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

The typical Baptist suffers from Catholiphobia: the fear of all things Catholic. We Baptists often know more about Catholics than Catholicism, which is probably true of any religious tradition.  We tend to define religious traditions by the few people we know who practice them rather that what that tradition has historically confessed. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take long for a Baptist to realize he strongly opposes Catholic baptism.

The Council of Trent‘s insistence the sacraments work ex opere operato (“by the work worked”) draws a distinct line in the sand for Baptists (see Catholic Catechism, par. 1128).  The Catechism later states, “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word” (par. 1213).  In other words, in the mere act of baptism the Holy Spirit regenerates (or, gives spiritual life) despite the infant’s inability to repent and believe the gospel.

By definition, no Baptist can claim baptism works ex opere operato and remain Baptist.  However, Baptists must not throw the baby out with the font water.  Baptism is part of what it means to respond publicly to the gospel (Acts 2.38; 8.36).  Baptism doesn’t save but it’s a necessary part of salvation. The New Testament tethers baptism so closely to conversion that an unbaptized Christian is an anomaly in the church.  In that sense, we agree with Catholics that through  baptism “we become members of Christ” (Rom 6.1-7).  Ironically, a tradition called “Baptist” has so divorced baptism from the gospel that we’ve largely lost the gravity of baptism altogether!  Whereas it was an assumed response to the gospel in the New Testament, we now have to remind people about it.

That said, Baptists reject Catholic baptism because Scripture does not support baptismal regeneration.  Repentance and faith are necessary prerequisites for salvation (cf. Mk 1.15; Rom 5.1).  The church must not affirm, assure or assume God’s salvation who does not demonstrate repentance from sin and faith in Christ.

To be sure, the church initially confers that affirmation and assurance through baptism.  Again we agree at least in principle: “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (Catholic Catechism). Baptists have long held baptism is a prerequisite for church membership, the Lord’s Supper and other Christian graces.  For example, the Baptist Faith and Message states, “Being a church ordinance, [baptism] is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper” (Article VII).

But as much as baptism does do it doesn’t work ex opere operato.  Repentance and faith compels baptism, not the other way around.

Nevertheless, might we be guilty of Baptist Catholicism?  Have the “altar call” and “sinner’s prayer” Catholicized Baptist evangelism?

Generally and practically speaking, the altar call and “sinner’s prayer” have become for Baptists sacraments that work ex opere operato.  No Baptist would ever claim as much, but in practice we hardly know the biblical terms of true gospel 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).  (Obviously, there are sinners who prayed as divinely recorded in Scripture, but their prayers are not to be formalized as incantations.)

Most gospel tracts and evangelistic sermons end with a suggested prayer, which if prayed, is grounds for assuring one of salvation.  Granted, there is typically a disclaimer about the prayer having to be sincere (“If you really meant this prayer sincerely in your heart then you are a Christian”).  Still there is often an assurance of salvation based on no other evidence than that a prayer was prayed.  In other words, as in baptismal regeneration, there is no demonstrable repentance and faith but assurance of salvation is still offered.  The “sinner’s prayer” has been infused into the language of conversion (repentance and faith).

If we’re honest, that’s as much ex opere operato as any Catholic baptism.  Say the prayer and you now have a relationship with God.  Iain Murray writes in his booklet The Invitation System:

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’ (p25).

For a few generations the same has held true for the “altar call” or “invitation” at the end of many church services.  What are mere stairs for 6 days, 23 hours and 45 minutes mysteriously become an “altar” for 15 minutes each Sunday.  Like the priest who consecrates the host at Mass, the pastor transforms the stairs into an altar so as to give the Spirit the widest berth to work.

First of all, there is no “altar” in the new covenant except for Jesus.  That’s why Jesus died: to end all altars.  He, the Bloody Lamb, is both the altar and the sacrifice to whom we come to meet with, hear from, learn about and grow in God’s forgiveness of our sins.

“We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.  For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp.  Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.  So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.  For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come” (Heb 13.10-14).

We no longer go to a place.  We go to a Person.  Altars in Scripture were places of bloody sacrifices.  To suggest our carpeted stairs now assume the same place is to radically domesticate the sacrificial system and cheapen the cross (the place of bloody sacrifice).

Further, we often assume that because someone has gone to or prayed at the “altar” then God must be at work.  Because one prayed or responded there instead of here is seen as definitive evidence of God’s presence.  If we really want to deal with God then we should do so down front, where God is met.  Again, that’s ex opere operato.

This isn’t to question anyone’s sincerity or gravity of conviction.  I am saying we have confused many people with weak assurances when Christ himself stands ready to provide lasting assurance.  We have led people to breathe an emotional sigh of relief when they return to their seat when, in fact, nothing substantial or lasting may have happened.

God be praised for conviction of sin and provision of grace.  But, the proof of gospel progress is not seen, for example, in praying down front for God’s help to forgive someone.  The fruit of repentance is in actually forgiving that someone.  Despite what we’ve communicated, exercising faith is not swallowing one’s pride to walk down in front of everyone on Sunday for spiritual help.  Exercising faith is often seen in swallowing one’s pride to have a private conversation on Tuesday with someone you offended.

Again, no Baptist would ever confess an aisle or prayer saved them.  But, many professing Bible-belt believers cannot talk about their conversion apart from an altar call.  “I went forward” and/or “prayed to receive Christ” and/or “made a decision” have replaced “I repented and believed” or “I was baptized into Christ.” 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).

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” because the power of the aisle and sinner’s prayer is often too strong to contradict.  The church leaves many confused about what exactly happened when they made a decision they were told was salvation.  They were so assured it was salvation even though their heart seemed to come to life only recently.  They’re left to contemplate the nature of salvation itself and unfortunate re-baptism (as my own journey bears out).

Altar calls and sinner’s prayers are not biblical as we now know them.  But don’t we do many things not found in Scripture 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 we use in gospel ministry (like microphones, bulletins, pianos or offering envelopes).  They monkey with the gospel and our responses to it.  The day a person attaches any salvific significance to the piano is the day we start singing a ccapella!  The day a person confuses amplification with God’s call to salvation is the day we talk louder and sit closer!

Baptism is the new covenant’s initial public response to the  gospel.  It is the very summary of conversion itself.  Baptism is our “coming out” party telling the world we are a Christian and should be treated as such.  Yet, many churches relegate it to a formality while folks are finding their seats at the beginning or checking their watches at the end of a service.  Baptism is an important administrative detail, but they did the real work when they walked down front.  We will spend 20 minutes belaboring an altar call but hasten through a scripted five-minute baptism.  Baptists, this ought not be.

Like the apostles we are to compel converts to the baptistery (Acts 2.38; 8.36; 19.3-5), not down an aisle to an “altar.” Our baptism, not when we walked an aisle, serves as a sweet reminder of God’s grace and our new life in Christ (Rom 6.1-11).  Baptism is the Christian’s sweet retreat when wrestling with sin and discouragement.

Our ongoing public accountability to the gospel is not expressed in the occasional aisle walk, but in the daily, personal discipleship in the rhythm of church life (Titus 2.1-8). More specifically, we express public accountability to the gospel when we come again and again to the Lord’s Table to proclaim his death for us.  We don’t go to an “altar” to deal privately with God in public, who is bound by attorney-client privilege. We go to Christ together with brothers and sisters who help us bask in the riches of God’s forgiveness (Jas 5.16).

Preach Christ alone, friends.  He is a much better Comforter and Guarantor than all the aisles and prayers in Christendom.

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

  1. So much to which I express, “AMEN!”

    So appreciate the main thrust of trusting in an action as “ex opere operato.”

    As a presbyterian minister (and not having read the Roman Catholic Catechism), I’m inclined to think that I might reject every aspect of Rome’s baptisms… will need to research.

    As a presbyterian minister, this is exactly what I say when I baptize covenant children, “Baptism is our “coming out” party telling the world we are a Christian and should be treated as such.”

    Regarding repentance, our confession says: “WCF 15:3 Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.”

    I need help understanding this: “To be sure, the church initially confers that affirmation and assurance through baptism.”


    1. Thanks, brother. What denomination practices Presbyterian baptism on Baptist subjects? The Weirdos? That’s my people.

      I’ll try to help clarify your question. Again, I’m assuming a Baptist perspective; although, I think you’d agree as related to adults coming to faith (mode notwithstanding). “Confers” may not be a great word to use, but here’s the spirit of the comment. Baptism is the way the church confirms and agrees with (?) the saving work of grace in a believer. As Calvin said, no one has God as Father who does not have the church as mother. So, no one has the liberty/authority to single-handedly, uncontrovertibly declare himself a Christian. He must be enfolded into the new covenant community first through baptism in then the ongoing Table. He brings his confession to the church, who (in good Baptist fashion) tests that confession in wisdom and discernment. The church then, in baptism, affirms and provides assurance that a work of grace has indeed happened and we have a Christian on our hands. We don’t always get that right (remember ol’ Simon the Sorcerer!), which means we should never baptize anyone we’re not willing to discipline.

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