sinner’s prayer

One of the interesting things about researching and documenting language is that it’s easy to think that there won’t be very many surprises. After all, to a great extent, writing a dictionary is simply recording the meanings that we all already associate with words. Sure, the finished product will contain a lot of new information for people who don’t yet speak the language; but for existing speakers the dictionary ought to be chock-full of stuff “they already know.” This is especially true in the case of a dictionary of slang, because the definitions that people already associate with these words are the very definitions I’m trying to document. Whatever you think a word means, that’s the meaning I want to capture.

But in spite of this expectation of dullness, I still managed to be surprised by some of the things I find out. Take, for example, the sinner’s prayer. This is a prayer that someone can say when they want to become a Christian. As you’ll see in the definition I’ve reproduced below, the prayer is simple. It’s what some linguists and sociologists call a “speech act,” or something you say sincerely and publicly in order to let others know about a personal decision that has been made. Wedding vows are another example of a speech act: saying “I do” isn’t what makes you a faithful husband or wife, but by saying it publicly, you let everybody know how serious you are.

By the same token, saying a sinner’s prayer disingenuously doesn’t accidentally turn you into a Christian, any more than lying about your age makes you younger or older. And yet the Bible is constantly talking about public declarations of faith, whether it be verbal (as is the case of a sinner’s prayer or wedding vows) or demonstrative (as is the case with water baptism or wearing a WWJD bracelet).

For all the value that a sinner’s prayer may have for both the new Christian and the community around him, some people criticize the use of the prayer because, as they say, the Bible says nothing about it. If you search the Bible for the phrase “sinner’s prayer,” you will come up empty. (Of course, if you search the Bible for the word “Trinity,” you’ll also come up empty, but that’s a blog post for a different blog!) But in the mid-20th century, evangelical commentators clearly identified the sinner’s prayer that was being used in tent revivals and personal evangelism with a prayer found in Scripture: the prayer of the tax collector in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Here’s the passage:

He [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-13 (emphasis mine)

You can see in the definition below that books in the ’40s and ’50s directly referred to this prayer as the sinner’s prayer.

Now naturally, if a new Christian wants to expand on his or her prayer, chucking in additional declarations of repentance or affirming the promises of God, who’s to stop them? So we hear some pretty creative sinner’s prayers. But the idea of an oral confession to mark an inward decision to follow Jesus is way Biblical.

Here’s my working definition of a sinner’s prayer. What do you think? Have I left something out or added too much? Drop me (and the universe) a note in the comments.

sinner’s prayer n.
See also *accept Christ; *decision for Christ; *free gift; *Lord and Savior.
1. Often the sinner’s prayer. The traditional Christian prayer “Lord be merciful to me a sinner,” taken from Luke 18:13.
1940 The Lutheran Witness LIX. 425 : The sinner’s prayer is: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” 1957 Harper I Walk the Glory Road 155 : I prayed the sinner’s prayer I had prayed before but this time I prayed it from my heart. “Oh, God! Be merciful to me a lost sinner and save my soul.” 1958 Sparks Things Which Don’t Happen Every Day 174 : The sinner’s prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” will give you the correct answer. 1984 Bertolucci, Lilly On Fire with the Spirit 63 : So he turned to the last page [of the Bible], which contained a prayer of surrender to Jesus. The Gideons call it ’The Sinner’s Prayer,’ and it is aptly named because all of us are sinners in need of redemption.
2. As in say the sinner’s prayer; lead someone in the sinner’s prayer. Any of various brief prayers of repentance and faith in Christ made by someone who desires to be a Christian. Often the new convert is led in saying (or echoing) this prayer by an evangelist.
There isn’t a standard form of the prayer, but the basic formula includes an admission of guilt and a pledge to follow Jesus (see 1982 citation). Such prayers are often modeled on Luke 18:13 (see citations for 1962 and 1971), though they may take a variety of forms.
Some commentators complain that there isn’t any Biblical example the widely used sinner’s prayer. However, evidence supports the idea that as far back as the mid-20th century it was generally understood that the sinner’s prayer was the prayer said by the tax collector in Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (see Luke 18:13):
A sinner’s prayer can be simple or elaborate. Here is an example from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678): “God be merciful to me a sinner, and make me to know and believe in Jesus Christ; for I see, that if his righteousness had not been, or I have not faith in that righteousness, I am utterly cast away. Lord, I have heard that thou art a merciful God, and hast ordained that thy Son Jesus Christ should be the Saviour of the world; and moreover, that thou art willing to bestow him upon such a poor sinner as I am-and I am a sinner indeed. Lord, take therefore this opportunity, and magnify thy grace in the salvation of my soul, through thy Son Jesus Christ. Amen” (ch. 18).
A sinner’s prayer can also be called a “prayer of commitment” (as in “committing oneself to the Christian faith”).
1962 Hyles Let’s Build an Evangelistic Church 85 : Ask them to repeat a prayer after you. Once again you may use the sinner’s prayer, ’God be merciful to me a sinner and save my soul \zthreedots I do now receive Jesus as my Saviour and trust Him to take me to Heaven when I die. 1962 Atter The Third Force: A Pentecostal Answer 000 : Every night as the Gospel was preached, there were definite decisions made to accept the Lord Jesus as Saviour. Some wept as they prayed the sinner’s prayer. 1971 King The Jesus People Are Coming 134 : A sinner’s prayer: Father in haven, be merciful to me a sinner as I confess to you all my sins and shortcomings. I receive you Lord Jesus into my heart. I believe that you are the Son of God and that you will change my life, forgive all my sins, and give me peace. Amen. 1976 Unger, Howar Principles of Spiritual Science 181 : I quickly reviewed the Gospel message with her and led her in the sinner’s prayer. 1978 Martin “The Power and the Glory of Billy Graham” Texas Monthly (Mar.) 98 : When power was restored he led them in a brief “sinner’s prayer,” then left the stadium as a local clergyman pronounced the benediction. 1982 Tipton Getting Saved From the Sixties: Moral Meaning in Conversion and Cultural Change 33 : Reciting a short “Sinner’s Prayer,” the convert acknowledges his old identity as a sinner and then sheds it by taking Jesus as his personal savior. This is known as “getting saved.”