[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on July 28, 2012.]
A great deal of ink has been spilled and Internet bandwidth expended over the controversy of whether or not it is appropriate to use “the sinner’s prayer” in evangelism (i.e., is it proper to tell someone to ask Jesus into his heart when leading him to Christ). At the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans this last June, messengers overwhelmingly approved a resolution supporting its use. I have to confess that I think the whole dispute is misguided. In my opinion, what is driving the concern of many is the paltry results of much of our evangelistic efforts. Whether it’s one-on-one soulwinning (through Evangelism Explosion, Continuing Witness Training, or FAITH) or mass evangelistic meetings (such as crusades, youth camps, or VBS) the outcome is too often the same. Scores make “professions of faith” who afterward demonstrate little or no interest in Christ, the church, or the walk of faith.
The problem, however, is not with the use of any particular prayer. Rather, I would contend, that the difficulty lies in the way we present salvation. Most evangelistic methods present salvation as a commodity that Jesus purchased and now offers. Christ is presented as having bought salvation by His death on the Cross, and if you ask Him then He will give it to you. Salvation, redemption, and forgiveness are understood entirely as a purchase, a business deal, or a transaction. Salvation is reduced to the offer of a “Get Out of Hell Free” card.
But one can do business with someone he really doesn’t care for. In fact, one can receive a gift from someone he positively dislikes (just think of how much foreign aid has gone to countries that don’t like the USA). Here’s the important point: salvation is not something Jesus gives; salvation is something He is. One does not receive salvation from Jesus. You and I receive Him–the Lord Jesus Christ–for Who He is, and in receiving Him we receive salvation, redemption, and eternal life. We are not simply being offered a really great bargain; we are called to enter into a covenant relationship with Christ.
We affirm the penal substitution of Christ upon the Cross, and gladly use the language of “purchase,” “redemption,” and even “transaction.” But to see salvation only in those terms runs the danger of viewing salvation merely as a commercial contract. A saving relationship with Jesus Christ is more than just a contractual agreement–it’s a covenantal relationship. Scripture describes a saving relationship with Christ in terms of marriage (Eph 5:23-27). Marriage is indeed a contract (as least, as far as the state is concerned), but it’s not merely that. Who wants a relationship with his or her spouse that is entirely or only legal in nature? Marriage is a rich and effective metaphor for describing our salvation because it teaches us, that above all else, salvation is a proper relationship between the Lord Jesus Christ and us.
I suspect that we tend to emphasize only the transactional aspects of redemption because such an objective understanding seemingly provides certainty. Relationships, in contrast, are subjective by their very nature, and therefore more complicated, maybe even messy. Yet you and I are called to be in vital union with Christ, and it is in this relationship we are saved. “He who has the Son, has life.” – 1 John 5:12
So yes, when we are leading people to Christ we should encourage them to pray the sinner’s prayer. Let’s just make sure we are leading them to Christ, and not just selling them on a really great deal.
This post is cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com