Arminian Today

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Tracts and the “Sinner’s Prayer”

Had an interesting experience at the South Carolina State Fair.  I took my wife for a nice stroll through the fair.  I enjoy looking at the exhibits and not so much for the rides these days.  The exhibit hall is very large and has hundreds of booths.  It ranges from an art gallery to a flea market.  Typically there are a few religious booths such as Catholics, Mormons, Gideons, and a pro-life group.  I enjoy browsing through their materials.  This year, the first booth in the hall had a sign that read, “Free Christian Bracelet: After Hearing the Gospel.”  I was intrigued.  The bracelet was the witnessing bracelet that I myself even wore when I first got saved in high school.  It has the beads on it with various colors that represent the gospel message of sin, baptism, forgiveness, the blood of Christ, etc.

When we approached the booth, an old woman who had to be nearly 100 took my wife and I by the hand and started on the colors.  There were five colored beads but she only did three and stopped and led us in the “sinner’s prayer” after asking me if I wanted to go to heaven when I died.  I said, “Yes” and she led me in the prayer.  My wife didn’t repeat the prayer because she was about to laugh too hard.  I did and when we were done she patted me on the stomach and said, “I’ll see you in heaven.”  And that was it.  I was marked down on their list as another sinner saved by grace.

First of all, let me state that I appreciate the heart of this old woman.  She seemed to genuinely want to see me saved.  She seemed to be genuine in her desire to communicate the gospel.  Sadly, she has simply been taught wrong.  I suspect that she attended a short class at a church about these witnessing beads and how to use them to share the gospel.  I applaud the group for desiring to reach out with the gospel message.  For those who would criticize them, I ask what do you do for the furtherance of the gospel?  How do you witness for Jesus?  Bashing them is easy but don’t bash them while not seeking to applaud them for seeking to evangelize when the vast majority of people who claim Christ never talk about Him to the lost in the first place (Matthew 10:32-33).

My contention is with the usage of the sinner’s prayer.  A bit later I came upon another Christian booth.  This guy seemed more grounded but his tracts that he had out where mainly KJV-only church tracts that contained some elements of the gospel message but focused mainly on, again, the sinner’s prayer.  All the tracts led to this point: to say the prayer to be saved.

A brief history of the sinner’s prayer.  You can read the works of Martin Luther, John Calvin, James Arminius, John Wesley, John Fletcher, Richard Watson, Adam Clarke, and many others and you’ll not find them leading anyone in the sinner’s prayer.  The practice came from the second great awakening in the United States under the ministry of Charles Finney.  Finney’s view of mankind was basically Pelagian and semi-Pelagian at best.  Finney believed the will of man to be free.  Karl Dahlfred writes in his book, Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin,

Although Finney acknowledged that the grace of God was involved in the conversion of sinners, he was convinced that the decisive variable in conversion rested in the will of a man himself.  If an evangelist could convince a listener to submit himself to God, then that man’s salvation had been won.  In order to help his listeners to make this decision to submit to God, Finney would ask for, and even demand, some physical indication that they had done so.  This might include calling people to walk down the center aisle of a church to where the altar traditionally stood.  This might also include asking people to bow their heads and repeat a prayer of faith and repentance.  Though these practices did not originate with him, Finney greatly popularized them and promoted them as essential to revival.

Sadly, Dahlfred writes that Finney represents an Arminian point of view.  This is completely untrue.  Arminius never stated any of the above nor practiced any of the above.  Arminius stated,

In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace. For Christ has said, “Without me ye can do nothing.” St. Augustine, after having diligently meditated upon each word in this passage, speaks thus: “Christ does not say, without me ye can do but Little; neither does He say, without me ye can do any Arduous Thing, nor without me ye can do it with difficulty. But he says, without me ye can do Nothing! Nor does he say, without me ye cannot complete any thing; but without me ye can do Nothing.” That this may be made more manifestly to appear, we will separately consider the mind, the affections or will, and the capability, as contra-distinguished from them, as well as the life itself of an unregenerate man.

Clearly Arminius would differ with Finney over the state of the will of man.  The will is bound by sin.  Jesus called us slaves to sin in John 8:34.  The will, apart from the prevenient grace of God, is bound by sin.  Salvation must be the work of the Spirit of God because of the will being bound by sin (John 6:44).  This is why we read in Acts 16:14 that the Lord was the One who opened Lydia’s heart to hear the gospel from Paul.  All of us need the work of the Holy Spirit for conversion.  The conversion of a sinner is not by the means of correct argumentation or an astute evangelist but rather lies in the gospel itself (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:21).

However, Finney’s methods prevail to this day.  Evangelists after Finney nearly all used the sinner’s prayer in their calls to repentance.  From Billy Sunday and D.L. Moody to Billy Graham and today we see them in modern evangelists such as Greg Laurie.  They all, after preaching a message on salvation and our need to be saved, ask the people to either “come forward” to be saved or they ask the people to say a prayer for salvation.  The practice, while not created by Finney, was popularized by him and today is the standard tool used in evangelism.  Churches and evangelists will often post the number of people who “prayed the prayer for salvation.”  Even at the fair, the second man I spoke to told another gentlemen standing there that they had had over 100 people pray the sinner’s prayer the day before.  This was grounds for rejoicing between the two.

My feelings are that the sinner’s prayer is simply not biblical.  I have been a Christian for 20 years and for the first 10 years of my Christian life, I practiced and taught that the way of salvation was through the sinner’s prayer.  I have even led people in the prayer (all of whom have turned away from Christ by the way).  My own studies on water baptism and studying church history led me to reject the sinner’s prayer.  I first begin to study the issue when I was reading John Wesley and I noticed that he never spoke on the sinner’s prayer, never gave an altar call, and never spoke on the numbers of people getting saved during his ministry though I knew that many had come to faith in Christ during Wesley’s preaching as well as under George Whitefield.  Why didn’t Wesley or Whitefield practice the sinner’s prayer?  This led me to study the issue and I begin to see that it was not until the 19th century in America that the Church begin to practice the sinner’s prayer.  The sinner’s prayer replaced baptism as the time when the Church acknowledged people to be saved.

Today the modern Church in the West relies upon the sinner’s prayer.  I myself have been chastised for not leading people in the sinner’s prayer after preaching on salvation.  I do believe we should call people to faith and repentance but we should allow the Lord to do this work and not through the coercions of flesh (John 1:12-13).  Salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9) and He alone saves sinners by His grace (Ephesians 2:8-9).  I do believe that baptism in the book of Acts is clearly shown to be the time when people confessed Jesus as Lord (Acts 22:16).  One thing that is clear is that neither Jesus nor His Apostles ever practiced the sinner’s prayer.  Not one person in the Bible is ever shown to pray for salvation.  Paul prayed for the Jews to be saved (Romans 10:1) but he never encouraged people themselves to pray to be saved.  Jesus saves sinners as we preach Him (John 12:32; Romans 10:14-17).  Our duty is to preach the gospel (Mark 16:15) and make disciples of those who are baptized (Matthew 28:19-20).  We must not just preach the gospel to the lost but we must disciple those whom the Lord saves (Acts 2:42, 47).

While I praise God for those who desire to preach the gospel to the lost, I pray that the Church would reject false teachings that are not biblically based when it comes to spreading the gospel.  These false teachings can only produce false converts (Matthew 13:20-21; Luke 8:13).  May we be active in preaching the truth of God based on the Word of God and not upon pragmatism.

Written by The Seeking Disciple

10/18/2012 at 1:05 PM

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