It was hot: high nineties, 100% humidity, tromping around on the equator during a mission trip with a group of untrained, well meaning Christians. We walked into the local open-air market in teams of two, looking to engage anyone we could in meaningful conversation – you know, “In the marketplace” (not the intention of the phrase). My partner and I approached a young man selling handicrafts, and found ourselves quickly in a conversation about religion. Because of his belief system, he admitted that he did not know what would happen after death, but was hoping for God to be merciful in light of the good deeds he had preformed. Then my partner said something that has forever been etched on my mind:
“If there was something you could say so that you could know you would go straight to Heaven, would you want to say it?”
We as Christians fundamentally believe that there is no way we could ever be good enough to earn God’s favor. That is the whole point of the Gospel, and the need for grace. God’s standard is perfection. None of us will ever attain perfection because we have all sinned, and therefore we need a Savior who can intervene for us. Enter Jesus. He came to the world and lived a sinless life, and then suffered death and separation from God to pay the debt that we owe. He took our place so that we could be forgiven of our sins and made righteous before God.
Therefore we know that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. I cannot earn it. You cannot earn it. We will never be good enough, it depends solely on Jesus.
– Eph 2.8-9
What, then, does that look like? What does that mean? Scripture teaches us that we must confess our sins (1 John 1.9), we must believe (Acts 16.31), and confess Jesus as Lord (Rom 10.9). Over the years, we have blended these truths into a beautiful little package we now call “The sinner’s prayer”. The faithful will remind us that it is not the words said, but the heart behind it – and it is not a phrase we memorize verbatim, but the sentiment is the same: confess our guilt, admit our belief, and ask for forgiveness.
We must do those things. Unless the cry of our heart is our confession of guilt, admission of belief, request for forgiveness and submission to Jesus as Lord, we will not be saved.
The prayer, however, holds no power in-and-of itself. You cannot recite the prayer and be covered eternally. Islam has the Shahada, a verbal recitation that will immediately begin one’s life as a Muslim. You must say it to be a Muslim and the words alone, they believe, have power. It is not so with Christianity. We recognize New Birth as the beginning point of Spiritual life.
Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to be saved, one must be born a second time: born Spiritually (John 3). Ezekiel teaches us that God enters into our lives, removes our heart of stone – the heart that is dead, and replaces it with a heart of flesh – one that is alive and moldable by God.
“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
– Ez 36.26
We do not make this happen by reciting a prayer or mantra. Rather, we cry out to God in confession in response to this happening.
Here’s where it gets tricky. No one wants to go to Hell. Sure, some people might say that they would prefer Hell, but the moment the realize what Hell actually is, they will regret that statement. People might be seeking a comfortable eternity after living a self-serving life, and thus recite the sinner’s prayer. Children might want to please their parents or have a minimal understanding of cause and effect and therefore recite the sinner’s prayer. There are an abundance of reasons one might recite the prayer, but unless it is the utterance of a heart of flesh, of the Spiritually new-born, it means nothing. It is superstitious and wicked – in that it offers a false assurance to the reciter and to those around him.
How then do you know if you are saved? Scripture teaches us that when we are born again we are made into an entirely new creation:
– 2 Cor 5.17
Scripture also teaches us that before we know Christ, we are Spiritually dead:
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.”
– Eph 2.1-2
But when we come to Christ, we are born again and we are alive. How do you know you are born again? How do you know that you are saved? If you are alive. Does the Holy Spirit convict your heart? Do you enjoy Jesus? Are you changed, now hating your sin and the things that dishonor God?
Too many parents have assured themselves that their children are “safe” because they walked an aisle and said a prayer when they were six. Too many friends have let one another live sinful and wicked lives because they made a commitment at youth camp. Too many missionaries have assured hearers that they are eternally secure because they said a prayer.
The prayer is just the beginning. Our lives will immediately begin to transform after being born again and confessing Jesus as Lord. If you life is not changing, if your child’s actions are not driven by the work of the Holy Spirit, if your friend continues the same exact life style, if the national on the mission field is not a new creation who longs for and loves Jesus, then they are not saved. They have simply followed our superstitious instructions to make sure that they do not go to Hell, or to make us happy.
So let us stop and consider our own Spiritual life. Are you resting your eternity on a prayer you recited at some point in your life? Or on a dynamic Spiritual walk with Jesus Christ? Did you walk an aisle? Or were you born again and made into a new creation?
Let us also stop and consider our evangelism methods. Yes, we want to rescue the perishing from Hell. But more importantly, we should desire to introduce them to Jesus, who is our life, our joy, our peace, our everything. Is Jesus your get-out-of-Hell free card? Or is He your Savior and your life?
Resist the temptation to placate yourself and others on the notion that a simple prayer will assure our eternity. Eternity is a big chip to gamble. Let’s make sure we know Jesus, we have been born again and made alive, and that when we see Him face to face He will welcome us into His presence.