The Ancient Faith
THE MOURNERS’ BENCH OR BAPTISM?
Back in the 1820s, the Presbyterian minister Charles G. Finney originated a ritualized prayer technique known as the “mourners’ bench” or “anxious bench.” During an emotional church service, preachers would summon sinners to approach the mourners’ bench placed at the front of the building. In the sight of everyone, the sinner would engage in intense praying, weeping, and confessing of guilt and shame accompanied by exhortations of the minister, until the sinner felt saved. Some even called the mourners’ bench, “the mercy seat.” Congregants often felt that this dramatic experience and outpouring of emotion was evidence of true conversion.
In the mid nineteenth century, “Raccoon” John Smith once was speaking to a discomfited Methodist preacher who asked him, “I’d like to know the difference between your baptism and our mourning bench.”
“Difference?” said Smith, with much emphasis. “One is from heaven: the other, from the sawmill.”
Our Lord and his holy apostles repeatedly asserted baptism to be a condition of salvation. Whereas most of the evangelical world places baptism after salvation, the Scriptures always place it before (Gal.3:27; 1 Peter 3:21; Acts 22:16). In Mark 16:16, Jesus proclaimed that the one who believes and is immersed “shall be saved.” The popular modern evangelical theory perverts this teaching of Christ to read, “He that believeth and prayeth for forgiveness shall be saved.” God never proposed prayer as a means whereby He would impart salvation to the alien sinner (John 9:31; 1 Peter 3:12; Pr.15:29). In contrast, Peter said, “Baptism also now saves us” (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism for the remission of sins is a heavenly ordinance, whereas the mourners’ bench is a human one. The Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Peter to proclaim the essentiality of repentance and baptism for forgiveness on the day Jesus established his church (Acts 2:38,47). Baptism in not an outward expression of an inward grace, but it is the moment in which God saves the sinner by grace through faith (Titus 3:5).
In fact, baptism is the means whereby we call on the name of the Lord. In Acts 2:21, Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy that, “Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Calling on the Lord’s name is not a verbal plea for salvation. Jesus himself declared “Not everyone that says unto me, Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Peter defines “calling on the name of the Lord” as repenting and being baptized (Acts 2:38). Actually, each phrase of Acts 2:21 and Acts 2:38 is parallel:
- “Whosoever” corresponds to “let everyone of you.”
- “Shall be saved” corresponds to “for the remission of sins.”
- “On the name of the Lord” corresponds to “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
- Hence, “Repent and be baptized” must correspond to “call on the name of the Lord.”
Later on, the prophet Ananias also described the actions of arising and being baptized as “calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). It is through the act of belief, repentance, confession and baptism that the sinner invokes the power in the Lord’s name. Hence, baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus is necessary since through it the sinner is invoking his divine name for salvation.
John Smith was right! The mourners’ bench is from the sawmill; baptism is from heaven.
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