Before I can present to you my eight cautions for teaching people to pray a prayer to be saved, we must first set the basis of how one is actually saved.
In Ephesians 2:8 Paul states that one is saved by grace (God’s unmerited favor) through faith (belief, trust). The question is, faith in what? One must believe the Gospel. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states that the Gospel, the good news, is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (v. 3-4). In other words, one is saved by grace through truly believing that Christ died for His sins, was buried, and literally rose to life on the third day.
Now that we have formed a rather summary basis of how scripture states one is saved, let’s take a look at eight reasons why we shouldn’t teach people to pray a prayer to be saved.
1. It’s not in the Bible, anywhere.
Probably the most important reason we shouldn’t teach people to pray a prayer to be saved is because the Bible doesn’t teach or model it. And if the Bible is our sole authority on understanding how men are saved, then we certainly should follow its exact instruction, which as we have noted is to believe in the Gospel. By instructing else in addition to what scripture states, we can easily neglect the scriptural instruction. That is really the theme of this article.
(Some may object that Romans 10:9-10 teaches that one should pray to be saved. For a discussion on this, reference this footnote).
2. It may teach one to trust in a prayer or something he has done rather than God for salvation.
Often times, many who have “prayed a prayer to be saved” have placed their trust in a prayer rather than God for salvation. The implication of this is that they are trusting in something they have done (prayed) rather than something God does (saves), which contradicts Ephesians 2:8 when Paul says, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” and essentially makes prayer a work done to obtain grace (violating verse 9). The individual’s trust is no longer in God for salvation (who actually saves) but his prayer (which doesn’t save). My point is that one ought not to trust in a prayer to save but the one to whom the prayer is given. One may pray to God at conversion, yet it is not his prayer that saves, but God. Therefore, a pray is not needed, and in fact, as we will further discover, may be more of a hurt than a help. As we have discovered here, it may lead some to trust in a prayer rather than God for salvation or lead people to believe that praying a prayer is necessary to be saved.
3. It tends to ignore the Biblical view of regeneration
As I have just said, teaching people to pray a prayer to be saved may lead them to believe that it is necessary to be saved. On the contrary, faith is the sole means of salvation. One is saved solely through belief, not a prayer that expresses belief. If we properly understand the doctrine of regeneration (being born again, being born from above), we realize that regeneration takes place simultaneously with faith. In other words, one is made spiritual alive at the same moment he believes. Praying a prayer does not obligate the Spirit to make you born again. Therefore, if someone wants to pray a prayer because he believes, he may do so, but he is already saved prior to praying that prayer (since he already believes).
4. It often distorts faith, making faith that which accomplishes salvation rather than Christ’s finished work
That statement could be easily misunderstood, so read carefully. My main point here is that Christ’s work is finished. Therefore, when one is saved through faith, faith does not complete Christ’s work. Faith is not, as some will say, our half in salvation whereas grace is God’s half. We have no “half” in the matter. Christ did it all. It is not of ourselves whatsoever (Eph 2:8). And true faith recognizes this and trusts in Christ’s finished work. This “praying a prayer” idea, along with incorrect views of faith, makes it seem as we finish Christ’s work by our request for Him to save us (in other words, Christ’s death was only a possible atonement until actualized by our request). But Christ’s work doesn’t need to be finished by a prayer of request for Him to become Savior. He is Savior. This leads us to our next point.
5. It often distorts faith, making faith to be one’s decision to pray.
Much of this was already stated in the last point, but I want to emphasize it on its own. This “praying a prayer” concept seems to equate faith with the act of praying a prayer to be saved. The problem with this, as noted directly above, is that it makes faith seem to be “our half” in salvation. That is, grace is God’s half, faith is our half, that faith is our cooperation with grace and allowing grace to succeed in its mission, that God’s grace would save us if only we would believe. But what I would like to present is that one only believes because of God’s grace. True faith is not “our half,” but recognizes that the whole of salvation is God’s doing. This “praying a prayer” concept just feeds into such incorrect theology that makes salvation all about man’s decision. It leads people to believe that their prayer is their act of faith, that faith is something they do. But faith is the opposite of doing. In fact, faith is a gift from God. It is that which points all attention away from us (our praying, our will, our choice) and to God as the only one who has any part in saving. “Praying a prayer” theology makes it seem as if one is saved by his decision. But one is not ultimately saved because he decided to be, but because God saves.
6. One can pray a prayer without genuine faith or an understanding of the Gospel.
One of the most significant problems with this praying a prayer for salvation idea is probably so obvious that many overlook it: praying a pray does not necessitate that the one praying actually has true saving faith or even understands the Gospel. Anyone can pray a “repeat after me” prayer. But that doesn’t mean they actually repented and believed. On the other hand, if one states, “believe in the Gospel,” it automatically confronts with the question, “What is the gospel?” Simply teaching individuals to pray a prayer can be a terrible way of avoiding what the Gospel is and leading individuals into “believing” the Gospel that they never actually understood, and therefore, never truly believed. In our witnessing we must present the Gospel and call for belief in it. Emphasis on praying a pray leads all too easily to a de-emphasis on the Gospel.
7. It can give assurance that ought not to be there.
Leading individuals to pray a prayer to be saved can lead them to believe that they are saved when they truly are not. As we have just noted, not all individuals who pray a prayer are actually saved. As a result, many individuals have assurance of a salvation they truly lack. They have their “get out of hell free” fire insurance card and are simply banking on some words they prayed as if it’s some magic formula. This is really where easy believism is seen at its worse. There are plenty of individuals who believe they are genuinely saved because they “prayed a prayer,” despite the contrary evidence that their life isn’t showing any fruit or spiritual change. In other words, this “praying a prayer” idea is resulting in many superficial, fake, false believers.
8. It can lead to lack of assurance that ought to be there.
And lastly, this “praying a prayer” concept has lead, and will continue to lead, many to doubt their salvation. Whenever man’s action and/or will becomes the focus of how one is saved, almost inevitably the doubting of one’s salvation is to follow. If the means of my salvation was my choice, in this case, to pray or not to pray a prayer then I am going to begin to think, “Did I mean it enough?” But when the focus is made to be God’s sovereignty in saving one can find peace in such passages like Romans 8:28-37. Further, when the focus of one’s assurance is on a prayer he prayed, it also distracts from the evidences of salvation in one’s life that he is saved, namely, fruit and spiritual growth. On the contrary, it causes one to focus on whether his prayer did what he intended it to do or whether he “prayed the right words.” In summary, praying a prayer for salvation can lead one to focus on his prayer to find assurance rather than spiritual fruit and God’s sovereignty.
In closing, some may interpret what I am saying here as if I am taking a radical stand against any type or occurrence of praying a prayer at the moment of conversion. That certainly is not my stance. My focus is that we should not mislead people in thinking that praying a prayer saves. It’s not so much that praying a prayer is a terrible thing. However, it is a terrible when people misunderstand the Gospel and salvation because of an over emphasis on “praying a prayer.” Therefore, the point of what I am getting at is that when we witness or are given the incredible opportunity to instruct someone on how they can be saved, we ought to make sure they truly understand the Gospel (the historical facts of Christ’s death and resurrection as well as what they mean soteriologically), true faith and its flip side, repentance, Christ being Savior and Lord, etc. My fear is that when this “praying a prayer” idea is promoted, it may confuse what is truly necessary for salvation. And that’s really the underlying theme of this article, which may or may not have been incredibly obvious to you. In closing, the goal is not so much an attack on praying a pray to be saved but a promotion for true Biblical understanding.
So as I said, praying a prayer is not necessary and may in fact be more of a hurt than a help. But every situation is going to be different. Some find praying a prayer helpful to communicate their faith and repentance. Therefore, I simply ask that you take what I have said, consider my cautions, and be wise.
It should be noted that as I use “faith” here and throughout the course of this entire article, I am writing with the understood assumption that repentance is its necessary counterpart. That is, true saving faith is never absent of repentance (a turning from one’s sin).
Now some will probably object, “Doesn’t Romans 10:9-10 say, ‘because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.’” That is true, so I will attempt to briefly explain this passage in light of our discussion.
In this passage, Romans 10:5-10, Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 30:10-14 to make his point. In Romans 10:8 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 30:14, which uses the “heart” and “mouth” language. So, in Romans 10:9-10 Paul uses this language to describe righteousness obtained through faith in Christ. In other words, such language comes from the passage Paul is quoting and is used to describe saving faith. Verses 9 and 10 give a description of true saving faith and speak of distinguishing marks of the believer. But in light of our discussion, praying a pray is a rather foreign idea to this passage.
* Originally posted on former blog, I’m Calling Us Out.