Christianity Today recently posted an editorial called “The Evangelical Jesus Prayer,” which I had trouble understanding beginning as early as the subtitle: “It’s not perfect, but the Sinner’s Prayer is a work of genius.” Unfortunately, this editorial is not or else they wouldn’t be saying that.
Let’s start with the first problem: We cannot compare the evangelical “Sinner’s Prayer” to the Eastern Orthodox Jesus Prayer without gravely insulting the Orthodox. Eastern Christians love to make their worship beautiful, and compared with the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”), the Sinner’s Prayer is like your awkward pimple-faced cousin. I’m sorry Eastern brothers and sisters—your prayer is nothing like ours, and for that you should rejoice. The editorial also calls the Sinner’s Prayer “as brilliant as the simple formulations of Martin Luther (Sola fide! Sola Scriptura!).” We have now insulted Lutherans in addition to the Orthodox. We’re making lots of friends today.
What is so mediocre about the Sinner’s Prayer? Ironically, it is the only scripted prayer evangelicals like. Yes, there are different “versions,” but it is still scripted in the sense that traditionally evangelistic literature has included a printed prayer rather than letting anyone invent their own. Similarly, evangelistic preachers often lead audiences in their version of the Sinner’s Prayer, as if the poor sinners could not find the words to approach God themselves. I generally have no problem with pre-written prayers. I like our church’s prayers of confession which come from various liturgical resources and are printed in the bulletin. I like the Book of Common Prayer. Jesus taught us how to pray, and we repeat him word for word. All of that is great. But that’s because they’re not clunky and thoughtless. Rather than elegantly simple, the Sinner’s Prayer is insultingly simplistic and devoid of pleasing aesthetics. Let’s go extemporaneous, people, or let’s allow someone with a theological education—or at least an English degree—write our prayers. Or a sweet child for goodness sakes. But not some tasteless descendent of Charles Finney.
The editorial makes the point that the Sinner’s Prayer can be said over and over like the Jesus Prayer. No, it can’t. It’s too long to be much use to contemplative prayer. Additionally, this is a pathetic response to the complaint that many people say it over and over. They are not saying it over and over because they have any idea how Eastern Christians use the Jesus Prayer; they are saying it over and over because they have never left Finney’s anxious bench.
The editorial also proclaims that the Sinner’s Prayer “summarizes the gospel that so many desperately long for” because “[m]ost people live with all manner of personal crises, the greatest being an abiding guilt and shame.” First of all, whoever wrote this is out of touch with reality. The average person on the street will not call guilt and shame their #1 foe. This might be true if they were raised fundamentalist, raised Catholic, or responsible for killing someone in a drunk driving accident. And even then, only might. This guilt-focused formulation of the gospel may or may not be of optimal theological quality, but it certainly isn’t addressing the felt needs of people today. If it were, we wouldn’t see people devising new ways of trying to explain Christianity to others like we see in James Choung’s True Story.
And it ends up it’s not of optimal theological quality either. It’s ridiculous to encourage an expectation of a single moment of conversion for all Christians when the majority of people raised in the church have not experienced conversion that way. Furthermore, the Sinner’s Prayer prizes penal substitutionary atonement as the one-and-only—or at least the best—model we have for understanding Christ’s work on the cross. It might be a model worth keeping around, but it almost certainly isn’t the best.
All in all, not a work of genius. Not necessarily ethical to press upon people. Not necessarily useful to even those who embrace it. Not necessarily world-ruining either, and certainly a part of the conversion stories of many faithful Christians. But I give it a C-. ”There may be good reasons to reform or replace the Sinner’s Prayer in evangelical ‘liturgical life,’” the editorial opines. “But we have to do better than theological snobbery or spiritual self-righteousness.” No, I don’t think we do. I’ll happily be a theological snob on this one, CT. If you think that’s wrong of me, I guess I could use endless repetitions of the Sinner’s Prayer to absolve myself, except I think that might have the opposite of the desired effect on poor Jesus’s ears…