The ways Jesus responded to people, showing them what they should do to have eternal life, are quite different! To one, Jesus said “Go, sell all you have, and give to the poor, and follow me.” To another, Jesus said “Come down, I must eat at your house today.” To a third, Jesus said “Go call your husband, and come back.” To others, Jesus said “Repent and believe the good news!”
Now leading a person in a prayer of repentance and obedience may well bring a person into the kingdom, many have come in in this way, I could include myself! But this is not actually an example we find in Scripture, here are some more:
John 12:36 Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.
Luke 10:27-28 He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
Acts 2:37-38 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
So each case is different, and there really seems to be no formula, also, having people always pray the sinner’s prayer will make them tend to look at the prayer that they prayed, to see if it “took.” I know I have! And then if there is doubt, there will be a tendency to pray this prayer again, and again, and again, and this puts the focus in just the wrong place.
Salvation comes by looking to the Lord, by obeying him, and not in essence by a prayer, the essence is in doing the Lord’s will, and in getting to know him, as in Paul’s prayer when he first met the Lord (Acts 22:6-10):
“Who are you, Lord?”
To get to know God. And then he next started obedience…
“Lord, what do you want me to do?”
What specifically? Not a commitment to obedience, but asking for specific instructions.
“To be ‘born again’ is the greatest blessing that will ever come to us in this world. Many people are hunting after peace and joy. If we admit Christ into our hearts these will all come of themselves” (D.L. Moody)
Now if we encourage people to invite Christ into their hearts, let us note that these verses are addressed to the church! To believers. And instead of suggesting that people do this, Moody continues:
“If any of you are down in the valley amidst the thick fog, get a little higher; get nearer to Christ, and know more of Him” (D.L. Moody)
Knowing Christ! That is what is said here, too:
John 17:3 Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
Knowing Christ brings obedience! And brings his presence in our hearts.
So then in practical terms, it would seem that seeking to know Jesus is what is required, looking to the Lord, turning our thoughts to him, and then in any area where we know we should obey the Lord, “Whatever he says to you, do it” (Jn. 2:5). And that might be praying a prayer! Or it might be returning an item we stole:
Luke 19:8-10 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
And this also applies when people wonder if they belong to God, when we wonder if our conversion was genuine. We can always seek God, those who seek will find, we are promised, and we can look for any obedience the Lord is calling us to now, and simply do it. This also takes the focus off of us, off of our commitment and sincerity, or lack of it, and puts the focus on Jesus, which also means salvation.
“The only way to get into the kingdom of God is to be ‘born’ into it. God provided a remedy ‘Look and live!’ You need not look at the church; the church cannot save you. Look at the Crucified One. Look to Calvary. Bear in mind that Jesus died for all. You need not look at ministers; they are just God’s chosen instruments to hold up the Remedy, to hold up Christ. And so, my friends, take your eyes off from men; take your eyes off from the church. Lift them up to Jesus…”
– D.L. Moody
“In my conversion, the very point lay in making the discovery that I had nothing to do but to look to Christ, and I should be saved. I believe that I had been a very good, attentive hearer; my own impression about myself was that nobody ever listened much better than I did. For years, as a child, I tried to learn the way of salvation; and either I did not hear it set forth, which I think cannot quite have been the case, or else I was spiritually blind and deaf, and could not see it and could not hear it; but the good news that I was, as a sinner, to look away from myself to Christ, as much startled me, and came as fresh to me, as any news ever heard in my life. Had I never read my Bible? Yes, and read it earnestly. Had I never been taught by Christian people? Yes, I had, by mother, and father, and others. Had I not heard the gospel? Yes, I think I had; and yet, somehow, it was like a new revelation to me that I was to ‘believe and live.'”
– C.H. Spurgeon
From David Brainerd’s journal, when the people he was preaching to began seeking salvation, one of them being his interpreter:
“At this season divine truth took hold of him, and made deep impressions upon his mind. He was brought under great concern for his soul, and his exercise was not now transient and unsteady, but constant and abiding, so that his mind was burdened from day to day; and it was now His great inquiry, ‘What he should do to be saved?’ His spiritual trouble prevailed, till at length his sleep, in a measure, departed from him, and he had little rest day or night; but walked about under a great pressure of mind…”
“After he had been some time under this exercise, while he was striving to obtain mercy, he says, there seemed to be an impassable mountain before him. He was pressing towards heaven, as he thought, but ‘his way was hedged up with thorns, that he could not stir an inch further.’ He looked this way and that way, but could find no way at all. He thought, if he could but make his way through these thorns and briers, and climb up the first steep pitch of the mountain, that then there might be hope for him; but no way or means could he find to accomplish this. Here he laboured for a time, but all in vain; he saw it was impossible, he says, for him ever to help himself through this insupportable difficulty, he felt it signified nothing, ‘it signified just nothing at all for him to strive and struggle any more.’ And here, he says, he gave over striving, and felt that it was a gone case with him, as to his own power, and that all his attempts were, and for ever would be, vain and fruitless. And yet was more calm and composed under this view of things, than he had been while striving to help himself…”
“He cannot here remember distinctly any views he had of Christ, or give any clear account of his soul’s acceptance of him, which makes his experience appear the more doubtful, and renders it less satisfactory to himself and others, than it might be, if he could remember distinctly the apprehensions and actings of his mind at this season. — But these exercises of soul were attended and followed with a very great change in the man, so that it might justly he said, he was become another man, if not a new man. His conversation and deportment were much altered, and even the careless world could not but admire what had befallen him to make so great a change in his temper, discourse, and behaviour…”
“His change is abiding, and his life, so far as I know, unblemished to this day, though it is now more than six months since he experienced this change…”
– David Brainard
Sherwood Wirt: “How can we foster the encounter of people with Jesus Christ?”
C.S. Lewis: “You can’t lay down any pattern for God. There are many different ways of bringing people into His Kingdom, even some ways that I specially dislike! I have therefore learned to be cautious in my judgment.”
– “God in the Dock”, p. 252
John 6:37 “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”
“These words therefore are dropped from his blessed mouth, on purpose that the coming sinner might take encouragement to continue on his journey, until he be come indeed to Jesus Christ.”
– John Bunyan