C.S. Lewis used the term 'a great cataract of nonsense' to describe how people use a modern idea to construe Bible theology. One such example, perhaps the best example, is a conversion method called the Sinner's Prayer. It is more popularly known as the Four Spiritual Laws.
Lewis used this term to describe what happens when someone looks backward at the Bible based only on what he or she has known. Instead, an evangelical should first discern conversion practices from Scriptures and then consider the topic in light of two thousand years of other thinkers. As it is, a novel technique popularized through recent revivals has replaced the biblically sound practice.
Today, hundreds of millions hold to a belief system and salvation practice that no one had ever held until relatively recently. The notion that one can pray Jesus into his or her heart and that baptism is merely an outward sign are actually late developments. The prayer itself dates to the Billy Sunday era; however, the basis for talking in prayer for salvation goes back a few hundred years.
Consider the following appeal:
'Just accept Christ into your heart through prayer and he'll receive you. It doesn't matter what church you belong to or if you ever do good works. You'll be born again at the moment you receive Christ. He's at the door knocking. You don't even have to change bad habits, just trust Christ as Savior. God loves you and forgives you unconditionally. Anyone out there can be saved if they ... Accept Christ, now! Let us pray for Christ to now come into your heart.'
Sound familiar? This method of conversion has had far-reaching effects worldwide as many have claimed this as the basis for their salvation. Yet, what is the historical significance of this conversion? How did the process of rebirth, which Jesus spoke of in John 3, evolve into praying him into one's heart? I believe it was an error germinating shortly after the Reformation, which eventually caused great ruin and dismay in Christendom. By supplying a brief documentation of its short, historical development, I hope to show how this error has served as 'a great cataract of nonsense'.
Although things weren't ideal after the Reformation, for the first time in over a thousand years the general populace was reading the Scriptures. By the early 1600s, one hundred years after the Reformation was initiated, there were various branches of European Christendom that followed national lines. For instance, Germans followed Martin Luther. There were also Calvinists (Presbyterian), the Church of England (Episcopalian), various branches of Anabaptists and, of course, the Roman church (Catholics). Most of these groups were trying to revive the waning faith of their already traditionalized denominations. However, a consensus had not been reached on issues like rebirth, baptism or salvation--even between Protestants.
The majority still held to the validity of infant baptism even though they disagreed on its significance. Preachers tended to minimize baptism because people hid their lack of commitment behind sayings like 'I am a baptized Lutheran and that's that.' The influence of the preachers eventually led to the popular notion that one was forgiven at infant baptism but not yet reborn. Most Protestants were confused or ambivalent about the connection between rebirth and forgiveness.
The Great Awakening
The Great Awakening was the result of fantastic preaching occurring in Europe and the eastern colonies during the early to mid 1700s. Though ambivalent on the practice of baptism, Great Awakening preachers created an environment that made man aware of his need for an adult confession experience. The experiences that people sought were varied. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield and John Wesley furthered ideas of radical repentance and revival. Although there is much to be learned from their messages, they did not solve the problems of the practices associated with baptism and conversion.
Eventually, the following biblical passage written to and inspired for lukewarm Christians became a popular tool for the conversion of non-Christians:
"To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. ....Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.' (Revelation 3:14-20)
This passage was written explicitly for lukewarm Christians. Now consider how a lecturer named John Webb misused this passage in the mid 1700s as a basis of evangelizing non-Christians:
'Here is a promise of Union to Christ: in these words, I will come in to him. i.e. If any Sinner will but hear my Voice and open the Door, and receive me by Faith, I will come into his Soul, and unite him to me, and make him a living member of that my mystical body of which I am the Head.' (Christ's Suit to the Sinner, 14)
Preachers heavily relied on Revelation 3:20. By using the first-person tense while looking into the sinner's eyes, preachers began to speak for Jesus as they exhorted, 'If you would just let me come in and dine with you, I would accept you.' Even heathens who had never been baptized responded with the same or even greater sorrow than churchgoers. As a result, more and more preachers of Christendom concluded that baptism was merely an external matter--only an outward sign of an inward grace. In fact, Huldreich Zwingli put this idea forth for the very first time. Nowhere in church history was such a belief recorded. It only appears in Scripture when one begins with a great cataract of nonsense. In other words, it only appears in the New Testament through the imagination of readers influenced by this phenomenon.
A method originated during the 1730s or '40s, which was practically forgotten for about a hundred years. It is documented that in 1741 a minister named Eleazar Wheelock had utilized a technique called the Mourner's Seat. As far as one can tell, he would target sinners by having them sit in the front bench (pew). During the course of his sermon 'salvation was looming over their heads.' Afterwards, the sinners were typically quite open to counsel and exhortation. In fact, as it turns out they were susceptible to whatever prescription the preaching doctor gave to them. According to eyewitnesses, false conversions were multiplied. Charles Wesley had some experience with this practice, but it took nearly a hundred years for this tactic to take hold.
In 1801 there was a sensational revival in Cane Ridge, Kentucky that lasted for weeks. Allegedly, people barked, rolled over in the aisles and became delirious because there were long periods without food in the intense heat. It resulted in the extreme use and abuse of emotions as thousands left Kentucky with wild notions about rebirth. Today it is generally viewed as a mockery to Christianity.
The excesses in Cane Ridge produced expectations for preachers and those seeking religious experience. A Second Great Awakening, inferior to the first, was beginning in America. Preachers were enamored with the idea that they could cause (manipulate) people into conversion. One who witnessed such nineteenth century hysteria was J. V. Coombs who complained of the technique:
'The appeals, songs, prayers and the suggestion from the preacher drive many into the trance state. I can remember in my boyhood days seeing ten or twenty people lying unconscious upon the floor in the old country church. People called that conversion. Science knows it is mesmeric influence, self-hypnotism ' It is sad that Christianity is compelled to bear the folly of such movements.' (J.V. Coombs, Religious Delusions, 92ff).
The Cane Ridge Meeting became the paradigm for revivalists for decades. A lawyer named Charles Finney came along a generation later to systemize the Cane Ridge experience through the use of Wheelock's Mourner's Seat and Scripture.
It wasn't until about 1835 that Charles Grannison Finney (1792-1875) emerged to champion the system utilized by Eleazar Wheelock. Shortly after his own conversion he left his law practice and would become a minister, a lecturer, a professor, and a traveling revivalist. He took the Mourner's Seat practice, which he called the Anxious Seat, and developed a theological system around it. Finney was straightforward about his purpose for this technique and wrote the following comment near the end of his life:
'The church has always felt it necessary to have something of this kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles, baptism answered this purpose. The gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ, were called out to be baptized. It held the place that the anxious seat does now as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians'
Finney made many enemies because of this innovation. The Anxious Seat practice was considered to be a psychological technique that manipulated people to make a premature profession of faith. It was considered to be an emotional conversion influenced by some of the preachers' animal magnetism. Certainly it was a precursor to the techniques used by many twentieth century televangelists.
In opposition to Finney's movement, John Nevin, a Protestant minister, wrote a book called The Anxious Bench. He intended to protect the denominations from this novel deviation. He called Finney's New Measures 'heresy', a 'Babel of extravagance', 'fanaticism', and 'quackery'. He also said, 'With a whirlwind in full view, we may be exhorted reasonably to consider and stand back from its destructive path.' It turns out that Nevin was somewhat prophetic. The system that Finney admitted had replaced biblical baptism, is the vertebrae for the popular plan of salvation that was made normative in the twentieth century by the three Bills --- Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and Bill Bright.
Dwight Moody and R. A. Torrey
However, it wasn't until the end of Finney's life that it became evident to everyone and himself that the Anxious Bench approach led to a high fallout rate. By the 1860s Dwight Moody (1837-1899) was the new apostle in American evangelicalism. He took Finney's system and modified it. Instead of calling for a public decision, which tended to be a response under pressure, he asked people to join him and his trained counselors in a room called the Inquiry Room. Though Moody's approach avoided some of the errors encountered in Finneyism, it was still a derivative or stepchild of the Anxious Bench system.
In the Inquiry Room the counselors asked the possible convert some questions, taught him from Scripture and then prayed with him. The idea that prayer was at the end of the process had been loosely associated with conversion in the 1700s. By the late 1800s it was standard technique for 'receiving Christ' as Moody's influence spread across both the United States and the United Kingdom. This was where a systematic Sinner's Prayer began, but was not called as such until the time of Billy Sunday.
R. A. Torrey succeeded Moody's Chicago-based ministry after his death in 1899. He modified Moody's approach to include 'on the spot' street conversions. Torrey popularized the idea of instant salvation with no strings attached, even though he never intended as much. Nonetheless, 'Receive Christ, now, right here' became part of the norm. From that time on it became more common to think of salvation outside of church or a life of Lordship.
Billy Sunday and the Pacific Garden Mission
Meanwhile in Chicago, Billy Sunday, a well-known baseball player from Iowa, had been converted in the Pacific Garden Mission. The Mission was Chicago's most successful implementation of Moody's scheme. Eventually, Sunday left baseball to preach. He had great public charm and was one of the first to mix ideas of entertainment with ministry. By the early 1900s he had become a great well-known crusade leader. In his crusades he popularized the Finney-Moody method and included a bit of a circus touch. After fire and brimstone sermons, heavy moralistic messages with political overtones, and humorous if not outlandish behavior, salvation was offered. Often it was associated with a prayer, and at other times a person was told they were saved because they simply walked down his tabernacle's "sawdust trail" to the front where he was standing. In time people were told they were saved because they publicly shook Sunday's hand, acknowledging that they would follow Christ.
Billy Sunday died in 1935, leaving behind hundreds of his imitators. More than anything else, Billy Sunday helped crusades become acceptable to all denominations, which eventually led to a change in their theology. Large religious bodies sold out on their reservations toward these new conversion practices to reap the benefits of potential converts from the crusades because of the allure of success.
Both Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday admitted they were somewhat ignorant of church history by the time they had already latched on to their perspectives. This is highly significant because the Anxious Seat phenomenon and offshoot practices were not rooted in Scripture nor in the early church.
Billy Graham, Bill Bright
Billy Graham and his crusades were the next step in the evolution of things. Billy Graham was converted in 1936 at a Sunday-styled crusade. By the late 1940s it was evident to many that Graham would be the champion of evangelicalism. His crusades summed up everything that had been done from the times of Charles Finney through Billy Sunday except that he added respectability that some of the others lacked. In the 1950s Graham's crusade counselors were using a prayer that had been sporadically used for some time. It began with a prayer from his Four Steps to Peace with God. The original four-step formula came during Billy Sunday's era called in a tract called Four Things God Wants you to Know. The altar call system of Graham had been refined by a precise protocol of music, trained counselors and a speaking technique all geared to help people 'accept Christ as Savior.'
In the late 1950s Bill Bright came up with the exact form of the currently popular Four Spiritual Laws so that the average believer could take the crusade experience into the living room of their neighbor. Of course, this method ended with the Sinner's Prayer. Those who responded to crusades and sermons could have the crusade experience at home when they prayed,
"Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be."
Later, in 1977 Billy Graham published a now famous work entitled, How to Be Born Again. For all the Scripture he used, he never once uses the hallmark rebirth event in the second chapter of the book of Acts. The cataract (blind spot) kept him away from the most powerful conversion event in all Scripture. It is my guess that it's emphasis on baptism and repentance for the forgiveness of sins was incompatible with his approach.
The Living Bible and Beyond
By the late 1960s it seemed that nearly every evangelical was printing some form of the Four Spiritual Laws in the last chapter of their books. Even a Bible was printed with this theology inserted into God's Word. Thus, in the 1960s, the Living Bible's translation became the translation of choice for the crusades as follows:
Even in his own land and among his own people, the Jews, he was not accepted. Only a few welcomed and received him. But to all who received him, he gave the right to become children of God. All they needed to do was to trust him to save them. All those who believe this are reborn! --not a physical rebirth resulting from human passion or plan -- but from the will of God. (John 1:11-13, Living Bible)
The italicized words have no support at all in the original Greek. They are a blatant insertion placed by presuppositions of the translator, Kenneth Taylor. I'm not sure that even the Jehovah's Witnesses have authored such a barefaced insertion in their corrupt Scriptures. In defense of Taylor's original motives, the Living Bible was created primarily with children in mind. However, the publishers should have corrected the misleading verse in the 1960s. They somewhat cleared it up in the newer LB in the 1990s, only after the damage has been done. For decades mainstream evangelicals were using the LB and circular reasoning to justify such a strong 'trusting moment' as salvation, never knowing their Bible was corrupted.
A whole international enterprise of publishers, universities and evangelistic associations were captivated by this method. The phrases, 'Receive Christ,' and 'Trust Jesus as your personal savior,' filled airwaves, sermons, and books. James Kennedy's Evangelism Explosion counselor-training program helped make this concept of conversion an international success. Missionaries everywhere were trained with Sinner's Prayer theology. Evangelicalism had the numbers, the money, the television personas of Graham and Kennedy and any attempt to purport a different plan of salvation would be decried as cultic and 'heresy.'
Most evangelicals are ignorant of where their practice came from or how Christians from other periods viewed biblical conversion. C.S. Lewis regarded it as chronological snobbery when we don't review our beliefs against the conclusions of others:
'Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.' (Learning in Wartime, 1939)
While most do this unknowingly, evangelicals are skewing church auditoriums all over the world from a clear picture of conversion with a nonsensical practice.
-- Stephen Francis Staten, 1999
Below is an overview of a book being written on the origins of the Sinner's Prayer. Further material will include the following:
In early 1997, I sent a paper titled The Sinner’s Prayer to friends, and surprisingly, it soon went viral. It ended up on dozens of personal and church websites from multiple affiliations, as well as blogs, and even the website of a popular cable channel. By 1999 I had been contacted by two publishers, a radio station, professors, graduate students, and leaders of an association of churches about the rights to use it or to discuss it further.
The exposé was written as a critique of conversion methods popularized during nineteenth century America that had become an international phenomenon by the 1960s, primarily because of the success of the Billy Graham Crusades, the distribution of Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws, and the rise of televangelism. By the 1970s even Catholics were “praying Jesus into their hearts.” I was one of them. It was the most normative Christian experience of the times and I decided to investigate its origins. This letter explains why I am revisiting it.
In 2018, a woman in the UK reached out to me and suggested that the depiction of evangelicalism in the paper was out of date. Basically, her point was that some large evangelical churches had been connecting baptism and Lordship to the conversion process. I looked over the paper and agreed with her assessment. I am finally getting around to this subject because the evangelical world during the mid 1990s when I investigated the matter and in the 2020s is increasingly different and much more nuanced. Consequently, this year I will be revising the paper, providing more references and include footnotes, and submitting it to peer review.
Another motive to take on this project is that I am writing a book on the possibility of a “biblical” ecumenicalism, in contrast to earlier ecumenical and church unity movements which seems to have nearly run their course. I believe there are better ways to respond to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 than what I’ve heard about or experienced. Other more prolific authors, like Francis Chan, author of Until Unity, and Irwin Price, author of The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best, possessesa similar aspiration. Heartfelt unity among believers is directly related to how carefully we navigate polarizing topics, and the subject of conversion is one of them. Therefore, I am convinced that the tone of an updated version should be more respectful and constructive, while maintaining the solemnity of my original concerns. Since the release of the paper twenty-five years ago, I’ve seen my own need for rethinking matters of great importance.
Since it will be a while before an update will be ready, it might help interested readers of the original paper to understand why I wrote it in the first place. Between about 1974 and 1980, ages 15 to 21, I had “accepted Christ” through the so-called sinner’s prayer on four occasions. Eventually, I came to realize that I never experienced anything remotely transformative even though I was a “born again Catholic” and very involved in ecumenical affairs during my senior year at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. It became clear to me that I needed to dedicate time to serious study of the Bible, which I began in the early summer of 1981, after graduation.
Shortly into my studies I was invited to a weekly Bible study group by two men about my age. In the span of seven weeks, I learned much more about Jesus, the Gospels, and discipleship. I was baptized on July 31, and both the learning process and the baptism were transformative for me. I soon met my wife Tricia, and she was on the planting of the Church of Christ in Oak Park in 1982. I moved there the following year and we were married. For the first seven years of this journey, I worked as an engineer, a consultant, and a systems analyst. I wanted everyone to have the availability of the knowledge and experience I received, and I studied the Bible with many individuals during that period. I kept running into folks who, like me, had “prayed the prayer” on more than one occasion but their doubts persisted.
In 1988 my wife and I went into the full-time ministry. Fortunately, we ended up living off the Wheaton College campus by the time I desired to pursue graduate studies and so I began a master’s program at the college, beginning in the Spring of 1994. One classroom experience led me to thinking about a more biblical unity across affiliations than the ecumenicalism that I had known from my experience years earlier. I came to believe that, in the right circumstances, it was possible to respectfully engage on core issues that have long divided believers.
Over the final two weeks of Historical Theology in Fall 1995, the late Dr. Robert Webber discussed baptism and communion in the early church. I knew where he was headed because, on a whim, I had just read his 1978 book, Common Roots: The Original Call to an Ancient-Future Faith, where he used early Christianity as a beacon to call modern evangelicals to recover the essential biblical framework of the ancient church.
“In a manner of reflective analysis and self-criticism, we may have to suspend our theological presuppositions, denominational teachings, and personal bias in order to stand with the earliest Christians …”
On baptism, a subject he would use in class to make his point, he wrote,
“The Israelites’ miraculous rescue march through the Red Sea was a picture of the way we are saved through baptism.”
“… the Lord’s Supper and baptism are powerful carriers of divine presence.”
“Baptism was no empty symbol, no mere external act, but an act that was a necessary aspect of conversion.”
All semester long I had been openly challenged in class by a fellow student, a minister about my age, in his thirties. He would try to incite Dr. Webber against me and the Church of Christ, but he never succeeded. In part, the student failed because I remained silent, but more importantly, because the professor didn’t take the bait. He was determined to close out the semester by demonstrating how critical thinking can unite believers on core issues.
On a Tuesday, the first day of the last four class sessions, Dr. Webber asked everyone to raise their hands if they knew when they had received forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit. Only two of us responded affirmatively and my adversary wasn’t the other one. Then the professor pointed to the problems with the most prominent evangelical approach to salvation, “the sinner’s prayer” and told the story of his own conversion in repentance, confession, and baptism. Webber, a post-denominational Baptist, had embraced the Acts 2 understanding when he was baptized. He said, “Baptism should take the place that the sinner’s prayer does today.” He also said, something to the effect of, “the early Church would not even recognize many of you as members.” This might have seemed like he was picking a fight, but Professor Webber was a dramatist who was stimulating students to engage on a topic where he felt the evangelical movement may have missed the way. He wanted us to look at repentance and conversion and both a process (catechism) and event (confession and baptism) and see where we may have gotten it wrong.
Two days later, to the surprise of the entire class, Dr. Webber showed a video of Roman Catholic priests and congregants who broke with tradition and were being immersed as adults. Many fellow classmates were moved and concluded that the intimate connection of baptism to rebirth was missing in their experience or simply treated as a mere symbol. There were plenty of questions around the origins of infant baptism and “believer’s baptism.” The latter was looked at more critically in the class—a symbolic action that would typically take place at Easter, or some other arbitrary time, to place membership in a church. Whereas, in apostolic times, believers were baptized immediately to accomplish something urgent. The professor was prepared to handle all our questions.
Though I don’t remember every point of consideration that Dr. Webber addressed, my disposition to listen attentively rather than insert my opinions certainly paid off. When this sensational class discussion ended, my challenger apologized, beginning with the line “Steve, I’ve got to hand it to you ….” and “I had you wrong.” We began a new relationship based on our commonalities for the remainder of our time at the school.
Most significantly, discussions outside of the classroom turned to the need to not only rethink conversion and baptism, but other things that divided our affiliations, and to do so with a conversational tone. At home I relayed every important class discussion to my wife, who also proofread every important paper I wrote. We were equally hopeful that the evangelical world would experience an opening about the topics being discussed in class. We also saw the need to increasingly look more analytically at our heritage in the Churches of Christ, the Discipling Movement, the Boston Movement, and the International Churches of Christ.
I had already begun discovering that some influential figures among the nineteenth century Stone-Campbell Movement were quite abrasive. They created dogmas based on debatable logic around baptism that would disqualify virtually every baptism on the planet. Our affiliation was born out of a conservative subculture created by doctrinal watchdogs with whom we would probably have a strong mutual disagreement with if they were alive today—yet we still possess some of their exclusivist features, in my opinion. If my perspective is correct, the way many of us draw lines today would make us part of the disunity problem in Christian world—and could make us part of the solution if we dare. In other words, critical thinking wasn’t just for the traditional evangelicals in Dr. Robert Webber’s classroom. It was for all of us.
Amazingly, that experience with open and honest discussions occurred in the Billy Graham Center at the school considered to be the Mecca of evangelical colleges. Many of us from class felt that God may have been doing a new thing. Some of us thought that this discussion could lead to a cross denominational movement that would recover practices and attitudes lost through the ages—if only enough of us would be open to the risks. After the holidays I realized nothing came of our robust discussions and I wasn’t quite sure why. The moment was gone.
In January 1996, I began to outline my biblical and historical reservations about the Sinner’s Prayer while doing research for my thesis. Soon, another memorable event factored into to my urgency to understand the origins of the sinner’s prayer. That Spring, the late Luis Palau, the Argentinian evangelist widely considered the successor of Billy Graham, held a crusade in Chicago. Titled “Say Yes, Chicago”, there were more than 1500 churches involved in eight weeks of events that occurred in 75 meetings in Grant Park, Rosemont Horizon, the UIC Pavilion and settings such as luncheons at hotels.
On one occasion Palau took phone calls on a major television station, counseling people for a wide array of situations. For every person who had a problem—falling away from religion, getting entangled with sin, feeling lost, or struggling with their faith or their marriage, his only counsel was to “accept Christ” and “say this prayer with me.” I was dismayed not only that this trite formulaic mechanism which nearly everyone I knew had undergone at least once, it was going unchallenged by the evangelical establishment.
Apparently, the crusader had not gotten the memo that this approach was beginning to be dismissed within academia. Besides Dr. Webber, one of the few persistent and open dissenters in the evangelical world, two of my other Wheaton professors had condemned the sinner’s prayer device in classroom discussions. Luis Palau was repeating the practice that was shaped through the influence Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, RA Torrey, Billy Sunday, Bill Bright, and Billy Graham. I don’t believe it was their intention, but they were inadvertently advancing cheap grace.
From my own experience, studying the Bible with hundreds of people, the many classroom discussions at Wheaton College, and the Chicago crusade confirmed my belief that the formulaic approach which was then widely supported in sermons, books and other media was creating a barrier to progress and transformation in popular Christianity. The trans-denominational use of this approach also led to a pseudo form of ecumenicalism when the world needs the real thing prayed for by Jesus, “that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). Our unity must go beyond merely “accepting Jesus.” I believe this to be true because the unity that the church experienced in the first generations after the apostles went far beyond acceptance of Jesus. Unity in the early church was the central subject of my master’s thesis research.
The sinner’s prayer, I still maintain, falls into a category of what CS Lewis called a “great cataract of nonsense.” He believed that if we have studied history and “lived” in many ages, we will be less affected by errors of our own age which pour “from the press and the microphone.” Had we lived in past ages through historical inquiry we would know how individuals from different ages variously interpreted the connection between faith, confession, baptism, forgiveness, and being in the church. The understanding of rebirth ranged widely between the subapostolic era (the 60s AD to the 150s), the mid to late ante-Nicene (150s-320s), post-Nicene (320s-470s), Medieval (470s-1500s), mainline Reformation churches (sixteenth century), the First Great Awakening (1730-1770s), the Second Great Awakening (1790s-1830s) and so forth. Like Luis Palau, many ministers, and most megachurch pastors, have embraced a practice that quickly took hold in America during the 1830s. If only more believers could visit the earliest eras less encumbered by products of later periods.
It was in this context of experiences and study leading up to the mid-1990s that I buried myself in the university archives throughout 1996, going through microfilm, microfiche, tracts, and books to understand the origins of the related subjects of the mourner’s bench, anxious seat, the altar call, the sinner’s prayer, and the four spiritual laws.
While I think that my article on The Sinner’s Prayer was a factually fair critique of what I had observed between the 1970s and late 1990s, including how we got there, the first version was more of a reprimand than was necessary. Moreover, as it stands, it does not acknowledge progress where prominent evangelicals have set a different course around discipleship and conversion. The next version of the paper will acknowledge these things and provide suggestions for healthy dialogue.
To accomplish my goals with this project, I’ll strive to follow the golden rule for appraisals: When one provides an unsolicited critical assessment about a high stakes subject, he or she would do best by presenting it in the way that they’d want to receive such an outside critique. Besides, it is good to have the posture that I might not yet realize my own “cataract of nonsense” or “plank” in my eye (Matthew 7:3-5).
Stephen F. Staten
 Webber, Robert E.; Webber, Robert E.. Common Roots: The Original Call to an Ancient-Future Faith (Kindle Locations 2405-2406). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
 Webber, Kindle Locations 141-142.
 Webber, Kindle Location 401.
 Webber, Kindle Location 3189.