Baptist Catholicism (or What the Altar Call, Sinner’s Prayer and the Pope Have in Common)

The typical Baptist suffers from Catholiphobia: the fear of all things Catholic. Most Baptists (including myself) know more about Catholics than Catholicism, which is probably true of any religious tradition. But one is not Baptist for long before realizing we strongly oppose Catholic baptism.

The Council of Trent’s insistence that the sacraments (of which baptism is one) works ex opere operato sends chills up our spine (for example, see the Catholic Catechism, par. 1128). The Catechism later states, “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.” (par. 1213). In other words, the mere act of baptism regenerates whether or not the infant being baptized has repented and believed the gospel.

By definition no Baptist can ever claim baptism works ex opere operato and remain Baptist. We must reject Catholic baptism. However, might we be guilty of Baptist Catholicism?

What follows is certainly nothing new. (And as I look back over it, too long and not very organized!) I know this connection has been made numerous times in numerous places (see especially Iain Murray’s booklet The Invitation System, Banner: 1967). But, a recent conversation with another pastor re-ignited my thoughts on how the altar call and sinner’s prayer have Catholicized Baptist evangelism.

The altar call and “sinner’s prayer” have become for Baptists sacraments that work ex opere operato. Surely no Baptist would ever admit to such an atrocity, but in practice we hardly know the biblical terms of conversion anymore. Now, we evangelize by saying “Come down and pray this” (or vice versa) regardless of whether or not there is demonstrable repentance and faith. We assure the “convert” of salvation because they’ve “come forward” and/or repeated a sinner’s prayer (which has somehow been canonized into The Sinner’s Prayer).

For example, one famous gospel tract ends this way:

“Here is how you can receive Christ: 1. Admit your need (I am a sinner). 2. Be willing to turn from your sins (repent) [Note: Jesus never says “be willing” to repent, but to repent!] 3. Believe that Jesus Christ died for you on the Cross and rose from the grave. 4. Through prayer, invite Jesus Christ to come in and control your life through the Holy Spirit (Receive Him as Lord and Savior).”

The sinner’s prayer has been infused into the language of conversion (repentance and faith).

The Southern Baptist North American Mission Board encourages this internet tract, which concludes under the heading “How to Receive Christ”:

“A personal relationship with God begins by praying to receive Christ. . . . We have provided a prayer you can use right now as a guide.” (italics mine)

Explain it how you will, but that’s as much ex opere operato as any Catholic baptism. Say the prayer and you now have a relationship with God. Murray writes:

The words ‘believe’ and ‘repent’ are now largely replaced by other terms such as ‘Give your life to Christ’, ‘Open your heart to Christ’, ‘Do it now’, ‘Surrender completely’, ‘Decide for Christ’, etc. and in similar language those who profess conversion are sometimes represented having ‘given in’. (The Invitation System, p25)

Again, no Baptist would ever confess that the aisle or prayer saved them. But, it’s amazing how many professing believers cannot talk about their conversion without attaching it to these acts. When asked about conversion many will say “I went forward” and/or “prayed to receive Christ” and/or “made a decision” rather than “I repented and believed.” Essentially, it doesn’t matter when or if I believed, only when I walked the aisle or prayed the prayer (that’s ex opere operato!). In fact, any hint of repentance often comes when, after years of running from God, I “got things right” as a teenager or in college. But we don’t call that conversion; we call it “rededication.” We love language of quantitative self-exaltation (see Murray’s quote above) rather than qualitative humiliation. We love the appearance of things rather than the reality.

Altar calls and sinner’s prayers are not biblical, but don’t we do many things not found in Scripture that we consider helpful for ministry? Absolutely and it’s a point well-taken. However, altar calls and sinner’s prayers are not simply extra-biblical conventions that we use in gospel ministry (a la microphones, bulletins, pianos or offering envelopes). They’ve monkeyed with the gospel. The day a person attaches any salvific significance to the piano is the day we start singing a ccapella.

Before we point our fingers at those pesky, legalistic Catholics let’s remember what Pogo said to Porky: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Preach Christ alone, friends. He is a much better Comforter than all the aisles and prayers in the universe.

6 thoughts on “Baptist Catholicism (or What the Altar Call, Sinner’s Prayer and the Pope Have in Common)

  1. Well put.
    These new ‘sacraments’ have even replaced the Christ ordained ones, so that walking the aisle is the public profession instead of baptism and we call people to an altar (where is the place for altars in the New Covenant??) instead of to the Lord’s table where the gospel is portrayed in terms ordained by Christ.

  2. That’ll preach, brother! You ably remind me of Heb 13.10 where the “altar” is the Changeless Christ (v8). Therefore, in his “altar call” he says in v13, “Let us go out to Him” (not a place, but a Person)!

    Do I reason rightly then that in coming to the Table we, as it were, come again to Christ (“outside the camp”) and share in his blood/body (1 Cor 10.16)? Interestingly, Paul mentions “altar” in the context of the Lord’s Supper (v18).

    Also, in 1 Cor 9.13-14 Paul appears to make these comparisons: “those who perform sacred services” (v13a) = “those who attend regularly to the altar” (v13b) = “those who proclaim the gospel.” And “have their share from the altar” = “get their living from the gospel.” Ergo, old covenant altar = new covenant gospel and all its implications. To come to the altar is to come to the gospel (Christ).

  3. I do think you reason rightly. Good stuff. This is a reminder of how much of our practice of the last decades has really flowed out of tradition (“We’ve always done this”) and pragmatism (“it works!”). Interstingly these are soem of the basic arguments put forward by the Church in response to Lutehr! Amazing things happen when we actually look to Scripture (which is hwat happened with Luther and others). Parallels, so many parallels!

    And, this Scott, you and me conversation feels like old times!

  4. Not only does this fight against the “we have always done” and “it works” mentality, it is just simply easier to have some one repeat after me or walk an aisle. I believe that brothers with similar theological understandings still hold on to these “baptist sacraments” because it is much harder to help/force some one to grapple with the gospel. I am understanding this all the more in a current situation where I am dealing with a man in our neighborhood. I believe that I could get him to “do” whatever I ask. However, it does not appear that the gospel has yet left him hopeless in his sin.

    Real life is so much harder than studying books! (But I am thankful to God for the books that help prepare for real life!)
    Scott V

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