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What is the sinner’s prayer and is it biblical?

By Matt Slick*

THE SINNER’S PRAYER refers to a prayer that a person recites where he trusts in Jesus and accepts Him as his personal savior. The prayer typically involves confessing one’s sins, committing to repent of one’s sins, and asking Jesus to “come into my heart.” The wording of the prayer varies, but the intention is to receive Christ and trust Him in order to be saved. So the question is whether or not this is biblical. Yes, it is, and no, it is not. Let me explain.

We don’t recite words as if they have special power to save us. Instead, we are saved from the righteous judgment of God by a faithful appeal to the work of Christ (not by our works). Whether or not it’s called the sinner’s prayer doesn’t matter. But, it is certainly biblical to pray to Jesus (John 14:14) and receive Him (John 1:12). Furthermore, Rom.10:9 says, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”

BUT I MUST CLARIFY SOMETHING. The phrase, “Ask Jesus into your heart,” is not biblical. It is not found in the Bible. But I understand the sentiment. Christians want sinners to trust Jesus and have Him live in them (John 14:23). Plus, since we are to receive Christ (John 1:12), sometimes people summarize this by saying, “Ask Jesus into your heart.” I never use that phrase. Instead, I tell people they need to receive Christ (John 1:12) and trust Him (Rom. 10:9-10). I tell them that they must recognize that Jesus is the only way they can be forgiven of their sins (John 14:6). I tell them to seek Him. After all, Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18). I point them to Jesus and tell them they can pray to Him and ask Him to forgive them of all their sins.

But there’s a point I need to add. I always tell them that they need to count the cost of becoming a Christian. After all, that is what Jesus said to do in Luke 14:28. I tell people that they need to understand that once they become a Christian, God will work with them and sanctify them. He will gradually change them to be more like Christ. It isn’t always easy. But it is always good. All right, so back to the main topic.

A sinner’s prayer in the Bible
There is a sinner’s prayer in the Bible. It’s found in Luke 18:9-14. In that section of Scripture, Jesus told a parable about two men, a Pharisee, and a tax collector.

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9–14

Now notice that Jesus said that the tax collector was the one who was justified and not the Pharisee. The point is there is a sinner’s prayer in the Bible, and it resulted in salvation.

Salvation is not by a formula
On the other hand, we need to be careful. Salvation is not based on someone reciting a set of words, for example. Let’s say there is a church service. The pastor asks people to come forward to receive Christ and then says, “Repeat these words after me. ‘Jesus, please come into my heart and forgive me of all my sins.’” Reciting a set of words does not guarantee salvation. The person who has prayed like this must put his trust in Jesus, not in the prayer. Far too often, people say that when they were younger, they recited the sinner’s prayer, and so they were saved. But they don’t live like a Christian. But that would mean they were not true converts and were never saved (1 John 2:4). The danger of “The Sinner’s Prayer” is that people might believe they are saved because they recited a set of words in a prayer. But that’s not the case.

Instead, we are justified by an appeal to God, by faith alone in Christ alone (Romans 4:1-5; 10:9-10). That appeal can be worded in different ways. But the key thing here is that the person confesses his need for forgiveness and deliverance from the righteous judgment of God. In so doing, he recognizes that Christ is the only way, and he confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior. I tell people to ask Jesus to forgive them of their sins and trust Him. That is okay. That’s biblical.

So, on the one hand, the sinner’s prayer is biblical, as we’ve seen in Luke 18:9-14. In that parable, the tax collector appealed to God alone, prayed for God’s mercy, and was saved. But that is not the same thing as “Asking Jesus into your heart.” But on the other hand, we are not to put our trust in reciting a set of words that we think saves us. We must be careful and teach people to trust in Christ, not a prayer formula.

*Matt Slick is founder and director of CARM {Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry –}