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Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Sinner's Prayer: The Evangelical Surrogate-Imposter for Baptism

The Sinner’s Prayer:  Evangelical Surrogate-Imposter for Baptism

And all the people when they heard, and the publicans, justified God,

being baptized with the baptism of John.

But the Pharisees and the lawyers

rejected for themselves the counsel of God,

being not baptized of him.

Luke 7:29-30 (ASV)


Well, who can deny it?  Evangelicals, swept-up in the thought-stream descending from the Protestant Reformation, have a strong aversion against baptism.  They refuse for baptism a salvific role, as the culminating event in Christian conversion.  But that rejection of the “counsel of God” has left a void that could not remain empty.  People need a “finish line” to tell them when they have arrived at the place of salvation and full entrance into the kingdom of God.  Otherwise, the “right comforting doctrine” of Calvin leaves them in discomforting anguish:  one minute full of assurance, and the next, worried that maybe they are still coming short.  Baptism would happily meet this need.  But baptism has been rejected, and evangelicals generally accept baptism only in modified form—once it has been stripped of its function as “salvific finish line.”  In its place, they offer an imposter as a substitute.  That imposter, most commonly, is the Sinner’s Prayer.

David Platt recently (April 11, 2012, Verge 2012 Conference) made a strong statement on the danger of the Sinner’s Prayer.  He spoke the truth, and was nearly brought to tears as he spoke.  I believe David was shaken because he felt the full weight of the fraud being perpetrated, realizing that a significant number of modern believers accept the Sinner’s Prayer as Gospel—literally!  His message, then, was not only a warning, but a rebuke.  And the people under his rebuke were his people, his church.  Here is what he said:

And I’m convinced many people in our churches are just simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we’ve sold them as the Gospel—i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life.  Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer in the New Testament?  Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrases, “accept Jesus into your heart,” or “invite Christ into your life”?  It’s not the Gospel we see being preached; it’s modern evangelism built on sinking sand and it runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls.  It’s a very dangerous thing to lead people to think that they are a Christian, when they have not Biblically responded to the Gospel.  If we’re not careful, we will take the Gospel—the lifeblood—out of Christianity and we’ll put Kool-Aid in its place, so that it will taste better to the crowds.  It’s not just dangerous; it’s just damning!

Unfortunately, David Platt backed down from this statement when he was later called to address the concerns of the Southern Baptist Convention.  They had made a resolution to actually defend the use of the Sinner’s Prayer, and Platt himself buckled under the pressure and voted in favor of it.  I can hardly contain my disappointment.  It is said that a “middle-of-the-roader” is someone who gets dirt kicked on him from both sides.  David cannot be right when he speaks so equivocally, first against and then in advocacy of the Sinner’s Prayer.  I understand the urge to keep unity, but to unify on false doctrine that carries the weight of millions of souls who stand, if David’s early criticism is right, to be defrauded of salvation when Gospel is replaced by superstition.  He had an audience of people who had probably done the Sinner’s Prayer thing themselves, and will be responsible for continuing the horrible tradition.  David could have made a stand like the one Martin Luther made at Worms almost 500 years ago:

Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth.  Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me.  Amen.

And why have evangelicals rejected God’s Word on this matter?  It is because they are still mired in the “old perspective on Paul.”  Martin Luther’s experience in conflict with Catholicism dominates Evangelicalism.  It has long been (wrongly) assumed that Martin Luther’s battle was the spiritual equivalent of Paul’s battle with “Judaizers.”  As the medieval Catholics were employing “works” as a way of attaining “self-righteousness” though “legalism”, it was assumed that Paul battled the same dark counterpart as the antithesis to the Gospel of Christ.  That was not the same battle that Paul faced, and Bible scholars should have been made aware of this from the late 1970’s.

The confusion, in part, is understandable.  Luther was troubled by the way “works” were used to corrupt spirituality; and Paul was also troubled by “works” also.  The trouble is, Paul and Luther were not talking about the same thing when they used the identical terminology of “works.” 

For Luther, “works” were attempts to earn salvation by human effort.  A person confident of good moral living might even think their efforts/works to be so successful that a Savior is not even needed!  Such “works” might bring “self-righteousness”.  Additionally, in Reformation perspective, this concern insisted that the credit for the “work of salvation” be clearly assigned.  God had to be given full credit, and by corollary this necessitated that the human convert must claim no credit and could be offered no credit.  God’s sovereignty over such matters was seen to be so thorough that human self-initiative could play no role in either salvation or damnation.  The sovereign God determined which individuals (the “chosen few”) would be saved and which would be sent to Hell.  In this perspective, salvation becomes a “tug-o-war” between the efforts of God and the efforts of humans.  If humans were thought to exert any effort, this implied “legalism” and “works-salvation”—attempts to meet the demands of God’s Law by one’s own effort.  What Reformation perspective demanded was a totally passive convert, who made no contribution to God’s work in salvation.

The obvious problem that derives from Protestant perspective is that the central concern of Christian salvation and conversion is “relational”!  And relationships require two active partners if they are to find success, not just One.  It is jarringly disruptive, once a relational understanding is realized, to place the two relationship partners into conflict by demanding that only one of them be active.  And the first clue that the Reformation is off-track should be that the NT Scriptures everywhere expect an “active convert.”  For whatever depravity and wickedness grips them, unbelieving sinners are still assumed to have the capability to either accept or reject the Gospel for themselves.  They are given commands to accomplish certain requirements of salvation:

·        Hear and believe the Gospel

·        Repent of sins

·        Confess (declare) the Lordship of Jesus

·        Call upon the name of the Lord

·        Be baptized

Indeed, the writers of the NT were not embarrassed to insist that those coming to Christ Jesus for salvation must “obey the Gospel” (2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17) pursuant to salvation!  Clearly, these writers understood salvation in relational terms and so expected active, “working” converts.  When the converts obeyed such commands, they were not earning anything for themselves.  They were attending to the relational concerns that were prerequisites to reconciliation with God.  And as they obeyed, neither were they already saved.

As baptism itself was forced to convert from its Biblical meaning to one that fit with Reformational sensibilities, a similar conversion was forced upon the Holy Spirit.  Since God had to get all the credit, He had to have the active role throughout the conversion process—start to finish.  It was not enough to be the provider and initiator of salvation by sending His sin-bearing Son to the Cross.  God also had to work the responses for actionless converts:  He created the response of faith/belief (for some, but not for others), God made people repent, made them confess the Lordship, made them call upon the Name.  And the person of the Trinity thought to be active here was the Holy Spirit. 

This brings a second clash with the Bible description of salvation.  In Biblical conversion the Spirit is given/received as a gift only at the finish or culmination of conversion.  In fact, that gift is given in the culminating event of baptism (Acts 2:38), in the “new birth” of “water and Spirit” (John 3:3-5).  Paul did not say the Spirit was given to make us sons/daughters/children of God; he said the Spirit was given because (hence after we had become) God’s children:    “And because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6, ASV).

In my recent book, Filling the Temple:  Finding A Place For The Holy Spirit, I set forth four avenues of Scripture that offer baptism as the insertion-point for the Holy Spirit in a Christian:

--the development from the baptism in the ministry of John the Baptist to the baptism in the ministry of Jesus prior to Pentecost (both were immersions for the remission of sins, but did not convey the Spirit, for the Spirit had not yet been given).  Then after Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit upon “all flesh”, the Spirit is received in baptism.  This final stage of development makes the Christian’s baptismal-reception of the Spirit parallel to that experienced by Jesus, accompanied by Heavenly Voice and descending Dove.  This baptism, which remits sin and imparts Spirit, is the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5.

--the Johannine baptism “of water and Spirit” (John 3:3-5).

--the twice-told telling of Israel’s historical experience, from bondage under the Law to redemption in Jesus.  In the first telling (Gal. 3:22ff.), the culminating experience that brings Israel liberation is BAPTISM.  In the second telling of the same historical sequence (Gal. 4:1ff.), the culminating experience is the reception of the HOLY SPIRIT.  This “co-incidence” would suggest another avenue leading to the same place as the other Scriptural avenues:  baptismal reception of Spirit.

--The shared experience of “anointing” between Jesus and Christians.  In Luke’s Gospel and Acts, Jesus was clearly anointed with the Holy Spirit at His baptism by John.  You can’t miss this after reading the baptism episode followed by Luke’s commentary in 4:1; 14, the incredible self-declaration made by Jesus in His “first sermon” at Nazareth (4:16ff.), and finally by the reporting of Peter’s sermon by Luke:  “that saying ye yourselves know, which was published throughout all Judaea, beginning from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached; even Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him  (Acts 10:37-38, ASV).  With this as background, consider Paul’s statement regarding the “anointing” experienced by Christians:  “Now he that establisheth us with you in Christ, and anointed us, is God; who also sealed us, and gave us the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts” (2 Cor. 1:21-22, ASV).  Is it hard to see that “anointing” essentially describes baptismal reception of the Holy Spirit?  The connection must have been well-established in the early church, for it is also witnessed in several passages of 1 John.

In conclusion, then, let me raise a question to which only David Platt knows the answer:  did David perhaps back-off from an easy annihilation of the Sinner’s Prayer because he was unaware that the only fit replacement is baptism, in which sins are remitted and in which the Spirit is received??  Or, was he aware of this, yet conscious of the theological collision this would have rammed him into with the “old perspective” members of the Southern Baptism Convention?

I so desperately crave the unity, concern for which apparently drove David, after speaking one way, to then speak another.  I would like to call him my brother in Christ.  I would like to call the Baptists my brothers/sisters in Christ.  You see, as long as I hold on to the Scriptural role for baptism as the place of salvation’s birth and the place of the Spirit’s reception, I have to carry the discomfort that David avoided.  I have to endure false slurs such as legalist, works-theology, water-salvation, etc.  I will remain theologically isolated, with the only Biblical ground for unity rejected through the “old perspective” which has been demonstrated to be in error.  And it is plain, at least to me, that if this unity is to be achieved, it will be when baptism—not the Sinner’s Prayer—is commonly recognized, and no longer rejected, for its place in the counsel of God.