There is no actual prayer in the bible to recite that saves you from sin or hell. Christian prayers are not incantations that have some sort of magical effect. Prayer is worship and speaking directly to your Creator. A prayer without faith is just words without meaning.
The prayer that is often referred to as a sinner’s prayer is a template for praying a prayer of declaration of faith in Jesus as your Savior. Paul the apostle, in all of his teaching, reiterates over and over in numerous ways how it is faith in Jesus that saves (1 Corinthians 1:18). The typical sinner’s prayer includes words of acknowledgment of sin and asking for forgiveness. The prayer usually has a phrase declaring that the one saying the prayer is “repenting” of their sins.
Being sorry for past offenses (sins) against God is appropriate when praying this prayer. However, repentance means more to turn away from—to think differently. It is one thing to be sorry for your sins, but it is another thing to abandon the behaviors that lead to sin and to live a life of service unto God. In Romans 12:1 Paul tells us that Christians should present their bodies as a living sacrifice and that it is our “reasonable” service. That means turning over yourself to full service to the perfect will of God. In Romans 12:2 Paul lets us know that we are not supposed to be “conformed to this world” but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
The prayer is written or recited in slightly differing versions. Some are more brief than others. In most live services where an altar call for salvation is given, the preacher leads new believers in a prayer they recite word for word as the preacher prays. I have never seen a preacher read from a printed prayer of salvation at an altar call for salvation. Even though there are different written versions, and each speaker leading people in a prayer of faith uses different words, the prayer follows a pattern.
Before a prayer of salvation is prayed, people hear the Gospel message preached. Understand that all believers in Christ are preachers of the Gospel message (Mark 16:15-16 Romans 10:13-14). Gospel means “good news,” and the good news is that we can be saved. By default the spirit of mankind knows of their lost state and that there is something to be saved from (Romans 1:18-20). God, the Father, draws human beings unto faith in Christ (John 6:44), and his Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin (John 16:8).
When that spark of faith rises up to put faith in Jesus for salvation, a prayer declaring it is usually what is next. And the first part of the prayer that follows hearing the Gospel includes recognition of being lost or separated from God, that there is something to be saved from. The second part has words that declare sorrow for a lifetime of sin along with a statement of repentance. Repentance simply means turning away, so whether the words “I repent” or other words that mean the same thing are said, fundamentally the person saying the prayer is declaring intent to abandon sin and turn to God to receive salvation through faith in Jesus.
The third part should include words spoken in faith—in belief—that this is only possible through what Jesus has done on the cross. Namely, that he died paying the penalty for the sins of the person praying, and that three days later he rose again from the dead. It is based on Romans 10:9-10. The last part of the prayer is the declaration in faith in Jesus as their Savior. It is this faith in the free gift of grace that is the catalyst for the transformation (Ephesians 2:8-9). The prayer usually has words of invitation for Jesus to come into the person’s heart who is making the prayer. Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:20 correlate with this part of the prayer.
It must be clearly understood that the prayer is not an incantation that causes something to happen to save a lost person. God forbid such a thought arise in the minds or hearts of those praying this prayer. However, I have seen situations where some people think it is the recitation of the words of an actual prayer that activates their salvation.
Paul is quite clear in Romans 10:9-10 where he says, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” The heart is the inner person where the thoughts and feelings reside. Not the organ that is pumping blood throughout your cardiovascular system. This inner person—your living spirit—is where the initial faith begins. The spirit that is the person doing the praying takes control of the mind of flesh and accepts the fact of what Jesus said in John 14:6.
The guilt and judgment of sin is satisfied instantly through faith in the sacrifice Jesus made by shedding his blood. I am referring to the courtroom kind of guilt here, not the shame kind of guilt that we should also have when repentance is declared in prayer. We are guilty of our sins against God in the same manner as criminals who commit crimes worthy of death are guilty and deserve punishment. Apprehended criminals who are guilty of crimes eventually stand before judges who pass judgment of guilt along with imposing a sentence—a penalty that must be paid for crimes.
Though criminals who violate the laws and statutes of man may evade the discovery of their guilt, as well as the judgment and penalties of human courts, no one escapes standing before and facing the eternal judgment of God. The bible is clear in Hebrews 9:27 that it is appointed unto men to die and then face judgement. We can run from God for a lifetime in our flesh, but we cannot escape the eternal nature all of us have been granted. Some will enjoy eternal life with God, and others will be separated in a place of punishment referred to as the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8).
Some who pray the so-called “sinner’s prayer” are concerned over whether they said the right words or believed strong enough to be saved. Permit me to tell you what really happens at the time that prayer is said. If you have prayed such a prayer in simple faith, you escaped a death sentence! You had to be drawn by God to salvation to even have an inkling of accepting the free gift in the first place.
The Bible is clear that the wages or payment for sin is death (Romans 6:23). Then those who have not accepted God’s free gift of eternal life with him face the second death in judgment. The who of what you really are is more than your physical body. There is a thinking, feeling, conscious eternal you that continues on uninterrupted even after you leave your physical body. Spiritual death is total separation from God in a place of punishment. Initially it is a literal hell, finally to be the lake of fire when death and hell itself are cast into it (Revelation 2:11 Revelation 20:6 Revelation 20:14 Revelation 21:8).
Imagine for a moment you committed a crime in human society that has a death sentence. You know you did it, and you are hoping you will not get caught. Then you do get caught and hope the judge will find you not guilty, or at least only give you a life sentence for your crime that is worthy of death. However, the rules of this court are never corrupt, nor does this judge ever fail to judge correctly. There is no getting away from the guilt due to a legal technicality, nor is there hope of a savvy lawyer poking holes in spotty testimonies of eyewitnesses. This judge happens to know everything about you from before you even began to form inside your mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5). In fact, this judge spoke you into existence (John 1:1-5)!
With nothing you ever did or failed to do being hidden from this judge, and no way out of the guilt of the crimes that come with a death sentence, what is your hope? It is one that is hard to imagine because of the sacrifice involved. The rules require payment for the crimes. There is no getting around that. There is no selective enforcement in this court. No earthly treasure can buy you a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict. You are guilty, and that is final.
The penalty is death, and it must be paid. However, this perfect judge who has never made a mistake about the guilt of a single person who will ever stand before him has, from the beginning, intended to provide a way for the guilty to have a second chance. Actually, second chance does not quite explain it. No, this judge actually wants the guilty to be made as new (2 Corinthians 5:17)!
It turns out this perfect judge is actually the one who made you. He also happens to love you to an unimaginable degree. So much does he love you that he paid the penalty for your crimes—your sins—for you. Now he is only asking that you believe that he is offering that saving option to you to escape the death sentence, and to willingly receive it with an honest intent to turn away from the life of crime that brings judgment.
He offers this saving option to every criminal—every human being. Unfortunately, there are some who love their lives of crime so much that they choose to live in them all the way up to the point when judgment is final and the penalty is carried out. Others are under the false impression that the judge will accept other things in payment for their crimes. Crimes that have been fully declared in this Holy Judge’s Word that death is the penalty.
There are some who are wrongly convinced that at the moment when judgment is meted out the judge will weigh the good things done in life against the crimes, and will waive the penalty if the good things offset the bad things. However, the Judge has already declared that all are under sin (Galatians 3:22 Romans 3:23). And with everyone guilty, the wages, or payment, for sin will be paid, and that payment is a penalty of death—separation from God in a place of punishment (Romans 6:23).
The best sinner’s prayer is one spoken from the heart. The confession with the mouth is valid even with those who cannot speak. It is just a declaration that comes forth on the outside of what is happening on the inside of the person. Those who can speak should pray out loud. Those who cannot speak are still heard and acknowledged by God. Romans 10:10 reveals that the sequence begins on the inside. Faith begins internally at the level of your spirit. The confession or declaration comes out clearly even if the person praying the sinner’s prayer has no mouth to speak.
In other words, the sinner’s prayer does not start from the outside of man and penetrate to the inside. No, the sinner’s prayer begins in the spirit of each and every one of us who confess that Jesus is the Christ, and then comes out of us in word, deed, action and our very lives. So, do not fret over whether or not the prayer of salvation you prayed was sufficient to save you. The wording of the prayer was never going to save you anyway. It is truly as simple as faith and confession of that faith in Christ with repentance (turning away from sin). It is your faith in Jesus applied daily that is the mark of grace on your life (Matthew 10:22 Matthew 7:20-21).