The vote wasn't taken with every head bowed and every eye closed, but delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting today supported the "Sinner's Prayer" after considerable debate.
Jimmy Scroggins, chairman of the SBC Committee on Resolutions, told the convention that the committee brought the resolution to the floor because of recent challenges to the emphasis on the Sinner's Prayer—usually a prayer of repentance to "invite Jesus into your heart" that has become a hallmark of evangelical conversionism.
The committee wanted "to affirm our commitment to evangelism and to calling people to make a decision for Jesus Christ," Scroggins said.
"We affirm that repentance and faith involve a crying out for mercy and a calling on the Lord (Rom. 10:13), often identified as a 'Sinner's Prayer,' as a biblical expression of repentance and faith," the resolution said. But it added, "A 'Sinner's Prayer' is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the gospel (Matt. 6:7; 15:79)."
The resolution was originally presented by Eric Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi, though the version approved by the committee omitted language designed to refute the denomination's increasingly Calvinist membership. (An effort to put much of the language back in was defeated in a floor vote, as was an effort to remove references to the phrase "Sinner's Prayer.")
Indeed, Hankins says his resolution was sparked by a talk from one of the SBC's Calvinist stars, David Platt. Speaking at the Verge church leaders' conference March 1, the pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, said the emphasis on the Sinner's Prayer is unbiblical and damning.
"I'm convinced that many people in our churches are simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we've sold them as the gospel, i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life," Platt said. "Should it not concern us that there is no such superstitious prayer in the New Testament? Should it not concern us that the Bible never uses the phrase, 'accept Jesus into your heart' or 'invite Christ into your life'? It's not the gospel we see being preached, it's modern evangelism built on sinking sand. And it runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls."
Speaking at the SBC Pastors' Conference preceding the Baptist's annual meeting, Platt referenced his Verge sermon, lamenting that his messages "can become three-minute YouTube clips." But, preaching from John 2-3, he reiterated his statements that believing in Jesus is not enough. "Many assume they are saved simply because of a prayer they prayed," he said. "It's not that praying a prayer in and of itself is bad—but the question in John 2 and 3 is what kind of faith are we calling people to?"
Hankins, who coordinated the recent "Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation" to limit Calvinist influence in the domination, said invitations to pray the Sinner's Prayer are usually accompanied by calls to repentance and costly discipleship.
"The real problem that the New Calvinists have with the Sinner's Prayer is that they believe only certain people can come to faith, and they don't want the hopelessly condemned thinking they are saved or joining churches when they actually have no chance for life in Christ," he told The Christian Index last month.
Discussion over the resolution did seem to break down along Calvinist/Arminian lines.
Jared Moore, pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in Houstonville, Kentucky, and a frequent blogger on Reformed theology, spoke against the resolution.
"I live in a community where everyone has asked Jesus to come into their hearts and none of them are at church," he told the delegates. "Many of them live contrary to Scripture. They're not repenting and having faith in Christ, yet they asked Jesus to come into their heart. … I have to get them lost before I can get them saved."
Meanwhile, Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tennessee, who has preached against Calvinist theology, called the Sinner's Prayer representative of God's New Covenant. He also noted that 262 children at his church recently prayed the Sinner's Prayer and invited Jesus into their heart. (Gaines also preached a defense of the Sinner's Prayer and "accepting Jesus into your heart" last month.)
"While asking Jesus to come into your heart may not be specifically in the Bible, I believe the concept is, just like the terms inerrancy and Trinity," he said.
After the vote, Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he was "thrilled by its passage, demonstrating the unity of Southern Baptists. We believe neither in manipulation nor timidity when it comes to calling all people everywhere to repent and believe."
Since the delegates (called messengers) voted by a show of ballot, no official count was taken. Baptist Press reported that "perhaps 10-20 percent of messengers voted against it." One delegate said he thought the percentage was more than that—perhaps as high as 40 percent.
Hankins didn't speculate on the margin, but told CT many more voted against it than he expected.
"That any people would have voted against it is astounding to me," he said. "There's a legitimate criticism to be made about the Sinner's Prayer, and there needs to be that criticism, and that tension. Everyone can point to examples when they've seen an approach that's not properly motivated by the gospel and is about running people through the baptistery. The Sinner's Prayer is not an incantation. That's why it says so right in the resolution. Why was that not good enough? That's what concerns me."
Hankins noted that the effect of such denominational resolutions can be muted. "They tend to stop at this point," after the voting, he said. But he expects discussion over the Sinner's Prayer to continue. "I'm excited that a discussion is being had. … I'm not going to say [the Sinner's Prayer] is the only way for people to come to faith. But for me, after 20 years of ministry, it's a pretty typical way."