Bob Dylan frequently alludes to the Bible and the Christian Faith in his songs. One such allusion occurs in “If You Ever Go to Houston” on the album Together Through Life (Columbia Records, 2009). In this song Dylan sings, “Tell her other sister Betsy to pray the Sinner’s Prayer.” While Betsy’s identity is obscure, Dylan’s advice to her is clear: he tells her to pray something called “the Sinner’s Prayer”.
This is a strange piece of advice for a famous singer-songwriter to give—just how strange becomes apparent if we ask ourselves, “What other superstar of secular music would include such a reference in his or her song for secular listeners?”
What is “the Sinner’s Prayer”? Certainly, the term is Christian-sounding and somewhat self-explanatory. A non-religious listener might rightly conclude that Dylan is urging Betsy either to pray about her wrongdoing (sin) or to own up in prayer to being a wrongdoer (sinner). But Dylan has more than this in mind. He is in fact alluding to a specific prayer that Christians have formulated to help those who want to become Christians. It is a model prayer for those who want to respond to the Gospel, the great message of the Christian Faith that (to use the words of Jesus in John 3:16) “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The natural response of a person who becomes convicted of sin and convinced of Christ’s saving sacrifice is to cry out, “What must I do?” (cf Acts 16:30-31). For if it is true that I am a condemned sinner to whom God offers a free pardon, it is also true that I must somehow respond to God and his offer. Christians say to such a convicted and convinced person, “The first thing you should do is talk to God, confessing your sin and pleading for forgiveness. And here is a way to do this …” Enter the Sinner’s Prayer:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness.
I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Saviour. In Your Name. Amen.1
This particular wording of the Sinner’s Prayer has been used for more than half a century by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Other evangelistic organisations and preachers have used slightly different words to say exactly the same thing. Campus Crusade for Christ, for example, encourages those who want to repent after hearing the Gospel to pray the Sinner’s Prayer in these words:
Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Saviour and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.2
Bob Dylan converted to Christianity in 1978 and it is reasonable to think that he prayed the Sinner’s Prayer when he himself turned in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and eternal life.
But long before his conversion, he knew about the Sinner’s Prayer. We can deduce this from a comment he made in an interview published in AARP The Magazine in February-March this year (2015):
When I was growing up, Billy Graham was very popular. He was the greatest preacher and evangelist of my time—that guy could save souls and did. I went to two or three of his rallies in the ’50s or ’60s. This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified—volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution—when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30 or 40,000 of them. If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. … I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.3
The Sinner’s Prayer was one of the unchanging features of Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades. It was the highpoint and the endpoint of every rally that Dr Graham held. He always invited his hearers to pray this prayer, phrase by phrase after him, if they had come to truly believe the gospel message he had just preached and wanted in all sincerity to turn from their sin and trust in God’s Son, committing themselves to his guidance and control for the rest of their lives.
Dylan could not have attended several Billy Graham crusades without hearing the Sinner’s Prayer. And it is this prayer that he alludes to in his song, “If You Ever Go to Houston”. It is his advice to Betty; and, having made that advice public in his song, it is his advice to his fans, too.
In his AARP The Magazine interview earlier this year, Dylan states, “I’ve always been drawn to spiritual songs … In ‘Amazing Grace,’ that line—‘that saved a wretch like me’—isn’t that something we could all say if we were honest enough?”3
In saying this, Dylan identifies the starting point for salvation. Only when we own up to our own wretchedness (in terms of both our sinfulness and our helplessness) can we receive the amazing grace of God offered in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. None but wretches can be redeemed and none but self-confessed ones will be.
Are you honest enough to see yourself as a wretch? Are you humble enough to admit that you cannot escape your wretchedness without the grace, the undeserved favour, of God? Are you sensible enough to know that you can access that grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who died in your place and on your behalf? If so, take Dylan’s advice and pray the Sinner’s Prayer:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Saviour. In Your Name. Amen.