Is Baptism the Real “Sinner’s Prayer?”

A few weeks ago, I made a post discussing the Biblical correctness of the so-called “sinner’s prayer.” You can read that here if you haven’t already. My conclusion was that something akin to the sinner’s prayer is certainly warranted in receiving Christ, but that the common evangelical form has several pitfalls. Yet after hearing Francis Chan speaking on baptism (on YouTube) recently, and doing some follow-up research, I saw an interesting idea some people hold:

Repentance and baptism are the Biblical way of doing what the sinner’s prayer is meant to do.

To understanding this argument, consider for a moment what is the purpose of the sinner’s prayer (when I say “sinner’s prayer” in this context, I do not mean a specific worded formulation, but a prayer specifically for salvation from Christ). Why do people say you should say the sinner’s prayer? The obvious answer might be, “To be saved.” But how are we to be saved by the sinner’s prayer? 

That is a good and serious question. In what way can one be saved through the sinner’s prayer? Do the words save you? I think we all would agree that the words are not so useful, for apart from genuine faith they are nothing. Does meaning the words save you? That’s more difficult to say, because we must then consider exactly what we mean by “meaning it” with the sinner’s prayer. Basically, as I see it, the sinner’s prayer is meant to be salvific by fulfilling this Scripture:

If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9

For those who pray the sinner’s prayer to be saved, this is what they are really counting on. To most Evangelicals, the sinner’s prayer receives legitimacy in being a way to confess Jesus as Lord and express belief in your heart that God raised Him from the dead. To reduce that further, we generally see the sinner’s prayer as a way to appropriate salvation because in the sinner’s prayer we declare faith in Jesus Christ, and we all (Evangelical Protestants) agree that we are saved through faith in Christ.

Therefore, in stripping everything down, we consider the sinner’s prayer a way to be saved because we consider the sinner’s prayer a way of believing in Christ. So the argument becomes, then: what if baptism is the same?

For many of us sola fide-loving Evangelical Protestants, any idea of baptism being a way of salvation is immediately rejected as the heresy of salvation by works. So I ask a question: what makes baptism any more of a work than praying? When I ask this question, my instinctive answer is: nothing. Therefore we must now examine the Scriptures to see if baptism can actually be a legitimate means of fulfilling the commands of Romans 10:9. Is baptism a salvific expression of faith?

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

Mark 16:16

“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:38

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 3:12

I think these verses can work together with the truth that man is justified by faith, apart from works, to say this: Baptism is a God-ordained means of placing faith in Jesus Christ. Especially consider Acts 2:38. How much like some modern preachers might it sound if Peter said, “Repent and pray to accept Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The parallel here is more obvious.

So what am I saying? The best way I can think of the explain what I see here is by questions and answers:

Does the act of being immersed in water save?
No. As Peter said, the water washing the body does not save. The pledge of a good conscience towards God does. What is this pledge? The pledge of faith. Faith saves. Baptism, like the sinner’s prayer, is an expression of faith in Jesus Christ.
Is baptism a work?
No. Baptism is simply a declaration of faith in Christ, just as the sinner’s prayer is.
Can we be saved without baptism?
Yes. Faith in Jesus saves; baptism is only a God-given means of pledging this faith. However, faith can most certainly happen without baptism, as Biblical evidence makes clear. As long as we confess Jesus as Lord and believe in His death and resurrection, we can be saved.
In what way can we say legitimately that baptism saves?
First, we must never give anyone the impression that the act of being baptized saves, or that baptism is a work we do to earn salvation, or that salvation is impossible without baptism. The only way baptism can be a means of salvation is that in baptism we publicly confess Jesus as Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead. All faith, no merit.
Can one be baptized and not saved?
Yes. If baptism is not a humble expression of faith in Christ alone, then there is nothing happening but a dunk in the water. If baptism is done in pride, or expecting to earn God’s favor, or as a self-righteous work, then such a baptism means nothing.

In sum, I believe that baptism can be rightly understood as performing the same function as the sinner’s prayer. We pray the sinner’s prayer to confess Jesus as Lord and express belief in His death/resurrection work. Baptism is a very Biblical means of doing accomplishing those very ends. So in that sense, I would say “baptism saves” is true, if taken in the same way as “praying to accept Jesus saves.” Please don’t burn me as a heretic.

Honestly, this realization feels right to me. I have wondered at length about the significance the New Testament seems to place on baptism. To me, the NT view of baptism has always seemed to be much more significant than the “just a symbol that you’ve already gotten saved” view. Of course, some Baptists might be scared of this conclusion, but I am more comfortable with this understanding of baptism given the Biblical witness than I was with my old view.

Further clarification: I do not believe in baptismal regeneration. Any who know of my Reformed theology will realize that I believe regeneration is the cause of faith, not the other way around. So we are justified by faith, which can be expressed Biblically in baptism, but our faith comes from the work of the Holy Spirit to give us new birth.

I'm 22. I'm married with a toddler and a newborn. love Jesus Christ. I grew up a Southern Baptist and now situate myself within Evangelical Calvinism (which isn't TULIP!). I also draw substantially from N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and Alastair Roberts. I go to the Baptist College of Florida. I'm also a bit nerdy.