Vulnerabilities in the sinner’s prayer

In spite of the magical power of dragon talk, as Bilbo the Hobbit surveyed the underbelly of the powerful dragon Smaug, Bilbo thought to himself:

“Why there is a large patch in the hollow of his left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell!”

As Smaug would later discover when a metal dart penetrated his chest, although dragons might feel impenetrable and wield great power, genuine vulnerabilities can exist. Lacking some vital knowledge, Smaug mistakenly placed confidence in his invincibility.

People are not dragons. Sometimes our minds can be subdued, however, by over confidence in an idea, especially if critical details remain unknown.  For many, the following logic is simple, straightforward and irrefutable:

“Since salvation is by faith, if someone genuinely accepts Jesus by saying the sinner’s prayer, then he or she is saved. Baptism, therefore, can not be for salvation because the individual has already been saved by faith.”

A closer examination reveals such dragon talk comes from a lizard with an underbelly that is susceptible to a biblical harpoon’s penetration.

For starters, the presumed plate armor contains several soft spots.

  • When it comes to affirming who is saved, what matters is God’s perspective regarding who he has redeemed, not humanity’s confident claims about who is saved. To assume one’s own viewpoint equates to God’s perspective involves begging the question, if one’s beliefs misrepresent scripture.
  • Unless the scriptures support the belief that the sinner’s prayer represents what it means to be saved by faith, those who embrace this belief are placing confidence in their own suppositions.

Enter a multi-pronged scriptural harpoon.

  • First, nowhere does the Bible contain a conversion story illustrating the sinner’s prayer, nor does it teach anywhere that people are able to accept Jesus with it.
  • Second, according to the New Testament, to trust in Christ / to have faith in him involves several elements, including believing in him within one’s heart, acknowledging him with one’s lips (Romans 10:10) and being baptized into him (Galatians 3:26-27).
  • Third, as the verses below demonstrate, the New Testament reveals people enter salvation upon their baptism, not before.

I anticipate one objection to the foregoing would be to quote a series of verses on faith before concluding, “Salvation is by faith. That is all you need.” To be sure, every verse about faith is true and reliable. Unfortunately, this response fails to understand the previous points because it assumes a definition for faith without examining the evidence.

What has been overlooked is that within the New Testament, the idea of faith in Christ describes the principle of relying upon Jesus without specifying all of the details.  For example, Luke wrote “many believed” (Acts 4:4; 9:42; 11:21; 14:1; 17:12, etc.) as an equivalent expression for “they became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7) or many people “turned to the Lord” (Acts 9:35). Just as the latter phrases are summary statements indicating conversion without providing the details, so too “many believed.”

Furthermore, Peter told the Philippian jailer he would be saved if he would believe in Jesus (Acts 16:31). When did the jailer rejoice he had come to faith? It was not after hearing and believing the gospel, but after being baptized (Acts 16:33-34). To believe involved baptism. Hence Peter spoke of baptism in terms of salvation (Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21).

Similarly, people become God’s children by faith upon being baptized into Christ (Galatians 3:26-27). To put one’s faith in Christ requires baptism.

If this were not enough, Richard Hayes’ comment about the New Testament’s usage of faith is on target:

The noun pistis offers a range of semantic possibilities for English translators. It can be rendered as ‘faith,’ ‘faithfulness,’ ‘fidelity’ or ‘trust.’ It probably does not, however, mean ‘belief’ in the sense of cognitive assent to a doctrine; rather, it refers to placing trust or confidence in a person. The cognate verb pisteuw (pisteuo) can be translated as ‘believe’ or ‘trust.’ English, regrettably, lacks a verb form from the same root as the noun ‘faith.’

What should we conclude? The gospel as it was first proclaimed included baptism as part of the faith response to Christ (Acts 8:12, 35-38). A quick survey of Christendom’s history also reveals that both the sinner’s prayer as well as the notion that baptism is unnecessary for salvation are fairly recent inventions.

To feel confidence in the sinner’s prayer, people might be unaware, but that idea’s armor is gone. The biblical harpoon is quite real.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

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2 thoughts on “Vulnerabilities in the sinner’s prayer

  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this important issue. “Smaug” is the correct spelling of the dragon, though phonetically smog is close.

    1. I appreciate the correction. Thanks! I have appropriately updated the article. This is a great reminder how important the details are … even when we might be confident. Thanks again for the help.

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