Subordinate the Secondary to the Primary

When evangelical Christians of different traditions join together for evangelistic events, the statements made ought to be robust but not sectarian. To urge as normative the particular baptism rite of the Book of Common Prayer, for instance, would be extremely inappropriate. We seek to say as much as we can on the basis of holy Scripture, not subordinating it to the traditions of man. One such man-made tradition, which may have a proper use but is nowhere taught in Scripture, is what some call the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’, a certain kind of penitential prayer that especially acknowledges Christ as the only way to live in peace with God. It’s this tradition whose current place I seek to challenge as a practice that too often has displaced what Scripture actually teaches.

The Scriptures refer to the Church, in Christ, as sons of God. This must be true in a way that doesn’t apply to the heathen: in the sense in which St Paul speaks of adoption (Rom 8.15; Gal 4.5), the Church alone enjoys the sonship of God’s covenant. This sonship is a gift, which none but God can bestow. The inward gift is the Holy Spirit; the outward gift that signifies and pledges the inward grace is water baptism in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Taking on the Lord’s holy Name in this world, we become part of his household in this world, while God makes us spiritually members of Christ by faith. Holy baptism, therefore, as the God-given outward sign of an inward grace, is given in such a way as to exclude the normative need for a ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ as a primary mark and assurance of belonging to God.[1]

For the Scriptures make much of baptism, but nothing at all of any particular prayer tied to conversion. First, Hebrews draws a parallel between our hearts and our bodies as reasons for full assurance before God: Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Likewise, St Paul points to baptism as the reason for living a holy life:

How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were buried into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

How, if St Paul points to baptism as the marker of covenant membership and thus as the personal reason for Christian holiness, is baptism to be seen as a post-conversion procedure? Corresponding to the Holy Ghost’s internal act, according to Hebrews, is an outward embodiment, enacted in physical water. It seems pretty clear to me from this kind of evidence that the biblical writers see baptism as the decisive visible mark of faith and membership in God’s people; those who are baptized but rebel against God are exhorted as God’s sons to love and serve the Father who’s adopted them.[2]

I have a hard time with the sophistry of those who claim these biblical writers are referring only to ‘internal baptism’ in the Holy Spirit (as if the two are also detached). For one thing, the parallel in Hebrews is telling. What’s more, St Paul could easily have indicated something separate from water baptism had he so wished, but he uses strong baptism language, in this case referring not to the Holy Ghost but to the hard, physical fact of the resurrection of Christ, into whose death Christians are baptized. It’s hard, moreover, to argue with St Peter, who likens baptism to Noah’s Ark: the like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A careful reader will conclude from these words not that baptism works ex opere operato (‘by the work wrought’), but that the real effect of baptism relies on the Spirit’s work inside in the course of a lifetime; nevertheless, the language strongly ties the signifier to the thing signified.

Noah’s Ark, circumcision, the Passover, all these Old Testament signs – also think of the rainbow when Noah steps out of the Ark – what do they signify? As any believing Jew would say, and as any Christian will say, they signify chiefly the faithfulness of God, which we now know embodied in the death (and resurrection) of Christ. The signs, then, point not first to the will of man but rather to the will and the work of God. This very fact calls into question any notion that the two sacraments exist chiefly for Christians to tell other people, and themselves, of their privy belief in God. Instead, personal faith must be understood in terms of God’s promises, and God’s speech, not our fancy, is what assures us of our salvation.

When we need any monument to God’s work in our lives, and of our part in the covenant of his blood, there are already two such signs set forth by Scripture and not by the institution of man: Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These take precedence over anything devised by man, and our sin will imitate that of the Romanists if we let them be eclipsed in our piety by our own inventions. Let’s get back to the basics and use what Scripture tells us, and only then add other things as helps to our use of the things that our Lord commands. What the Lord has given, he will make effective in his time, for nothing’s surer than his word.


[1] First, Romans 10.8–10 describes salvation not to a pagan but to an already- Christian audience. Second, my dad says he prefers Psalm 51 to a man-made Sinner’s Prayer. The form of such a confession is biblical, of course, but I think its full use can apply only to those who are already included in God’s covenant people. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, after all, is the saying of a person who has known the grace of salvation and forfeited its joy by wilful sin, not of a person approaching the covenant of grace for the first time. In my view, therefore, only the first nine verses of the psalm can be said literally by a pagan coming before the throne of grace. That said, those nine verses are an excellent preparation for baptism.

[2] We humans have no way now to know God’s decrees of election, or others or even of ourselves: the difference between one who’s ultimately saved and one who ultimately isn’t saved is continuance in faith. Discerning the first step of faith, moreover, is difficult if not impossible. In any case, it’s not just the first step of faith that matters for salvation but faith from first to last. It’s sensible, then, to have reference to something outward rather than judging the heart with impossible criteria. Many of us evangelicals like to see dramatic changes from the ‘first moment’ of faith, but sometimes there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. The sign, in other words, is not a miraculous gift of tongues or even a sudden turnaround in holiness, but the death and resurrection of Christ himself, represented by baptism.


2 responses to “Subordinate the Secondary to the Primary

  1. I find this a compelling argument, and as one who works in a parachurch broadly evangelical but non-sectarian organization, I find that we don’t always do as good a job as possible pointing people to the church to confirm through baptism their expression of penance given in the “sinner’s prayer.” It is something I think needs greater attention.


    • It often seems that Christians converge toward certain Baptist practices as the least controversial, even when they may actually be sectarian distinctives rather than biblical and catholic teachings. Anglican and Presbyterian evangelicals find themselves needing to do this to avoid looking Romish in the eyes of their brethren, even when their own confessions claim that the Bible teaches otherwise. I consider this a false unity, an impediment to theologically serious and genuinely loving unity. As can be seen in the post immediately preceding this one, I have a strong interest in uniting the churches as much as possible in the biblical things they really can hold in common.


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