Atonement: The Sinner’s Prayer

This is isn’t really part of the Atonement series, but the question of the sinner’s prayer certainly has to be considered in a thorough discussion of atonement.

Among the Churches of Christ, of course, the sinner’s prayer is routinely rejected as being an insufficient replacement for baptism. That’s not today’s discussion, however.

Rather, the Baptists, for whom the sinner’s prayer is nearly central, have begun to question the practice, not due to a preference for baptism but due to a failure of much teaching on the subject to adequately address the convert’s commitment to Jesus.

The controversy began with this now famous video of David Platt (author of Radical and preacher for the Church at Brook Hills, in Birmingham, Alabama) —

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The discussion is, of course, about discipleship. Indeed, Platt goes so far as to call the sinner’s prayer “superstitious”! “It’s not the gospel … It’s very dangerous to lead people to think they’re a Christian when they’ve not biblically responded to the gospel.”

As you can imagine, this was quite controversial in Southern Baptist circles, resulting in Platt drafting a response in Christianity Today. He writes,

[M]y comments about the “sinner’s prayer” have been deeply motivated by a concern for authentic conversion and regenerate church membership—doctrines which many Calvinists and non-Calvinists, as well as a variety of Christians in between, would rightly value. …

Do I believe it is “wrong” for someone to pray a “prayer of salvation”? Certainly not. Calling out to God in prayer with repentant faith is fundamental to being saved (Romans 10:9-10). Yet as I pastor a local church and serve alongside pastors of other local churches, I sense reasonably serious concern about the relatively large number of baptisms in our churches that are “re-baptisms”—often representing people who thought they were saved because they prayed a certain prayer, but they lacked a biblical understanding of salvation and were in reality not saved. This, in addition to a rampant easy believism that marks cultural Christianity in our context (and in other parts of the world), leads me to urge us, as we go to all people among all nations with the good news of God’s love, to be both evangelistically zealous and biblically clear at the same time (Matthew 28:18-20).

In short, in practice, the believer’s prayer has taught many who’ve not become disciples — who’ve made no commitment to Jesus — to wrongly believe themselves to be saved.

But what’s interesting is that out of this group of “born-again Christians,” researchers found that the beliefs and lifestyles of “born again Christians” are virtually the same as the rest of the world around them. Many of these “born-again Christians” believe that their works can earn them a place in heaven. Other “born again Christians” think that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Some “born again Christians” believe that Jesus sinned while he was on earth. And an ever-increasing number of “born-again Christians” describe themselves as nominally committed to Jesus—a trend that, by the way, is not just common in our country, but in many parts of the world where “Christian” is oftentimes more of a political or even ethnic label than it is a spiritual reality.

Now people have used research like this to conclude that Christians are really not that different from the rest of the world, but I am convinced that conclusion is inaccurate. The one thing that is absolutely clear from all of these statistics is that there are a whole lot of people in the world who think that they are Christians, but they are not. There are millions upon millions of people who believe in Jesus and think that they are saved, but they are dangerously deceived. And some, maybe many, of them have been deceived in the church.

It’s hard to argue with his logic, and it would be equally hard to suggest that the same isn’t true in the Churches of Christ — despite our rejection of the sinner’s prayer and insistence on water baptism. Yes, it’s better to have a better grasp of the meaning of baptism, but, no, we’re there.

For example, we love the picture of baptism in Romans 6 as a participation in the burial and resurrection of Jesus. Powerful stuff. But we never quite make it to —

(Rom 6:16-18 ESV)  16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?  17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,  18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

When was the last “gospel sermon” you heard that expressed the level of commitment God expects as “slavery”? Who “comes forward” in response to a plea to submit to slavery to Jesus?

But the question that John 2-3 begs us all to ask is, “What kind of faith are we talking about?” What kind of faith are we calling people to? Are we calling people to biblical faith?

In a day of rampant easy-believism that creates cultural Christians who do not know Christ, who have never counted the cost of following Christ, we must be biblically clear about saving faith, lest any of us lead people down a very dangerous and potentially damning road of spiritual deception.

And that is a very good question, indeed.

We urge people, “Believe in Christ. Follow Christ.” We tell them, in a day of rampant easy-believism, “Following Jesus will cost you everything you have, but he is worth it!” Repent and believe in him. Receive new life, eternal life. Look to him and live.

From there, Platt argues for participation in global mission by all Christians.

As Scot McKnight notes at Jesus Creed, Platt’s gospel is a soterian gospel, that is, overly focused on salvation.

Platt wants more, even though what I’ve seen of his work makes me think his gospel is soterian. Platt wants more of those who are converting; he wants it to be genuine, life-changing, Jesus-following stuff. The Sinner’s Prayer does not lead a person to that but, like most soterian frameworks, leads people to assurance that they are saved. This is not enough: Jesus called people to become disciples, not to make decisions.

The Sinner’s Prayer can be used to articulate what repentance and faith can mean; too often it becomes a shallow, superficial, let’s-hope-this-person-continues kind of action that falls short of the gospel summons of the New Testament.

In short, Platt is pushing toward a better, truer gospel, but he’s not quite there. But then, he’s hardly alone, and most Churches of Christ are guilty of much the same error — expressed in very different terms and yet ultimately almost entirely about how to get ‘em dunked so they’ll go to heaven when they die — which leaves nearly all their lives as Christians out of the equation — and turns the rest of our lives into a desperate effort to cling to the salvation we began with.

Both the Baptists and Churches of Christ need a better model for the atonement, one that doesn’t separate justification from sanctification.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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15 Responses to Atonement: The Sinner’s Prayer

  1. jerry says:

    Exactly right, Jay! We are strong on baptisms look back to the cross. We miss the significance of its look to the resurrection to newness of life and our continuing walk with Jesus in the new life of the new creation. We mistake the proneness of the flesh to “sin” for permission to walk in the flesh instead of by the Spirit. We fail to see baptism as a look, not only back to the forgiveness of sins, but also as a look forward in commitment to discipleship that takes up its own cross to follow Jesus.

  2. laymond says:

    Now if we could bring ourselves to preach the one and only “True God” we would be on the right path, or the path to righteousness.
    Isa 42:1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, [in whom] my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.
    Isa 42:8 I [am] the LORD: that [is] my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.
    Jhn 17:3 And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

  3. Royce Ogle says:

    I believe Platt would say that the gospel (Jesus) is just as central in sanctification as in justification and I would agree

    I’m not sure why, but I’m much more fond of men who are writers and thinkers, and pastors. Purely academic types appeal to me very little. It’s like a fat guy sitting in his comfy chair and picking apart every play the offensive coach of the Redskins calls. People who write books about salesmanship are not necessarily good salesmen themselves.

    What part of “having need justified by faith..” is unclear? Yes, those who are justified are being sanctified. But, a person can no more sanctify himself than he can glorify himself. The man with an uncircumcised heart doesn’t need to try harder, he needs Jesus. Many of our churches are busy trying to mature lost people.

  4. John says:

    I appreciate the young preacher’s courage. And although McNight’ observation is correct, Platt’s conclusion that simply going through a prayer is not responding to the gospel is right on. And, as pointed out by Jay, the same thing can be said of many who get wet in CoC baptistries without an understanding of how the old is gone and the new has come.

    This post brings to mind how many within the CoC and Baptist churches have been so critical of churches such as the Episcopal and Methodist, accusing them of having no conviction. But if you were to take the time to listen to many of their members who went through discipleship classes before their baptism you would be very shocked at how aware they are that their baptism was the beginning of a life with Christ, that their walk was to be Jesus’ walk, something that many who have simply prayed the sinner’s prayer or were baptized due to selected verses from Mark and Acts, along with an invite to belong to the right church, never understood.

    I have believed since listening to James Woodruff back in the seventies that there is no teaching like the teaching from the gospels. As the years have come and gone I have found that a short explanation to others of how the gospels differ from the rest of the New Testament and a simple invitation to read in in their own time peaks their curiosity. My only departure would be my preference for Luke, while his was John. I find that John is too symbolic for those who have spent little time in the Bible, whereas in Luke we find Jesus in day to day contact with people through his compassion and communion. Still, it was James Woodruff from whom I received this pearl.

  5. Joe Baggett says:

    The scripture says repent, and be baptized. We have emphasized the baptism so much and the repent so little. I have now come to believe that the sinner’s prayer is the first step in repentance. So if repentance is truly as important as baptism if not more so, then the sinner’s prayer is just as much an act connected salvation as physical immersion. Believe the change in heart is more important to salvation than any religious ritual.

  6. rey says:

    I think you are overgeneralizing. You have to understand the SBC is in a huge fight over Calvinism and Traditionalism (semi-Pelagianism). The Calvinists are attacking the sinner’s prayer simply and only because it demonstrates a belief in free-will, having someone pray for salvation rather than wait for God to zap them with it. In the same way, the same Calvinists would oppose CoC views on getting baptized. Its not the CoC type opposition to the sinner’s prayer that it minimizes the importance of baptism etc. that’s going on among the Baptists right now. Its just your basic Calvinist fatalism barking that any teaching other than “you can’t respond to God on your own, so go sit on the sidelines and wait for God to zap you” is heresy. Frankly, although I don’t like the idea of the sinner’s prayer any more than anyone else in the CoC, I’m on the side of its defenders simply because defending it at this point means defending free-will and beating back Calvinism.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Rey

    Platt is not a Calvinist

  8. Royce Ogle says:

    That would be news to Dr David Platt. Christianity Today calls him a “Calvinist star” in an article. It’s widely known that Platt is a Calvinist.

  9. Zach says:

    Isn’t this still faith by works in that it’s the action of a ritual that makes you saved rather than i guess a more sacramental view in that baptism is an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace–eg prayer and being called to baptism rather than merely making a decision. I agree it is an over emphasis on salvation through fear or worse peer pressure rather than a response to the love of God through baptism and a continuing response to God through living a Christian life. How many people at your church have felt called to being baptised after a church service because of prayer and repentence not because they just wanted to be saved?

  10. Monty says:

    If it’s numbers we’re after then nothing beats easy beliefism(baptism). If it’s making true disciples, we’d better have them count the cost.

  11. John says:

    Monty, I appreciate your comment. It gets tiresome listening to those whose plan is “teach them the ‘right’ church’, the ‘correct’ baptism, then baptize them” accuse others of easy beliefism.

    Their itch seems to be “get them baptized and we’ll teach them later”. Indeed, there is much growth to be done after baptism. But there is much truth in the idea of preparation in Christ. If Noah had to prepare the ark before “being saved by water, which prefigures baptism”, and if the children of Israel had to be prepared by the leading of Moses and the Passover before being “baptized unto Christ”, then who are we to tell God we have to “rush things right along”?

  12. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Royce,

    Platt responds to exactly that statement in the Christianity Today article he wrote.

    Some even suggested that as “one of the SBC’s Calvinist stars,” I am “against the sinner’s prayer” because I “don’t want the hopelessly condemned thinking they are saved or joining churches when they actually have no chance for life in Christ.” In addition to how nauseous such a label makes me, words really can’t describe how much a comment like this pierces my heart, for nothing (I hope and pray) could be further from the truth. Any cautions I have expressed with a “sinner’s prayer” have absolutely nothing directly to do with the doctrine of election, and I definitively don’t believe that certain people “actually have no chance for life in Christ.” …

    I believe without hesitation or equivocation that God loves all people in the world (John 3:16) and he desires all people’s salvation (2 Peter 3:9). …

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/juneweb-only/david-platt-sinners-prayer.html?paging=off

  13. Royce Ogle says:

    Jay,

    Go to this site, listen to David Platt’s sermon and then tell me he is not a Calvinist.

    I think the problem is that you know objections to Calvinism far better than you know Calvinism. John Piper would say the same thing Platt said. It is false that Calvinists (sure there are exceptions…) do not feel the weight of the responsibility to preach the gospel to everyone, and that everyone is responsible as he receives or rejects the message.

    I really think that because of a misunderstanding of Calvinism and it’s application in ministry that when a Calvinist preacher says something you agree with you think he can’t be Calvinist, as is the case with Platt and Chan. When I say the following I am not referring to you, but, some of the most vocal critics of Calvinism do not have a clue what Calvinist preachers believe and practice.

  14. BeABerean says:

    God, be merciful to me a sinner!

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