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) —
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.