A gracEmail reader in Arizona asks, “Do you believe that the ‘sinner’s prayer’ can be an appropriate and sufficient substitute for baptism by someone who believes the gospel, as a personal transaction event of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Has such a person truly believed if they leave out water baptism as a part of their response to the gospel message?”
A person truly trusts (believes) and truly repents on the inside — in the heart, where none but God sees precisely what is present. We read, for example, that “God, who knows the heart, bore witness” to what he saw in the hearts of Cornelius and his household by “giving them the Holy Spirit” and “cleansing their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9). Peter could not see their hearts, but he saw the external manifestation of the Spirit — in that case their “speaking with tongues and glorifying God” (Acts 10:44-46). Based on God’s acceptance of these non-Jews, even provincial Jewish Peter concluded that he had to accept these people into the family of faith through water baptism (Acts 10:47-48).
A person who repents and trusts is supposed to express those inward responses by being baptized in water, according to Jesus (Matt. 28:19; Mk. 16:16). I cannot imagine a person who truly repents and trusts in Christ then refusing to be baptized as an expression of that repentance and trust — unless:
(1) they don’t understand that Jesus commands it;
(2) they believe they have been baptized already; or
(3) they perceive the teacher to be saying that baptism accomplishes their salvation — a teaching which contradicts the clear New Testament principle that we can only trust Christ for salvation.
If I should encounter professing believers who understand that Jesus commands water baptism and who perceive that they have not received it — yet who refuse to obey Jesus in this regard — I should have to conclude that they had not inwardly repented and believed the good news regardless of their vocal profession.