On the flawed soteriology of the “sinner’s prayer”
Recently, Daniel Heck made this statement:
My problem with the sinner’s prayer really is that it is functionally super-Pelagian, even though it acts all anti-Pelagian. Funny the way we tend to become what we hate. When I’ve heard people use the sinner’s prayer for evangelism, they usually say a bunch of anti-Pelagian stuff about how nothing you do can set you right with God, etc etc etc, and then they say, actually, you know, there is exactly one thing you can do. Say this prayer.
I responded thus:
Regarding the sinner’s prayer and its associated problems, the underlying issue is the warped concept of salvation that it rests on. If one thinks that “being saved” means God saying “OK, when you die you’ll get to go to heaven,” and therefore that one “gets saved” in some punctiliar event—whether that is saying a certain prayer, or being baptized, or whatever—then this problem inevitably arises. Either we are in some irreducible sense responsible for causing that all-important event to occur, or else we have no role or responsibility because God just does it all himself. (Evangelicals are used to thinking of this dilemma as Arminianism vs Calvinism, but that is just one among the many permutations it has taken.)
In contrast, things get much better when one recognizes that salvation means “everything being made good.” In one real sense we are still looking forward to our salvation, when Jesus returns to raise the dead and renew all things. In another real sense our salvation has already been won for us, because everything Jesus did the first time he came has enabled and initiated the salvation we are looking forward to. And in another real sense, we are in the midst of being saved now as the Holy Spirit acts among us today bringing specific instantiations of transformation and renewal into life now on the way toward the final transformation.
In this past-present-future structure, there is no single moment when a person moves from a state of being unsaved to a state of being saved. There may be moments of conscious decision, of course. But those are moments where one decides to become an active participant in God’s ongoing project of saving the world and therefore becomes part of that group of people who reasonably expect to see salvation coming to pass in their lives and world now and ultimately in the future. They are moments of consciously entering into the ongoing salvation story.
But if this is the case, then no one event is the cause of anyone’s salvation. What Jesus did is the cause, what Jesus will do is the cause, and what the Spirit is doing now is the cause. Our actions are caught up into this process and contribute in real ways to the result as he weaves them in, but our actions do not cause the process to occur any more than the threads cause the weaving to occur.