the most dangerous side effect of the sinner’s prayer. Those who pray the sinner’s prayer often end up thinking that because of this one single prayer, they are guaranteed a place in heaven, regardless of whether there is any change in their life. It is not uncommon for people who are not living anything remotely close to a Christian life to point back to a “decision” that they made many years earlier as evidence of being a Christian. Evangelists can often set people up for this kind of thinking by telling them that praying to receive Christ is like signing a fire insurance policy. In case something happens, you’ll be covered. Well, what do you do with a life insurance policy after you’ve signed it? You stick it in a drawer someplace and don’t think about it until you need it. The danger of mistaking some external factor as sure evidence of inward transformation and reconciliation to God is illustrated clearly by the following two passages of Scripture.
John Baptist warning the Pharisees not look to their Jewish heritage as a guarantee that they are saved:
“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10 ESV)
Jesus warning his listeners that not everyone who calls upon the Lord will be saved:
““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)
True conversion is an inward change that it is evidenced by outward transformation, not outward action(s) or factors that prove that inward transformation has taken place. Many people pass into eternity with false assurance of salvation because they once prayed the sinner’s prayer. Yet according to Jesus’ words above, many will receive an unpleasant surprise at God’s judgment throne.
3. Turning Others Away from the Gospel
My wife is teaching the Bible to Kung, a Christian woman who has a big heart for evangelism. Recently Kung has been sharing the Gospel with her boss Mon, who seems somewhat interested. However, word has come back to us that Mon has been talking with Tip, who sells pork and sticky rice at the morning market. Tip and her elderly mother both prayed to receive Christ a couple years ago but have not been to church for several months, maybe longer. Mon mentioned to Tip that Kung has been sharing the Gospel with her, and Tip replied, “Oh, I tried that. The Christians are just like the Buddhists: fighting, gossiping, and so forth. There is nothing special about Christianity.” Tip had been led to believe that she was a Christian because she had prayed the sinner’s prayer. She was subsequently under-impressed by the power of the Gospel in her own life and that of the PhraBaht church members. In fact, it seems that she thinks Christianity is a waste of time and is telling others as much. Certainly God can overcome such negative testimony if He is truly calling Mon to Himself, but it certainly doesn’t help matters. Even more than being unhelpful, negative testimony is a blasphemous accusation against the goodness, power, and sovereignty of God. If Tip had not been led to pray the sinner’s prayer and been told, “You’re a Christian now”, then she would not now be able to offer this negative testimony against the Gospel. Those who receive Christ and then “fall away” don’t just return to the same opinion of the Gospel that they had before they prayed the sinner’s prayer. They are out in the world dissuading people from taking an interest in the Gospel.
4. Demoralizing follow-up
When people are led to pray the sinner’s prayer, those who have led them in the prayer are filled with great excitement about their new life in Christ. These new believers may come to church for a while but unless they were truly converted to begin with, they eventually stop coming. Or come infrequently. Or get socialized into the church, learn how to “play” church well, and ascend into leadership where they wreck havoc. Sometimes these unconverted new “believers” come out of obligation or loyalty to the Christians who have been trying to encourage them in their new faith. A very discouraged woman from a church in Central Thailand told me, “A group of us keep visiting these new believers but they don’t seem to be growing. They always have an excuse as to why they can’t come to church. We try to encourage them and get them to read the Bible but nothing really changes. We’re starting to feel awkward about visiting them because it seems like they may not want us there.” The woman who told me this has a great heart for God and wanted to see these new believers grow in their faith but she was completely at a loss as to how to help them. She had begun to doubt herself, thinking that she was perhaps not visiting them enough or not doing the right things to encourage them in their new faith. It had not occurred to her that perhaps the reason why these new “believers” were not interested in God or church was because they were never converted to begin. I do not fault her for this but rather I feel bad for her. She has a good heart and wants to see people come to Christ and grow in Christ but is weighed down by this false assumption that just because someone has prayed the sinner’s prayer, they have become a Christian.
Using the altar call and the sinner’s prayer has devastating side effects upon not only the person who prays to receive Christ, but also upon those who try to follow them up and those who hear their negative testimony about the Gospel. God effectively convicted and converted sinners by the power of his saving grace for thousands of years before the introduction of the sinner’s prayer in the early 19th century. Therefore, with the weight of evidence against the practice, we must ask ourselves, “Are there any compelling reasons to keep using the sinner’s prayer?”