Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Why I Super-Duper-Mega-Despise the Sinner's Prayer

I try not to use the word "hate" except in reference to, you know, actual hatred--KKK or ISIS-brand hatred.

So I'll simply say this: I'm a Christian pastor, but I super-duper, mega-despise the Sinner's Prayer.

You know, that prayer that basically says, "I'm a dirty rotten sinner and deserve nothing but death and hell and condemnation, but I accept Jesus as my Personal Lord and Savior (TM) so that I can be forgiven and go to heaven when I die."

I'm paraphrasing with that somewhat, but pretty much every version of the Sinner's Prayer that I've heard includes the following three statements:

1) I suck, I'm a terrible louse of a human being and deserve to die.

2) Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior.

3) Because I said this prayer, my sins are forgiven and I can go to heaven.

All three of these statements are very problematic from both a theological and a Biblical standpoint. Let's tackle them in turn.

I suck. I'm a terrible louse of a human being and deserve to die.

This statement comes from a theological notion known as total depravity, which says...well, pretty much what you'd infer: that humans are totally depraved, totally evil, and a slave to sin so much so that, if not for God's grace, we would be stuck as slaves to sin forever.

I actually believe that last part, which is how I define total depravity: that we are slaves to sin, because we are imperfect, flawed, and mortal beings. Nor is there anything that we can do by ourselves to earn God's grace in return--it is a gift from God, freely given, that we choose to embrace.

It is the conclusion that is problematic: that because I am a slave to sin, I deserve to die.

Let that conclusion stew in your noggin for a minute. Even slaves to sin like David and Ahab--both of whom misappropriated their kingly authority to have opponents of theirs killed so that the king could take from them that which they coveted (in David's case, Uriah's wife Bathsheba, in Ahab's case, Naboth's vineyard)--neither of them were told by their contemporaneous prophets, Nathan and Elijah respectively, that God would sentence them to death for their transgressions. In fact, in both cases, the punishment fell to David's and Ahab's sons.

Even the fall from Eden--Adam and Eve choosing to disobey God and eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the original sin upon which the doctrine of total depravity rests--did not result in death sentences being meted out. Adam and Eve were exiled out of Eden, but God spared their lives.

So if even the seminal event that defines the entire doctrine of original sin did not result in death, then why do we say that we are worthy only of death because of our own sins? Yes, we sin, we all do. But even at the beginning of time--long, long before Jesus Christ surrendered Himself to the powers that be to act as a ransom to liberate us from sin--God spared the lives of the two original sinners.

Maybe, just maybe, God wants you to live too.

That is not a detail, either. That is not fine print. That is the biggest freaking Good News there is. God. Wants. You. To. Live. In a world where so, so many of us suffer from clinical depression (myself included) or another mental illness that can lead to suicide like bipolar disorder, knowing that this world needs you and wants you, and that God needs you and wants you, is emphatically Good News in the truest of Gospel senses.

You may be a sinner, just like me. But God gave you life, and God wants you to live. Period. Full stop.

Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior

If you could simply erase that word "personal" from this, it'd be 100% on the nose. Jesus is my Lord and Savior. Bam. Done.

But adding the word "personal" to it ironically undermines the entire meaning of the phrase "Jesus is my Lord and Savior" because it reveals--intentionally or not--one of our greatest, biggest idols of our time, an idol that draws us away from following God over and over again:

The idol of the self, and of selfishness.

Think about what the word "personal" connotes. It means "me, and me only." Sometimes that's a good thing. I disclaim my tweets and blog posts by saying that these are my personal opinions--that they represent me and me only.

Sometimes, though, "personal" is not such a good thing. It's cool to say you have a personal trainer--that you have someone who is devoted to you and only you for whatever length of time your workout is.

Jesus, though, isn't devoted to you and only you. Nor is God.

And to stave off the immediate rejoinder of "But personal trainers have more than one client," well, yeah, they do. But they work with one at a time. Jesus works with billions at a time.

Nor is the phrase "personal Lord and Savior" found anywhere in the Bible. Yes, Jesus is called both Lord and Savior, but not *personal* Lord and Savior. We added that bit ourselves because we like Personal Trainer Jesus.

A bigger problem, though, is that when we call Jesus our 'personal' Lord and Savior, we are doing the scope and scale of His ministry a disservice; we diminish the breadth of his impact and we put the focus not on God where it belongs, but on us.

Which is theoretically the exact opposite point of the Sinner's Prayer.

If we are saved *only* by God's grace--and there's a pretty solid theological argument to say that we are--then why are we putting the focus on ourselves with that word "personal?" Patting ourselves on the back for such a decision isn't especially humble and thus not especially Christian, nor is telling Jesus what His job description is. But we do it anyways. And in so doing, we diminish Jesus and who He really was.

Finally, it must be said that the emphasis on "personal" Lord and Savior is, as I said at the beginning, rooted in our idolatry of the individual and the self, which is a very Western construct at odds with the philosophical underpinnings of Christianity outside of the Western world. Perhaps the best example I know of is the ubuntu example of South Africa, where Christians are apt to use that word--ubuntu--which roughly means, "I am who I am because you are who you are," to explain how their Christianity is wrapped up in yours.

It's a communal thing. Not a personal thing. And knowing what I know about how the ancient Near East of Jesus's time worked, I genuinely believe it is probably closer to that communal understanding of faith than our own individual understanding of faith.

Because I said this prayer, my sins are forgiven and I can go to heaven

Faith is not a quid pro quo thing. We don't get to bargain with God. This isn't one of the stages of grief. Saying "because I recited this prayer, I've got my golden ticket" is akin to saying that we can manipulate God, that our autonomy somehow trumps God's sovereignty.

We may choose whether to follow God or not. But in so doing, we can end up...well, not doing a very good job of actually following God. Treating our faith as a tit-for-tat haggling session is one of the most common ways I see it happen.

I know it, because I do it all. the. time. I have such a hard time when it comes to bargaining with God, because I constantly feel like I don't measure up, that I could be better at my job, better at following God, and better at proclaiming God's message to a world that so desperately needs it.

Which, circling back to grace, is sort of the entire point of its existence. It's meant to prevent us from falling into that sort of bargaining-chip theology, where if only we do one more good thing, God might love us just a little bit more.

And by claiming that one's salvation is somehow dependent on reciting the Sinner's Prayer (as opposed to, I don't know, baptism, or much more importantly, actually living a life rich in both faith and goodness), we have turned the Sinner's Prayer into a work.

So we can claim that we are saved by grace and not by works, but...if you don't do this particular work of saying this prayer, you're not saved. Got it.

It reduces our deep, profound, and longstanding relationship with God as a species to a simple transaction that is almost puerile in how starkly commercial it is. I give God this prayer, I get my digs in heaven in return.

No, that's not how faith works. The rich young man comes to Jesus, and Jesus says that simply the works of following the Commandments isn't enough--that the young man must give of himself entirely by selling all he owns, giving the proceeds to the poor, and then following Jesus unreservedly.

The rich young man went away grieving, for he had many possessions which he loved and which, in the end, kept him far away from God.

The Sinner's Prayer, I have come to believe, is one such possession for Christianity. We love it, but it keeps us further from God than nearer to God. It ought not remain a part of our vocabulary. Let us then jettison it with haste and with vigor, and in its wake, may we replace it with the fruits of the spirit that Paul calls us to: love and joy and peace.

I need those fruits too, because maybe it is my own depravity speaking, but man, I super-duper-mega-despise the Sinner's Prayer. And I really wish that we could do away with it. Because perhaps, if we did, the awful cloak of our depravity will seem a just bit less darker and gloomier tomorrow for us having done so.

Vancouer, Washington
August 3, 2016

Image courtesy of Youtube


  1. I super duper despise it too, Eric. Thanks for articulating why.

    1. It's something that has been percolating in my head for a while now. I'm glad the post gave some words to what your feelings as well!

  2. Great phrase - "bargaining chip theology." Without that "theology," most televangelists would be bereft of any "theology" at all. Your post was totally on point.