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Perspective: Repent and believe!

A recent blog post by Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, (See page 2) challenged me to think again about the state of our work in the local church. His blog post is titled “Where Have all the Baptisms Gone?” The 2012 statistics for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) reflect the lowest number of baptisms since 1948. The SBC lost another 105,000 members as well. Oklahoma Baptists fare no better than our national denomination. Rainer provides five reasons he believes baptisms have declined. All of them have merit.

Two of his reasons are tied together in my mind. He suggests that “we are baptizing unregenerate members.” In another, he proposes that our problem stems from focusing too much on incantation evangelism, or asking people to recite “magic” words, as the means to salvation.

Much has been written recently about the “sinner’s prayer.” The line of thinking is that too many people have voiced a prayer asking for forgiveness and expressing faith without understanding or heart commitment. Many fault the prayer because they believe people see it as “magical words.” The result is people who have not experienced genuine regeneration are seen as “saved” and then baptized.

I do not have room to address all the issues raised by the “sinner’s prayer” debate. I do want to bundle it with Rainer’s suggestions and make a few statements of my own.

I think Rainer is spot on. Throughout history, the challenge has always been to ensure that those who are baptized into our churches have truly been born again by grace through faith. Baptism is not for those who want to join the church. It is for those who have repented of their sin of rebellion against a Holy God and turned to His Son. The first sermon of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Mark states it clearly—repent and believe! I am afraid we have made too little of repentance. Regeneration is necessary because we are dead in trespasses and sin. Repentance is essential to salvation, and any declaration of faith begins with acknowledgement of sin and sole trust in the Savior to deal with that sin. “Easy believism” has never and will never suffice. Repentance and faith cannot be separated.

An unregenerate membership grows out of “easy believism.” Mental assent without spiritual understanding of our sin and lostness facilitates a misfire in the human heart. I do not think it is wrong to lead people to pray a prayer of repentance, faith and commitment as a means to express their brokenness over sin and faith in Jesus to save them. I prayed such a prayer 55 years ago. The problem is not the prayer. The problem is our lack of providing foundational understanding to people both before and after they open their mouths to confess their sin in repentance and their faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection to save them.

Preaching on sin (not just pet sins) and the repentance necessary to have a right relationship with God has lost favor. This type of preaching is seen as negative and harsh. Modern minds do not want to be troubled with such. We sometimes are more interested in placating and tickling ears so as to garner a crowd than presenting the life-changing truths of God’s Word. To not tell people the truth about sin and repentance is spiritual malpractice. It would be more lethal than a doctor not telling a person they need surgery to remove a tumor because it might cause pain to have surgery.

I would charge us to return to the practice of John the Baptist. When the crowds came to him, he did not stutter or compromise his message to keep them. He called them to repentance before baptism. Modern Baptists can do no other and be true to the infallible and inerrant Word of God.


Anthony L. Jordan

Author: Anthony L. Jordan

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  • Carlin Lawrence

    To Dr. Anthony L. Jordan

    I couldn’t agree more–you are right on.

    I wish someone with some spiritual insight would tell me where the “Ask Jesus into our heart” came from. I cannot find it in the Bible.

    I see that after we are born again Jesus comes into our heart (Galatians 4:6) and Jesus does come into our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17).

    But to repeat myself, where in the Bible does it say, “Ask Jesus into our heart?”

    Carlin Lawrence

  • I agree with the issues brought up by Dr. Rainer and with the commentary and expansion by Dr. Jordan on these issues in evangelism. I would like to offer an additional perspective as well. I believe all of the reasons cited, and this comes from only my personal observation, are because of misplaced goals. The root cause of these problems (just the specific ones mentioned) are due to an overvaluing of baptism numbers. Rainer writes about swollen memberships, hasty baptisms, magical sinners prayers, numbers as an end, and glorying in numbers. How could it be anything else? Don’t get me wrong, I believe numbers are very valuable and needed for evangelism. We need to keep the numbers and we need to monitor them as Dr. Rainer wrote. The numbers do help us gage in some way the penetration of the gospel into the culture.

    We obviously need to do more in evangelism and our denomination has moved away from that. Directly or indirectly we are beginning to equate church planting with evangelism. Church planting is not evangelism. Church planting can and should enable more evangelism but church planting is not evangelism. Acts of service are not evangelism either. Like church planting, our acts of service should and could result in more evangelism if it was intentionally programmed into it. But they are not the same. There are many good things we can do, but until someone personally discovers another person’s spiritual condition, shares the bad and good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ with an invitation to accept or reject the offer of eternal life through repentance and faith, evangelism has not taken place.

    I think we can agree, that as far as the new birth is concerned, a person may pray a sinners prayer 10,000 times but until one is “born again” they will not see the kingdom of heaven. This is something out of human control. We can determine how often we share but we cannot determine how often the new birth takes place. However, I find this to be true: The more I share, the more the new birth actually does take place! What we need is more sharing Christians. To have more sharing Christians we need more Spirit-filled Christians. I believe our numbers problem is a spiritual problem. We need a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us. That is the only promise that Jesus made which would make us His witnesses. When we are filled with the Spirit we are filled with God’s love. God’s love creates burden for the lost, unity of purpose in the church and energy for effective witness in the individual. I’m just speaking for myself, but I think what we need is personal revival on a corporate scale.

    Our decline in baptisms reflects a moving away in our dependence on God and repeated focus on techniques will only increase our decline. The decline in baptism numbers is like the warning light on a car. The solution is not to turn the light off (get rid of counting baptisms), but to see what is wrong under the hood. Neither is our solution to just get the numbers up (making higher numbers the goal). That would just mask the problem. So, what do you think is wrong under the Southern Baptist hood? What are the solutions we can apply? Spiritual problems demand spiritual solutions. We need our leaders to tirelessly show us how to apply spiritual solutions, no matter how painful or difficult, so that God can fix what is wrong under the Southern Baptist hood. The greatest empowerment for a people or a church is to be a right with God and with each other as much as they can be.

    We are fortunate to have Dr. Jordan as Executive Director at the BGCO. His heart is for the local church, pastor and leaders. He has leadership over effective and dynamic teams seeking to assist our churches in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Seek God and make use of what the BGCO has to offer.

  • Terry Beals

    While in Seminary, I was trained in Evangelism Explosion through my local church. I have always said it was the best class I took while in seminary. While EE is not exactly the answer to this issue, it does a great deal to resolve it. I had a man come to join the church who was a baptized member of another Southern Baptist Church. I always use the two diagnostic questions. An uncertainty arose and at a later time I shared the plan of salvation with him using the EE presentation. He looked at me and said, “I have never done that.” He then prayed and I happily baptized him, not for the second time, but for the first REAL time. Things like this have happened more than once. We should not receive a person into membership just because he is a member of another Baptist church; neither do I believe a 2 minute gospel presentation and a prayer at the invitation is sufficient for a person to understand what is happening. Those who know Bertha Smith’s testimony know she went down again and again and, as it has been said, the preacher was smart enough to leave her alone. Salvation is a total work of God! Thanks for the remarks, Dr. Jordan.

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