Baptist witchcraft

This post is more of a question than an answer. It is curiosity not advice, and I know that even bringing this issue up will bring scrutiny on me from others. My hope is that in raising my questions and my lack of understanding we can dialogue toward a Biblical perspective. So, as you read this post, please feel free to comment with your own thoughts or questions. 

The “sinner’s prayer” is not in the Bible.

To be clear, I am referring to the specific prayer that we as evangelicals, especially Baptists, will often have people repeat during an altar call or invitation. This 25-30 second prayer is most often a short recap of the different steps we like to refer to as the “ABCs of salvation.” This is, of course, an acronym we have created in order to boil salvation down to its kernel. It takes the gospel and sums it up in three words: admit, believe, and confess.

We have really streamlined the gospel.

Now I understand the impetus to make the gospel clear. I understand the desire to explain it in a language children can understand, and to discuss it in a way that is not loaded with theological jargon that means nothing to people without a seminary degree.  I am all for that.

Yet, I feel our efforts at clarity may replace the essence of the gospel message with the magic words of an event. In short, we Baptists could be guilty of witchcraft.

I know that is a big claim, and one that may offend a good portion of the people who read this blog, but let me explain my point. 

For the last two years, I have lived in West Africa. It is a land of spells, magic, and witches. It is the birthplace of voodoo. Their worldview and culture is saturated with the supernatural and they, as a people, have placed their trust in the practice of manipulating spirits. 

In its basic form, manipulation is the heart of witchcraft. It is the practice of using certain rituals and events to gain a desired response from the spirit world. A sacrifice will be given to appease an ancestor spirit or a curse will be placed on someone in order for a spirit to haunt them, and it is all done through rituals. They will perform an act or event and say some magic words in order to use the spirits to get what they want.

How does this compare to the “sinner’s prayer?”

I am afraid, in many instances, our evangelistic appeal today runs perilously close to witchcraft. Think with me about a revival, crusade, or special church service you may have attended lately. When it gets to the end, there is a moment where we enter a ritual of invitation. (Make no mistake, the popular approach to the altar call is a ritual. A ritual is not bad in itself; it depends on how it is used.)

During this ritual, the preacher will invite people to pray this prayer if they want the benefits from it (salvation). Then, he will have everyone close their eyes and those who want the power of the prayer will repeat the words after him. Finally, people who have participated will come forward as a sign of their entrance into the group.

Not every sermon works this way, and not every preacher uses this method of evangelism. But, when the ritual of invitation is done that way, is it a prayer or a spell?

Think for a moment about the words we use when speaking of salvation nowadays. In common church language the term “walked the aisle” has become synonymous with salvation. A family with a little child will verbalize how worried they are that their son has not “went forward” yet. We often judge the success of our meetings on how many “decisions” were made.

If our concern is more about people going through these motions than actually becoming disciples who follow Christ in their lives, then it will have devastating effects on our mission, our churches, and the lives of those we seek to reach. How many times have you seen someone in the latter half of their life step forward and say they went through the motions of salvation and baptism as a child, but they were not really saved? They acknowledge going through the motions of the ritual, but they trusted in the ritual, not the saving work of Christ. 

Even more noticeable is the massive number of people who will walk an aisle, pray this prayer, and never actually have any noticeable change in their life. Countless people here in the South can look back to a time in their life where they performed this ritual. And when asked about their salvation, whether or not they are Christians, they will point back to a moment when they repeated the words of a prayer off of a preacher’s lips and not a life of service to their king.

Really? Is that the right understanding of salvation?

Have we perhaps taught people to place their faith in the event in the aisle instead of the event at the cross?

Comments are welcome.

9 Comments

  1. Jeff said:

    Brother, your thoughts are neither offensive nor controversial! They might limit your employability with VBS publishers, though.

    It is common and natural for the unregenerate to prefer formulas rather than a more nebulous trust. It is still common (though not natural) for the regenerate to prefer it as well, because then we can assure some one that they’re a true believer now and celebrate with a potluck and a good ACP report.

    Think of all of the different formulas that are said to lead to salvation. Repeat these words, obey this list, make a pilgrimage, kill an infidel while defending the true faith, etc. Aren’t they all what we _do_ for salvation? Isn’t the sinner’s prayer just another work? I fear that it often is. We end up trusting what we’ve done to be good enough to satisfy God, while what we do can never be enough to satisfy God.

    Interestingly, we never see Jesus boil salvation down to a three step program. And, when we do see Jesus make a proclamation of salvation, it is often for surprising reasons – consider the lame man with his four faith-filled friends, Zachaeus, etc., that don’t mesh with our three step plan.

    Paul’s steps to salvation are a bit different each time he writes them.

    You’d think if the ABC’s of salvation were so important, that God would have put them in the inspired preface of the Bible (at least in the HCSB for sure), or that Jesus would at least have mentioned them once.

    We can see this misplaced trust in other areas of life as well. A common one that I see is this: if we homeschool our kids, they’ll turn out fine. We end up trusting homeschooling, rather than God. It’s so easy to do.

    The sad thing is that when we trust a formula we often miss out on what God is doing. This is doubly sad when we consider issues of salvation.

    October 24, 2011
    Reply
    • Keelan said:

      Jeff, I always enjoy hearing your perspective! It is so good to hear the thoughts of a Southern Baptist who is not southern. It is true that we are reductionist by nature. We want so bad to boil things down to an outline, to make them a formula, and provide a recipe to follow. Your point definitely holds true that this is a tendency of man and that it isn’t simply an issue with salvation. Your example of homeschooling makes the point very well.

      An interesting thing I found out in Africa though:
      I am no longer completely convinced that mankind is universally reductionist. To the contrary, I find that to be unique to cultures similar to ours in the States. The people in Africa are just the opposite of reductionistic. They try to synthesize everything and instead of an “either/ or” approach like we use they have a “both/and” approach. They do not seem to chop things down into their little parts with Occam’s razor, and therefore streamline it the way we do. Instead, they continue to add things to, making it even more complex… It’s different. Still destroys the gospel, just in a different way.

      October 24, 2011
      Reply
  2. JP said:

    Finally! This is what we CoC’s have been saying all along! Kidding, kidding!

    Great post, man. I agree whole-heartidly. Without your life being completely transformed, it doesn’t matter if you pray a prayer, get dunked in water, sign on the line, or send $50 to Robert Tilton. God is the One that does the saving and the adding.

    Sadly, we all battle our ritualized methods, and I hate the amount of division that it has caused over the years!

    October 24, 2011
    Reply
    • Keelan said:

      Touché!

      JP, I think you’re spot on man. It is easy to err in either direction on the issue too. However, a genuine relationship with Christ must result in a lifestyle change.

      As for division, unfortunately, it seems it is quite often our rituals and traditions that divide one from another.

      On the other hand, it never hurts to send Robert Tilton 50 bucks…

      October 26, 2011
      Reply
  3. Jeff said:

    Want another phrase to mull over? Chew on this one: “soul winning”, as in “I’m going soul winning on Monday night.”

    October 24, 2011
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    • Keelan said:

      This is another one of those phrases Jeff… I think the meaning behind it is in the right place, but I feel the term can easily misidentify our purpose. If not careful, we begin to focus on our efforts in the process of evangelism. Soon, we think we are saving people…

      October 24, 2011
      Reply
  4. Karen said:

    I recall as a child being asked, “Do you want to ask Jesus into your heart?” My answer was yes. I was eight years old. I followed the Baptist ritual of walking the aisle on the following Sunday morning. It worked for me. I prayed “the sinners prayer”.

    I asked a 90 something man if he was going to heaven several months ago. He said he hoped so. He had “asked Jesus into his heart” and was baptized. He also had followed the same exact rituals I had. However, he hadn’t moved any further from this point. He could not pin point any additional knowledge gained since his ritual partcipation. He has since died….

    My husband and I enjoyed engaging in conversation this evening about your blog entry and retire for the eveing studying Romans Chapter 12, and recapping the thief on the cross.
    Jeff, a great book is “The Golden Path to Successful Soul Winning”, by John R Rice. It was the first personal evangelism book read by my husband and I. There is also found some humor among his efforts,but tried and true personal evangelism or soul winning. I loved reading the book.
    Keep engaging our thought and study Keelan. I enjoy your blog. Can’t wait for you to meet my son in January.

    October 24, 2011
    Reply
    • Keelan said:

      Karen, your example is exactly what I am talking about! I have heard so many stories just like that, and I think most of us have.

      I am terribly encouraged by the fact that you guys got to sit down and discuss this issue, and thank you for letting me know that. It is always an honor to hear that this stuff helps people think through their faith.

      And I am looking forward to meeting your son as well!

      October 26, 2011
      Reply
  5. Nickie B. said:

    Keelan,
    I enjoyed this post. This is kind of the same thing we talked about Sunday night. I have a couple comments to add. First, I can remember being in junior church services with my head bowed and the preacher saying if you want to be saved pray this prayer with me. He would then say “the sinners prayer.” This was before I was saved and what I took away from it was not what the preacher intended. I knew I was a sinner so that meant if I didn’t pray every night before I went to bed and ask God to forgive me of my sins I might die the next day and go to Hell. If I did pray and ask God to forgive me of my sins the night before, I didn’t have to worry about He’ll. I was heaven bound that next day. So, for a long time I would pray for forgiveness before I went to bed, but it didn’t mean anything. It was just me doing what I thought I was supposed to do to go to heaven.
    Now, I’m like you. I’m not saying these services don’t reach people, but many of them are only doing what they think they should be doing and not what God is convicting them to do.
    My second comment is to the three step salvation method. I am guilty of of using and teaching the ABC’s of salvation. But really, Jesus our example never said say this and this to be saved. Many times Jesus often simply said “go and sin no more.” I think Jesus is saying, “Put your trust in me and go live your life in a way that shows it. Stop living for the things you have been living for and live for my glory.”

    October 25, 2011
    Reply

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