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Is Baptism The Real Sinner’s Prayer?

Many Christians with whom I discuss the subject are not aware that the Sinner’s Prayer is not contained in the Bible. They are shocked to learn that for 90% of Christian history this technique was never used and is only a recent, American-made practice.

If it is not in the Bible and it was not used by the early church, then why has it become so popular today? The answer is twofold. First, as mass revivals began to be held in the United States, there was pressure on preachers to develop a simple, emotional way to convert large groups of individuals at one time. Having them repeat a prayer, standing in place at the end of a service clearly meets that goal.

The second reason for the popularity of the Sinner’s Prayer is that it has been related back to passages in the Bible stating that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. The truth of that passage can’t be denied. So the question of how one calls on the name of the Lord becomes of supreme importance. All believers should want to take a biblical approach to the issue.

Before we go further, let’s look at the passages where that phrase was written in the Bible and we will examine them. First was the prophet Joel writing before the time of Christ (probably 600 years or so before the events he prophesized would begin to take place) about people coming to salvation through the Gospel

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. Joel 2: 32 [ESV]

In the following verses, we read of events involving Peter and Paul where the original phrase from Joel is quoted in the New Testament after Jesus had already been resurrected from the grave.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Acts 2: 21 [ESV]

And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name. Acts 22: 16 [ESV]

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10: 13 [ESV]

As we look into the context of when the Apostles quoted Joel, we begin to get a very clear picture of how one ‘calls on the name of the Lord’. For example, look at the verses which come after Romans 10: 13.

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. Romans 10: 13 – 17 [ESV]

Paul teaches here that before someone can call on the name of the Lord, they must first have heard the Good News of the Gospel. And Jesus told us after He had been resurrected exactly what those who preach the Gospel were to say and exactly what those who believed and had faith were to be instructed to do.

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Luke 24: 45 – 47 [ESV]

First, Jesus told preachers to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His name when they are sent. Repentance, confessing Jesus as Lord (because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10: 9 [ESV]) and calling on the name of the Lord all have the same concept in mind. Calling on the Lord might only mean saying Jesus’ name but calling on the NAME of the Lord or confessing Jesus as Lord or repenting all mean that we are putting Jesus in charge of our life, turning to Him and giving Him authority.

After a hearer of the Gospel has repented, Jesus tells us the final steps in His process:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28: 18 – 20 [ESV]

Jesus’ plan – which comes straight from His own mouth after His resurrection – was for the Good News of the forgiveness of sins in His name to be preached to everyone, everywhere, calling on those who believe and have faith in His work on the cross (and His work alone) to clean them to repent of their sins, be baptized in His name and be taught how to observe His teachings. It is not surprising then that the very first Christian sermon ever preached followed those instructions exactly.

In Acts chapter 2, Peter quotes from Joel (the verse from Acts 2: 21 printed above) that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. As people came to believe that Jesus was the Christ and had been raised from the dead, they asked Peter how it was exactly that they call on the name of the Lord to be saved. His answer was word for word what Jesus had taught him to say.

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized 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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2: 36 – 42 [ESV]

Peter preached repentance, then the people were baptized and soon began to “devote themselves to the Apostles’ teaching” (so they could learn to “observe all the Jesus had commanded”). After Paul had come to a belief in the person and the work of Jesus Christ, he was told (as printed above in Acts 22: 16) to “rise and be baptized and wash away his sins, calling on his name”. Paul was not told to pray a Sinner’s Prayer to ‘call on the name of the Lord’ but rather to be baptized. The first 3000 Christians in history were not told to pray a prayer asking Jesus into their heart. They were told to repent and be baptized.

If someone were to ask me “what shall I do to be saved”, I would tell them let’s follow the method we see practiced in the Bible. According to the verses we have seen above, that includes my telling them about repentance (changing their mind and turning their life back towards God) for the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. I would tell them that if they believe in their heart that Jesus died for their sins and rose from the grave and that only Jesus’ sacrifice can save them, they should confess Him as Lord with their mouth and that they should be baptized as a biblical way to call on the name of the Lord or appeal to God for a clean conscience.

If they asked me if they should pray to “call on the name of the Lord”, I would say “no”, because I don’t see that in the scriptures. There are so many beautiful prayers in the Bible that we can model in our own lives. But none of them are a Sinner’s Prayer asking Jesus into our hearts. If they asked me “isn’t being baptized a work that I do instead of relying totally on what Jesus did for me”, I would say “absolutely not!” Being baptized to call on the name of the Lord is no more a work than praying a prayer to call on the name of the Lord is a work. Both are ways that I humbly accept the free gift of God’s grace. But only one of the methods is found in the scriptures.

And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name. Acts 22: 16 [ESV]

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ I Peter 3: 21 [ESV]

Andy’s book, Clear Vision: How The Bible Teaches Us To View The World, can be purchased here


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