Earlier this month the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) voted on a resolution to affirm the use of the Sinner’s Prayer as a means of conversion. For those who don’t speak evangelical lingo, the “Sinner’s Prayer” refers to a prayer of repentance in which the individual “accepts Jesus” into his or her heart. Some version of it is frequently recited at altar calls, but there is no fixed version of it.
Supporting the use of this prayer as a legitimate practice in conversion, the SBC resolution stated,
“We affirm that repentance and faith involve a crying out for mercy and a calling on the Lord (Rom. 10:13), often identified as a ‘Sinner’s Prayer,’ as a biblical expression of repentance and faith,” the resolution said. But it added, “A ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the gospel (Matt. 6:7; 15:7–9).”
When I first heard the news of this resolution, I was a little surprised. It seemed kind of random. However Christianity Today explained that this resolution was developed in response to some statements made by SBC pastor and author David Platt. CT quoted Platt as saying,
“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.”
Now I don’t necessarily disagree with the SBC for affirming its use of the Sinner’s Prayer. The practice has its problems, but God can use any tool, no matter how imperfect. What’s more, this resolution seems to shore up some of the theological problems with it.
That said, Platt makes a really good and important point. The Sinner’s Prayer is frequently used as an incantation that assures salvation without requiring any life change. To describe the practice as “superstitious” is no exaggeration for many. Some “Christians” are about as committed to worshiping God after they pray the Sinner’s Prayer as a baseball player is committed to worshiping his lucky socks.
What I appreciate most about Platt’s use of the term “superstitious” is that it recalls a very Biblical concept: syncretism. Syncretism refers to the combination of different religious beliefs and practices (ie. combining Christianity with another religion), and Scripture is very staunchly against it. For instance, in Genesis 28 Isaac was forbidden from marrying a Canaanite woman, for fear that religious syncretism would soon follow. Likewise, Leviticus 19:28 forbids the Israelites from tattooing their bodies because it was a pagan practice.
Today, when Christians talk about religious syncretism they are likely to reference other cultures in which Christianity is combined with indigenous religions. In some cultures, for example, a professing Christian might also seek the help of a witch doctor to heal his ailing child. In the United States, you might think of the Christian who reads (and believes) her horoscope every day. Those are obvious examples.
However Platt’s language gets at the less obvious, yet equally important syncretism at work when the Sinner’s Prayer is used inappropriately. Although the language is explicitly Christian, its implementation is often not.
Syncretism in our country tends to be less obvious than, say, going to a witch doctor, because we live in an increasingly post-religious society in which many Americans’ beliefs are informed by secularism. That said, secularist convictions can be just as strong (and religious) as that of a practicing Christian or Muslim, and they are rather pervasive. Our country’s banner beliefs about personal autonomy, individual rights, and tolerance are all hallmarks of this nation’s secular convictions. That is not to say that these convictions are bad or wrong, per se, but they are so deeply ingrained into our collective conscience that they have become religious in nature. Americans have died defending some of these beliefs.
With that in mind, some individuals pray the Sinner’s Prayer in a syncretistic manner that blends old fashioned superstition with modern ideologies touching on consumerism and individualism. When this happens, I think we need to call this practice what it is.
And the Bible is very clear about syncretism.
This abuse reminds us that as much as Protestants emphasize salvation by grace through faith, the Bible paints a more complicated picture. Salvation is not merely a moment of conversion; it is the inauguration of a new life. Salvation has a holistic dimension to it that encompasses the whole of the believer’s lifestyle, which is why Scripture distinguishes the “sheep” from the “goats” (Matthew 25) according to their fruits.
This aspect of Scripture should not to be confused with works righteousness, but it does press us into a place of mystery, where both faith and works can peacefully co-exist without reducing conversion to a simple prayer, or adding to salvation our own self-justification.
So I am grateful to Platt, not only for identifying a practice in the church that is rampantly misused, but recalling the mysterious and holistic process of salvation as the Bible conceives it. He has reminded us that we are just as prone to religious syncretism as any other culture, and that conversion should not be distilled into a formula.