The Sinner’s Prayer: Baptists Debate the Evangelical Initiation Rite
We ran Vincent Martini’s piece yesterday regarding the Calvinism/Arminianism debates at the
Southern Baptist Convention Great Commission Baptist Convention, and now there’s another fascinating doctrinal development at the convention:
The vote wasn’t taken with every head bowed and every eye closed, but delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting today supported the “Sinner’s Prayer” after considerable debate.
Jimmy Scroggins, chairman of the SBC Committee on Resolutions, told the convention that the committee brought the resolution to the floor because of recent challenges to the emphasis on the Sinner’s Prayer—usually a prayer of repentance to “invite Jesus into your heart” that has become a hallmark of evangelical conversionism.
The committee wanted “to affirm our commitment to evangelism and to calling people to make a decision for Jesus Christ,” Scroggins said.
The resolution was originally presented by Eric Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi, though the version approved by the committee omitted language designed to refute the denomination’s increasingly Calvinist membership. (An effort to put much of the language back in was defeated in a floor vote, as was an effort to remove references to the phrase “Sinner’s Prayer.”)
Indeed, Hankins says his resolution was sparked by a talk from one of the SBC’s Calvinist stars, David Platt. Speaking at the Verge church leaders’ conference March 1, the pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, said the emphasis on the Sinner’s Prayer is unbiblical and damning.
“I’m convinced that many people in our churches are 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,” Platt said. “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 phrase, ‘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.”
Discussion over the resolution did seem to break down along Calvinist/Arminian lines.
I am actually quite pleased that this is coming up for debate at such a prominent event (never mind the inherent problem of voting on whether to change doctrine). The “Sinner’s Prayer” is the very bedrock of mainstream Evangelical evangelism and conversion. It’s the moment when you “get saved,” and if you haven’t had that moment, you’re not “saved.” Unmentioned in this article is the accompanying doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” a semi-Arminian version of the Calvinist doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints. Cross that line, say that prayer, be sincere, have the moment—and BAM!—you’re a new creation, disciple of Jesus, with Heaven everlasting as your eternal reward.
I can recall when I took a class in early Christianity in college a moment a couple of weeks into the course. We had been reading authors like Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr, and one of my fellow students raised his hand and said, “Okay, so we’ve been reading this stuff for a while now, but I haven’t seen anything in here about accepting Jesus into your heart.” I had been Orthodox for a few years by that point, so I had to bridle a bit of a chuckle.
It was a bit of a shock to me, as well, when I first learned that the early Church had no such doctrine, no such initiation rite. Baptism is what brought you into the Church, a spiritual/physical liturgical ritual in the midst of a community that joined you to that community.
Despite the passage of the resolution, the SBC (GCBC?) is unlikely to solve this debate for themselves so long as there remain sizable theological camps embracing either Calvinism or Arminianism. One side gets you through the gate by a predestination enacted without your will involved in any way, while the other gets you through by a moment of personal sincerity. But both sides are missing both what the Scriptures say and what the witness of the early Church have to say about Christian initiation: It is sacramental and therefore communal.
Yes, a “decision for Christ” has to be made, and we might think of it as “inviting Jesus into your heart.” Yes, God gives His grace (Himself in His divine energies) in order to save man, without which salvation is not possible. But both sides are so bent on an individualistic understanding of conversion that they fall to realize that the Church is not simply the aggregation of what results when people are converted, but it is the very means by and purpose for which that conversion happens.
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.