Graham Greene and the Sinner’s Prayer

I’ll put one of my fears out there: I fear that, week after week, we pastors describe an experience of conversion that no one has.

The Authorized Conversion happens when someone “asks Jesus into his heart.” The act of praying this prayer, evangelicals have taught, transfers a person from darkness to light. It is the moment of salvation. Preaching drives toward it, and testimonies feature it. When we ask each other how we “got saved,” we are asking about the circumstances that led to praying the prayer. We count the people who pray it, and we tell them to write the date and the hour in their Bibles.

But in my own experience, praying the sinner’s prayer was only one step in my salvation — a defining step, a step that summed up what the Lord had been doing in my five-year-old soul, but not decisive. As I remember growing up, I can see many points that were clearer, more specific. There was a day in the fifth grade, for instance, when I was in despair because I had no friends. At recess, I retreated to a far corner of the schoolyard to pray, and found friendship from Jesus.

For me, salvation is the fruit of many defining experiences and decisions, not one. And we seem to induce spiritual lethargy when we teach people to rely on a single prayer.

In high school, I saw how people went forward for tearful prayers, but almost never showed any change later. I constantly meet Christians who, in an effort to know that they’re saved, have repeated the sinner’s prayer so many times they’ve lost count. Like many of my generation, I’m suspicious of conversion numbers, even cynical that anything good comes of guiding more people through the steps. Indeed, evangelical doubt over the sinner’s prayer seems to be a primary cause of the movement’s splintering. Emergents and Calvinists both put the altar call at the top of their lists of “what’s wrong with us.”

There are modern Christian movements that have connected more vigorously with people’s experiences.

Graham Greene wrote a novel decades ago called, The End of the Affair. He told the story of an adulterous woman whom God lures out of sexual immorality. It was a story that reflected not just Greene’s experience, but the experience of many English contemporaries — Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, and C. S. Lewis being only the most prominent.

While I might have problems with Greene’s theology, there is no question that literature like his shows how conversion happens in post-Christian culture far better than anything evangelicals have written.

Evangelicals need to make a lot of changes. They need to separate their political and cultural resentments from their proclamation of the gospel. They need a revival of the arts so that they can nurture people emotionally with truth. They need to understand the real characteristics of the people in their churches.

But, fundamentally, evangelicals need to rearticulate what conversion is.

The conversions I see are slow. There’s the young woman who attended church in Orland for three years before startling her friends by announcing that she believed in Jesus. She told me she found Christ not by being miserable, but by being happy — and realizing that it wasn’t enough. Then there’s the older man who had “prayed the prayer” decades ago, but who only found assurance of salvation when he went camping alone last summer to seek the Lord.

So one of my goals is to describe the conversion experience that people actually have: the slow, step-by-step acquisition of an art under the direction of the Master. Real Christians fumble with faith, making crude brush strokes and mixing their paints poorly. But the Master keeps instructing and the apprentice keeps fumbling. Sometimes the apprentice slips into the zone with his faith, but he slips out again. The Master just keeps him painting, painting, painting, until one day the apprentice realizes that his faith lives.

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5 thoughts on “Graham Greene and the Sinner’s Prayer

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  1. Very true. I know probably few of those, who “went forward, repeated-after-me, received Jesus” people and that was their real conversion moment. But I know thousands, who were pursued by God for some time, before they even realized, that they were on a journey to His arms.

    Thanks for posting it.

  2. The roots for our practice of these “steps”, which includes the altar call, can be traced back to Charles Finney. He did not create the concept, but did package it in such a way to become the father of modern evangelism. Ultimately, his flawed theology led to some of his misleading practices that we are just now trying to overcome (you can read more in Part 5 of my series on The Church in Crisis.

    I do have one question for you though. I agree with so much of what you are saying, but even after a long journey the prodigal son did come home. So as a pastor I am also confronted with the idea that we use water baptism as a sign of our immersion/salvation through the Holy Spirit. So if we shift to only a process model, with no definable “moments”, do we lose the biblical essence of salvation and the purpose of water baptism?

    I hope that makes sense…

  3. Joe,

    Your question makes a lot of sense! I think our overemphasis of the altar call has eclipsed water baptism, which is how Christ commanded us to define our change of identity. We are called to declare ourselves for Christ, and conversion is not, as I may have implied, an endless morph.

    Your note about Finney is absolutely right. I would date the merging of populism and evangelicalism from his ministry, actually. His emphasis on spectacular displays, which you bring out so well in your series, was the start of a deeply manipulative view of conversion. Evangelists went from delivering babies at the end of a process to performing Caesarians at will.

    Thanks for the link to your series!

  4. Glad you found it of value. Thanks also for your thoughts on water baptism vs. altar call. I like your analogy to natural birth vs. C-section!

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