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Prayer Doesn’t Create Salvation. It Accompanies It.

In the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17–23, a wealthy young man runs up to Jesus and says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus tells him that he must keep all the Ten Commandments. The young man says, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Of course, no one can keep all the Ten Commandments perfectly, but Jesus didn’t argue that point. He was trying to get to a more urgent issue in the young man’s life. The text tells us that Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” I think Jesus saw a real sincerity of heart in him; but there was something in the young man’s soul that was a roadblock to his salvation.

“One thing you lack,” Jesus said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

The young man walked away sad, Mark tells us, “because he had great wealth.”

Now, was Jesus saying that the way to be saved and have eternal life is to sell everything you have and give it to the poor? If you read the story carefully, it’s clear that Jesus wasn’t saying that at all. He gave the same plan of salvation to the rich young ruler that he gave to Nicodemus—but he gave it in different words, tailoring his gospel call to each man’s individual need.

Same Gospel, Different Presentation

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and he had certain rigid, legalistic ideas about what it meant to be saved by God. Jesus had to shake him out of his narrow mindset by telling him he needed to be born again. Likewise, Jesus knew that the rich young ruler’s heart was tightly gripped by all his possessions, so he tried to shake the materialism out of the young man’s heart by telling him to sell everything and give to the poor. The point of the story was not that giving to the poor would save his soul, but that his love of possessions prevented him from following Jesus.

The Bible is unambiguous on this point: Good works won’t save you. Only Jesus saves. By grace are you saved through faith. Salvation is a gift of God, not an achievement of our own works. The plan of salvation that Jesus gave to Nicodemus was the same plan of salvation he gave the rich young ruler. He told Nicodemus that whosoever believes in him will have everlasting life. He told the rich young ruler, “Follow me.” Believing in Jesus and following Jesus are the same thing.

The point of the story was not that giving to the poor would save his soul, but that his love of possessions prevented him from following Jesus.

When Jesus called Peter and Andrew, he didn’t tell them to sell their fishing boats and give the money to the poor. He simply said, “Come, follow me.” Jesus dealt differently with each person he met, because he treated each one as a unique individual. But no matter whom he was talking to, the plan of salvation he shared was the same: “Believe and follow me.”

Praying the Prayer

For many years, evangelists and preachers have used terms like “receive Christ” or “invite Jesus into your heart” to describe Christian conversion. The decision to receive Christ is often accompanied by a prayer of commitment. In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell ridicules the idea of a conversion prayer:

Christians don’t agree on exactly what this prayer is, but for many the essential idea is that the only way to get into heaven is to pray at some point in your life, asking God to forgive you and telling God that you accept Jesus, you believe Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for your sins, and you want to go to heaven when you die. Some call this “accepting Christ,” others call it the “sinner’s prayer,” and still others call it “getting saved,” being “born again,” or being “converted.” That, of course, raises more questions. What about people who have said some form of “the prayer” at some point in their life, but it means nothing to them today? What about those who said it in a highly emotionally charged environment like a youth camp or church service because it was the thing to do, but were unaware of the significance of what they were doing? What about people who have never said the prayer and don’t claim to be Christians, but live a more Christlike life than some Christians?

Here’s someone who founded a church, was a pastor for 13 years, and yet seems to have completely missed the point of the prayer of conversion. Obviously, praying a prayer at one point in your life doesn’t make you a follower of Christ. Jesus didn’t say to Nicodemus and the rich young ruler, “One thing you lack—just pray the sinner’s prayer.” No! He said, “Believe in me. Follow me.”

Obviously, praying a prayer at one point in your life does not make you a follower of Christ.

Praying to receive Christ as your Lord and Savior isn’t a magical incantation or a spiritual prescription. It’s a commitment to follow Jesus and make him Lord of your entire life. If it’s a decision you make lightly or in an emotional moment, and you don’t keep that commitment, then you were never saved to begin with.

Conversion isn’t a matter of praying the right words; it’s a matter of believing and following Jesus. It means not merely receiving him as your Savior but making him the Lord of your life. For some people, following Christ begins by praying a prayer. For others, the decision to follow Jesus takes place gradually, and they have no recollection of a single moment when they prayed to accept Christ. That’s okay. What really matters is believing and following Christ.

Jesus said we must be born again. We must follow him. And if we all follow him as our Savior and Lord, if we abide in him and hold to his teachings, then our lives—and our world—will be transformed.

True Conversion

I hope you’ll take some time to examine your life and your soul, and ask yourself, Do I truly believe in Jesus? Am I following him? Have I made him the Lord of my life? If the honest, searching answer to those questions is yes, then take a moment to thank Jesus for dying on the cross for your sake. Thank him for the free gift of eternal life. Give praise to God the Father for his forgiving grace. Give thanks to the Holy Spirit for sealing your salvation for all eternity.

If your answer is no, then you can offer to God a prayer of commitment right now. You can invite Jesus to become the Lord of your life. If you don’t know what to say to Jesus, here is a prayer you can pray:

Dear Lord,

I know that I’m a sinner. I’m sorry for my sin, and I ask you to forgive me. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I repent of my sins and I ask you to come into my life and take control. I make a commitment to follow you, and I trust you as my Lord and Savior.

In your name, Amen.

Remember, it’s not the words that save you. It’s the commitment of your heart that makes you a genuine follower of Jesus. If you prayed that prayer, and you mean these words with all your heart, then you’ve been forgiven. You’ll experience the abundant life in the here and now. And you’ll have eternal life in the world to come.

Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from Michael Youssef’s new book, Saving Christianity?: The Danger in Undermining Our Faith—and What You Can Do about It (Tyndale Momentum, 2020).

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