I’ve recently been struck by similarities between the arguments made by champions of baptismal efficacy in Reformed circles and advocates of the altar call in Baptist and fundamentalist circles.
In my early years as a pastor I served a church where an altar call was expected at the conclusion of each sermon. When I questioned the need for the altar call I was told (by those who could provide any defense at all) that the altar call was simply a form which permitted obedience to Scripture’s command, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
No one denies that confession of Christ as Lord is a Scriptural hallmark of regenerate life. But what those who focus on the efficacy of baptism often seem to forget is that Scripture just as frequently and overtly ties salvation to verbal confession as to water baptism:
Romans 10:9-10 … if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
1 John 1:7-9 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 2:23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
1 John 4:15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
Matthew 10:32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven…
When I would ask older parents in that church the spiritual state of their children they would routinely describe lives of tragic sin and rebellion against God: "Donald's had some trouble with alcohol. He's losing his license to practice law. He's about to get his third divorce...." Yet when I would go on to ask Mrs. Smith if she would like me to pray for Donald's salvation she would answer, “No, Donald's not an unbeliever. He went to the altar when he was eleven and I just know he’s a Christian.”
The ultimate problem with the altar call as I came to view it wasn’t its emphasis on publicly confessing Christ, it was the unstated assumption of its proponents that performance of this stipulated Biblical component of salvation was necessarily and integrally tied to saving faith.
Thus, when I listen to advocates of a higher view of the objective efficacy of baptism quote such passages as 1 Peter 3:21 (“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.”) I'm reminded of members of my church defending the centrality of the altar call by similar quotations from Scripture—only, in their case, verses tying salvation to acknowledgment of Christ before men rather than verses speaking of baptism.
The core error of sacramentalism isn’t exclusive to the sacraments. It’s equally possible to commit the root error of sacramentalism by over-emphasizing any act biblically linked to saving faith. Honestly, if we’re to permit passages which tie salvation to baptism to drive us toward sacramentalism we should listen with equal sympathy to those who advocate the walk to the altar as the confession “before men” necessary for salvation. After all, the biblical evidence for verbal confession as part of salvation is just as powerful as that tying baptism to salvation.