Tough Questions 2008: Can We Live Like the Devil and Go To Heaven?

Sermon audio: Can We Live Like the Devil and Go To Heaven? I left the wording of this question exactly the way it came to me. I like the flamboyance. But I do wonder how anyone came to ask it at all. I think one factor is the evangelical reliance on the sinner's prayer.

Here's the gist: "Jesus, please forgive my sins because of your death on the cross. I ask to you live in my heart, and to give me eternal life." People are exhorted to pray this way to become Christians, and many have been encouraged to see their prayer as the guarantee of their new life in Christ. After praying this, we've been told, you cannot lose your salvation.

Our questioner is asking how strong that guarantee is.

My own relationship with the sinner's prayer has been troubled.

In a sense, my Christian life did begin by "praying the prayer." One evening when I was five, my dad was giving me a piano lesson. At one point, he stopped talking about music and asked if I'd ever invited Jesus into my heart. I said no. So we prayed together and that same night my parents took me to both sets of grandparents to tell what I had done. Which was better than finishing my scales.

Dad told me recently that he saw a marked change in me after that prayer.

In another sense, however, the prayer was not the beginning of my Christian life. It only summed up what the Lord had already been doing in my heart-and-mind, and gave expression to a faith I already had. Crucial aspects of walking with the Lord came later in my experience, and these were more deliberate moments of commitment.

In my teenage years, I wondered what the sinner's prayer really accomplishes.

Some of the things I saw growing up in church had made me skeptical. One Sunday morning a man gave his testimony, telling a great story of how he came to pray the prayer. A couple weeks later, I overheard a conversation that my mom had on the phone, in which she learned that this man had left his wife for another woman.

I saw kids in youth group go forward during the altar calls at big conferences. We would throw a party over the sinner's repentance, only to see him continue his immoral lifestyle. In fact, few of the converts from youth group remained Christians past college.

The more questions I asked about salvation, the more I heard answers that didn't work.

One idea was that those who abandoned the Christian life after praying the prayer were still eternally saved. I thought it was simply unbelievable, flying in the face of both direct experience and scriptural teaching. Another idea was that lapsed converts didn't believe "enough," which wasn't any clearer to me. By and by, I learned that there was a theological category for "carnal Christians," who live like the devil but make it to heaven anyway. Another flop, as we'll study on Sunday morning.

I concluded that the Christian life was founded on something larger than one prayer. (More thoughts here.)

But after years of wrestling, I'm returning to the sinner's prayer because it does accomplish a few basic things.

It gives a person words.

Someone who senses the reality of Christ needs a way to express his faith, even if he has a church background and biblical knowledge. When a person recognizes his sense of Christ in the words of the sinner's prayer, and adopts those words as his own, his understanding grows.

The prayer also articulates a beginning.

Repentance has to start somewhere, and the prayer offers an excellent place. Viewed as the start of an earthly life of hope in Jesus Christ -- as opposed to the final purchase of a ticket to heaven -- the prayer can frame a person's future decisions about right and wrong, personal crises, and relationships.

The sinner's prayer can even set that hope into a pattern.

If someone confesses sin specifically, seeks forgiveness explicitly, and asks for the work of the Spirit, then she has a model for a spiritual discipline she can use every day. When salvation is taught as the work of God rather than the result of a prayer formula, there is less danger of her thinking that she's "lost her salvation" when she sins, and more encouragement to return to her salvation's source.

The biggest virtue of the sinner's prayer is that it can put the individual face-to-face with Christ. The person summons the courage to address God -- no small thing. He asks for something according to God's promise. And he starts acting on the belief that Jesus is not dead but alive.

In other words, the work of God in a person's soul is what guarantees salvation, not a prayer -- however significant that prayer may be. The Christian life is founded on God himself.