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.