By Jim Tune
Whenever someone is ready to begin a life of faith and discipleship, he or she rightly asks, “What must I do now?” While salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus, most believers in Christ would agree that something must be done.
Many modern-day evangelists would encourage the new believer to “come forward” at an “altar call.” Others might encourage the spiritual seeker to say the “sinner’s prayer.” That prayer might go something like this: “Father, I am sorry for my sins and want to turn away from my sinful life. I believe your Son Jesus died for my sins and was raised from the dead. I now invite Jesus into my heart, accepting him as Lord and Savior.”
There are many different versions of the sinner’s prayer (I found dozens of variations on the Internet), and there is a good reason there are many different versions—it’s not in the Bible. Neither is the altar call. While the sentiment of repentance and commitment are biblical, no one in the Bible is ever told to pray the sinner’s prayer and invite Jesus into his or her heart.
People in the New Testament are told to do something to express their penitent faith, but it is not to say the sinner’s prayer. Rather, they are told to be baptized. If we must do something to express saving faith, why not do what the Bible teaches? In the New Testament, baptism is the sinner’s response to salvation by grace through faith. It is not a work that earns salvation, but the response of faith that relies on God for salvation.
Throughout the book of Acts, baptism is the normative response a new believer makes to embrace the gospel. In New Testament times, there was no such thing as an unimmersed believer. I know of many unimmersed believers today who regard baptism as optional or something to do “some day when I get around to it.” If one were to meet a first-century Christian and ask whether he or she had been baptized, the question would be received with amazement. “What do you mean, ‘have I been baptized?’ Of course I have, I already told you I am a Christian!”
There are several serious problems with the altar call. First, there is no biblical basis for the practice of altar calls. The Old Testament altar ministry was replaced by Christ with the institution of the new covenant (Hebrews 8:13). The book of Acts never presents the church having altar calls.
Second, there is a complete lack of historical support for the practice. In fact, until the 19th century, altar calls were virtually unheard of. The procedure was popularized by Charles Finney, who believed an emotional experience must be solicited at the time of a decision for Christ. This new practice was popularized by revivalists like Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and more recently Billy Graham. However, the altar call cannot be found in any of the church father’s writings, nor was it used in any of the churches until the 19th century.
A third problem has to do with the potential for manipulation, or perceived manipulation. Occasionally the plea for sinners to come forward and be saved comes across more like a used car salesman’s tactic than a biblical practice. Guilt, pleading, and prolonged singing of songs place pressure on people to respond—whether their response is sincere or not. It is possible to respond emotionally to an altar call and never really repent.
Furthermore, despite no biblical support for altar calls or the sinner’s prayer, people are given false assurance of their salvation. Some might argue that altar calls are harmless, but they inevitably bring confusion about the true nature and way of salvation.
What We Do
At Churchill Meadows Christian Church, we give people an opportunity to respond to the gospel message on Sundays. It may involve an invitation to complete a card indicating their desire to become a Christian, or an invitation to meet with a leader or staff member for further instruction. It may even involve an invitation to come forward as a physical expression of their desire to receive Christ and obey the gospel. But the act of card-checking or aisle-walking does not ensure salvation. A responder must have faith, genuine repentance, and be baptized into Christ.
We endorse this approach because the book of Acts puts baptism as the proper response to the gospel. By this we do not affirm any kind of water regeneration, but instead affirm that the act of baptism is an obedient and physical response to the gospel.
Before Jesus ascended back to Heaven, he left marching orders for his disciples to take the gospel all over the world. They are commanded to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Jesus specifically tells the apostles to baptize those who believe. That Peter and the apostles took Jesus’ words seriously becomes evident in Acts 2. When the people asked what they should do in response to the cross, Peter told them to repent and be baptized for the remissions of sins (Acts 2:37, 38) and those who received the message were baptized (Acts 2:41). Whenever salvation is mentioned in the book of Acts, baptism makes an appearance (see Acts 8:12, 36-38; 9:17, 18; 10:44-48; 16:14, 15, 30-34; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16).
When I study the Bible with someone who is not a believer, I don’t ask the person to pray a sinner’s prayer or walk an aisle. I ask them to respond ultimately by being baptized. Of course, baptism is to be accompanied by belief in Christ (John 1:12; 5:24; 20:31; Acts 16:31), repentance (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; Romans 2:4; 2 Corinthians 7:10), and confessing Jesus as Lord, calling on his name while obeying him in baptism (Romans 10:9, 10; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:21, 22).
Again, I don’t believe the act of taking a bath saves anyone, but I do believe baptism should never be absent in our response to the gospel. Along with faith, confession, and repentance, baptism is a beautiful and biblical reply to the question: “What must I do?” Christ commanded us to make disciples and baptize them—this is the proper response to the gospel.
Jim Tune is senior minister of Churchill Meadows Christian Church in Toronto, Canada. He is founder and director of Impact Canada, a national church planting organization, and serves as a contributing editor for CHRISTIAN STANDARD. This article is adapted, with permission, from MoreAtStake.com.