First, a little background for this post:
Generally from within the ranks of neo-Calvinism, a growing body of criticism has been emerging regarding evangelistic means that have been widespread among Southern Baptists. The use of the altar-call invitation has been one of the activities challenged by this critique. The use of a "sinner's prayer" is another challenged activity.
Consider, for example, this clip from the preaching of David Platt:
From the opposite perspective, take a moment to hear the words of Steve Gaines:
Also, I commend to you the analysis of Malcolm Yarnell, offered in his blog post, Is It Biblical to Ask Jesus into Your Heart?
And now, having oriented you to the debate, I offer my opinion. I think it might be helpful for us to draw an analogy to marriage vows as a good way to understand "The Sinner's Prayer."
I think we'd have to admit that both marriage vows and the sinner's prayer suffer from a great deal of abuse these days. The abusers are not the pastors, by and large, although there exists a class of mail-order-ordination "ministers" for whom the vows are simply a magic incantation to make people married and there exists a class of preachers out there who simply get people to repeat a prayer by rote in order to inflate their numbers. The existence of these folks entirely granted, the predominant abusers of marriage vows are the people reciting them, not the people officiating them. Their subsequent lives demonstrate that they were not sincere in what they said at the marriage altar. Likewise, the subsequent lives of many people who mouth a sinner's prayer gives ample evidence that they were not at all sincere in what they claimed to have been praying.
Another similarity is the fact that the Bible gives us neither the text of a set of wedding vows nor the text of a specific sinner's prayer. The substantive core of both is in the Bible—both the idea that marriage is a covenantal relationship solemnized by a sacred vow and the idea that conversion is associated with something that someone says in connection with an appeal to God are biblical concepts. The specific text of a marriage vow or a sinner's prayer, however, does not appear in scripture.
Now, what ought we to do about this problem with wedding vows? I don't hear many people suggesting that the solution would be to do away with wedding vows altogether or to minimize their role in the celebration of weddings. Rather, the better solution is to pay more attention to the vows rather than less. We should make certain that the vows of Christian marriage have been worded carefully, that they represent well all that Christian marriage entails, and that each participant makes his or her vows as someone who has been informed fully about the meaning of those vows as he or she gives assent to them. Can two people be married in God's eyes without exchanging vows? I suppose. Why would they want to be?
Likewise, it is foolishness to cast away the idea of a prayer formally stating repentance from sin, formally requesting forgiveness in the blood of Christ, formally appealing to God for a cleansed conscience, and formally declaring one's allegiance to the Lordship of Christ. Can a person be saved apart from having received specific guidance to pray that sort of a prayer? I think so. The thief on the cross comes to mind. Prayer can take a lot of forms. God is able to discern repentance and faith apart from our expressions of it. Verbal declarations of the Lordship of Christ come in bewildering variety. But why would one wish avoid praying such a prayer as a part of receiving Christ?
In both cases, it is true that some substantive something happening within the people is the substantive reality being celebrated, and not some incantational effect of the words. In both cases it is true that many are making a travesty of the phenomenon by their insincerity. In both cases, however, the vow and the prayer are opportunities to plumb the depths of the inward commitment and to solemnize it. We may be failing to realize the opportunity as well as we might, but that does not mean that we should dismiss it altogether.