Sermon by Bryn MacPhail
There is a prayer that every person must utter if they are to receive eternal life, and that prayer is The Sinner’s Prayer.
Some of you know that there is a commonly used gospel tract, which contains a thing called The Sinner’s Prayer. The tract suggests that all who pray the words printed under the heading of the Sinner’s Prayer will gain entry into heaven. I reckon that such a suggestion is potentially misleading. And, I reckon that this instruction potentially inflicts immeasurable harm on the human soul by giving some people a false assurance that they are going to heaven.
If all that God required of us, in order for us to get into heaven, was to recite particular words, then that would mean that God’s favour is to be secured by a kind of magical incantation. This is not what the Bible teaches. But rather, as we will see in the prayers before us, what matters more than the words themselves is the particular state of the human heart that utters this prayer of confession.
Two exemplary prayers
To illustrate this point, the two prayers that I would like us to examine are the prayer of King David in Psalm 51, and the prayer of the publican in Luke 18:13. These two prayers are exemplary in their representation of a sinner’s prayer.
Before we survey these two passages, allow me to wonder out loud about your reaction to a study such as this. Undoubtedly, when we come to Sunday worship each week, we come with an expectation that we will leave encouraged. We come with the expectation that we will leave in a better state than the one we arrived in. It is good to have these expectations. And, I confess, that a study of our own sinfulness appears, on the surface, to preclude such endeavours. And yet, the testimony of Scripture declares that in order for us to be truly encouraged, in order for us to leave a place of worship in a better state than the one in which we came, we must first address our sinful condition. King David understood this, and the publican understood this.
But their sins were of a particularly heinous nature, you say. You are correct. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then he compounded his sin by arranging to have her husband, Uriah, killed in battle. David had good reason to approach God in humble confession. So, too, did the publican. Extorting money from his fellow countrymen in the name of taxation was regarded as tantamount to treason.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the lesson of these two examples is to teach us that only the worst of sinners must pray in this manner of confession. Rather, from these two examples we learn that no sin is so great, and no sinner is so far gone, that he cannot be reconciled to God. For some people, the notion that ‘my sin is too severe and too far-reaching’ is a barrier to approaching God in humble confession. And so the example of King David and the publican serves to encourage even the worst of offenders to seek forgiveness.
For many of us, however, I suspect the opposite notion is our barrier to approaching God in this manner. For many of us, we regard our sins as so insignificant, our transgressions so few, and our iniquities so profoundly normal, that we doubt that it is necessary to ever come before God with such a contrite disposition. This is a grievous error. The Sinner’s Prayer is not simply for the worst offenders; it is for any and every person who desires to be in communion with the God of this Universe.
I assure you, John Newton was not being unduly harsh when he described himself as ‘a wretch’ in his well-known hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. John Newton understood, what we must understand that in our fallen condition, we are at enmity with God.
The apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, explains that before we were reconciled with God, “we were (His) enemies” (Rom. 5:10). To the Ephesians, Paul explains that we were “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). ‘Oh, but is Paul really referring to every human being with such harsh statements?’ The sobering answer is Yes. Again, in Romans, Paul comments on the human condition by quoting the Old Testament, saying, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12).
A fallen nature
When Adam and Eve sinned, so long ago, it caused in us a disposition change; the nature of human beings became fundamentally altered. The prophet Jeremiah diagnoses this condition when he wrote, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). King David makes a similar diagnosis when he writes, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5).
Our predicament is indeed dire, and that is why we should pray as David prayed. We should not imagine, as the Pharisee did, that our external obedience to God’s commands is sufficient to gain His favour. We should not imagine that our church attendance, our engagement in religious activities, or our kindness to others provides the necessary merit to enter the kingdom of heaven. For, again, the apostle Paul declares that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In other words, we can’t do it on our own. We’re simply not good enough to earn our way into heaven.
For this reason, our disposition should be that of the publican who “stood some distance (from the temple), and was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Lk. 18:13).
A sure solution
I admit that the notion that we are all sinners is a distasteful notion. Talking about how sinful we are is indeed unpleasant. And yet, it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. If we truly are in a sinful state, it is not helpful to ignore our problem. If we truly are in a sinful state, what is most helpful is for us to seek out a solution to our predicament.
Of course, this is what we do whenever we learn that we are suffering from a physical ailment. Once our condition is diagnosed we promptly respond by taking medication, or we respond by undergoing surgery, with the hope that our ailment will be corrected.
It is a frustrating thing to be presented with a problem, and not be offered a solution. I am so thankful that the Bible does not simply present us with the problem of human sinfulness, but it offers us a solution. And the proposed solution to our sin problem is a sure solution. It is not like taking medication, or undergoing surgery, where we weigh the probabilities of engagement and hope for a cure. No, the Bible presents a certain cure for sin: Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners.
The means of justification, the means for obtaining God’s favour, is the death and Resurrection of the Son of God. What remains is the appropriation of the means to salvation. And the way we appropriate the means to salvation is by prayer.
We must, like David and the publican, confess that we are sinners, and that we are helpless to remedy our situation. But again, it is not the reciting of particular words that is required. What is required is a particular posture of our heart. King David illustrates that this, too, must be prayed for when he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). The state of our heart is of utmost importance because, as David confesses, “a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
And how is our plea for mercy met? The apostle Paul declares, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Salvation is not for those who have a lengthy resume of good deeds. Heaven is not reserved for those who have earned their way. No, favour with God is obtained by being “in Christ Jesus”. It is in Him, and in Him alone, we are saved. It is as our hymn writer puts it:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come!
A regular plea
We need such a prayer to gain eternal life, but there is also a sense in which we need to utter such a prayer on a regular basis. Just as The Sinner’s Prayer is necessary to obtain union with God, it is also necessary to preserve our communion with God.
Once united to God through Christ, our salvation is never in jeopardy. But what is at continual risk is our communion with God. A marriage relationship may be helpful to illustrate this point. A wedding ceremony formalizes the union between a man and a woman, and is never to be broken. However, within the matrimonial union, I may become careless with my words and say something unkind to Allie. My unkind words do not break the marital union, but they do cause a breakdown in the marital communion. And the way in which we restore communion with our spouse is similar to the way in which we restore communion with God: We ask for forgiveness.
You see, The Sinner’s Prayer, while essential in gaining God’s eternal favour once and for all, is also necessary to preserve good relations with God day by day. In other words, we all need to pray in this manner. Whether to gain for the first time the joy of salvation, or to have the joy of our salvation restored to us (Ps. 51:12), we must learn to pray as King David and the publican prayed. For this reason, there may be no prayer as important to our spiritual health as The Sinner’s Prayer. Amen.