Every week, I invite nonbelievers to respond to what is often called, "The Sinners Prayer." Recently, there was a controversy on the subject (which I found an unhelpful distraction). As such, I thought this was a helpful article to remind us why we have and use such a prayer.
The Sinner's Prayer, in short, summarizes the gospel that so many desperately long for. It gives people a concrete and simple way to respond to the Good News and appropriate the grace of God. So what's the problem?
Some scholars rightly remind us that the gospel is ultimately about the Messiah Jesus fulfilling the covenantal requirements of Israel, thus ensuring the redemption of Israel and the whole world. Yes! But this sweeping view is appreciated mainly by theologians or those mature in the faith. Most people live with all manner of personal crises, the greatest being an abiding guilt and shame. They wander this earth as sojourners without hope, salving their souls' wounds with the balm of material entertainments. Their profound need is addressed by this simple prayer.
From some pastors, we hear frustration with those who say the Sinner's Prayer, "get saved," and never darken the doors of a church again. To be churchless or "undiscipled" is not a good thing. Still, we may ask whether churches that complain like this should first take the log out of their own eye, and examine whether they are truly loving--and not haranguing--the very people who should be predisposed to attend worship.
Some people worry that the Sinner's Prayer fails in its purpose, because some say it many times as they periodically repent of "backsliding." Well, of course. In fact, the Sinner's Prayer might be said every morning as we get out of bed and every night as we climb back in. The Sinner's Prayer is not just the electro-shock machine to resuscitate the dead, but an oxygen machine that keeps us going and going. This is a staple of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, which encourages daily, hourly, and even breath-by-breath use of their Sinner's Prayer, "the Jesus Prayer": "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner."
Some believe the prayer is often used superstitiously--If I just say this prayer, my eternal destiny is secure! No, that's not good. Then again, we often fail to recognize that when we're afraid, we're all superstitious to one degree or another. We count on some human word we've said or deed we've performed to assure us of God's good will toward us, when in fact, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, our only comfort in life and death is that we belong to Jesus Christ. The good news is that Christ's forgiveness covers even our superstitions.
There may be good reasons to reform or replace the Sinner's Prayer in evangelical "liturgical life." But we have to do better than theological snobbery or spiritual self-righteousness. If we care about the everyday anxieties of everyday people, the Sinner's Prayer can be a wonderful, if imperfect, tool to help the lost know that they have been found, and the found to daily follow the Lord who has saved them from their sin and secured for them life eternal.
I'm a fan of John Starke's writing. That may because we've sat in a cafe in NYC, and I got a vision of his ministry there, but his writing stands on its own-- though his practice shows me he is not just a "talker."
If you take just a breezy glance through the archives of Themelios, TGC's online theological journal, you can get a fairly good glimpse of the theological movements and controversies for the last 40 years. For example, inerrancy is always controversial, but interestingly, the debate led into other issues of hermeneutics and canon. During the mid-70s, there were lots of questions about whether early heretics were really heretics and how the simplicity of Jesus' teachings relate to the complicated history of orthodoxy. From the late-70s to the mid-80s, a deep concern settled over Europe with Jürgen Multmann's christology and Theology of Hope, which revived interest and controversy over Barth. Multmann's Crucified God poked at a fire stirring in feminist and liberation circles. The late-80s sounded the alarm against cults and spotlighted public ethics, especially related to the AIDS crisis. Throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s, Open Theism dominated discussions on the doctrine of God, only to be replaced by a wave of responses to the New Perspective on Paul.
Robert Letham makes a good point in his article "The Trinity---Yesterday, Today, and the Future" that if a student or minister (or a scholar, for that matter) invests all of his thinking and devotion into the last 30 or so years in controversies over the Trinity, he's liable to be confused, imbalanced, or worse, heretical! It's best, he says, to remind ourselves of how the church has always thought about the Trinity. Always having a finger in history guards against being a single-issue Christian and provides a fresh voice for pressing controversies.
I remember having lunch with an old professor when he mentioned the danger of arrogance in theological studies. It shows up everywhere, he said. He went on to say that ignoring theology all together doesn't help either. The Bible never tells us ignorance is the remedy for pride. He suggested that whatever field you're in, whether biblical, theological, or historical studies, always maintain a robust doctrine of God. He said it guards against two forms of pride. It consistently reminds us of how small we are. And it reminds us that we need help from more thoughtful and holier men and women and stops us short of fearing authority and snubbing Christians whose shoulders we should be standing on.
Mindful of this challenge, I asked theologians Fred Sanders and Kevin Vanhoozer to provide an annotated list of suggested books on the doctrine of God. Their lists contain a fairly wide range of difficulty, from popular to technical. They are good suggestions---enough to keep you humble and hungry for God.
This made me chuckle.
Apple CEO Tim Cook announced the new iPhone 5 today, saying, "We are pleased to present the iPhone 5, and we are confident that it can solve not only your problems, but the problems of the entire world."
As Cook was making the announcement, a lion and a lamb were led onto the stage, each with an iPhone 5 tied around it's neck. The animals nuzzled each other gently, then lay down together at Cook's feet. "As you can see," said Cook, as he stuck his head into the lion's mouth, "the new iPhone creates peace wherever it goes. It's really quite a feat of engineering."
Immediately following the announcement of the new phone, 116 countries immediately entered into peace treaties with each other. As Kim Jong Un, current supreme leader of North Korea, held his new phone, he said, "It is a very happy day for our country. I am disarming all our nuclear warheads and giving the NFL Sunday Ticket to every citizen of our country."
The Republican and Democratic parties have joined together to hold an emergency convention, in which they will nominate the new iPhone for President. Speaking on behalf of the Republican party, Clint Eastwood held up his empty hand and said, "This phone that I am holding will change politics forever!"
An update from The Exchange.
From a recent episode of The Exchange, I explain what I believe the future of Christianity in America looks like. You can see the full episode here.
Be sure to watch The Exchange every Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. CDT, right here at EdStetzer.com. On this week's episode, Andrew Peterson joins us to discuss worship and art and their place in the church.