A Biblical Response to the Gospel

Simon Peter preaches on the Day of Pentecost in this painting by Cleveland Woodward. (©Standardpublishing)

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.

Do Something

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.

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8 Comments

  1. anne fair
    May 31, 2011 at 5:17 am

    It was the first thing that alerted me to ‘something wrong ‘ with the Alpha course– there was no ‘Repent & be baptised’

  2. T J Forrester
    June 1, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Baptism is a great deal more than an “obedient and physical response to the gospel.” The physical aspect of baptism only declares what is supposed to be happening in our heart.

    Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
    (Romans 6:3-8)

    Immersion in water signifies that we are declaring we have been united with Christ in the likeness of his death as we die to our self or old man. Also that we are united to him in the likeness of his resurrection as we begin our walk with him in a new life. The emphasis, therefore, is to be “baptized into Christ Jesus” by our own death and resurrection rather than on the “act” or the water.

  3. June 2, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    It is indeed a precious moment when one names Jesus as Lord and humbly obeys the command of baptism. And I appreciate the importance of Jim’s stating the necessity of “genuine repentance.” I’ve learned in recent years not simply by observance but from my own experience as well the need for Bible study prior to baptism. Even if someone comes forward, we must find out exactly where he or she is spirituality, AND if they’ve any concept of a relationship with God at all.

    Yes, I realize that cards may be used, or perhaps there is a request for a meeting with a church leader or staff member for further instruction. But what does this entail? Point being, let’s not just hurry into answering the candidate’s immediate questions. One tried and tested way is to have a specific Bible-based study that addresses their current spiritual condition and goes on thru the Bible as God’s Word, the Body of Christ [the church]; the Lordship of Christ, a sin study, a deep study of repentance & confession, THEN baptism.

    Not being familiar with all of brother Jim’s other pertinent articles…I would also humbly inquire if there are any follow-up studies for “new disciples?” Accountability partners are very beneficial, especially when helping the new disciple learn to develop good relationships. And I would add that being part of a family group is like icing on the cake if you will. So amen… in love, let us continue to encourage one another daily…

  4. Warren Christianson
    June 3, 2011 at 1:45 am

    Thank you. Very good over view of the problem with the sinners prayer. I like this aproach to one making a decision to follow Jesus.

  5. JF
    June 3, 2011 at 2:14 am

    ‘I know of many unimmersed believers today who regard baptism as optional or something to do “some day when I get around to it.”’

    Problem with how Christian Churches (at least in Poland) deal with baptism is that we teach that baptism is two things: sign of or way to show of one’s faith and a way to do what Jesus did.And many people, especially teenagers, ask: what’s the point? They know many people who weren’t baptized and their faith can be seen in their lives and many who were baptized and their lives are nothing like they should be. And they ask that if we should do what Jesus has done, why is baptism so much more important than many other things he’s done. And well, they’ve go a point here.

    If we want people getting baptized, we must show them that it really means something, that it’s not just one really important thing among tons of other things we do as Christians.

  6. Jim Tune
    June 10, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    @TJ Forrester – while I referred to baptism as an obedient and physical response to the gospel, I think my article implies a great deal more than that. In fact, I agree with the observations you made in your comment.

  7. Theodore & Felipa Williams
    April 14, 2013 at 1:51 am

    Growing up in a Baptist Church reminds me of the many alter calls and sinners prayers conducted. While it is true they are not mentioned in scripture, If it is effective in bringing a person to Christ, then perhaps, it has served a purpose, especially when followed by confession and water baptism. Most people are not bible scholars, but will respond to effective preaching even though knowledge of scripture is minimal. True repentance will manifest itself by producing good fruit. Follow on bible study then should commence promptly, but to tarry or delay is a troubling thought.

  8. Robert F
    August 28, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    The body of Christ, the church, has become so overwhelmingly gentilized over the last millennium that we have given up on finding the roots of Messianic faith and practice. But hold everything! We are a lot closer to the unfolding of the Messiah’s second coming than to His first coming. I submit that part of the evidence for getting close to His second coming is the growing numbers of Messianic Jews in the body of Christ. And they are willing and able to provide background information on things like baptism. Baptism should be understood in the context of Jewish practice and thought. John the baptizer certainly didn’t originate the practice of baptism. For a clear explanation of what baptism (a transliteration of the Greek word baptidzo) represents, and the verses in the Old Testament (Tanach) that mention this practice, please look on the website, hebroots.com, under the subject “Mikvah.” You can also Google search “mikveh” – images. Finally, tap into Wikipedia for interesting information on the construction and uses of a mikveh. God Bless you all.

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