Baptism and the Sinner’s Prayer

If you landed here on a search for the phrase “sinner’s prayer” or are looking for information on the “sinner’s prayer” then this post may be more in line with what you are looking for.

Warning: The following is a stream of thought type entry, it is convoluted and disorganized. I apologize in advance!

I recently read Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. One chapter deals with the current practices of baptism and the sinners prayer. The main point they make is that the sinner’s prayer is a very modern notion and when we look in Scripture we see that baptism was the public expression of faith. They explain that in the New Testament you see baptism immediately following repentance.

This sparked a thought in my mind. Now if you have read Pagan Christianity you can tell me if I stole this idea from the book, but I don’t remember reading this: is it possible that by replacing baptism by “the sinner’s prayer” we reverse the way we should see regeneration? That seems like a pretty convoluted question so I will break it down. First it seems that if in the New Testament the idea was “repent and be baptized,” and in the modern church it is “repent and say the sinner’s prayer” than it would make sense to think that the sinners prayer is serving in the role of, or has replaced, New Testament baptism. So if that is true (which it may not be, please correct me if you think I am wrong) then it may be worthwhile to ask ourselves what the impact is of such a change.

I want to continue to emphasize that this is all strictly my opinion and observation. Having said that I want to get to my real point. The Sinner’s Prayer is very personal, it usually expresses the persons desire to accept Jesus or for Christ to come into his/her heart. It is almost like an invitation to Christ or an acceptance of Christ. Baptism seems to symbolize surrender to Christ. You go under to symbolize your death to self and you rise as one alive in Christ surrendering your life to Him. In an overarching sense it seems that these two practices have opposite themes:

  • Sinners Prayer: Me accepting Christ
  • Baptism: Christ accepting Me

If this is true then it may be possible that this shift in mindset significantly changes the way people understand their faith and their relationship with Christ. I said the Sinner’s Prayer and when I did, around age 7, I remember using the terminology “I accept you into my heart.” I am not saying that this was not a legitimate expression of faith in Christ, I believe it was, I remember it to be, but it took a VERY long time for me to realize that I needed to surrender my life to Christ, that I was HIS, not that HE was MINE. Almost ten years later I had another life-changing moment, the moment when God showed me that my life belonged to Him. I wonder if instead of praying the Sinner’s Prayer that day, if I had gone down to the river and gotten baptized that I may have understood better that it was my life being surrendered to God.

This is a convoluted post, and I apologize for that, but I just feel like this is a question worth asking. If we are doing something different from the way they did in the New Testament what is the impact of that difference. I think concerning baptism there may be quite a significant impact.

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About Dan Allen

Just some guy trying to figure stuff out... View all posts by Dan Allen

7 responses to “Baptism and the Sinner’s Prayer

  • Mark

    Dan,

    I see what you’re getting at. My thought is that baptism at that age may not have had any different effect than the “sinner’s prayer”. That being said, I think we over-emphasize the sinner’s prayer, as if one can pinpoint the exact point at which a person accepts Christ and is “saved”. I really don’t think its that simple to define from our perspective. I don’t define salvation the way I used to, and really don’t claim to understand it now. There is such a process of understanding and revelation, that really continues until the day we die, that to me its hard to define when “the moment” occurred. I know what scripture says about “what must I do to be saved”, but even then I don’t think that allows you to always define “the moment”. Regarding childhood conversions I especially am unsure. I do believe that I was saved before I can even remember, because I always remember having a heart after God, to some extent or another. I don’t remember a conversion experience, per se. Like you, it wasn’t until much later in life that I understood what it all really meant. I think about my son, and how I don’t want faith in God to EVER be just something you do. I want him to understand from Day 1 of his faith “what its all about”, but maybe that’s unrealistic. Again, I just don’t know! And that’s okay to say.

  • Mark

    So I read through your post again after leaving my comment, and had a thought, in partial answer to my own question. “Repent and be baptized…” The moment we repent, or turn from our previous ways, is the moment in which salvation occurs. One can repent without saying anything. I don’t think the prayer is even needed. The baptism, then, is our public confession of faith, whereas in churches I grew up in, coming forward to “receive Christ” was emphasized as our public confession of faith. It still begs the question in my mind concerning children. When I was “saved” as a kid, and again I don’t remember any specific conversion experience, I had no understanding of sin, let alone sacrifice for sin. So, did my actual “conversion” occur later in life, at a time I didn’t recognize?

    One other thing is entirely possible. I tend to overthink things, and make them WAY more complicated than they need be, so feel free to tell me so!

  • Dan Allen

    Mark, I know exactly what you mean regarding the “moment of conversion.” It seems like that is an awkward way to look at it. Its like asking at what moment I started to love my wife, as if some concrete absolute time can be given, it seems like that would be a hard thing to nail down.

    I guess as you explained in your second comment and in line with Scripture that repentance is when it’s “official” so to speak. Maybe, this may be a bit of a stretch, its like I said about loving my wife: I may have loved her from the moment I met her but it wasn’t “official” until we were married, until I committed my life to her. When we repent we are making an absolute statement that our lives are no longer ours but surrendered to Christ.

    I don’t know, I really just thought the analogy up while writing this so quite possibly it is totally heretical. Anyone feel free to correct me if I am wrong!

    Thanks for your comments Mark!

    -Dan

  • penandpapermama

    I, too, kind of “grew into” my relationship with Christ. I had several “starts” when I “went forward” and prayed that sinner’s prayer… and then lots of “backsliding” in-between (our church was big on backsliding, especially for teens… which was not very helpful, but that’s another story).

    After I had my first child, I once again “went forward” (a different church) and very seriously prayed that prayer, again. But still, it was kind of between Him and me (and the church folks).

    When I got baptized a few months later (after the ice was off the lake), all my old party pals were soaking up the sun on the beach. There I was baptized in front of at least a couple hundred non-believers who knew me well – and were laughing because they figured I’d “backslide” yet again.

    I wanted to run away and not get baptized. But I went into the water anyway, and came up from the water knowing that, like the old song, “I’ve come too far to turn back…” It seems to me that the “sinner’s prayer” was “personal,” but the baptism was very “public.” And that public aspect of it was indeed more than just “accepting Christ;” it was finally, determinedly, turning my back to the kingdom of this world and forever identifying myself as being part of the kingdom of God.

    This all raises another question for me: What about infant baptism? How can a child publicly confess a faith they haven’t embraced? I was baptized as an infant, but by the time I was old enough to be “confirmed” our church had stopped baby baptism and confirmation. My first “start” was about 10 or 11 years of age, and friends were being baptized, but I was not allowed to, as I had already been baptized as a baby.

    Sometimes I have wondered if that childhood “start” might have “stuck” if I had been allowed to be baptized at that time… but then again, maybe Father knew I really did not “understand” (I really didn’t “repent” at that time, I’m pretty sure, because I was a “good” kid – followed the “rules” – and didn’t see anything that needed “repenting” of). I do believe that the time, place, and circumstances of my baptism were in the perfect plan and purposes of God!

    (I think about all this in more depth at “my testimony”)

  • Dan Allen

    Infant baptism is interesting to me, since I grew up with a mostly Baptist background, I have always been taught believer’s baptism. I don’t look at those who practice infant baptism like two-headed aliens anymore, but more importantly I no longer am convinced that the way Baptists do it is any more inline with the Scripture than those who practice infant baptism. Like my post suggests I think waiting a very long time before baptizing is definitely not the example from the Bible, and possibly detrimental to our understanding of salvation. Furthermore the idea that we normally must go through classes and convince the clergy that our faith will “stick” before being allowed to take the dip is totally foreign to Scripture. I know the classes I took were called discipleship classes and it kinda makes me wonder if they thought that I had successfully been discipled and ready to go in the 3 months between my confession of faith and baptism. I don’t know.

    Your comment about waiting till the lake unfroze has always been a logistical issue I’ve thought about. Being from Maine there are several months a year that outdoor public baptism would not only be cold but impossible unless we want to use an auger to get through the ice! If we were to decide baptism is the immediate expression of repentance and regeneration we may run into logistical issues!

    Regarding your point about your baptism being at the right place, time, and under the right circumstances: truly God is sovereign! Whether or not you should have been baptized earlier is not relevant to the fact that the way it DID happen was part of God’s perfect plan!

    Thanks for your thoughts, and sorry for the hugely long comment!

    -Dan

  • Mark

    Dan,

    I like your analogy of loving your wife. I think it fits perfectly. Even given that the moment we repent is when salvation occurs, is that even an easily definable moment? I think that modern evangelistic methods fall short in truly creating disciples. I believe a person can convert to Christianity, same as they might convert to Islam, and go straight to hell, because the converted to the religion, and never knew Christ. This is why we must rely on the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, because he can lead us through these issues that we otherwise don’t have the wherewithal to figure out.

  • Tom Sherman, Elder

    Dan,

    I was raised in and attended a Church of Christ for the 1st 25 of my life. The CoC teaches baptismal regeneration as do many denominations. Their doctrine teaches something really happens in baptism. I think Colossians 2:11-13 sums up their doctrine pretty well. It says (paraphrasing), our hearts are circumcised by Christ in our baptism; cutting away the old sinful part of a person and leaving a pure spirit that can approach God.

    I left the COC about 25 years ago because of the legalism of the congregation of with I was a member. Over the past 25 years, I have changed many of my beliefs. I am currently an Elder of a nondenominational Church. It took several years of searching for truth and many hundreds of hours of study to discover what I am going to say next .

    Baptism was, in New Testament times, the God ordained mode of calling upon His name for salvation. Many respected scholars and theologians from many denominational backgrounds have openly stated this fact in papers and sermons which can, with a little research, be found online. Please read 1st Peter 3:21 which shows the Apostle Peter equating baptism with a request/appeal to God for a clean conscious. The Apostle Paul was told in Acts 22:16 to be baptized, calling on His name. These facts coupled with the total absence of anyone being told to say a sinner’s prayer in the NT scriptures and no historical data of a church doctrine, of any denomination, for at least 1500 years after the founding of the Church 40 days after the resurrection of our Lord and Savior.

    Peter says baptism saves. How can this be true if we are saved by faith? Peter answers this by explaining how it saves. He states, “It is asking God for a clean conscience. It saves you because Jesus Christ was raised from death.”. Praise God for Peter! Because, here in this verse is the only biblical explanation of what baptism really is and how it saves.

    It was the God ordained “Sinner’s Prayer”. It was and is the mode of calling on Him that God asked for us to use. Today many denominations teach and preach the sinner’s prayer as a mode to call on God and I will, even though I personally wouldn’t use this mode to bring a soul to salvation in Christ, never discount the fact that it may be a valid avenue to God. This being said, I fear for those that bring “strange fire” to the Lord, because sometimes if not all the time God wants what He wants and will accept nothing less. Please read Leviticus chapter 10 and you will see what I mean by “strange fire”.

    If baptism is how the early Christians “called on God” for salvation then it stands to reason how Colossians 2:11-12 could literally mean our hearts are circumcised when we call on Him during baptism, Romans 6:3-8 literally can mean we receive a new life when we call on him by baptism, Acts 2:36-40 can literally mean when we call on God in baptism we are forgive and receive the Holy Spirit as a free gift to dwell in use to guide and convict us. All these things can be true and still be our faith that saves our souls. Everything changes when we see God’s truth through the eyes of the original Church.

    Keep searching for truth and God bless,
    Tom Sherman, Elder

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