Baptism & the Sinner’s Prayer
As some of you may know, I have been reflecting on baptism for a while now, especially considering the issue about whether or not to baptise my daughter who is due in June. You can read my previous blog on why I am thinking about this issue HERE.
As I’ve been reading, researching and reflecting on the appropriateness of infant baptism, I have started with a simple question… What is baptism? When Jesus said to his followers who were mostly simple fishermen, “Go, make disciples and baptise them” (Matthew 28:19) they understood what he meant. So in my research, I didn’t want the super theological, highly complex, only can be understood if you have a Masters Degree of Divinity, understanding. I wanted the simple fisherman’s version. When they went out and said to someone, “Hey! You should become a disciple of Jesus and get baptised!”, when the other person said, “Why should I get baptised? What’s that about?”, I wanted to know how they would answer.
How would YOU answer?
One thing I’ve noticed is that for the first Christians, baptism was part and parcel of becoming a Christian. Right at the beginning of the Church’s mission to the world, after the first ever public evangelistic sermon, those that wanted to respond to Jesus asked the very simple question…
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:37-41)
They asked, “What shall we do?”, and Peter answered “Repent and be baptised.” And that’s what they did. It was fairly simple.
This is the pattern all the way through the Book of Acts as well:
When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?”
Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised.
The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home.
The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptised.
Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptised.
‘And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
Now, it may seem (to those who know the different sides of the debate) that I am trying to put forward the case for credobaptism or “believer baptism”, but I’m not. I’m simply showing how, for the early Church, baptism was the way people responded to Jesus. What happened in their heart? God helped them believe the message. What happened in their mind? They repented from their sin and put their trust in Jesus. And what did they do with their body? They got baptised.
Baptism is so intimately connected with the response of believing and repenting that Paul recalls in his own story, how Ananais had said to him, “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16) The act of baptism, the miracle of being forgiven (having your sins washed away) and the response of calling on Jesus’ name are all in the one package. This is why Peter in his first epistle, says that we are saved through the waters of baptism (1 Peter 3:21). This passage use to confuse me, but he goes on to describe baptism as “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Baptism was the handshake that sealed the deal. It was the signature that signed the contract. It was the step over the line in the sand. It was the pledge of a clear conscience towards God.
Now, to be very clear, the Bible never says that baptism itself is what saves us or forgives us of sin. That would be to commit the mistake that the Catholic Church sadly has fallen into (I make mention of this in my previous blog on baptism). Even after Peter’s potentially confusing statement about being saved through baptism, he clarifies that it is actually “the resurrection of Jesus Christ” that saves you (1 Peter 3:21). It is Jesus that saves us, through his work not ours. We don’t even prompt Jesus to save us by our faith. As shown in many of the episodes in Acts, it is God who opens people’s heart to respond in faith. Our faith is a gift, so that our salvation is from God and by God from start to finish. As Paul writes so succinctly in Ephesians 2:8-9, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this faith is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
So baptism doesn’t have any magical saving powers, but it is still tied very intimately to our response and to God’s salvation. They are all wrapped up together. Can you be saved without baptism? Of course! Think about the thief on the cross (Luke 23:38-43). But what should we do to respond to Jesus? Repent and be baptised. Simple as that.
The sad thing I see today is that much of the church seems to have lost this simple approach to baptism. Both sides of the baptism debate have made it more complex than it needs to be. Pedobaptists churches can sometimes turn baptism into a highly complex, theological statement about the seal of God’s promises and the sign of the new covenant. I fear, they can sort of kill it with theology at times, like a joke that stops being funny after you have explained it in too much detail.
Credobaptists churches on the other hand, should be all for a simple “believe and be baptised” approach, but many of them can make it overcomplicated as well. Because they are committed to not baptising children from Christian homes unless they are really believers, they have developed systems for establishing this with supposed certainty. Many make people partake in several week-long baptism courses which you have to register for and in some churches they get you to wait until Easter when they do a mass baptism of lots of converts. In most churches, baptism is also connected with the idea of becoming a “member” of that particular church and so it begins to take on even more complexity. If you’re thinking about becoming baptised, you might be encouraged to wait until an appropriate date on which you can invite your friends and family along. It gets put off to an available Sunday service that isn’t too busy. And then there’s your testimony. Of course, you have to give a public testimony explaining how you came to trust in Jesus. And because of this, help in how to write a clear testimony is often worked into a baptism course, and people are given time to feel comfortable with standing up in front of a crowd and sharing their story. I know of Christians who have put off their baptism indefinitely, purely due to their fear of public speaking.
Where did it go so wrong? When did we lose the simplicity? When did baptism turn into such an event? In the New Testament, baptism is like a shotgun wedding. “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?” the Ethiopian in Acts 8 says when he believes in Jesus. Nowadays, it can be more like a big ceremony, that looks like a wedding but the couple made their marriage vows a month or two earlier. People get baptised weeks, months or even decades after they repented and believed in Jesus. I think it’s weird. I think it’s sad. I think we’ve missed the point of baptism. It’s not just that it loses the excitement of the moment of conversion. It also loses the connection with the act of conversion itself. Remember, the passages from Acts? Conversion and baptism were part of the same package. You repented and were baptised. At the same time. On the same day.
This is maybe why we get so confused about what baptism is and how we should administer it. We’ve turned it into something with more complexity, more theology, more process and more red tape than it ever was meant to have. Now, I’m not saying that we should take it lightly or encourage people to do it willy nilly. But we don’t encourage people to repent and believe lightly either. Jesus tells us that we must count the cost of being a disciple (Luke 14:25-33) and he also warns us not to be one of those people who respond to the gospel with superficial enthusiasm, but who dump it all when times get tough (Matthew 13:20-21). Becoming a disciple of Jesus is huge. It is giving up your autonomy and your sin and your allegiance to anyone or anything other than Christ. It should not be done for foolish or selfish reasons. Like wedding vows, becoming a disciple of Jesus is a life-long commitment that should be entered into “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God” (“The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony” from “The Book of Common Prayer”).
Having said this, the call to repent and believe in Jesus is an immediate call. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.” We are all called to respond to Jesus now. Not to wait or put it off. True, we must count the cost, but count the cost now. The warnings are generally not about responding to God too quickly, but too slowly. Like the man in the story Jesus told in Luke 12:16-21, who stored up his wealth and put off being rich towards God, and then one night God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.” We are told to respond now. And baptism, I think, was meant to be part of that response.
THE SINNER’S PRAYER
The role baptism had in the response of a brand new believer, has today been replaced in part by what’s known as the “Sinner’s Prayer”. The “Sinner’s Prayer” is a simple prayer that acknowledges our sin, asks Jesus for forgiveness and accepts Jesus as your Lord. There are no strict formulaic words to the “Sinner’s Prayer”, but at the end of every evangelistic tract you’ll find one. If you’ve ever been to a big evangelistic rally or event and they ask people to come to the front if they want to become a Christian, the prayer they get everyone to say is a version of the Sinner’s Prayer”. It is a decisive, verbal prayer of repentance and commitment. It is quite useful in evangelism because it has a beginning and it has an end, so you can say to people who have prayed it (if they truly meant it) that they are now saved and that they are now part of God’s family.
Some Christians are strongly against the idea of the “Sinner’s Prayer” (like Paul Washer who brings up some great points in this VIDEO). Mainly, their criticisms are about people’s confidence in their salvation being based on the prayer they said once, rather than the daily reliance on the work of Christ. I agree that the “Sinner’s Prayer” has a danger of being treated like a magical spell that once said with conviction, compels God to forgive you and make you born again. But I don’t think it has to be that way. When I repented and believed at age 16, it was through saying the “Sinner’s Prayer” around a kitchen table with some Christian friends who had shared the gospel with me. I can’t really remember all the words I said, but it was a clear moment to that reminded me that I had crossed the line and given my life to Jesus. Now I am under no illusion that it was the “Sinner’s Prayer” that saved me. It was Jesus who saved me. And like Lydia in Acts 16:14, I know that God was the one who opened my heart to accept the gospel, without any prompting from me. In fact, it was that opening of my heart that prompted me to want to say the “Sinner’s Prayer”.
Some people critique the “Sinner’s Prayer” because they say it is unbiblical. Nowhere in the bible do we see people reciting a particular prayer in their moment of coming to faith. When the men came to Peter and asked, “What must we do?”, Peter didn’t say, “Bow your head and repeat this prayer after me, line by line.” No, he said, “Repent and be baptised!” Now, although that is true, I do think there is biblical precedent for the idea of a prayer being the physical act that shows repentance. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a Tax Collector who beats his breast and says, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ and then goes home justified before God. Surely, that is as close to the “Sinner’s Prayer” as you can get. Also, in Romans 10:9-13, Paul writes: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” This “calling on the name of the Lord” has been maybe made a bit too formulaic in the “Sinner’s Prayer” but it seems their is definitely biblical for encouraging people to talk to God as part of the mark of their repentance.
The thing I think is unfortunate about the “Sinner’s Prayer” is that it seems to have replaced the role of baptism. Today, if you were asked by a friend you have shared the gospel with, “What must I do?”, would you answer with “repent and be baptised” or the “Sinner’s Prayer”? Part of the role of baptism I think was to give the convert a clear and decisive moment in time when they make the decision to become a disciple of Jesus. In the act of going into the water, they were identifying themself with Jesus and their acceptance of the gospel message. Today, we use the “Sinner’s Prayer” functionally in the same way, and baptism is left as this strange ritual that we do a long time afterwards, or for some, we never get around to doing at all!
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
I think for us to regain the purpose for baptism that is pictured in the Bible, I have a few thoughts:
- Include baptism in our evangelistic call.
- It may seem weird, but when we encourage our non-Christian friends and family to turn to Christ, I think we should encourage them to be baptised as part of that call. If we are worried that they would be turned off by such a tactile and public display of commitment, then maybe we don’t trust that God would be at work in their hearts. God is the one that opens people’s eyes and hearts to the beauty of the gospel. Maybe, when God does that, the idea of baptism wouldn’t be such a weird idea.
- At evangelistic events and Youth Rallies, there should not be an alter call without baptisms.
- Either be ready to do baptisms when you want people to turn to Christ, or, probably more appropriately, don’t do alter calls. I asked one friend why he thought they thought they didn’t do baptisms at Youth Rally evangelistic events, he said it was because they expected that some kids were only responding due to the hype of the moment, and so they shouldn’t get baptised just in case it wasn’t genuine. If that is the case then why do an alter call? Why do the “Sinner’s Prayer”? What assurance can you give the new believer if you doubt that they truly are a new believer?
- Some also think it’s simply impractical to call people to be baptised at such a large event, but that issue didn’t faze the early Church. When Peter told his hearers to “Repent and be baptised”, it goes on to say, “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41) Can we even fathom an evangelistic event where thousands of people respond to the gospel and do so by being baptised? I’m not saying if we don’t have baptisms, the converts aren’t real Christians. It’s just that when baptism is left out, I feel it loses its meaning and intended purpose.
- Stop putting up so many barriers to baptism.
- This is a controversial one, but hear me out. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about who gets baptise and I even think we should refuse baptism to anyone who is doing it without “counting the cost” or wanting it for non-gospel reasons. But some churches have drowned the process of baptism with process and paperwork. There is no biblical reason why baptism has to be done at church. There is no biblical reason why it has to wait for Sunday. There is no biblical reason why it has to be done by an ordained minister.
- I’m not saying that it’s wrong to wait to do it if you want to have family and friends present. There can be something very special about that. But it should be easy. It should be a natural response to Jesus, and pretty much, whoever wants to repent and be baptised should be allowed to. Think about the “Sinner’s Prayer”. If a friend told you they want to be saved and asked if you could pray with them, would you get them to do a “Sinner’s Prayer” course? Would they have to do it at a Sunday Service after they shared their testimony? Would you call the minister to do it for you? I really hope not! Sure you might ask them some “counting the cost” type questions to make sure they understood what it meant, but once you were fairly convinced that their desire to respond to the gospel was genuine, you would probably pray with them there and then! I think we should do baptism in the same way. Like the enthusiastic Ethiopian in Acts 8:36, we should encourage people to say, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?”
- Get baptised!
- This last point is for those Christians who have never been baptised. Get baptised! There are only two rituals that Jesus commands Christians to do – partaking in the Breaking of Bread and baptism. If you have never gotten around to getting baptised, go and get it done. Speak to you minister today, talk to a Christian friend. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. You can do it at church, or at the beach, or in a lake, or in your bathtub! It is sad that it is so far removed from your initial act of repentance and conversion, but the truth of the symbolic act is still as true today as it would have been if you had done it then. Getting baptised is a wonderful physical response to Jesus, and it is something that he commands, so doing it shows everyone your submission to and love for the Lord.
BAPTISM & CHRISTIAN KIDS
Now, all this talk about baptism being part and parcel with our response to Jesus, doesn’t necessarily answer the question about what Christian parents should do with their kids. A credobaptist may have read this blog and be saying, “It’s obvious! The call is to repent and then get baptised! Not to baptise and then hope they repent!” But I don’t think it’s that easy.
As I have already mentioned, many credobaptist churches turn the process of baptism into a convoluted series of hoops that you have to jump through to prove that you are really truly genuine in your repentance. But the child born into a Christian family has a unique experience. They are not being called to convert, they are not being called to repent. They are (hopefully) being brought up with the truths of the gospel. They don’t come to respond to Jesus. They’ve been taught to respond to Jesus right from the beginning. Ideally, they have grown up knowing and believing the gospel and relating to Jesus as their Lord and God as their Heavenly Father.
The question remains, if this is their experience and they have no conversion “moment”, then when should they be baptised? Some credobaptists might argue that kids should be encouraged to get to a time when they “own” their faith and publicly profess themselves to be a Christian, and that that is the appropriate time for them to be baptised, but I don’t see any clear biblical basis for that as much as I don’t see any clear biblical example of infant baptism. The biblical model is that, for first time believers, they should repent and be baptised. For those that are brought up in a family that has already repented, there really is no clear biblical model. I have questions and concerns about infant baptism, but I think I have more of a problem with the uniquely credobaptist “ownership of faith” baptism.
This blog isn’t my final thought on baptism. In fact, it is really just the starting point. Repentance and baptism are supposed to go hand in hand. That I am clear on. Maybe I should ditch the terms “pedobaptist” and “credobaptist” and call myself “repentobaptist”. In any case, I will continue thinking about how this starting point relates to what I should do with my daughter that is due in June. Getting this initial understanding about the place of baptism is for now, enough for me to chew on.