Every once in a while I get asked whether we do “altar calls” or lead people in what is called “sinners prayers.”
The truth is, I believe that baptism is the New Testament picture of making or expressing a commitment to follow Christ. It is a marriage of confession and action… declaring where you stand with Jesus and then symbolically being baptized in water as an expression of that faith.
Other forms of leading people in commitments, such as the altar call and the sinner’s prayer, find their roots more in the 19th century Revivalism that followed the 2nd Great Awakening than they do the New Testament.
This is a pretty tricky and in depth conversation, but my conviction is simply that the culture and language of the New Testament implied a “confession” that was more than a private prayer or response. Paul’s audience in Rome would have taken his words “confess with your lips and believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord” to contrast the Roman creed of the day whereby citizens had to confess that “Caesar is Lord.” Paul meant something big and holistic. I think he meant more than our American sense of the word “confess” that Charles Finney and the other Revivalists took it to mean when they pioneered the new form of “accepting Christ.”
In short, I look back at the New Testament and see that baptism was not only prescribed as the method of identifying with Christ, but that it also encompasses the first century understanding of public confession and identification.
This is not to say that baptism “saves” a person… its not magic water, but then again, sinners prayers and altar calls aren’t magic formulas either. Salvation is by faith through grace and is an inward work of the Holy Spirit based on a dynamic interaction between a person’s heart and a loving God. All the other pieces: prayers, baptisms, altar calls etc. are just expressions of something that should be or should have happened between someone’s heart and God.
As such, I’d prefer to just stick with letting baptism be the predominate symbol for commitment and identification with Christ for those in our community. I say “predominate” for a reason. I don’t want to make the knee jerk mistake of over-reacting to extra biblical cultural norms (altar calls etc.) and miss some of the good that can come from them. Rather, I am trying to bring them into balance and prioritize according to my best plain reading of scripture.
Our commitment has always been to try and follow scripture more than culture or “the way we’ve always seen it done.”
Again, lengthy discussion and topic… maybe I’ll write more on the subject at a later date.