The belief that baptism, works, reciting a special prayer, and other activities are requirements to enter into heaven is believed by millions. Thankfully, none of these things are prerequisites to be forgiven and spend eternity with God, and we have a profound Biblical example to prove it.
During his final hours, one of the criminals that was crucified next to Jesus reached out to the Savior. He realized Jesus was the only one who could save Him and gave an excellent example of what it means to believe in God the Son to receive salvation. The pertinent passage in Luke 23 (NASB) reads:
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
Notice how the first criminal expressed anger towards Jesus, and was only concerned about his earthly state. On the other hand, the second criminal expressed repentance (godly sorrow) and put his trust in Jesus. He rebuked the other man for insulting Jesus while admitting he himself had sin. He also believed who Jesus was since he declared Him to be blameless and knew that Jesus would return to heaven.
What was Jesus’s response? He told the thief they would see each other in paradise that very day. But paradise doesn’t actually mean heaven, does it? Actually it does, and there are two reasons for this.
First, we know that Jesus went to the right hand of His Father in heaven because that is where He has always reigned when not on Earth (Psalm 110:1). Second, the same Greek word for paradise is used in Revelation 2:7, which is describing heaven.
The story of the thief on the cross also refutes any notion that baptism, works, or a certain prayer can grant you access into heaven. The thief was not baptized right after he put his trust in Jesus, nor did he do any good works (he was a criminal after all). Also, he did not recite a special prayer either. All he did was admit that he had sinned while expressing godly sorrow (c.f. 2 Cor. 7:10) and believed Jesus was the divine Messiah whom he put his trust in to be saved.
In conclusion, the repentant criminal put his faith in Jesus which allowed him to receive grace and the free gift of salvation (Eph. 2:8-9). If you are tired of trying to work your way to God, follow the example of the criminal. Repent and put your trust in Christ alone.