etting saved through Jesus Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit sounds like it would be a really big deal. I mean, the sheer mechanics of opening up one's heart and having the Holy Spirit move in like a college kid moving into the dorms is difficult to wrap your head around. Oddly enough, Christians seem to think it requires nothing more than the ability to repeat phrases told to you by another person. This applies mainly to children who are too young to formulate a sentence based on the premise that a person died for you thousands of years ago so you won't go to Hell when you die. It goes something like this:
Heavenly Father, I know that I have sinned against you. I want to be a better person. I believe you sent Jesus to die on the cross for my sins, that you raised him from the dead, and that he hears my prayers. Please forgive me and let Jesus come into my heart and life. I give my life to you, Lord. In Jesus' name I pray, amen.
There are tons of variations and examples of the "Sinner's Prayer" all over the place. You can read up on some of them here:
There are key elements to this prayer that are supposed to make it effective:
- Acknowledgement of a sinful nature (the inferiority complex)
- Belief in Jesus Christ
- Romans 5:8 "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
- Romans 10:9 "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
- Romans 10:13 "for, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'"
- Revelation 3:20 "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me."
All you have to do is mean it. The problem with this prayer is that a child really doesn't understand what they're being led to say. A sinner? What does that mean? How did I get that way? Why did god make me wrong? Jesus died on the cross? How did he know me back then? How does someone dying make up for me being born a sinner? How did he die if he's still alive and listening to me? How does a man live inside of someone's heart? How can he be in Heaven and in my heart at the same time?
Children really don't understand the intricacies of what you're proposing, and I'd venture a guess that a lot of adults don't either. However, children and credulous adults have one thing in common: if you make it sound important enough they'll suspend their disbelief and go along with it. At this point the adult tells the child that they've been saved (from what?) and that their next step is to show their obedience to Jesus Christ by getting baptized -- more ritualized behavior to ready the kid for a lifetime as a follower.
The problem with this ritual is that it's empty and deceitful. Who honestly thinks they could fool an all-knowing deity by coaching a kid to say some lines they don't even understand? Doesn't that make it seem like you're spitting in god's face? And what good does this do for the child? If they weren't actually, truly saved from Hell because they didn't really know what they were saying then aren't they still going to Hell? I guess it doesn't really matter, as long as you're making soldiers for Jesus, right? You have to keep those attendance numbers growing!
When I was four years old I said the prayer of repentance with my dad coaching me. I really meant it but I can tell you now, I didn't understand it. I had just been frightened into following along by the threat of Hell, and it was very effective. That's how I became a born-again Christian.