Evangelicalism has been powerfully marked throughout its history by an emphasis on conversion. This has often manifested in an attempt to clearly delineate that moment of conversion which has, in turn, led to the prominence of the Sinner’s Prayer.
The Sinner’s Prayer is the prayer that is supposed to indicate that a person has come to saving faith in Jesus. The typical formula involves confession (“I am a sinner”), repentance (“I choose to turn away from my sinful ways”), a statement of belief (“I believe in Jesus and that he is the Son of God who died for my sins”), and a plea for forgiveness.
It’s neat and clean. Probably a little too neat and clean which is why it’s received plenty of criticism. Fair enough. Conversion is not a one-time experience; conversion is a process.
But that’s not to say that the Sinner’s Prayer gets everything wrong. In fact, it gets two things quite right: the importance of surrender and the importance of the moment.
Whether explicitly or implicitly, surrender is an integral part of the Sinner’s Prayer because it is a confession of our inability to navigate life on our own. We can criticize it for miscommunicating the nature of conversion, but surely we ought not criticize it for reminding us of this core truth: following Jesus requires surrender.
Being overly critical of the Sinner’s Prayer can quickly backfire. That criticism can provide a smokescreen behind which we continue to hold onto the things we ought to give up. We forget the radical call of Jesus and commit to a gradualistic view of conversion and sanctification. Gradualism of this sort all too easily hides our unwillingness to give ourselves over completely to Jesus.
Pushing back on such a gradual understanding is the truth that Christianity is a faith of key moments. Jesus died in a moment. Jesus rose in a moment. These are definitive events that punctured history. We are invited to participate in those realities not merely in a gradual way, but also in a punctiliar one.
Regardless of how much we might critique the Sinner’s Prayer, it has carefully maintained this Christian commitment to the life-changing moment. Yes, we are misguided if we think they are moments in which everything gets solved, but moments of drastic change do happen. They happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. They happened to Jesus’s disciples as one by one they left what they were doing to follow Jesus.
Let’s not forget that conversion is a process. But let’s also not forget that the Lord works in powerful moments. The Sinner’s Prayer reminds us that lives are changed in moments, as the Spirit takes hold and draws us to surrender ourselves.