How can some people say it is unnecessary to be baptized in order to be saved? Where did this idea come from?
I suspect the roots of this come from a desire to claim that loved ones were saved even though they did not obey Christ. Early on there were those who changed baptism from immersion in water to dipping or pouring water on those too ill or infirm to be immersed. "The present mode of pouring arose from the inconvenience connected with immersion, frequent mention of which is made in writings of the early Church fathers." [Question Box, p. 366]. Of course, even this couldn't be done at the last moment. This lead to "extreme unction" -- death bed rites for spiritual forgiveness in the Catholic church.
Infant baptism was also an early change. The Catholic church saw it as a way to get people committed to the church. Confirmation at a later point then made people officially a part of the Catholic church. But notice that while infant baptism was claimed to remove Adam's sin, it was no longer connected to personal sin and its forgiveness. Unlike Paul who was told, "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16).
During the reformation period, most Protestant denominations continued the practice of infant baptism.
During the restoration period, it was hard to convince people to leave their denominations when they were convinced that they were already baptized and a permanent part of whatever denomination they were baptized into. Hence, a theology developed that one was forgiven of the sin of Adam at infant baptism, but you still needed to be reborn. This allowed “salvation” in infancy, but “conversion” as an adult. Even to this day, many people see “rebirth” and “forgiveness” as separate issues, but they remain fuzzy as to what is actually the difference.
During the 1700's came a great era of strong preaching. It created an environment where people felt the need to respond to the message. Eventually Revelation 3:14, 19-20 became a popular passage for appeals. The passage is directed toward lukewarm Christians, not unbelievers. Yet, look at how it was altered by John Webb who preached in the mid-1700's: “Here is a promise 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 Head” [Christ’s Suit to the Sinner, p. 14]. By looking straight into the sinner’s eyes while speaking as if Christ was talking instead of the preacher, great emotions were raised – more emotion than one displays at baptism. So, preachers concluded that the point of faith was more important than the point of obedience. This is when Huldreich Zwingli put into words the famous statement that baptism was only an outward sign of an inward grace.
Between 1730 and 1750, Eleazar Wheelock used a technique he called the Mourner’s Seat to gain conversions. He selected sinners and had them sit on the front pew. During his sermon he would tell these sinners that “salvation was looming over their heads.” Being placed in the spotlight, these sinners were emotionally readied to be counseled to be converted. They would listen to whatever they were told because when emotions run high, people tend not to reason.
The desire for an emotional conviction produced the famous Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky in 1801. During the multi-week meeting, people allegedly barked, rolled in the aisles, and became delirious. Some speculate it was due to the intense heat in the tents and the long periods of going without food as the preaching went on and on. This emotional response was what “rebirth” was all about, preachers claimed, and so the second Great Awakening began. Preachers were enamored with the idea that they could manipulate people into conversion. A writer in that era complained, “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 laying 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, pp.92ff]
In 1835, Charles Finney took Wheelock’s Mourner’s Seat method and modified it into something he called the Anxious Seat. “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 to be baptized. It held the place that the anxious seat does now as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians.” Notice the recognition that baptism served to mark the point of conversion, but since people would not be baptized again, another marker was sought. The Anxious Seat had its detractors. It was considered to be an emotional conversion influenced by the preacher’s animal magnetism. They considered it a manipulation of people’s emotions which brought about a premature profession of faith. John Nevin was, perhaps, the most vocal detractor, calling Finney’s methods “heresy”, a “Babel of extravagance,” “fanaticism”, and “quackery.”
By the end of Finney’s life, it became evident that the Anxious Bench approach led to a high fallout rate. Emotions cool over time and a conversion based on raw emotion will not last.
In the 1860's Dwight Moody took Finney’s system and modified it. Instead of calling for a public decision, which produced responses under pressure, Moody asked people to join him and his trained counselors to a room called the Inquiry Room. In the Inquiry Room, the counselors asked the potential convert questions, taught him from the Scriptures, and then prayed with him. Recall that in the 1700's prayer was loosely associated with conversion. By the 1800's it was standard practice to pray to “receive Christ.”
R. A. Torrey succeeded Moody’s ministry after Moody’s death in 1899. He, once again, modified Moody’s method to include “on the spot” conversions in the street. Torrey popularize the idea of instant salvation with no strings attached. From this time, it became common to think of salvation separate from church membership or a change in lifestyles. Baptism doesn't fit with this idea of instant conversion, so it was ignored.
Also during the early 1900's a baseball player, Billy Sunday, was converted and eventually began to preach. He called his meetings crusades and Sunday was first to mix the ideas of entertainment with teaching. Billy Sunday’s crusades were basically Moody’s method with a bit of a circus touch. After a thunderous sermon that contained heavy moralistic messages with political overtones and humourous, if not outlandish, behavior, salvation was offered to the audience. Often it was associated with prayer, which Sunday called “the sinner’s prayer,” but at times people were told they were saved if they simply walked down “the sawdust trail” to the front. Eventually people were told they were saved because they publicly shook Sunday’s hand while acknowledging they would follow Christ.
Sunday’s methods sprouted many imitators and in 1936, Billy Graham was converted at one such imitator’s crusade. Graham’s crusades are an accumulation of the prior methods, but he managed to add the respectability that was often lacking in his predecessors. By the 1950's Graham’s counselors were using a prayer from Graham’s Four Steps to Peace with God. This book was based on Sunday’s tract called Four Things God Wants You to Know. By the late 1950's Bill Bright formalized the “four spiritual laws” so that the average believer could take the crusade experience to his neighbors. The method ends with the sinner’s prayer, “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.”
With this long history, is it a wonder that people today think that this is the way to be saved? Little do they realize that the sinner’s prayer is a relatively recent innovation. But the truth is that it results from a desire to have mass conversions, like those read about in Acts, without needing to convince people that baptism as an infant isn't really baptism. The promoters can claim high rates of responses because nothing is actually done.
This also has lead to strong objections when people point out that God said baptism is necessary for salvation. To accept that would acknowledge that all the conversions in these mass rallies were not real.