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Testimonies, the Sinner’s Prayer, and the Politics of Baptism

August 19th, 2006 by Jason · 11 Comments

Confession to make: for a while now I’ve found testimonies troublesome. Which isn’t good, because they’re kind of the bread and butter of what makes evangelicals evangelical. For those who aren’t familiar with what I’m talking about, let me explain. In my tradition it’s common to ask (or have preachers encourage you to ask) how you got saved. You then proceed to tell your story about how you heard about Jesus and how you came around to making a decision to say the Sinner’s Prayer which involves “asking Christ into your heart.” Now, I will say that the first part, telling your story and testifying to how you’ve seen theh Spirit at work, is something I’m fully behind. I dig hearing people’s stories—it’s how I can get to know the web of experiences and moments that make you you. I also value it when people share about how they have experienced God because those are some of the most mysterious and sacred experiences people have. However, what primarily bothers me about the way testimonies are often done in the evangelical world is that they focus on a single decision: saying a prayer to accept Jesus. I don’t think the problem is focusing on a decision, persay, so long as people tell the story of what led to that decision. Rather, my beef with this whole thing is that it focuses on the wrong decision.

What’s the problem with focusing on the decision to say a prayer to accept Jesus into my heart? Well, not only is it not particularly Biblical, it’s also historically myopic and it’s captive to the individualism of our day. Here’s a little history of the sinner’s prayer (you can read a more thorough account here). The idea that a prayer made someone a Christian began after the Reformation when the issue of baptism was still unresoloved. Calvin, Luther, and most of the other reformers still accepted infant baptism. Only Menno Simmons and his Anabaptists argued for adult baptism. So baptism for most people was a citizenship thing. You got baptized as a Lutheran as an infant and that also marked your German citizenship. Thus, Protestants began focusing on prayer as how one received salvation. The whole idea picked up steam during the Great Awakening in the 18th century. Traveling preachers capitalized on Rev. 3:20: Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. Ignoring the fact that this verse was written to a church and not an individual, the preachers exhorted their audience to “just let Jesus come into your heart.” The method of having someone say a prayer was crystalized by Dwight Moody in the 19th century when he developed the system of preaching followed by calling interested listeners to come into the Inquiry Room where counselors would lead the individual through Scripture and then a prayer to conclude the deal. This was where the practice of the Sinner’s Prayer came clearly into being, though it wasn’t called such until the time of Billy Sunday. And from this we have countless preachers today calling people to become Christians by saying a prayer, and thus countless Christians who focus on that event when they give their testimonies.

So what is the alternative to the Sinner’s Prayer, with its lack of Biblical support and emphasis on my decision that happens between me and God in my heart? Baptism. Paul in Gal. 3:27-28:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

For Paul, it is baptism that brings us into the Kingdom of God and into Christ and it is what binds us to one another. This is why baptism is political. Baptism speaks to the fact that there is a world, a Kingdom, a city which the states and political powers of this world cannot fulfill. Baptism catches us up into God’s ongoing work of making all things new and it reconfigures our identity as citizens of the City of God. Thus, what is needed is
a rediscovery of Baptism as the foundational, authoritative act of God by which all the baptized are irrevocably assigned and commited to one another in the same act by which they are savingly joined to Jesus Christ. These two dimensions of God’s baptism action cannot be neatly separated (quoted in Sexuality and the Christian Body, Eugene F. Rogers, pg. 32, emphasis added).

It is that last sentence which hopefully guards baptism against the individualism to which the Sinner’s Prayer is prone. Baptism binds us to one another in a new Kingdom in which old divisions and hostilities are destroyed: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, rich and poor, eastside and westside (the gangs in my city) are now to live together without division, hostility, or hierarchy. To forsake those bonds with one another can be done “only at the gravest risk to their bond with Christ” (Rogers, 32).

Decisions to do something with the Kingdom of God offered by Jesus are great, but the decision ought to lead to baptism where we are made citizens of this new Kingdom. And that ought to be (at least one) highlight of any testimony.

Tags: theology

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Aug 21, 2006 at 5:52 am

    Great post.

  • 2 Leslie // Nov 14, 2006 at 4:06 am

    Thank you for clearing that up for me. To me the bible has always been clear that baptism is necessary for salvation (Acts 2:38.) I just could not figuire out why anyone would teach “pray Jesus into your heart” when it is not in the bible anywhere.

  • 3 jerry lcox // Apr 1, 2008 at 9:55 am

    please sent me more information on sinner baptism

  • 4 Julian Banks // Nov 10, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Hey this is interesting, what made you think about this? What church/denomination do you belong to? I know, personal ques. but I’m just curious. I’ve always been turned off by the mystical and emotional pray Jesus into your heart alter calls in which people (at least from my own experience) on an act of compulsion go up and make a decision that could hardly be called and educated committment only to soon go back to how they normally live. Christianity just started to seem so dilute and powerless… It would be cool to talk though.
    -Julian

  • 5 lianne // Aug 17, 2009 at 11:13 am

    I totally agree with you: there is nothing scarier to me than this false doctrine of praying Jesus into your heart. It has led so many people astray, and what’s even more disturbing to me is that if one were simply to read the whole book of Romans, its obvious that it was written to a church of people who already knew how to gain salvation since most of them were probably there in the
    Acts 2 account! I have spoken to so many people who, even after seeing it through the scriptures still insist that a person can be saved by saying that prayer. I guess this kind of false teaching is the kind of thing that 2thessalonians 2:9-12 is talking about huh? Scares the jibblies outta me I tell you!

  • 6 Matt // Nov 3, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    more scriptures to read! 1 peter 3:21 the water from Noah’s day that saved Noah and his family represents the water that we are baptized into today! Romans 6:1-7 Baptism is not an outward sign of an inward grace, but participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ! In Matthew 16 Jesus gives peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven and in acts 2 peter uses those keys! The thief on the cross salvation… in Matthew 9 Jesus says he has the authority to forgive sins! We must believe (have faith), repent, and be baptized! AMEN!

  • 7 Norberto // Jan 9, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    Refreshing to see that there are other believers that read scripture and can hear what it is actually saying about salvation. It’s amazing how believers can read scripture and say it doesn’t say what it is saying. 1 Peter 3:21 spells it out, just in case we didn’t put the pieces together from ALL the other scriptures that indicate that Baptism is a crucial part of salvation. I am not saying the only part, but a key component.

    I have more to say on the subject and want to chime in productively.

    Like Arnold said, “I’ll be back.”

  • 8 Aubrey // Sep 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    I have been struggling with this fact myself. It has been soo confusing for me that the church my mom goes to preaches this prayer of salvation. Why don’t people believe that baptism is necessary for salvation? It just doesn’t make any sense that those who proclaim to be Christians don’t except what is clearly shown in the Bible.

  • 9 Devin K // Oct 19, 2010 at 1:30 am

    Awesome man. Hopefully there can be change in this generation. I was fortunate enough to find a group that does follow sound doctrine; the bible. Check out any of the “International Christian Church” es.
    http://www.caicc.org/churches.php

  • 10 Jonathan CHM // Apr 6, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Some commentators might strongly oppose the request of the receipt of the Holy Spirit for the fact that the prophecy in John 16:7 pertaining to the receipt of the Holy Spirit should have been fulfilled in Acts 2 by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit during the Pentecost. They treat John 4:10, John 6:32-34 and Luke 11:13 to be applicable only before the day of Pentecost and all the events as mentioned in the book of Acts to be in transitional period and these give them the conclusion that the request of the Holy Spirit should be nullified currently. Discuss.

    The comment that, John 16:7 is applicable to Acts 2 in which the disciples received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the current practice of requesting of the Holy Spirit should be in vain, has been found to be unjustifiable in the Gospel for the following reasons:

    a) John 16:7 mentions that the Holy Spirit had to be descended upon the disciples when Jesus was glorified and it should have been fulfilled in Acts 2. However, neither John 16:7 nor any verses from the Bible does mention that the practice of requesting of the Holy Spirit should be abandoned after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as mentioned in Acts 2. By asserting that the requesting of the Holy Spirit should be nullified after the day of Pentecost, is simply the act of making presumption in which it is not stated in the Bible. Or in other words, they simply add words of presumption that is not even stated in the Bible. We have been warned in the Bible not to abuse the Scripture by adding or subtracting words. Unless a verse or sentence has been stated clearly elsewhere in the Bible that requesting of the Holy Spirit has to be ceased or to be nullified after the day of Pentecost, it should then be rational to conclude that requesting of the Holy Spirit is redundant and not be to exercised in the future.

    b)Some commentators might suggest that the phrase, they were come down prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, as mentioned in Acts 8:15 to be the exceptional case with their presumption that this event should fall during transitional period. However, neither Acts 8 nor any verses from the Bible that mentions that Acts 8 should be meant for transitional period and that should be the ultimate reason for the request of the Holy Spirit. By asserting that the event as mentioned in Acts 8 to be the transitional period has caused one to add words of presumption that is not even mentioned in the Scripture. What if the event as mentioned in Acts 8:15 in reality should not be meant for transitional period, the phrase, they were come down prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, in Acts 8:15 would give the impression that God demands the practice of the praying of the Holy Spirit as mentioned in Acts 2. As nothing is mentioned in Acts 8 that it is meant for transitional period to excuse people in the future to pray for the receipt of the Holy Spirit other than the presumptuous thought from some commentators, the intention to do away the requesting of the Holy Spirit with excuses to be give, would ultimately cause many people to be in the doom with their presumption that they have received the Holy Spirit and yet in reality, they might not have.

    c) Some commentators might have suggested that the phrase, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?, in Acts 19:2 is meant to be either the spoken words raised during the transitional period or for other excuse reason (such as, this is meant to be for exceptional case due to they had received or known merely John’s baptism) to discourage people from requesting the receipt of the Holy Spirit. However, neither Acts 19 nor any verses in the Bible does mention that Acts 19 should be meant for transitional period. The commentators simply add words of assumption to discourage people from requesting of the Holy Spirit. What if Acts 19 should not be considered as transitional period or it was not due to other reason (such as they had merely received John’s baptism) in realtiy, those people, that have this presumptuous thought, have undoubtedly added words of presumption in which they are not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. What if praying for the receipt of the Holy Spirit has to be considered as part of the plan for God’s salvation, the intention to avoid and mislead many not to pray to receive the Holy Spirit, would cause many to be in the doom for not to be born again.

    d)Neither John 4:10 nor John 6:32-34 nor Luke 11:13 mentions that the practice of the requesting of the Holy Spirit should be ceased on the day of Pentecost, it is irrational to add words of presumption in the Bible in which it is not even stated. John 16:7 emphasizes on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit when Jesus was glorified and nothing is mentioned vividly in the Bible about the cessation of the request of the Holy Spirit after the Pentecost. The commentators simply derive conclusion through guessing work that the practice of the requesting of the Holy Spirit should have been ceased after the Pentecost or the so-called, transitional period, that is defined by them, but not mentioned in the Bible.

    Any mis-interpretation on the part of the way to salvation would simply lead people to presume that they are saved and have received the Holy Spirit without the realisation of the possible absence of the Holy Spirit within their bodies.

    Some commentators might use the following verses to oppose the use of sinner’s prayer with the excuse that the Holy Spirit should be with them simply by mentioning that they do confess that Jesus is the Son of God and their recognition about the resurrection of Jesus:

    1 John 4:15, “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.”

    Romans 10:9, “That if thou shalt confess with the mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”

    Discuss.

    At a glance, the phrase, Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, in 1 John 4:15 seems to imply that all those people, that confess Jesus as the Son of God, must have received the Holy Spirit. However, the following are the two distinctive cases from the Bible that have brought us to the attention that not all the people, that proclaim Jesus is the Son of God, have received the Holy Spirit:

    a) Instances below that give us the implication that people could proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God even prior to the resurrection of Jesus:

    i) Matthew 14:33, “Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, of a truth thou art the Son of God.”

    ii) Matthew 27:54, “Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.”

    iii) Mark 15:39, “And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.”

    iv) John 1:49, “Nathamael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the king of Israel.”

    v) John 11:27, “She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.”

    The following are the extracts to prove that those people, that are mentioned in Matthew 14:33, 27:54; John 1:49, 11:27, and Mark 15:39, did not receive the Holy Spirit prior to the resurrection of Jesus:

    i) John 7:39, “(But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive, for the Holy Ghost was not yet [given]: because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)”

    ii) John 16:7, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”

    Despite Matthew 14:33, 27:54; Mark 15:39; John 1:49 and John 11:27 were the events occurred prior to the day that Jesus was glorified and these people should not have received the Holy Spirit in accordance to John 7:39 and 16:7, yet they could proclaim Jesus as the Son of God at the absence of the Holy Spirit. This gives the ultimate conclusion that those people, that could proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God in this modern society, do not give any strong proof that they have God to be dwelt within their bodies.

    b) Instances from the Scripture to prove that even demons could comment that Jesus is the Son of God and yet God do not dwell within their bodies. The following are the extracts:

    i) Matthew 8:29, “And, behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time?”

    ii) Mark 3:11, “And unclean spirits, when they saw him, fell down before him, and cried, saying, Thou art the Son of God.”

    iii) Luke 4:41, “And devils also came out of many, crying out, and saying, Thou art Christ the Son of God. And he rebuke them suffered them not to speak: for they knew that he was Christ.”

    iv) Luke 8:28, “When he saw Jesus, he cried out, and fell down before him, and with a loud voice said, what have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God most High? I beseech thee, torment me not.”

    From the above explanations and the extracts, these could easily arrive at the conclusion that it is irrational to determine whether a person has received the Holy Spirit by simply hearing him/her in proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God.

    As it is irrational to determine whether a person has received the Holy Spirit simply by hearing him/her in proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God, does it imply that 1 John 4:15 is contradictory to Matthew 14:33, 27:54; John 1:49, 11:27, and Mark 15:39? No, it is irrational to jump into this conclusion since if the word, confess, in 1 John 4:15 is be interpreted with broader definition that it should be accompanied with action instead of restricting to merely mouth-to-mouth confession. When the word, confess, in 1 John 4:15 has been interpreted with broader definition to include our sincere action towards God in treating and letting Jeus to be truly the Son of God to reign in our lives, we then would discover 1 John 4:15 does not contradict itself with other verses in the Bible. Or in other words, the person that confess that Jesus is the Son of God need to have high respect of Jesus and to have Him to come into his/her life to take control of him/her. Could a person be saved simply by proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God and his/her Lord and yet refusing to allow Him to come into his/her life and to have Him to be the King to reign in his/her life and that is what God desires for.

    James 2:19 provides the truth that the devils even believe in God and yet they tremble as a result of their faith without action. A person might proclaim that he/she believes in Jesus to be the Son of God and his/her Lord and yet God is interested whether his faith is accompanied with his willingness to accept Him to be his Personal Saviour and Lord. The following are the extracts for James 2:19-24 and these are self-explanatory:

    James 2:19-24, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”

  • 11 Norberto // Feb 12, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Said I’d be back. I believe baptism for remission of sins is biblical. Warning to Devon K. and anyone else considering membership in ICC. I was a member of Kips first movement (before he was ousted for years of abuse, egomania among other reasons). Churches of Christ, for the most part, repented of cult-like behavior. From what I can tell, Kip didn’t. I heard the warnings for years and didn’t listen. Violated my conscience, taught others to. Pray for wisdom. You see something, say something. Hold leaders to bible teachings. Don’t let them intimidate you or cause you to compromise scripture.