“What do I need to do to become a Christian?”
I asked my theology class this question today. Thankfully, no one said “invite Jesus into your heart.” Nevertheless, I was struck that their answers largely assumed that Christians have to say something to be saved—for example, say a prayer where you confess your sin, invite Jesus to be Lord of your life, etc.
At the same time, I wasn’t too surprised by their answers given that Evangelicals often emphasize saying a prayer, sometimes called the “sinners prayer,” as the means to getting saved. This may be because of the history of evangelical revivals, accompanied by altar calls, and because many evangelicals have been taught to evangelize using the so-called “four spiritual laws,” which end with a prayer.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (Acts 2:22-36). In response, the crowd asked, “Brothers, what should we do?” (v. 37). Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38). Peter’s answer was repentance and baptism. Neither of these things necessarily require saying something.
I would add that Peter’s answer presupposes that a person needs to have faith in God—no one would repent or want to be baptized unless they first have faith in God. Hence, it makes sense that when someone asked Paul, “what must I do to be saved?,” Paul answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31).
But, What Should a Person Say?
Do we have to say something in particular to have faith, repent, or be baptized? No. There is no biblical formula or checklist for what a person has to say in order to be saved. Faith is found in our hearts (“believe in your heart…,” Romans 10:9). Nevertheless, authentic faith will no doubt be expressed with words and actions, such as prayer, baptism, participating in communion, and love for others.
One might protest with an appeal to Romans 10:9, which says “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord… you will be saved.” Note, however, that this statement starts with if—confession is sufficient, but not necessary. Note also that this is a fairly limited confession. It certainly isn’t a lengthy prayer.
My opening question is actually somewhat problematic. We don’t really have to do anything to be saved. Rather, we are saved solely by the grace of God. We respond by realizing that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves and, therefore, we trust ourselves to God (faith), and live in response to this (repentance and baptism).
On account of this, it isn’t always clear when a person is “saved.” If a child is raised in a Christian home, they may have faith long before they ever say a prayer requesting salvation or are baptized. Likewise, I imagine that if an adult decides to say the sinners’ prayer months after attending a church, they probably are doing so because they already have faith in God.
In saying this, I don’t deny that there is value in leading someone in the sinners’ prayer. People can express their faith with a prayer. Nevertheless, no one is required to say any particular prayer in order to be saved by God.
But, perhaps in saying all this I’ve missed something crucial. Perhaps the key is having people raise their hands at the end of a church service, while everyone in the congregation closes their eyes, so that no one knows who is getting saved ;).*
* Thanks to one of my students for inspiring my last point.