I have spoken with many people who have told me that they have prayed the sinner's prayer and it didn't work. Years ago I heard a woman say in a gathering of Christians that she had just prayed the sinner's prayer for the 26th time and was hoping that it was finally going to work. If it didn't work the first 25 times, why would this woman have any confidence that it would ever work for her? In my observations the sinner's prayer doesn't seem to work every time. Why is that? Is it because God doesn't want it to be so predictable? Is it because God doesn't want certain sinners to be saved and so won't hear their prayer? I suggest that the answer is simple, surprisingly simple.
Being a Counterfeit Sinner
Living in Mormon culture has had surprising benefits in understanding my own religion more clearly. It may be that all of the thousands of Mormons I have spoken with about spiritual matters have freely offered, or at least agreed, that they are sinners. Does that surprise you? After many conversations I became suspicious that something was missing. Now when a Mormon admits to being a sinner, I ask for explanation of what is meant by the word sinner. The conversation that follows is often humorous, at least from my vantage point. Here is a sample conversation.
Mormon: Of course I am a sinner.
Me: May I ask you a few questions to see which kind of sinner you are?
Mormon: I thought that there was just one kind of sinner.
Me: There are two kinds of sinners: helpless sinners and sinners with assets. Which kind are you?
Mormon: I am not sure what you mean. Can you explain?
Me: Some of Jesus' first words were, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This is the first line from his most famous speech, the Sermon on the Mount, and is found in Matthew 5:3. Have you heard of it?
Mormon: I don't remember.
Me: The word poor is actually the word beggar in the original Bible. Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual beggar?
Mormon: I still am not sure I catch your meaning.
Me: You have ever seen a beggar?
Me: What does a beggar have to offer?
Mormon: Nothing. He just takes.
Me: So in the spiritual world do you see yourself as a spiritual beggar, or do you have good things that you can offer to God?
Mormon: Of course I have something to offer to God.
Me: Can you give me some examples?
Mormon: I can repent. I can offer sincerity and willingness.
Me: So then you are not a spiritual beggar who can only take. You have assets. According to Jesus you don't qualify for the kingdom of heaven. 37 years ago I gave up thinking I had anything good to offer God and realized that I was a spiritual beggar.
This conversation usually opens a door to explain the difference between a gift and a reward. All Mormons tell me that they believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins. I then ask them what then need to do to connect to what Jesus did for them. They reply with words like: repent, try to keep the commandments. do what is right. At this point I commonly give the testimony of a friend who became a Christian as an active Mormon by reading the Book of Mormon.
Testimony: A Counterfeit Sinner Becomes a Real One
About 15 years ago this active Mormon was witnessed to by a Christian. And to cover her bases, she prayed the sinner's prayer. But nothing happened. Eight years later while reading the Book of Mormon two versed shocked her and opened her eyes to see that she was spiritually ruined. One was the famous third to the last verse in the book, which contains the following. Notice my bold emphasis of the words of all, and if/then.
"and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind, and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you,"
When she read this she suddenly realized that only if she was perfect would she get grace from God to cover her past sins. She knew that such was impossible, gave up all hope in herself, and cried out to God that Jesus died for her and that that was all she had. Immediately she was filled with peace, knew she was forgiven, and began to tell her Mormon friends. They thought she was crazy. Eventually she realized what had happened to her and found some Christians to join.