THE TWENTY-NINTH DAY OF NOVEMBER IN THE YEAR OF GRACE TWO THOUSAND AND FIFTEEN.
It’s a staple of conservative Protestant evangelism, so familiar that most evangelicals take it for granted. A bit odd perhaps, since neither Jesus nor his apostles nor any New Testament writer ever specifically mentions it. “It” is the so-called Sinner’s Prayer, a verbal template that new converts are regularly instructed to paraphrase or repeat in order to “make a decision for Christ,” “invite Jesus into (your) heart,” and “accept Christ as Savior.” The three clauses in quotes are not found in the Bible either, for that matter, although other synonymous language is (Col. 2:6 KJV; John 1:12; Rom. 10:9, 13). Indeed, there are calls to rethink the use of the Sinner’s Prayer itself–and these calls are not mere quibbles over semantics.
For example, Southern Baptist (SBC) pastor David Platt of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama believes that a constant heavy emphasis on the Sinner’s Prayer today fosters a false assurance of salvation. “Many assume they are saved simply because of a prayer they prayed,” Platt says. This Platt quote is online and is accessible free of charge at: www.christianitytoday.com/
The Book of Acts presents a picture of God’s first-century messengers at work. They instruct sinners to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30; 26:20), and they repeatedly promise that anyone who do so will be saved (Acts 10:43; 16:31). Advocates of the Sinner’s Prayer rightly observe that a person repents and believes internally; these are invisible acts. Praying is a visible external deed that others can see, hear, and remember. However, Jesus himself ordained an act that also externalizes repentance and faith and makes them visible. That act is gospel baptism in water (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15-16).
Throughout Acts, we see God’s messengers faithfully fulfilling Jesus’ commission. Over and over, people hear the gospel and respond internally in repentance and faith, which they visibly externalize by being baptized. There is no good reason why the same scenario should not be the regular case today. All it takes is for us to obey Jesus’ commission as exemplified in the Book of Acts–baptizing new believers promptly and without delay (Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-13, 36-38; 9:17-18; 10:47-48; 16:29-33; 18:8). That leaves plenty of room for any new believer to pray appropriately, whether in familiar words of the Sinner’s Prayer, or liturgical words from another tradition, or extemporaneously from the convert’s heart to God’s ear. It is right for prayer to accompany water baptism. It is also right for us to instruct new converts, in the words of Ananias to Saul, “Arise . . . be baptized . . . wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).