The Sinner’s Prayer: Baptists Debate the Evangelical Initiation Rite

We ran a 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.


  1. These conferences sound very exciting. I’d totally want to attend one of these if the premise weren’t such a deviation from what I believe… =P

  2. I was going to reply to the very good piece but did not get around to it. Not to toot my own horn (ok, toot toot), but I predicted this more than a decade ago and for precisely the reason Fr mentions in this post. Southern Baptists have an Arminian theology of conversion and a Calvinist doctrine of perseverance. (A VERY famous pastor once stated publicly that one could even commit murder after being “saved” and still be saved.) Calvinists, however, being preoccupied with their own rationality, are far more likely to want to push for intellectual consistency. It was inevitable that as Calvinist influence grows in the SBC (thanks esp to Beason in AL and Southern in KY) they would begin to ruffle the feathers of the rest. This WILL end in a split. It may take a few more years, but it will happen.

    I’m intrigued by Platt’s position. He is right about the sinner’s prayer being a sort of talisman, but with what does he want to replace it? Sovereign Grace? Inquiring minds want to know.

    1. Good questions, and I’m sure that your time in Wake Forest highlighted this same stuff.

      By the way, you and I have something in common—the first Orthodox church I ever visited was the now-defunct St. Gregory the Great Mission in north Raleigh.

  3. He is right about the sinner’s prayer being a sort of talisman, but with what does he want to replace it? Sovereign Grace? Inquiriing minds want to know.

    Well, Calvinist’s are consistent for sure, though I’s posit falsely consistent. 🙂 At least the Evangelical Initiation Rite of the Sinner’s Prayer is a tangible entity. I’ve heard Baptist ministers preach that a Christian must know the day and hour when they came to Christ to be assured of their salvation. A couple of years ago one of our neighbors gave us a cd from a fundamentalist Baptist sermon affiming this very idea. Now the Calvinist disparages such talk of making a decision for Christ. It’s monergism all the way. God does not rely upon man anyway whatsoever in the act of salvation.

    However, I’ve tried to get my mind around just exactly how does a Calvinist apprehend (as in lay hold of) salvation. It isn’t through rites or rituals, such as Baptism. It isn’t through accepting Christ as Lord and Saviour – what they term decisional soteriology. I’ve heard some Calvinist’s say that they were saved before the foundation of the world. Ok – but how does that work itself out in REAL time? Didn’t they have to do something to be saved? “No” the staunch Calvinist will reply – salvation is of grace alone, through faith in Christ alone.” “So, you had to put your faith in Christ alone in order to be saved?” one might ask the Calvinist. “No!” the Calvinist will respond. “You’ve got it backwards. Regeneration PRECEDES faith!” “So how did you know that Christ saved you if there was nothing that you did?” “Don’t you understand?,” the Calvinist replies. “I was a dead man. Everyone is like a corpse before they are regenerated. Can a corpse do anything? No! They cannot speak, cannot think, cannot feel, cannot do anything. Period. The question is then asked of the Calvinist, “So, when did this salvation actually occur; when were you regenerated?,” The response can go something along these lines: “I began to see changes in my thinking and became convicted over my sin. I started to have a desire to read Scripture and to find out what is pleasing to Christ.” “Ah, so you became convinced that you needed to repent of your sins, right?,” responds the non-Calvinist. “You just don’t get it,” the Calvinist laments. “You want to make salvation a matter of I did this or that. I didn’t do anything to be saved. God unconditionally elected me before I was ever born. Christ died for the Elect of God, of whom I am one by His mercy toward me. His grace was irresistible in order that He might bring all that He predestined to be saved to Himself. Salvation is of Christ and Christ alone. Man adds nothing to God’s sovereign work. Nothing!”

    And so it goes, on and on, blah blah blah. I guess God just zaps you one day and voila, you’re saved!

    1. Not quite accurate. No Calvinist worth his salt would ever say that repentance is at odds with God’s election. Election does not mitigate the need to repent and trust in Christ. You have to repent and trust in Christ but you are not able to repent before regeneration because you cannot see that you are dead in sin. Also it is easy to pile scorn on the Calvinists for their soteriological methodology but you have to remember the context in which it was developed, primarily as a reaction against the excesses of Romanism. The sinner’s prayer and this sort of decisional evangelism are not from the classic Reformed tradition instead having its origins in revivalism (though some revivalists were Calvinists a la George Whitfield) but the revivalists tendencies were spread primarily by the Methodists. The precursor to the modern altar call was invented by a man named Charles Finney. Finney started out as a Calvinist but abandoned it, most likely, because of the growing popularity of hyper-Calvinists. He believed that conversion could be produced by natural methodologies and that sinners had it within their own power to save themselves. He developed what came to be called the “New Measures” one of which was the anxious bench. One would be subjected to various forms of pressure and emotional manipulation until an emotional reaction was elicited and faith in Christ was professed. Altar calls have their origin here, not with Calvinistic soteriology though one could argue that decisional evangelism is the natural byproduct of Protestantism in general. I find this whole issue interesting because Baptists were originally Calvinistic and gradually became more Arminian, and more influenced by theology like Finneys rather than Calvin. (Also it is easy to forget that Calvin was more mystically inclined than his successors and that many who claim to be Calvinists think they are Calvinists because they believe in TULIP).

  4. I personally think the point David Platt was trying to make is that there is no cheap salvation; there is no quickie God. That is certainly the point he makes in his book, “Radical”, and one I’m sure Eastern Orthodox Christians could agree with.

    1. Right, and this is part of an ongoing self-criticism within Evangelicalism regarding “easy-believism,” etc., which mainly seems to come from the Reformed camp. I’m reminded, for instance, of John MacArthur’s Faith Works and other similar works.

      It’s a serious theological problem, though, and one that comes from a lack of ecclesiology. If a sincere moment of repentance and trusting in Christ is not enough to bring you into salvation, then you either have to posit a God Whose absolute sovereignty precludes human will, or you have to believe that the church community has some kind of authority to admit members or to reject them. Once you permit communal authority, though, you have to ask exactly where the community got its authority. That’s the real rabbit hole, it seems to me.

Comments are closed.