The Sinner’s Prayer

How many people can you think of in scripture who specifically prayed to God to be forgiven of their sin(s) and received what they asked for?

The closest I can come is a suggestion from Peter and John to Simon, the would-be spiritual sorcerer – and the “perhaps” seems to be no guarantee that God will automatically forgive:

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” – Acts 8:18-24

Simon seems to have perceived that he needs the prayers of someone else, just as James recommends:

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. James 5:14-16

Nor is he alone. In the Old Testament, Pharaoh seems to recognize the same need:

Pharaoh quickly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned against the LORD your God and against you. Now forgive my sin once more and pray to the LORD your God to take this deadly plague away from me.” Moses then left Pharaoh and prayed to the LORD. Exodus 10:16-18

In fact, there are lots of examples in scripture where someone prays for another for the forgiveness of their sins: Abraham (Genesis 20:17); Moses (Numbers 14:19-20); Samuel (1 Samuel 12:19-24); Asaph (Psalm 79:5-8); Solomon (I Kings 8:46-51); Daniel (Daniel 9:17-19); Jesus (Luke 23:34); Stephen (Acts 7:59-60). You’ll note in many of the Old Testament citations, the prayer is for all the people, not just a particular individual. You might even recall that Samuel (I Samuel 15:24-26) would not accept Saul’s penitence and plea for forgiveness because God had rejected him as king – possibly because he had just lied about his disobedience, compounding sin upon sin.

And Job (Job 7:20-21) begs God for forgiveness, but God’s reply is only a question: “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (40:8). Yet, at the close of the encounter, God indicates that He will forgive Job’s friends for their impertinence if only Job will pray for them (42:7-9) and He does so – after he has prayed for his friends (42:10). On the other hand, though God restores Job’s losses by doubling them, no mention is made of forgiveness.

While Jabez prays for a blessing that God grants (1 Chronicles 4:9-10), nothing is said about forgiveness there, either.

David prays for God’s mercy and relief from bloodguilt in Psalm 51 … but there is no response. Did he receive what he asked for?

Jesus instructs that prayer should be plural when asking forgiveness in Matthew 6:9-15. In Mark 11:25, He instructs that a forgiving spirit in prayer must be a prerequisite to God’s forgiveness. He tells a story in Luke 18:9-14 about a publican who admits to God he is a sinner and begs for mercy, and goes home justified before God. Is that the same as forgiveness? If it is, was the publican a real person, or a character – a loner with no friends to pray for him – in a story meant primarily to illustrate the futility of confidence in one’s own righteousness and the power of confession in a public way, in a public place?

Some time back I blogged that “I have come to pray less for myself and more for others,” (Answers to Prayer) without really explaining the scriptural basis of why I believe “this is where much of the power of community in God’s kingdom lies.”

So am I missing something?

Can you come up with someone in scripture who prayed for forgiveness for himself or herself, and received what was requested?

Or is it possible that there is something more vital to our need for community, confession, transparency, humility and public penitence than we have generally recognized?

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13 thoughts on “The Sinner’s Prayer

  1. Ahhh, yes…I recall that blog about prayer from some time back. I <>really<> liked it, probably one of my favorites. I’m glad you’ve decided to revisit that idea. As I mentioned in my comment on that post, it’s a blessing for me to be able to pray for someone else. I almost feel like my prayer life is strongest when I’m praying for someone else than for myself (strange, huh?) Perhaps because it’s hard for me to pray when I don’t know what to pray for. And that’s often the case when I pray for myself…most times I just don’t have the words.But I rarely pray for <>forgiveness<> for someone else. When/if I do, I can’t help but feel a little like the Pharisee in Luke 18. Or perhaps someone who is looking at the speck in my brother’s eye while ignoring the log in my own eye. 😉 Not that I’m being judgmental of them…I just can’t feel like it’s my place to pray for someone else’s forgiveness, when He knows I need it more than they do. But perhaps I should work on that. After all, I know I feel better to know that someone is praying for me. <>“Is it possible that there is something more vital to our need for community, confession, transparency, humility and public penitence than we have generally recognized?”<>Absolutely. I struggle with that often. Especially the transparency part. I can post on my blog requesting prayer and have the peace of knowing that someone might stumble upon it and say a prayer for me. Yet I am unable to share my struggles, basically because I am afraid. It saddens me to admit that. Afraid of what? I’m not sure, exactly…I know I’m not alone in my struggle and may even be in the majority! So what am I afraid of??? I’ll have to work on this as well. Keith, you’ve really made me think this evening.

  2. I agree that it’s not in the best spirit to pray, “God forgive that knucklehead Goober for all of his many sins”! What I’m getting to is what you got to in your comment, Lacey – being willing to ask others to pray for us. It humbles us.In fact, I wonder if the instruction < HREF="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?book_id=47&chapter=5&verse=44&version=31&context=verse" REL="nofollow">“pray for your enemies”<> is not so much there to persuade God to change our enemies, but for Him to change us through prayer and see them less and less as our enemies; more and more as fellow sinners in constant need of His grace.

  3. Oh, yeah, I got what you were saying. I just meant that, not necessarily from a judgmental spirit, but from the reverse standpoint, if someone asks me to pray for their forgiveness, that can be a humbling experience as well, as I realize even more so my own need for forgiveness.Keith…thank you for your thoughts this evening.

  4. To approach prayer and forgiveness this way would literally force us to grow in honesty and transparency. This is needed in many of the congregations that I’m connected to. I like your perspective.I’ve never experienced a prayer situation where someone prayed over me for God to forgive and rescue me. But I’ve never felt comfortable spilling my guts about my sins to others as well. I’m a minister and I’m not supposed to need that, at least some think so. But I do. In fact, we’ve started a small group that meets at my house on Thursday nights where we’re attempting to put some of these very things into practice.

  5. Not direcly related to prayer, but what about Matt 7:3-5?3″Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.For the record, I don’t agree with “The Sinner’s Prayer” for salvation, but aren’t we all sinners? If we are to pray for the forgiveness of sins for others and not ourselves, I fear we all (or most of us) are probably going to Hell for unforgiven sin. This line of thinking could be taken to a very legalistic extreme.

  6. stacey – I’m familiar with the passage (thus the name of my blog), but the idea of this post is not that we shouldn’t pray for forgiveness for ourselves, but that we should be more willing to confess to others and ask them to pray for forgiveness on our own individual behalf (thus the comments that follow).I have no intention of taking the point to a legalistic extreme; quite the opposite! My intent is to seek ways to enrich life in community, life in the body of Christ – and the odds of God’s forgiveness being given as seen in scripture seem (to me) to be in favor of this kind of prayer.

  7. Thanks again for your thoughts and sharing your insight. I have been thinking and studying a lot on prayer for a while now and this added fodder to my pile! 🙂 I believe you are 100% correct in that we need to become more transparent and open about our own sin and asking our “family” to pray for us. I think that is what community is all about ~ helping each other get to heaven. Our society has become more and more closed and private ~ so private that we don’t need each other any more. Thanks for your thoughts as I am still processing much of it and like what I am hearing. Got any more on prayer to share? I will be interested in hearing it. I can’t help but think of the man lowered through the roof, albeit he was healed physically, but also spiritually because friends helped him! Just what we need more in our culture and world today.

  8. Josh,I identify with your struggle. It is much easier as “paid clergy” to encourage the rest of the flock to be open and honest with each other than it is to put yourself in that role. I don’t know if it’s a fear of job security or if it’s a subconscious fear of falling from the “pedestal” on which we feel (either perceived or real) our church members have put us. In cases like this, it truly is more difficult to “practice what you preach.”Keith,The only example I can think of off the top of my head is David’s prayer for forgiveness in Psalm 51 after Nathan confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba. Nathan tells him in 2 Sam. 12 that God had forgiven him.

  9. True, Marshall … though I’m not sure David had enough time between Nathan’s accusation and his own confession to compose Psalm 51. I’m not trying to pick nits; I just think David’s sin was heinous enough that he still felt guilt even after he was forgiven … and wrote that hert-wrenching Psalm of penitence. I think God forgave him before he asked, or even had a chance to ask.

  10. Keith,I know you are not going to take it to a legalistic extreme.. I was just making the case that it could happen.I have to agree with the other posters here.. You have some great posts, that would make for an excellent book. Looking forward to reading more. Keep up the great work, and know that many of us are praying for you. Pray for us. We all need it!

  11. Kieth, I’ve been rolling this around in my head ever since you posted on it. The thought that every example of forgiveness received came not from the sinner’s own prayer, but from the prayer of another is mind blowing. The impact it has on what our community should look like is potentially earth shaking.As you know, our branch of the RM was founded, at least in part, on the need for community. It is assumed that we will talk about our sin to each other, that every area of our lives would be open for discussion. I knew that I could go talk to my brothers about my struggles and they would share theirs as an encouragement. I also knew that my brother’s would come and confront me if they saw something in me that they felt needed attention. That such a scenario would lead to abuse of that openness & the right to challenge ‘sin’ is not surprising, but the open and intertwined culture was a good thing.Even having been a part of a church culture that valued and emphasized the importance of relationships, it has only been in recent years that I’ve seen the value – no the essential nature – of community to the body of Christ. I don’t think we can call ourself the body if our community is not central to our lives.God did not call us to an individual Christianity, I believe that’s an Americanized interpretation. Can we be saved outside of a community of believers? Not really my call, but I’d say yes. But I don’t think we truly experience the full power of the church without the kind of relationships where we share on the deepest, most intimate and most humbling level. The level where we would be prompted to pray for another’s forgiveness.

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