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One of the most important questions anyone can ask is, "What must I do to be saved?" If a person is not a child of God, having never been born again, yet wants to be forgiven of sins, what must such a person do?
Consider the following quotation from a tract entitled "God's Simple Plan of Salvation."
The gospel reveals many examples in which people who were not children of God were converted. In which of these examples was anyone ever told to pray to receive forgiveness? And where does the Bible say that a person is saved before he is baptized, then after he is saved he should be baptized?
These are serious questions because they pertain to whether or not a person is forgiven of sin. We cannot be saved if we follow a pattern of salvation that differs from what God reveals in the gospel. Anyone who preaches a different gospel is accursed (Galatians 1:8,9). Following man-made doctrines makes our service to God vain (Matthew 15:9,14).
So should an alien sinner pray for forgiveness? Is this doctrine in the gospel or was it invented by men?
Consider what the gospel says about prayer.
Whose prayer will God hear?
1 John 3:22 - We receive what we pray for if we keep God's commands and do what pleases Him.
James 5:16 - The prayer of a righteous man avails much.
Proverbs 15:8,29 - God hears and delights in the prayer of the righteous, but He is far from the wicked. If one turns his ear away from the law, his prayer is an abomination to God (28:9). [Psalm 34:15,16; 1 Peter 3:12]
John 9:31 - God hears not sinners, but does hear those who worship and obey Him.
So God hears the prayers of obedient righteous people. But we are studying about disobedient, unrighteous people. What about their prayers? These verses say that God refuses to hear their prayers. We will see later that, if one is diligently seeking truth, God will recognize that they are praying. But in general He does not even hear the prayers of those who are not His children.
There are, however, examples of people who did pray for forgiveness. Who were these people?
But who was taught to pray this prayer? Jesus was speaking to Jews, children of Israel (4:25). These were children of God under the Old Testament (remember, Jesus' gospel did not take effect till He died - Hebrews 9:16,17; Colossians 2:14).
These people were also Jesus' disciples (5:1,2). They were able to address God as "Our Father," hence they were children of God (6:9). The instruction to pray for forgiveness was never given to those who were not children of God but to those who were already children of God.
The tract we quoted earlier used this to prove one who is not a child of God should pray for forgiveness. But was this man a child of God or not?
Notice that both the publican and the Pharisee went up to the Temple to pray (18:10). But this was the Jewish temple, and only Jews in covenant relationship with God were allowed to enter (Acts 21:28). Hence, the publican was a Jew just like the Pharisee was - a child of God under the Old Testament. This passage tells us nothing about what should be done by a person who is not a child of child of God.
Furthermore, remember that all this occurred while the Old Testament was still binding. In that Jewish Temple, Levitical priests still offered animal sacrifices to atone for sin. Surely this case does not describe God's way of forgiveness for people under the New Testament. The New Testament system of justification was not yet even in effect.
Was Simon a child of God or not? 8:12 says the Samaritans believed the gospel and were baptized. This is exactly what Mark 16:16 says to do to be saved, so the Samaritans were saved.
8:13 says Simon "also" believed and was baptized. He did just as the other Samaritans did. If they were saved, then so was he.
But after he was forgiven, Simon sinned again and was told to repent and pray for forgiveness (8:18-22). So again a child of God who sins should pray for forgiveness, but nowhere does this teach one who is not a child of God to pray for forgiveness.
But who are the "we" who are here told to confess sins? 1:7 says that "we" are those who walk in the light, have fellowship with God, being cleansed by His blood. 2:1-6 says "we" are those who know God (v3) and are in Him (v5,6), in contrast to the world (v2). If any doubt remains, 3:2 should settle the matter. It says plainly "we are children of God." The whole context refers to children of God.
All these verses show that, under the gospel, children of God sometimes sin. They are told to repent and pray for forgiveness. But passages that talk about praying for forgiveness are always talking about children of God. There is not one passage or example anywhere in the gospel that tells people who are not children of God to pray for forgiveness. That doctrine is a doctrine of men (Matt. 15:9).
If such people are not told to pray for forgiveness, then what should they do? In particular, does the Bible agree with the doctrine that people are saved before baptism, then they are baptized after they are saved? Consider some New Testament examples of conversion.
These people were the same ones who were responsible for Jesus' death. Verse 21 says they were told, "Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (cf. Rom. 10:13). This is a statement the tract used to prove non-Christians should pray for forgiveness.
But what does it mean to "call on the name of the Lord"? How does one do this? The statement does not really say to pray to God. Keep the verse in context and the Bible will explain itself. The sermon isn't over yet!
As Peter preached, the people recognized their sins and asked what they should do (v37). Here is the question we need answered. What should alien sinners do to be forgiven?
Peter said, "Repent and be baptized ... for remission of sins..." (v38). This tells how the people were saved. Peter had said to call on the name of the Lord, but when asked specifically what should be done, he said to repent and be baptized for remission of sins.
Some people say "for remission of sins" means "because they had the remission of sins," like "He was given a ticket for speeding," or "He was paid for working." So they say people should pray for forgiveness, then God forgives them, then they are baptized because they have been forgiven.
But if that is so, then these people must have been saved before v38, and v38 tells them how to show they have already been saved. But if that is the case, why did Peter in v38 tell them to repent? Do people who have just been cleansed of their sins need to repent? No, clearly Peter was talking to people who were still guilty of their sins, telling them how to be forgiven. So, "for remission of sins" does not mean "because you have remission." Rather, it means "in order that you may receive remission," just like it means in Matthew 26:28.
So Acts 2:21 says to call on the Lord's name but does not tell how to do so. When people say this refers to prayer, they are assuming what they must prove. Verse 38 tells how to call on the name of the Lord - by repenting and being baptized in His name. This is what a person who is not a child of God must do to be forgiven.
Acts 10:1,2 says Cornelius was a generous, religious man who "prayed to God." Verses 4,5,31 say God "heard" his prayer, and His prayers were a memorial to God. At this point Cornelius was not a child of God, yet because he was seeking God's will, God knew He was praying. Though the passage does not say what Cornelius was praying for, we will see that it does tell us what he received!
But our main question is this: Was Cornelius forgiven when he prayed to God? Acts 11:14 says an angel told him to send for Peter, who would tell him words whereby he could be saved. When Peter arrived, did he tell Cornelius to pray for forgiveness? No, he told him to be baptized in water (10:47,48).
If a person who is not a child of God is saved by praying, why wasn't Cornelius saved before Peter spoke to him? He had surely been praying, yet the passage clearly says that he had to hear words whereby he could be saved. That message required him to be baptized. Praying did not save Cornelius. He needed baptism.
Saul had been a persecutor of the church, but Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and told him to go into the city where he would be told what he must do (9:1-6). In the city, he fasted and prayed (9:9,11). Note that no one ever told him to pray. He was to be told what he must do, but he did the praying before he was told what to do!
But was he forgiven by praying? If believing and praying are "absolutely all" one must do to be forgiven, then surely Saul was forgiven before he was told what he must do! But does the Bible say he was saved then?
In Acts 9:18 Ananias came to tell Saul what he must do, and as a result Saul was immediately baptized. Acts 22:16 explains this, because it records what Ananias told Saul to do. Ananias said, "And now why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord."
Note the following important lessons here: (1) Saul was to be told what he must do, but he was never told to pray for forgiveness. (2) Even though Saul did pray, yet he was not forgiven by prayer, for he still needed to have his sins washed away. If a non-Christians does pray for forgiveness, he will still be exactly like Saul - he will still be in his sins!
(3) When Ananias arrived, Saul had been praying - the very thing denominational preachers tell non-Christians to do. But Ananias said, "And now, why tarriest thou?" In effect he told Saul to stop what he had been doing and do something else instead!
4) When Ananias told Saul what he "must do," he said to be baptized and wash away his sins, calling on the name of the Lord. That confirms what we learned in Acts 2. How does a person who is not a child of God call on the name of the Lord? Not by prayer, but in baptism!
This also confirms that sins are not forgiven before baptism, but baptism is a necessary condition in order to have sins washed away by Jesus' blood. This agrees with what is taught in many other Scriptures, such as Mark 16:16; Romans 6:3,4; Galatians 3:27; and 1 Peter 3:21. For more information, see our links at the bottom of this page.
When alien sinners have been taught to pray for forgiveness, they need to understand what Saul was told. They need to realize that they will not be forgiven by praying, and what they need to do is to be baptized for remission of sins!
Consider a brief summary of what we have learned:
* Generally, God does not hear the prayers of people who are not His children.
* The only people in the New Testament who received forgiveness as a result of prayer were people who were already children of God but had sinned again.
* No one, who was not a child of God, was ever told by any inspired man to pray for forgiveness of sins. That doctrine is therefore a man-made doctrine.
* When such people for some reason did pray to God, they did not receive forgiveness as a result.
* In all cases, people who were not children of God had to be baptized in order to receive forgiveness of sins. In no case did any person ever receive forgiveness of sins before he was baptized.
Matthew 7:21-23 teaches that it is not enough simply to call Jesus our Lord and sincerely think we are serving Him. We must do the will of the Father in heaven. True calling on the Lord is not accomplished simply by what we say, but by what we also do!
The Father's will is that a person who is not a child of God needs to believe, repent, confess Christ (Rom. 10:9,10), and be baptized for remission of sins. Those who teach such people to pray for forgiveness have changed God's plan. They have substituted prayer for baptism! Any church and any preacher who teaches such is preaching a different gospel than what the inspired apostles preached. Note Galatians 1:8,9.
Now suppose a person believed he was saved as a result of prayer, and then he was baptized thinking he was saved before the baptism. What should such a person do? Despite his sincerity, he has never been baptized for the Scriptural reason, so his baptism did not achieve the purpose for which it was intended. But the purpose of baptism is to wash away sins by the blood of Jesus. If a person has not done this properly, then he has never been forgiven of his sins at all! To please God, he needs to be baptized Scripturally, like the men did in Acts 19:1-5.
If this is your desire, please contact us so we can assist you in truly obeying God.
Copyright 2000,David E. Pratte; www.gospelway.com
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Things that Are Essential to Salvation
Is Obedience Essential to Salvation?
The Purpose of Baptism
Why Must We Be "In Christ"?
Individual Responsibility in Salvation
Importance of Repentance
Should Babies Be Baptized?
Is Baptism Sprinkling, Pouring, or Immersion?
Salvation by "Faith Only" vs. Obedient Faith
Have You Been "Born Again"?
Pharisees: Who Were They Really?
What about the Thief on the Cross?
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.