This post is more of a question than an answer. It is curiosity not advice, and I know that even bringing this issue up will bring scrutiny on me from others. My hope is that in raising my questions and my lack of understanding we can dialogue toward a Biblical perspective. So, as you read this post, please feel free to comment with your own thoughts or questions.
The “sinner’s prayer” is not in the Bible.
To be clear, I am referring to the specific prayer that we as evangelicals, especially Baptists, will often have people repeat during an altar call or invitation. This 25-30 second prayer is most often a short recap of the different steps we like to refer to as the “ABCs of salvation.” This is, of course, an acronym we have created in order to boil salvation down to its kernel. It takes the gospel and sums it up in three words: admit, believe, and confess.
We have really streamlined the gospel.
Now I understand the impetus to make the gospel clear. I understand the desire to explain it in a language children can understand, and to discuss it in a way that is not loaded with theological jargon that means nothing to people without a seminary degree. I am all for that.
Yet, I feel our efforts at clarity may replace the essence of the gospel message with the magic words of an event. In short, we Baptists could be guilty of witchcraft.
I know that is a big claim, and one that may offend a good portion of the people who read this blog, but let me explain my point.
For the last two years, I have lived in West Africa. It is a land of spells, magic, and witches. It is the birthplace of voodoo. Their worldview and culture is saturated with the supernatural and they, as a people, have placed their trust in the practice of manipulating spirits.
In its basic form, manipulation is the heart of witchcraft. It is the practice of using certain rituals and events to gain a desired response from the spirit world. A sacrifice will be given to appease an ancestor spirit or a curse will be placed on someone in order for a spirit to haunt them, and it is all done through rituals. They will perform an act or event and say some magic words in order to use the spirits to get what they want.
How does this compare to the “sinner’s prayer?”
I am afraid, in many instances, our evangelistic appeal today runs perilously close to witchcraft. Think with me about a revival, crusade, or special church service you may have attended lately. When it gets to the end, there is a moment where we enter a ritual of invitation. (Make no mistake, the popular approach to the altar call is a ritual. A ritual is not bad in itself; it depends on how it is used.)
During this ritual, the preacher will invite people to pray this prayer if they want the benefits from it (salvation). Then, he will have everyone close their eyes and those who want the power of the prayer will repeat the words after him. Finally, people who have participated will come forward as a sign of their entrance into the group.
Not every sermon works this way, and not every preacher uses this method of evangelism. But, when the ritual of invitation is done that way, is it a prayer or a spell?
Think for a moment about the words we use when speaking of salvation nowadays. In common church language the term “walked the aisle” has become synonymous with salvation. A family with a little child will verbalize how worried they are that their son has not “went forward” yet. We often judge the success of our meetings on how many “decisions” were made.
If our concern is more about people going through these motions than actually becoming disciples who follow Christ in their lives, then it will have devastating effects on our mission, our churches, and the lives of those we seek to reach. How many times have you seen someone in the latter half of their life step forward and say they went through the motions of salvation and baptism as a child, but they were not really saved? They acknowledge going through the motions of the ritual, but they trusted in the ritual, not the saving work of Christ.
Even more noticeable is the massive number of people who will walk an aisle, pray this prayer, and never actually have any noticeable change in their life. Countless people here in the South can look back to a time in their life where they performed this ritual. And when asked about their salvation, whether or not they are Christians, they will point back to a moment when they repeated the words of a prayer off of a preacher’s lips and not a life of service to their king.
Really? Is that the right understanding of salvation?
Have we perhaps taught people to place their faith in the event in the aisle instead of the event at the cross?
Comments are welcome.