What must I do to be saved?
When we seek to answer the question of how a person moves from being a sinner at enmity with God and in desperate need of salvation to being a saint who is a holy and beloved child of God enjoying the fruits of salvation, we know there are two sides with which we must deal: the sovereign work of God in the hearts and minds of people through the Gospel message, and our response to that message.
We don’t have to look very far to understand that we view certain aspects differently, such as: how and in whom does God work to open their hearts and minds. This aspect has been debated often and will be debated plenty in the future and is not the point of this post. Instead, I want us to consider the other side of the equation—assuming God is at work in a person’s life and this person is ready to move from condemned sinner to redeemed saint, what must he or she do?
As Baptists with a particular revivalist bent over the past several decades, a common response to someone who has heard the gospel message is: “Say this prayer after me and mean it with your heart.” The so-called Sinner’s Prayer.
Yet, the interesting thing is: as dedicated as we tend to be to this particular methodology, we don’t find a single instance of such a repeat-after-me prayer for salvation anywhere within the pages of Scripture.
We do find, however, the necessity of a particular calling out to the Lord. In Romans 10, Paul quoted Joel 2:32, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:13). Paul went on to explain that such a calling out would be impossible unless, first, someone goes proclaiming the Gospel message so others can hear. Thus, we see the need to evangelize those who are not followers of Jesus. Before making his statement, Paul built upon his earlier arguments of righteousness flowing from faith (10:6, see particularly also chapter 4). Connecting action to faith, Paul wrote, “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” (10:9).
Confession here is more than a mere verbal statement. In Luke 12:8-9, we find the same term used for Jesus’ promise and warning: acknowledge/confess me before men and I will acknowledge you before God, deny me and I will deny you. This ultimately is a response to Jesus’ call from places such as Luke 9:23-24 where he said anyone wishing to follow him must deny self and daily take up the cross; for, to gain your life you have to lose it.
Jesus’ call to follow was not simply a call to believe something different or hope in something new. This is swearing an allegiance to him that supersedes all others and commits one’s life to follow his will and his desires. This idea is ultimately carried into the meaning of confess—we swear allegiance to Jesus as King, forsaking all else.
We see this as well in Acts 2. The day of Pentecost had arrived. As promised, after ascending to heaven, Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit upon his followers. The commotion caused a crowd to gather and witness a miracle at which some marveled in awe and others mocked in misunderstanding.
Responding to the crowd, Peter preached the Gospel and used Joel as one of his texts, including the line: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Peter continued to explain the person and work of Jesus and declared his lordship to all who listened. Hearing this, conviction came upon many and they asked the apostles, “What shall we do?” (2:37). Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38). A few verses later it says that about three thousand heeded the message and were baptized that day (2:41).
Peter’s answer was succinct, something I label with three words: abandon, believe, and commit.
Abandon is the idea in repentance. Repentance is a turning; it is a changing of mind, heart, and allegiances. In this context, as throughout Scripture, it is a turning from sin and stepping out of the “crooked generation” (2:40). Thus, it is an abandoning of the old self that loved sin and rejected God. Though Peter does not explicitly say it, he implies the believe part; and, in fact, it is always implied when we see repent. After all, if repent is a turning and in the negative it is a turning away from something bad, then in the positive it is a turning towards something good. This turning is to Jesus—the one who is the great Savior-King, the one who demands our lives and our all, and the one we now swear to follow. We believe he is who he says he is.
Commit is what we do displaying this new belief and new allegiance. It is living out the works of faith. On the one hand, the Bible is clear that works will save no man or woman. We are saved only by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). But we are saved to work and faith without works is dead (Ephesians 2:10, Titus 2:11-14, and James 2). The first and practically immediate display or proclamation of this faith is baptism. Thus, baptism becomes a visible mark of commitment for the life to follow.
Paul argued as much in Romans 6:1-14. Being saved by grace, we are to see ourselves as dead to sin. We are to seek to no longer live in sin. Instead we have a new life, united with Jesus in his death and anticipating partaking in his resurrection. The old self was nailed with Jesus to the cross, and the new self is set free and alive. Therefore, being owners of a new self in Christ, we are to control our passions, to not let sin reign over our lives but present our bodies to God as instruments of righteousness. In the midst of explaining all of this, Paul described our baptism. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life” (6:3-4).
Our baptism in water stands as a sign and reminder of who we are in Christ. Plunged into the depths, we entered the grave with Christ. Brought up from the waters, we entered into life resurrected. The physical rite paints a picture of spiritual realities. The grave is judgment upon death; representing the grave the water is a picture of judgment. In Christ, we pass safely through the judgment and have life.
Peter argues the same thing in a passage that has long given us some theological consternation. In 1 Peter 3:18-22, Peter talked about Jesus preaching to imprisoned spirits who were disobedient during the days of Noah (there are different arguments about who these spirits are and where this prison is, but that is neither here nor there for this present discussion). He mentioned how Noah was one of eight persons (including his family) who safely made it through the flood waters upon the ark. Then, “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 through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
We as Baptists tend not to really like that “now saves you” part, but Peter wrote it, the Holy Spirit inspired it, and we have to wrestle with it. Three points: first, baptism corresponds to the flood through which Noah and his family passed safely through on the ark. Just like in Romans 6, we see the connection of water and judgment. The flood was God’s judgment upon a horrendously sinful and wicked world. The water wiped out and destroyed everything and everyone, except those who found refuge in the ark. Applied to us this becomes a symbol: Jesus is our ark and the only way we are going to make it safely through God’s judgment is by being in Christ.
Second, and tied to this first point, baptism saves but not in the physical act of bathing dirt off the body. Peter was connecting baptism to a spiritual reality. A person can be dunked into a pool of water in the name of Jesus as many times as they want and it won’t mean a thing unless there is a spiritual shift that occurs with it.
Third, in this way, baptism saves because it is an appeal to God for that spiritual shift. In other words, the way that Peter described baptism in this passage is that it is functioning essentially as a prayer of faith. In being baptized, a sinner is visibly calling out to God, or praying, seeking a new life free of judgment and guilt—a life that is fully found in and connected to Jesus. Baptism, then, is the sinner’s prayer.
This does not negate the necessity of verbal allegiance in other ways, confessing Christ with the mouth (exceptions, of course, being those who cannot speak in which there are other ways to make “verbal” confessions), but it shifts the focus to something that I believe is more biblically rooted than the repeat-after-me prayer.
Given the vast number of people who were saved during the time of Acts, the Bible gives scant detail about the process of conversion, but what is said is quite consistent. We have already seen in Acts 2, the people ask what they must do and Peter replied: repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit. After this, there was plenty of teaching, fellowshipping, praying, and sharing that went on among these new disciples of Jesus (2:42-47).
In Acts 8, after the church had been scattered from Jerusalem because of persecution led by Saul, Philip preached the Gospel in Samaria. Hearing the message, the people were baptized and then after Peter and John arrived they received the Holy Spirit. After this, Philip was led by the Spirit to speak to an Ethiopian eunuch on his journey home, and Philip explained to him the gospel and in faith the eunuch pointed to water and asked to be baptized.
In Acts 9, Saul was confronted by Jesus face-to-face and struck blind until Ananias came to him with the promise of Saul being filled with the Holy Spirit and then Paul was baptized. Interestingly, to the point of this post, in Paul’s recounting of the events in Acts 22 he quoted Ananias as saying: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (22:16). Here we see baptism connected directly to calling on the name of the Lord.
A chapter later in Acts 10, we return to Peter. God led him to take the gospel to a man named Cornelius and other gentiles. Hearing the Gospel, they believed, received the Holy Spirit, and then Peter gave orders for them to be baptized.
In Acts 13, Saul (now called Paul) and Barnabas went to speak to the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia. Some believed, but several others rejected the message, so Paul and Barnabas took the Gospel to the gentiles. Baptism was not mentioned, but many believed and “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” Continuing their journeys, they kept preaching and people kept turning to Christ.
After Paul and Barnabas split up, Paul, Silas, and Timothy went on to the district of Macedonia. There a woman named Lydia heard the gospel, believed, and she and her household were baptized. Then being thrown in prison, the missionary team continued to worship, encourage, and proclaim. God set them free and in the process their jailer and his household heard the gospel, responded in faith, and were baptized at once (Acts 14). Similar things happened in Corinth (Acts 18) and Ephesus (Acts 19).
Though details vary some from place to place, the elements (both explicitly and implicitly) remain the same. The process of turning from sin and turning to Jesus involved (1) the proclamation of the gospel, (2) the response to the message of repentance and faith, (3) baptism, and (4) reception of the Holy Spirit. In some places, the order of these varied, but the consistent witness of them is found in the story of the spread of the early church.
Nowhere in these accounts do we find a sinner’s prayer as is popularly used today. We do, however, find baptism which occurs almost immediately. With the theology of baptism we read in other passages, I believe this is because baptism is meant to be a person’s declaration of faith and their sinner’s prayer as they appeal to God and commit themselves to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord.