This question from Nick Martin is one I often hear:
If sin is best viewed as the prevailing power that holds the world under evil, what value (if any) do you ascribe to leading an individual through the traditional “sinners prayer”?
The Sinner’s Prayer is a recent construct, a package we designed to get individuals to commit to the product we want them to buy into. Along with what some churches call the decision moment, it’s a mechanism for clinching the deal. It doesn’t work very well: those who’ve investigated it conclude that it’s a very poor predictor of who will be following Christ in five years’ time.
But we can’t just replace one flawed sales technique with another. I can’t give you a formula for getting people across the line. That isn’t the gospel; it never has been. The gospel is the good news of God restoring his reign (kingdom) over the earth. Our heavenly sovereign is setting right everything that has been wrong here. He’s doing this through his anointed (Christ Jesus, our Lord) who defeated evil and became king in the most astounding way (the cross).
That’s the good news we proclaim and enact. We announce the good news of God’s kingship. We enact community under Jesus’ kingship. That lifestyle is so foreign to the rebellion around us that it’s sure to raise eyebrows. When it does, we get to explain why we live this way, why we believe Jesus is the hope of the world.
Some people will respond, but we don’t need a response mechanism. Salvation is something God does, the regenerative work of the Spirit. We can recognize and celebrate as people submit to King Jesus, but we can’t make it happen.
So what confession do we want to hear? Not a confession of personal sinfulness (Sinner’s Prayer). What we want to hear is, “Jesus is Lord!” That’s the confession of someone who’s responsive to the Holy Spirit.
That’s the confession believers have made for 2000 years. It’s the message of the seven sermons in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s the essence of Paul’s letters. Jesus is the good news, so recognizing him as Lord is the response.
Jesus is Lord — it’s shorthand for the gospel of the kingdom. The way he received authority over the earth is the story of the cross. Those who follow their Lord are therefore a cross-shaped community. We know how costly it is to live like this in a world where power is abused, so we take up our crosses to follow our crucified king. We’re certain that God will raise up his earthly realm out of death, restoring the glory of his throne. He will do this because it’s what he did for his Son: raising him up out of death, to the throne.
Jesus is Lord isn’t a conversion technique. It’s the acknowledgement of a person who is responding to the Holy Spirit, turning from rebellion to submission (repenting), giving their loyalty (faith) to God’s anointed ruler (Christ Jesus our Lord).
If we translate Romans 10:9-10 into our culture, it might sound like this:
In confessing Jesus is Lord, you give him allegiance with your whole being (heart), trusting God who raised him out of death, and who therefore includes you in his salvation work.
With your whole being you give him your fealty (faith) and he gives you his acceptance (justification) — mutual acknowledgement. That’s why confessing your king is your salvation.
“Jesus is Lord” isn’t a mechanism like the “Sinner’s Prayer” or “decision moment.” It’s the confession you hear when people trust the good news of God restoring his government over the earth through Jesus our Lord.