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Brief History of the Sinner's Prayer

Bible study on salvation and the sinner's prayer.

The sinner's prayer, as we know it today, was invented by twentieth century preachers as a quick and easy way to save people. Unfortunately, it is a false doctrine.

Second Century
Around the second century, Gnostics taught that baptism was not essential to salvation. Christians, on the other hand, vehemently refuted the Gnostic doctrine and taught that baptism was absolutely necessary to be saved.

16th - 17th Centuries
Later, during the Reformation (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), Protestant Theology, in opposition to Catholicism, led to the invention of Protestant denominations. Reformation theologians opposed some Catholic doctrines of salvation (e.g., indulgences) while embracing others (e.g., infant baptism). Trying to "reform" the Catholic church, Reformation theologians formulated their own doctrines of salvation from which denominations were created in breaking away from Catholicism. In the process, Gnostic doctrines of salvation (e.g., salvation before baptism, and salvation without baptism) were again popularized in Reformation doctrine. But, the doctrines of Reformed Theology did not develop into the "sinner's prayer" for hundreds of years after the Reformation.

Luther, Anabaptists
As the Protestant Reformation developed, some churches (under the guidance of doctrines from such men as Martin Luther) taught that salvation was a gift from God and that baptism was not necessary for salvation. Later, Anabaptists broke away from churches adhering to the doctrine of infant baptism under the leadership of such men as Menno Simons and John Smyth, only baptizing adults.

Praying to be Saved
As these Protestant issues were hashed out, man-made religious doctrines increasingly rejected God's word which requires men to be baptized to be saved (Matt. 18:18-19; Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21). Since the Anabaptists rejected God's word concerning baptism while also rejecting the Catholic and Reformed doctrine of infant baptism, they were forced to invent a human doctrine prescribing the point of one's salvation. Praying to be saved became their substitute for God's command to be baptized. In the end, baptism was relegated to merely being a symbolic act, not having anything to do with salvation. And in time, the phrase "baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace" was invented and adopted into Protestant doctrine.

Mourner's Bench Salvation
As man-made doctrines of praying for salvation developed, "mourner's bench salvation" was invented by men in the eighteenth century, becoming popular in the nineteenth century and dying out in the early twentieth century. This doctrine of salvation asserts that a sinner might be saved if he prays long and hard, at the mourner's bench. Stories of people spending many long, arduous hours at the mourner's bench were common. During this time, such phrases as "alter call" and "pray through" were popularized. But today, the mourner's bench is practically nonexistent, although some churches have preserved the benches as mementoes of bygone revivalist days referred to as "old time religion."

Pray a Prayer Salvation
In the early twentieth century, revivalist preachers began simplifying their doctrines of salvation. Mourner's bench salvation was too time consuming and arduous a process making it unappealing. Also, large crusades became popular resulting in denominational preachers desiring a simple way for hundreds of people to be simultaneously saved within just a few minutes. So, preachers began asking people to come to the front and pray a prayer to be saved. By praying the prayer, people were led to believe they were forgiven of their sins and saved. This prayer soon developed into what is called the sinner's prayer today.

Radio and Television Evangelism
As radio and television evangelism became popular in the twentieth century, preachers again simplified their doctrines of salvation. It was not possible for people listening to the radio or watching television to come to the front of an assembly, have contact with a preacher, and pray with him. Sometimes, people listening to the radio were asked to touch the radio and pray. Other times, people watching television were asked to touch the television and pray. And sometimes, they were not asked to do anything but pray. Since then, many preachers in churches do not ask people to come to the front and pray a sinner's prayer but simply to pray while sitting in the audience.

Today, Sinner's Prayer
Today, people are led to believe they can pray a sinner's pray anywhere and under any condition to be saved. Many preachers and teachers "suggest" prayers for sinners to pray -- some are several sentences long and some are only one or two sentences. But more and more, these preachers let people "receive Jesus" any way they want. Unfortunately, people who believe they have been saved by praying a sinner's prayer have believed a false doctrine originating from men (Eph. 4:14).

Jesus' Doctrine
The doctrine of Christ and His church (2 Jn. 1: 9) is the same today as it was during the first century (Heb. 13:8).

We must be baptized to be saved (Mk. 16:16; Matt. 28:18-19).
Baptism is for the remission of our sins (Acts 2:38).
Our sins are washed away when we are baptized (Acts 22:16).
We are saved when we are baptized (1 Pet. 3:21).
The Lord adds us to the church when we are baptized (Acts 2:38-39, 40-41, 47).
No one is saved by praying a sinner's prayer. To be saved, we must be baptized having believed in God, repented of our sins, and confessed Jesus to be God's Son (Mk. 16:16; Jn. 8:24; Lk. 13:3, 5; Matt. 10:32-33).

By Richard G. Trumps

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