Several years ago I had an uncomfortable experience. I was doing door-to-door with a veteran student evangelist. He was doing a great job of sharing the gospel, but when it came to the point of calling for a decision that is where it became uncomfortable.
At this one particular door, we met the only really open person in our hour of evangelism. The teenager with whom we were talking was very open to the gospel. I could see it in his eyes and in his humble demeanor. It was also clear from the questions he was asking and from his responses to my partner’s question.
However, the conversation began to enter an interesting cycle. Because this youth did not know what to do with the conviction that he was under, my co-laboring partner evangelist started through the gospel again. He repeated the gospel presentation three times. At the end of the third gospel presentation he asked him if he would be home the next week, so that they could speak again. And we left and returned to the church.
I held my peace throughout the entire conversation for several reasons. (1) I have experienced being interrupted in the midst of sharing the gospel, and have not appreciated it. (2) I wanted to see and evaluate this evangelist’s approach to sharing the gospel in a real conversation. (3) My role in that conversation, as the evangelism partner was to pray. So I was praying for wisdom and conviction throughout the entire conversation.
Several years prior to that I had another experience with another veteran evangelist. Perhaps because he knew that I was a professor of evangelism, he wanted to showcase his methodology of evangelism to me. We were involved in street evangelism at the time. He went up to a young man and began asking him a series of questions. They were good questions.
However, by the end of a string of about 8-10 questions, this evangelist asked the individual if he wanted to receive Christ as his Savior. The entire series of questions and answers lasted about one or two minutes. The young man was receptive to the idea of receiving Christ, so he led him in a sinners’ prayer.
If my memory is correct, in this particular case, the person prayed to receive Christ without ever having heard the gospel (as I remember it), or even the mention of any Bible verses. It was very awkward for me to experience. The evangelist then turned to me and said, “There. That is how you do it!”
Clearly these real examples are two extremes as it relates to bringing a gospel conversion to a close, and as it relates to the use or non-use of the sinners’ prayer. Based on these experiences and others like it, may I share several points?
(1) Both evangelists had enough spiritual nerve that they were willing to be involved in initiative evangelism. They were not “speaking from the grandstands” of evangelism.
(2) Both evangelists believed in the Pauline gospel (1 Cor 15:1-5), salvation by grace through faith, and in the need to individually respond to the gospel.
(3) The differences in their approaches involved: (a) the need to definitively share the gospel before calling for a decision; (b) the need to sow the seed of the Word to allow the Holy Spirit to tenderize the heart for a spiritual decision; (c) the need to verbally ask the person to respond to the gospel through prayer; and (d) the role of providing the interested person a sample prayer of repentance and profession of faith.
That being said, allow me to share several other points:
(4) Sharing the gospel is always a spiritual battle, not only in the heart of the person hearing the gospel, but also in the heart of the person sharing it.
(5) God must lead his people to share as He has led them in their heart:
Rom 14:4, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
(6) God is at work in the hearts of His servants by His Holy Spirit in ways that we do not always perceive nor understand. We must watch lest we frustrate the work of God by imposing our personal predispositions on others.
In conclusion, I am all for a sinners’ prayer, if the gospel has been shared, if God’s Word has been used in the conversation, and if the person is clearly under conviction and willing to repent of their sin. However, after sharing why I have the convictions that I have, and why I evangelize the way I do, I back off and let God work in the hearts of my students according to His sovereign timing and will.