NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In light of a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) resolution that apparently had its impetus in comments by David Platt, the Alabama pastor has written a two-part series on the “sinner’s prayer” explaining his concerns over its “abuse” while revealing that he voted for the resolution.
Meanwhile, Eric Hankins, the Mississippi pastor who submitted the resolution, says he believes the concerns Platt has are best addressed by critiquing “Southern Baptists’ weakness in discipleship.”
Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., delivered a sermon earlier this year that was viewed by some as being critical of all uses of the sinner’s prayer. Soon, discussion about the sinner’s prayer on blogs and within social medial morphed into a debate over Calvinism.
Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church in Oxford, Miss., wrote and submitted a proposed resolution affirming the sinner’s prayer to the SBC’s Resolutions Committee, which re-worded it before presenting it to messengers at the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. The resolution passed overwhelmingly.
In a column at Radical.net, Platt said he voted for the resolution.
“Though I had some concerns with the resolution as it was originally proposed, I was pleased with the resolution that Southern Baptists eventually adopted, and I voted in favor of it,” Platt wrote. “It was encouraging to see pastors and leaders together say that we need to be wise in the way we lead people to Christ, but such wisdom doesn’t necessarily warrant that everyone must throw out a ‘sinner’s prayer’ altogether.”
Photo by Bill Bangham
David Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, gives the convention sermon June 15, 2011, during the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center.
Platt says he tells participants in his church’s evangelism and missions class that there is “nothing inherently wrong” with the sinner’s prayer, and he said he points out “how it has been useful in many people’s moment of conversion.”
“Many wonderful men and women have used the ‘sinner’s prayer’ to lead people to Christ, from Billy Graham to Bill Bright,” Platt said. “Consequently, I encourage the members of our church, as they share the totality and beauty of the gospel, to feel free to invite a lost person to pray a pointed prayer that expresses biblical repentance of sin and faith in Christ.”
Platt, though, said he rarely asks people to repeat a sinner’s pray when he witnesses to someone. Instead, he says, he shares the gospel and invites them to “call on the Lord” – essentially, forming their own response. He listed four cautions regarding what he called a “formulaic” sinner’s prayer:
– “A specific ‘sinner’s prayer’ like we often think of today is not found in scripture or even in much of church history.”
– “The use of a ‘sinner’s prayer’ can potentially come across as unhealthily formulaic. I talk with people all the time who are looking for a ‘box to check off’ in order to be right with God and safe for eternity. But there is no box. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Such saving faith is the anti-work (i.e., ‘not by works, so that no one can boast’ in Ephesians 2:8-9), and I want to be careful never to communicate that someone’s work (or words) can merit salvation before God.”
– “I have seen the ‘sinner’s prayer’ abused across the contemporary Christian landscape as people ‘pray the prayer’ apart from a biblical understanding of the gospel or ‘pray the prayer’ on multiple occasions to ensure their salvation or ‘pray the prayer’ without ever counting the cost of following Christ. I have experienced this abuse in my own life: I can remember laying in my bed at night as a child/teenager, wondering about whether or not I’m really saved, and then thinking, ‘Well, I just need to pray that prayer again … and really mean it this time … and then I’ll know I’m saved.’ I have seen this abuse in a variety of evangelistic settings (here and overseas, among children, youth, and adults)….”
– “It seems that ‘praying the prayer’ is often used in a worship service or an evangelistic conversation to ‘cement a decision’ or ‘close the deal’ regarding someone’s salvation. People are often told immediately, ‘If you prayed that prayer, you can always know that you are saved for eternity.’ Now I certainly believe that justification before God happens at a point in time (i.e., people don’t ooze into the kingdom of God), and it’s helpful (though not entirely necessary) for someone to be able to identify the point at which they were saved. Ultimately, however, I don’t want people to look to me or even to a ‘prayer they prayed’ for assurance of salvation. I want them to look to Christ for this.”
Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church in Oxford, said he disagrees with Platt’s reasoning.
“While affirming that there is nothing inherently wrong with the sinner’s prayer, Dr. Platt warns against its use for four reasons: it’s not in the Bible, and it can become formulaic, manipulative and man-centered,” Hankins told Baptist Press in an email. “My response is that these criticisms could be (and should be) raised concerning essentially all of our actual practices, from worship services, to Sunday School, to covered-dish suppers.
“What sparked my desire to write the Resolution on the Sinner’s Prayer for the SBC,” Hankins added, “was a sense that Dr. Platt and others were saying that the practice was inherently erroneous and needed to be jettisoned forthwith because it was fueling the problem of ‘unregenerate church membership.’ Indeed, the Bible warns that there will be many who ‘believe’ yet display no evidence of transformation, but it doesn’t view ‘improper evangelism techniques’ as a reason for this.”
Hankins referenced Platt’s sermon at this year’s Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference, in which Platt, preaching from John 2 and 3, warned against “easy believism” and “spiritual deception” within churches. Referencing the story of Nicodemus, Platt said “there is a kind of faith that does not save.”
“Many assume they are saved simply because of a prayer they prayed,” Platt said of today’s church.
Hankins said the “implication that Platt draws out is that evangelism practices like the sinner’s prayer are often the cause of that deception.”
“This application is hardly the point of the [Nicodemus] passage, unless Jesus is to be faulted for doing miracles that gave people false assurance without articulating the full implications of the gospel,” Hankins said. “It seems that Dr. Platt’s implicit message is that unregenerate church membership can be corrected by proper technique, a concept that is theologically problematic. Jesus tells us to anticipate sheep and goats, wheat and tares, and different results from different kinds of soil. Is He to be credited for Judas’ failure to believe savingly? Paul’s churches were often troubled by people who ‘fell away.’ Was Paul somehow deficient in his evangelism?”
Platt, Hankins said, “really seems to be criticizing … Southern Baptists’ weakness in discipleship, a sentiment with which I am in complete agreement.”
“I think a scrupulosity about making sure that gospel presentations are ‘done right’ so that people ‘know exactly what they are doing’ can have a stultifying effect on personal evangelism,” Hankins said. “We don’t need to become so afraid of potentially sharing incorrectly and ‘causing’ someone to believe falsely that we cease to share at all. … When people do pray to receive Christ, they are frequently not discipled, and I believe that this is the heart of the problem of the state of the churches in the SBC.”
In his post, Platt explained how he leads someone to Christ apart from using the sinner’s prayer:
– “Share the gospel clearly … and call people to count the cost of following Christ. Make sure that the person you are talking with has a biblical understanding of the glorious reality that the just and gracious Creator of the universe has looked upon hopelessly sinful men and women in their rebellion and He has sent His Son, God in the flesh, to bear His wrath against sin on the cross and to show His power over sin in the resurrection so that everyone who repents and believes in Him will be reconciled to God forever. Make sure this gospel is clear. Tell them following Jesus will cost them their life … and tell them Jesus is worth it!
– “If you are in a personal conversation with someone (and this could be applied in a small group, as well), ask them if they have any questions about the gospel. Ask them if they have ever repented and believed in Jesus (i.e., turned from their sin and themselves to trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord). Ask them if they would like to repent of sin and believe in Christ.
– “Invite them to call on the Lord and be saved. If they see God for who He is, their sin for what it is, themselves for who they are, and Christ for who He is and what He has done, then by the grace of God through the Spirit of God they are more than able to call out in repentance and faith … so let them do so. You don’t necessarily need to tell them the exact words to say at that point. You have shared the gospel and the Spirit has opened their eyes to the love and lordship of Christ, so urge them to call out for His mercy and submit to His majesty.
– “At the same time, be willing to let them be alone with God, if that is best. In some circumstances, it probably is best to encourage them to be alone with God in order that you might not unknowingly, unintentionally, or unhelpfully manipulate a decision, circumstance, or situation.
– “Most importantly, once someone repents and believes in Christ, be willing to lead that person as a new follower of Christ. Remember, our goal is not to count decisions; our goal is to make disciples.”
(Platt’s columns are available at Radical.net.)
Many Southern Baptist-centric blogs viewed the debate over the sinner’s prayer as part of a larger debate over Calvinism, which has been widely discussed within Southern Baptist life this year.
In mid-August Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Frank Page announced the members of an advisory team who will help him craft a strategic plan to bring together the various groups who hold different opinions on Calvinism. The team held its first meeting in late August.
Earlier in August, Page and three other SBC leaders – Union University’s David Dockery, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’ Steve Lemke and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Hershael York – took part in a forum in Kentucky on Calvinism. The four men said they didn’t think the issue should divide the SBC.
“Baptists for 400 years have disagreed over this issue, and we’re not going to come to some place where we all agree. I think we can come to a place where we all can work together,” Dockery said.
The issue of Calvinism also was addressed several times at the SBC annual meeting, with each speaker urging messengers to remain united for the Great Commission. Page – who said he’s not a Calvinist – addressed each side of the debate. He told the non-Calvinists: “There seems to be some non-Calvinists who are more concerned about rooting out Calvinists than they are about winning the lost for Christ.” He then addressed Calvinists, some of whom he said “seem to think that if we do not believe the same thing about soteriology that they believe then somehow we are less intelligent or ignorant.” Soteriology is the study of the doctrine of salvation.
“I do believe we can find some ways to work together better,” Page said, “and I believe that the leaders of both of these groups can come together to say, ‘Here’s how we can return to working together like we once did.’”
Page confirmed again his plans to assemble a group of advisers to help chart a way through the division surrounding Calvinism. But that will not include revising the Baptist Faith and Message, Southern Baptists’ statement of beliefs, he said.
Then-SBC President Bryant Wright also addressed the issue in his convention sermon.
“Our calling is to be centered on Christ and grounded in the Word, while agreeing to disagree on the finer points of theological issues,” Wright said. “May we all agree that Christ … has given us a very clear message and mission for the church.”
Wright added, “If we pride ourselves more on being a traditional Southern Baptist or more on being a Calvinist or a Reformed theologian, more than we are thankful that we are Christ-centered and biblically based … then it is time to repent of theological idolatry.”
Messengers also overwhelmingly passed a resolution “On Cooperation and the Doctrine of Salvation,” which said in part, “We affirm that The Baptist Faith and Message provides sufficient parameters for understanding the doctrine of salvation, so that Southern Baptists may joyfully and enthusiastically partner together in obedience to the Great Commission.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press.)