The Sinner’s Prayer: Pseudo-Sacrament

—–“Baptism is only a ceremony; it cannot do anything.” This assumption is so widespread that it has almost become a pillar of evangelical orthodoxy. I grew up hearing assertions like this made at every baptism ceremony. I and my fellow Baptists took the rite very seriously, but I would often feel like no one, including the preacher, was sure exactly why. Usually he could only explain the importance of baptism by saying, “Jesus said to be baptized, so this should be one of your first acts of obedience.” That’s fine, but one doesn’t have to soak in the Scriptures long to know that God is not arbitrary even if He is sometimes mysterious. So, whatever the reason was that Jesus commanded baptism, we must have missed it.

“If You Want to be Saved, Just Say These Words After Me. . .”
—–We are so confident that human ritual can only be symbolic, but for evangelicals there is one ritual through which God is pleased to work: the sinner’s prayer/altar call. (We’ll call it “the Prayer” from here on out.) We created this ritual. It does not exist in the New Testament. Nowhere does an apostle tell a crowd, “All you need to do is say this prayer after me,” or, “If you will only ask Jesus into your heart.” I am not sure when we invented it, but I am confident it was invented (evolved probably) because it is a lot less ritualistic of a ritual than baptism. The sinner’s prayer is a lot less complicated, more immediate, and completely private.
—–When you think about it, the Prayer is still a ceremony. We want to take man out of the equation. As Doug Wilson likes to say, we want God to save people via lightning bolt. We definitely don’t want a hired minister to have to get involved in the equation, except to preach the gospel. At the end of the day, we’re still telling people that God will forgive, renew, sanctify, cleanse, and adopt them when they do… something.

Repent and Do What? To Get What?
—–The trouble comes when we start paying close attention to the way we do things compared to the Apostles. After Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) the crowd asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter did not tell them to bow their heads or to walk an isle to pray with him. “Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” Most evangelicals wouldn’t be caught dead saying Peter’s words in public, but they wouldn’t think twice about telling people to say The Prayer to receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. We would say that people became Christians after walking the isle, but Luke goes on to say, “So those who received [Peter’s] word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
—–This is just one of many texts that show how we have replaced baptism with the Prayer. We say, “If he understands the gospel and wants to become a disciple have him pray and ask Jesus to forgive him,” but Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). We say, “If you just said that prayer, then the old you is dead. You have begun your new life in Christ,” but Paul said, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3). We say, “All you have to do is ask Jesus into your heart,” but Paul said, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). We say, “All you need to do to be saved is say this simple prayer,” but Peter said, “Baptism. . . now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).

“If You Want God to Cleanse You from Sin, Just Ask Him.”
—–But how can Peter say, “Baptism now saves you”? The Christian life is an act of faith in Christ from first to last. All we really need to do to be saved is to ask God to forgive us based on Christ’s death and resurrection. When we talk about people being saved by saying the Prayer, we are doing the right thing in the wrong language. We have been asking in English (or whatever our native tongue may be), but God said to ask in the language of ceremony: baptism in particular.
—–Listen to 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” First, let me say that Peter does not here say, “Baptism now saves you, but I don’t really mean that.” I have heard many preachers go to great lengths to argue that point. Peter contrasts Old Covenant baptism with New Covenant baptism. In the Old Covenant there were washings which removed dirt and bacteria from the body so that men could approach an earthly sanctuary. New Covenant baptism on the other hand, is “an appeal to God for a good conscience” so that men and women can approach God’s thrown room in heaven.
—–When you are baptized you ask God to cleanse you from sin through Christ’s death and resurrection. When genuine faith is present, God truly does forgive and save people through the ceremony. This is the way most of us have been thinking about the Prayer. The power is in the work of the Spirit, and not everyone who says the Prayer or receives baptism has or will continue in faith. But for those with genuine faith, God washes them in the blood of Christ invisibly and Spiritually as the water washes them for everyone to see.
—–Thankfully, even though many of us have been speaking the wrong language for a few centuries, God is multilingual. Just because God has promised to work through one ceremony, doesn’t mean that His hands are tied to always work there (as when faith is not present) or not to work anywhere else. Even with all of our modern confusion on how to begin the Christian life, I doubt many persevere in the faith who are not eventually baptized. The Westminster Confession of Faith acknowledges both that God works in baptism and that occasionally His working is not at the moment of baptism, “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost” (WCF 28.6).

The Faith of Our Fathers
—–Here’s the point of what I’m trying to say: if we applied all that we say about the Sinner’s Prayer to baptism, we would be finally able to preach and communicate the way the apostles did. This wouldn’t require a huge theological transition, just the “old switcheroo.” Just take what you have thought about the Prayer ritual and apply it to the true ritual of entry into the New Covenant. Some will immediately dismiss the suggestion that anything happens in baptism as Roman Catholic. I would say it is apostolic.
—–Aside from that, the reformers were not afraid to speak of God acting through the ritual of baptism. Martin Luther defended the position that baptism was more than an empty symbol in his larger catechism,

If hitherto people could consider it a great thing when the Pope with his letters and bulls dispensed indulgences and confirmed altars and churches, solely because of the letters and seals, we ought to esteem Baptism much more highly and more precious, because God has commanded it, and, besides, it is performed in His name. . . . For to be baptized in the name of God is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself.

Calvin in his commentary on Titus 3:5 was not afraid to speak of God working in baptism,

Now the Apostles are wont to draw an argument from the Sacraments, to prove that which is there exhibited under a figure [symbolism of baptism], because it ought to be held by believers as a settled principle, that God does not sport with us by unmeaning figures [empty symbols], but inwardly accomplishes by his power what he exhibits by the outward sign; and therefore, baptism is fitly and truly said to be “the washing of regeneration.”

Using Baptism Rightly
—–Aside from replacing God’s ceremonies with our own, there is something else that troubles me about the Prayer. We have come to read take “repent and believe” as a synonym for “say the Sinner’s Prayer.” We read a passage like Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” as saying “The kingdom of God is at hand; say the sinner’s prayer.” We see the words “repent and believe” and think we covered that twenty years ago when we “got saved.” God wants us to repent and believe every day. We have preachers saying idiotic things like, “If you don’t know the time and the place where you were saved, you need to get right with God.” They seem to think we could spend fifty years loving, believing, and following Jesus, then die and have Jesus send us to hell on a technicality that we started off wrong.
—–At the same time, most preachers are afraid folks will use baptism incorrectly the same way they have been using the prayer incorrectly: as false assurance of salvation. If it is bad to use the right ceremony wrongly, it is even worse to use the wrong ceremony wrongly. The beginning of the Christian life is the beginning for a reason. We should never treat it like the end. We begin the Christian life so that we can repent and believe for the rest of our lives.
—–Baptism tells us what Christ has done for and in us so that we can go on from there in faith and repentance. This is exactly how Paul uses the ceremony,

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. . . . In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness (Romans 6:3-14).

Baptism draws our attention to Christ and tells us how we should continue to live.

Salvation by Works!?
—–Now the huge criticism that will be laid against this position is that any sort of baptismal efficacy is salvation by works. There seems to be three reasons for this misconception. First, people wrongly categorize baptism as man’s work because it involves people doing things. That criticism works just as well against praying the Prayer. Don’t say that God cannot forgive through one ritual, when you have been accepting that He will work through another ritual, even one that we made up!
—–Secondly, Paul connects circumcision with salvation by works in Galatians. Most of us, evangelicals, have been wrongly taught that this connection is based on circumcision being something man does. Rather, when gentile Christians received Jewish circumcision to improve their status with God the ritual actually placed gentile converts into a certain relationship with the law: being required to keep it apart from Christ. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Galatians 5:3). Paul never says baptism obliges one to keep the whole law. In fact, Paul says that baptism is a ritual that had already placed the Galatians in a relationship with Christ. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26,7). Circumcision commits one to the law upon pain of death, but baptism commits one to Christ.
—–Thirdly, we have some vague notion that Roman Catholics believe God is at work in baptism and a lot of them are confused about salvation by works. There are other doctrines that cause trouble for Catholics; there is no reason to place the blame on baptism. Also, if you formed all your doctrines by doing the opposite of the Roman Catholics, you would definitely end up in hell. You don’t want to believe the opposite of the incarnation, the substitutionary atonement, or the return of Christ to judge and transform the world.

What About the Thief on the Cross?
—–There are some groups that think pretty woodenly about how God works in baptism, the nearly universal response to them is, “What about the thief on the cross? He was saved without being baptized.” This criticism is the right response. God can work how He wants. That man didn’t even say the sinner’s prayer. He got Jesus back and then asked Jesus to return the favor. Jesus said He would.
—–We shouldn’t let exceptions keep us from believing God when He promises to act in a certain way. Sometimes we are like Naaman (2 Kings 5), who wanted God to heal him of leprosy and then thought it was too absurd that all God wanted him to do was take a bath. Thankfully, Naaman had a believing servant who rebuked him, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”
—–I am certain that the thief on the cross would have obeyed if given the chance to be baptized. I am not worried about straightening out anyone’s conversion story to align with the Bible, as long as they are trusting Christ and fighting sin today. I would have a hard time treating anyone as a Christian who refuses baptism, just because they don’t want to be ceremonial. That’s pretty high-handed. In that case, I would want to be like Naaman’s servant and rebuke their pride and unbelief.

Do you Dare to Talk Like an Apostle?
—–If we are going to follow the example of Christ’s apostles, then we should be inviting folks to get baptized (who have not previously been baptized) after gospel presentations. On a personal level we should be inviting them to church to get baptized. Let them come down and get washed (dip em, douse em, or sprinkle em) in the name of the Trinity. Then teach them how to be Christians in all of life, trusting Jesus in everything they do. If we don’t teach them to stop with baptism, baptism will be a great start to the Christian life.
—–Another way we will be apostolic is not to spend all our time preaching on the beginning of the Christian life, whether it be the Prayer or baptism. If you are convinced about what I am saying about baptism, don’t become obsessed with it. The author of Hebrews gives evangelicals a shocking warning about this sort of focus,

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

The terrifying thing about this passage is that so many preachers spend every Sunday preaching about washings, repentance, and faith, but never move on to how the gospel transforms all of life. The author of Hebrews says that not maturing in the faith leads to falling away from the faith. So whatever you decide about the beginning of the Christian life, we must be learning to live every day in the grace of Jesus Christ.