by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, November 26, 2011 at 2:56pm

QUESTION: I read your note on the spiritual status of the unbiblically baptized, and it raised some serious questions in my mind. First, you say it is “possible that in some cases God has made exceptions and has acted outside his stated plan” regarding the role of immersion in salvation. If that is true, why is there absolutely no example or even hint of God making such an exception? Do we have a right to give a hint of hope where none has been suggested in the Bible? Second, how do we dare to sanction a “Sinner’s Prayer” when there is absolutely no example of it in Scripture? 1 Peter 3:21 says that baptism is the “appeal” to God, not a prayer. Are we not just adding to the pervasive confusion over baptism when we add something to the mix that is not even in the Bible?

ANSWER: I will comment first on the complaint about my statement that it is “possible that in some cases God has made exceptions and has acted outside his stated plan.” I cannot think of any New Testament example where God has done this, but the Old Testament has some relevant data on this matter. The OT teachings about the ways of God are not irrelevant for us in the NT age, since he is the same God then, now, and forever. And we do know from the OT that God does reserve the right to go outside of his stated plans and intentions if he judges the circumstances to warrant it. The classic passage for this is Jeremiah 18:7-10. Here God specifically says that whenever he declares his intention to destroy (or bless) a nation or kingdom, there is always the contingency—not necessarily a spoken one, but often just understood—that he will go against his stated plan, if the circumstances warrant it. In such cases, God says, “I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it”; “I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it.” A main example of this is Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). There was an implied “unless you repent,” but it was not specifically stated.

The point is that God is free to go outside his stated plan if he so desires. To say that God CAN do this with regard to baptism is justified by the above Scriptures, and on this basis we can say that it is “possible.” To say that he HAS done so is beyond our ability to know, and I have NEVER declared that he HAS done so. I argue ad hominem, i.e., “Let’s just assume for the sake of the argument that he has done so. Then what?” Here is where I make it very clear that IF he has done so, this is within his right. Also, IF he has done so, “only He knows about it. We have no right to presume upon God in this respect.” Even if we grant that God MAY have made an exception, “we must insist that no one can know this for sure.” How much clearer can anyone want than this? Anyone who tries to latch on to my statements about possibility and use these as a basis for rejecting what we DO know is completely misusing this teaching and is insulting the teacher in the process. Anyone is free to disagree with me and to reject this approach, but I humbly request that you not misrepresent what I am teaching as you do so.

I was more than a little upset by the questioner’s quite confused remarks about my references to the “sinner’s prayer.” Most of us know that the denominational, faith-only use of a “sinner’s prayer” as the moment of salvation is absolutely false. When I refer to the “sinner’s prayer,” I am talking about the TRUE sinner’s prayer, not endorsing this false one. I see this true sinner’s prayer in 1 Peter 3:21 and Acts 22:16. In 1 Peter 3:21 the apostle says baptism saves because it is an appeal—eperotema—to God for a good conscience. The Greek word is best translated “appeal, request, plea, prayer.” I do not understand the questioner’s assertion that this text says that baptism is the “appeal” to God, not a prayer. In fact, appeal and prayer are the same thing.

In what sense can we think of baptism as a “sinner’s prayer”? I believe Acts 22:16 shows us how baptism is such an appeal or prayer. Here Ananias says to Saul (literally), “Having arisen, and having called on his name, get yourself baptized and wash away your sins.” The point here is that baptism is preceded by “calling on his name.” What does this mean? “Calling on the name of the Lord” in Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; and Romans 10:13 is a prayer for salvation. The forms of the verbs in Acts 22:16 show that this calling on Jesus’ name precedes baptism, and is thus a prayer for the Lord to do what he has promised to do when the immersion takes place. Exactly HOW this prayer should be worded is not stated; it can be different depending on the circumstances of the individual about to be baptized. The wording of the prayer I included in my note about the unbiblically baptized was a suggestion for that particular kind of circumstance only. In any case, whatever the circumstances, this “calling on his name” as a prayer for salvation is the sinner’s prayer that God will do what he has promised to do in the act of baptism. This has nothing to do with the “faith-only” teaching that the only thing a sinner has to do for salvation is confess his faith and ask for forgiveness. What I am saying is that we should rise up against this unbiblical parody of the sinner’s prayer and restore the one set forth in Scripture.

I hope that my comments here have shown the fallacy of the complaint that “there is absolutely no example” of a sinner’s prayer in Scripture, and that it is “not even in Scriptures.” Rather than denying that it exists, we should instead be exposing the fallacy of the common approach to the “sinner’s prayer” and pointing people to the true Biblical example. If anyone carefully reads what I have said on the subject, he will surely see that I am rejecting the common idea that a person is SAVED by saying the sinner’s prayer or saved at the time he is saying this prayer. What I have said is that the Biblical sinner’s prayer is a prayer just before baptism that IN THE ACT OF BAPTISM the Lord will give the salvation he has promised.

For more detail on 1 Peter 3:21 and Acts 22:16, I refer my readers to my book, Baptism: A Biblical Study, chapters 6 and 13.

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  1. I thought “calling on the Lord” was in fact baptism itself, not a prayer before baptism. “and now, what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away calling on His name.” Paul “called on the name of the Lord” at baptism, by/ when being baptized into Christ – not during a prayer before. My belief is that baptism = calling on His name – has nothing to do with a “prayer” that they may or may not have said. Your thoughts???
    Also, in 1 Peter 3:21 is say that “it”, referring to baptism saves us “by the resurrection of Christ”. In perfect alignment with other verses/teachings on baptism because in baptism we are participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. I read your blogs/articles frequently. Thank you. Chris Summers. Lebanon, OH.

    • Thank you for your comment, Chris. The reason why “calling on His name” cannot be equated with the baptism itself is that it is an aorist participle, which means it is an action that precedes the action of the main verbs (“be baptized and wash away your sins”). So to be precise, it should be translated “having called on His name.”

    • In Acts 22:16 it is important to know the forms of the four verbs–get up, be baptized, wash away, call upon. The main verbs, as imperatives, are “be baptized and wash away your sins.” The other two are aorist participles, which describe actions that PRECEDE the actions of the main verbs. The precise translation would be this: “Having arisen, be baptized and wash away your sins, having called on his name.” The fact that “having called on his name” is an aorist participle shows that it is an action that has PRECEDED the action of baptism, and therefore cannot be equivalent to it. If “calling on” were a present participle, one would have a better chance of equating the two. But it is not a present participle. I have discussed both of these texts (Acts 22:16 and 1 Peter 3:21) in detail in my book, “Baptism: A Biblical Study.”

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