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.

Is Baptism the Real “Sinner’s Prayer?”

8 thoughts on “Is Baptism the Real “Sinner’s Prayer?”

  1. peter says:

    I believe that you are close to the target target. I have recently thought the same thing because of the connection between faith and baptism in relationship to salvation. Though faith is the sole means in which we receive salvation, baptism is the ordinary (not absolute) means in which saving grace is offered. Baptism is not ourr work but God,s work. I would see baptism as the biblical “altar call”. One certainly can be saved prior to it and certainly one can be baptized and not saved, but none of this invalidates baptism as the prescriptive norm in which salvation is offered but received only thru faith

  2. Danny says:

    Great article! I strongly agree with everything with the exception of one thing, and I will very briefly explain why. I differ on believing that you can be saved without being baptized. Why? This is where the appeal to God for a good conscience is made and where God’s grace cleanses the guilty consience of sin. According to the book of Hebrews (somewhere between chapters 7-10) it is the blood of Christ who cleanses the guilty conscience of sins commited agaisnt God. So one can conclude that the blood of Christ is applied to the believer’s conscience when he/she is baptized in water and this is what is meant by having your sins “washed away”. There are also several things that God does at baptism (places us “in Christ”, the old man is buried and new man is risen, new creation, the old man is completely cut off cf. Col. 2-11:13). Therefore, if God has decided to apply all these unmerited gifts upon the believer at the point of baptism then if one is not baptized he cannot be saved. Blessings!

    1. I disagree with this on two levels in particular. First, I think it is ultimately a mistake to establish a 1-to-1 link between baptism and the benefits it is associated with. I prefer the Reformed concept of the “sacramental union.” In some way through the Spirit a sacrament is connected to its reality, but there is also a degree of independence between the two, caused by the freedom of the Spirit. After all, it is the work of the Spirit which unites us to Christ, and He is free both to work in those who have no chance for baptism and free to refrain from such work in the unbelieving baptized.

      On a second level, I think several simple statements in Scripture argue against the view that salvation is unavailable to the unbaptized. It is said that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but only does it say that those who do not believe will be condemned. Paul said he was sent not to baptize but to preach the Gospel, and that he was grateful he didn’t baptize certain people. Furthermore, salvation comes through faith, and we are taught that faith comes by hearing the Word. This implies that wherever there is hearing and faith, there can be salvation. The only way out of that would be to argue there is never faith except through baptism, but that would appear to deny reality.

  3. Mark Leech says:

    Caleb, thank you for your article. I was out and about doing some research on the ‘baptismal’ topic of late and came across your short blog. I would point you to several recent, scholarly books on the subject which I think may help you work out some of your thoughts. The first two are by ‘reformed’ baptist, within the European baptist traditions:

    Recovering the Evangelical Sacrament: Baptisma Semper Reformandum by Antony Cross (Volumes 1 an 2)
    http://www.amazon.com/Recovering-Evangelical-Sacrament-Baptisma-Reformandum/dp/1620328097/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453308689&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=baptism+book++anthony+cross

    Rethinking Baptism by Stanley Fowler (Short summary of his views, he has a larger booK)
    http://www.amazon.com/Rethinking-Baptism-Some-Baptist-Reflections-ebook/dp/B0160LIOT6/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1453308764&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=baptism+fowler+stanley

    The latest ones come from the ‘Stone-Campbell restorationists”

    Excellent book and study, my favorite by John Hicks
    Come down to the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as a God’s transforming work”
    http://www.amazon.com/Down-River-Pray-Revised-Hicks/dp/0891126481/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1453308873&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=down+to+the+river+to+pray+john+hicks

    Jack Cottrell (Christian Churches, more arminian focus) (soon to read this one). PHD Princeton and Westiminister educated
    Baptism: A Biblical Study
    http://www.amazon.com/Baptism-Biblical-Study-Jack-Cottrell/dp/0899003419/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453308920&sr=1-3&keywords=jack+cottrell

    I think you will find those helpful. Looking at your blog, I would agree with you on most points. I think to many people get caught up in the “exception” situations (i.e., what if was in a car wreck and died on my way to baptism or my parents were only sprinkled but lived christian lives, etc) instead of simply looking at the ‘normative conversation narrative” of the new testament which clear involves believers-baptism as the way one formally enters into a relationship with Christ. Thoughts?

    1. Thank you for your interesting response. I have to say, these books look rather interesting. My views have evolved a bit since this post (hard to believe it’s over two years old now!), though I do find this post at least somewhat on track. But these days I mostly tend to follow an approach like Alastair Roberts (who blogs at http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com). You might check him out. I do think you nail it with this, though:

      I think to many people get caught up in the “exception” situations instead of simply looking at the ‘normative conversation narrative” of the new testament which clearly involves believers-baptism as the way one formally enters into a relationship with Christ.

  4. Mark Leech says:

    Thanks Caleb! I had not even read the date of your post! Ahh, nothing dies in the virtual world…. haha. Thanks for sharing the link. I read it and read through briefly the longer link version of it. The reformers indeed brought us back to a great understanding of “God’s work” in salvation. Calvin and other reformers however held a much “higher view” of the “efficacy” of believer baptism and the sacraments than their evangelical descendents of the day recognize. I believe it was Huldrych Zwingli who completely ran the reformers arguments to the extreme, downplaying any significance to the sacraments. If you haven’t read about him, I would encourage you do so, especially in light of baptism ideaology changing. Most modern baptist and common evangelical views of baptism really can trace their origins to him. However, I am excited to see that evangelicals are rethinking their views on baptism, seeking to incorporate what I feel is a more biblical view of baptism–that is baptism as God’s work! (Colossians 2, no?). Please give read to Hicks and Cross’s books if you have not. I think you will find them situated in a nice spot. if you do read them, i would love to chat about it with you! hit me up at my email! (I don’t want to type it here b/c of spammers).

    -Mark

  5. zuma says:

    Mark 16:16, “(mentions that) He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Could water baptism save a person? Let’s meditate Acts 19:2-6. Acts 19:2-6, “He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism.” From the above event, did they receive the Holy Spirit after John or water baptism (Acts 19:3)? No, they did not receive it since they only received it at Acts 19:6. Did they receive the Holy Spirit when Acts 19:5, “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus”? No, they did not receive the Holy Spirit even though they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. They only received the Holy Spirit Acts 19:6, “…when Paul had laid his hands upon them, (since it mentions that after he laid hands upon them), the Holy Ghost came on them…” As the Holy Spirit did not come upon them after John’s or water baptism (Acts 19:3) or baptism (Acts 19:5), it proves that water baptism could not save a person. There is no scriptural verse to support that God would grant the Holy Spirit at the time of laying hands except Acts 19:6. What If laying hands might not necessarily be accompanied with the receipt of the Holy Spirit & that only Acts 19:6 is the exception due to other reason, those people, who rely on laying hands to receive the Holy Spirit, might not be saved as a result of the Spirit does not come to them. Thus, the only source to receive the Holy Spirit & to have confidence with their salvation could only be through asking God to grant them the Holy Spirit by sinner’s prayer. We must not presume ourselves to have the Holy Spirit. Or else, we could regret eternally when Jesus would tell us He never knows us in Matthew 7:23.

    1 Corinthians 12:3, “Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God called Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” Could we use this verse to support that those people who call Jesus to be their Lord could have received eternal lives? No, it is not true since Matthew 7:22-23, “(mention that) Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” As Jesus would mention to them who have called Jesus to be their Lord Matthew 7:23, “I never knew you”, it implies that they do not belong to God. Romans 8:9, “(gives the possible reason why they could not belong to God is they do not have the Spirit of Christ in them since It is mentioned that) …if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” The phrase, by the Holy Ghost, in 1 Corinthians 12:3 might possibly be interpreted as the Holy Spirit is outside their bodies to stimulate them to call Jesus as Lord instead of being interpreted as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to cause them to acknowledge Jesus to be their Lord. If that is so, it is irrational to use 1 Corinthians 12:3 to conclude that all the people who proclaim Jesus to be the Lord must be God’s saints.

    Is it true that those Charismatic people who could perform miracles in Jesus’ name belong to God? Matthew 7:22-23, “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? & in thy name have cast out devils? & in thy name done many wonderful works? & then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” As the phrase, in thy name done many wonderful works, is mentioned in Matthew 7:22-23 with the phrase, I never knew you, it implies that Charismatic people could not proclaim to belong to God as a result of their miraculous work performed in Jesus’ name.

    Should Romans 10:13, “(be used to support that anybody who calls the name of the Lord could be saved since it mentions that) …whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”? How about Acts 2:21, “…that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” We must not use these verses to conclude it without reading other verses in the scripture since Matthew 7:21, “(mentions that) Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” As the phrase, Not every one…saith unto me Lord, is mentioned in Matthew 7:21 with the phrase, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, it implies that calling the name of the Lord might not be saved.

    Luke 6:46 & Matthew 7:21 demand all the people who call Jesus to be their Lord to obey His commandments. The following are the extracts: Luke 6:46, “…why call ye me, Lord, Lord, & do not the things which I say?”; Matthew 7:21, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

    Romans 10:9, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, & shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised from him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Could this verse be used to support a person could be saved through believing in Jesus’ resurrection? No, we must not isolate ourselves to this verse without reading other verses to conclude he could be saved through believing in Jesus’ resurrection without repentance of sin. This is by virtue of 1 John 2:4, “(mentions that) He that saith I know him, & keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, & the truth is not in him.” As the phrase, keepeth not his commandments, is mentioned in 1 John 2:4 with the phrase, the truth is not in him, it implies that a person, who would confess his mouth Jesus & believe His resurrection, does not have the truth to be in him if he refuses to keep God’s commandments. As the truth is not in him as a result of his rejection of God’s commandment, his salvation is in query. What if he refuses to confess his sin before God, could he be saved when 1 John 1:10 mentions that God’s word is not in him if he says that he has not sinned? 1 John 1:10, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, & his word is not in us.” Sinner’s prayer provides a way out for a person to confess his sin before God & to seek God’s forgiveness of sin.

    The word, believe, as mentioned in Acts 10:43, Acts 16:31, Acts 15:11, Romans 1:16, Romans 9:33, Romans 10:10-11, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, Ephesians 1:13, 1 John 5:13, 1 John 5:10 & 1 John 5:1 must be accompanied with repentance & confession of sin as spelt out in John 12:46, “(that)…whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.” The word, whosoever, in John 12:46 refers to anybody whether he or she has just first started to proclaim with his or her mouth to believe in Jesus. As the phrase, should not abide in darkness, is mentioned in John 12:46 with the word, whosoever, it implies that a person who has the hope to be born again must not abide in darkness before his or her conversion. The same is in 2 Thessalonians 2:12, “(that) That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” A person needs to repent from sin in order not to live in darkness. He also needs to receive God’s cleansing of sin in order to have his sin to be wiped out so that he could be pure without darkness of sin in him. Forgiveness of sin is available through confession of sin before God as in 1 John 1:9, “(that) If we confess our sins, he is faithful & just to forgive us our sins, & to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

    God is the one that does not tolerate sin. Isaiah 1:15-16, “And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil:’ As the phrase, ye make many prayers I will not hear, is mentioned in Isaiah 1:15 with the phrase, your hands are full of blood, it implies that our God will not answer our prayer if we continue in sin without repentant heart. The same is in Micah 3:2, “(that) Who hate the good, & love the evil; …”, Micah 3:4, “Then shall they cry unto the LORD, but he will not hear them: he will even hide his face from them at that time, as they have behaved themselves ill in their doings.” As God would hide His face from those people who love evil (Micah 3:2 & 3:4), do you think those people who proclaim in their mouth to believe in Jesus & yet continue in sinning without repentant heart could be saved?

    Jesus is the only source to salvation as spelt out in John 10:9, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, & shall go in & out & find pasture.” Salvation could only be activated through the receipt of the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9). Other than the receipt of the Spirit of Christ, there is no way that a person could be saved. Praying sinner’s prayer provides a way out for people to ask to receive Jesus to be their personal saviour.

    Could Christians’ children be granted with salvation automatically? Ezekiel 14:20, “Though Noah, Daniel, & Job were in it, as I live, saith the Lord God , they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall but deliver their own souls by their righteousness.”; Ezekiel 14:18, “Though these men were in it, as I live, saith the Lord GOD, they shall deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they only shall be delivered themselves.”; Ezekiel 14:14, “Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, saith the Lord.”

    Could a child commit sin? Psalms 58:3, “The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.”

    What is our attitude to those people have been misled by false teaching? James 5:19-20, “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, & one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from err of his way shall save a soul from death, & shall hide a multitude of sins.”

  6. Don Partain says:

    Great discussions! When I first read your reference to baptism as a “prayer” to God, I thought you were going to reference I Peter 3:21, where Peter uses the Greek eperotema (unfortunately rendered “pledge” by NIV). It is literally an intense “asking”–or appeal; here, of course, to God. In other words, baptism is an intense asking of God –i.e., prayer to God–for a good conscience (forgiveness). In fact, note Kittel’s (Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words, p.688, Vol.2) rendering of this: “Hence we may translate I Pt.3:21, ‘Not the putting away of outward filth, but prayer to God for a good conscience.'” Baptism is not a physical cleansing, but a spiritual one, as it is our prayer to God for forgiveness. In other words, baptism is indeed “the sinner’s prayer.” This passage coincides well with Acts 22:16 where Ananias instructs Saul to “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” I.e., baptism is integral with calling on (praying to) the Lord to be saved by Him. Incidentally, this is three days after Saul had seen–and verbally confessed–the risen Lord; in other words, Saul still needed his sins “washed away” even after this verbal confession. Forgiveness of his sins would occur as he would “arise and be baptized.” But as you and others have well pointed out, this is not to say that baptism is a meritorious work of man: Col.2:12 clearly says that baptism is “faith in the working of GOD.”

So what do you think?