The Sinner’s Prayer–A “Get Out of Hell Free Card”?

[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


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  1. Ed Dingess   •  

    I could not disagree more. End a practice that owes its very existence to a erroneous view on soteriology and anthropology.

  2. Fletcher Law   •  

    The monopoly card of Get Out Of Hell Free card reminded me of seminary and the horrors of some classmates that hell would be used in evangelism when I was in an evangelism at Candler School of Theology.
    None of the United Methodist students liked it when I reminded them that Jesus and John Wesley were the two most well know preachers who urged folks to avoid hell at all costs.
    Wesley had his class members answer affirmatively yes to the question “Do you desire to flee the wrath to com?” before they could attend his classes.
    Mark 9:43
    Jesus as you know stressed avoiding hell
    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire,

    Luke 12:5 (NASB)
    5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into [b] hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!

    In the parable of the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13) transaction is in use as the virgins are told to they should have purchased the saving oil earlier. The waiting to purchase the oil doomed some.
    Yes from God, The Spirit draws sinners,Jesus baptism of fire is what I view as salvation justification and the beginning of sanctification. Many verses says Jesus seals our hearts.
    I appreciate and will further study your article.
    My view that avoiding hell is valid and that transaction language in salvation is valid and not contrary to the sovereignty of God.
    I agree Jesus is salvation and that salvation is not a commodity. But in transactions of any kind things are different than before the transaction.

  3. Steve Martin   •  

    Here’s the prayer that we can really count on,

    “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

  4. Jim Elliff   •  

    Keith, though I’m not an advocate of the sinner’s prayer, as you know, I genuinely appreciate the sentiment you expressed here. This is indeed at the heart of the problem. You have expressed something we all must listen to. Thanks for it.

  5. Susan   •  

    While the sinner’s prayer has been used forever; it involves so much more. Yes, too many “Christians” use it as a get out Hell free card. One must follow through on the sinners prayer and grow and develop. We must do Bible studay and find out about who God and Jesus is. We have to learn to love God as our father. If He is our Father then our lives will show it and we have no need for a get out of Hell free card

  6. Steve   •  

    My experience has been that salvation truly is a gift of god, in that no unbeliever can even want salvation until the real gift- realizing how badly they need a savior- is bestowed upon them through the opening of their eyes by the holy spirit. Even teens born and raised in the church invariably either “get it” or they don’t until they are adults. Your “commodity” comparison is spot on, as any salvation not instigated by god is no salvation at all. As for the sinners prayer, it’s just one way a spirit awakened person can respond to god. Certainly not the only way, and if someone prays it for just the selfish reason that they want “fire insurance” or god as a commodity, or the music was especially good that day, they are just hollow words anyway, not a sign of salvation. A newly saved person is always in awe that god has touched them and opened their eyes and forever changed the way they look at themselves, and knows that Jesus’ will is what counts now. How could it be any other way?

  7. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Hi Ed. It looks like we’ll just have to agree to disagree. kk

  8. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Hi Jim. Thanks for the encouraging word. This is not the first time we’ve had discussions about these matters, is it? I hope you’re doing well. Blessings, kk

  9. Ken Keathley   •     Author

    Fletcher, I agree with you that warning the lost about the wrath to come is a proper task for preachers to do! kk

  10. Sean Miller   •  

    I support the use of the sinner’s prayer, I prayed it myself many years ago. The prayer is not a magical formula, but the translation of the desperate heart into proven words. As to the lack of results post sinner’s prayer, lack of discipleship, in my experience, is to blame. Converts have been mistaken for disciples for a long time. There are a great many “evangelists”, but where are the disciplers?

  11. David Burton   •  

    Wow.I am more troubled by people making such a big deal of ” the prayer” that they never Share Jesus with anyone to actually get to that part. Lets Trust a wonderful Holy God and His Holy Spirit to go before us every day to draw men to himself. Go tell the Whole story….then God will do the saving…the words don’t actually save …calling on the Lord does through aphis BLOOD…but let us never forget ” Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God”… Go Tell.

  12. Bob Cleveland   •  

    The issue is repentance and faith. Trusting. I fear that too many times, the “sinner’s prayer” becomes the objective, without what should really be prompting it, and that’s about as counterproductive as anything I can think of.

    Sadly, the baptist churches with which I am familiar don’t know any more about the prospect’s repentance and faith than can be learned in 2 or 3 stanzas of a hymn. Come to think of it, though, that’s why our attendance is perhaps 30% of members.

  13. Brian   •  

    Fantastic article and living overseas I could not agree more with this problem. I see it in most of our volunteer teams. I understand the tension coming from those who are rubbed the wrong way, but I think the last sentence clears up most of that:

    “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.”

    If we are not careful we can easily create a new erroneous view on soteriology and anthropology. We start packaging salvation without a relationship with Jesus. He becomes an object of faith, but that is the extent of his role.

    [21] “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. [22] On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ [23] And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
    (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)

    The focus of this is not the works, but the relationship. Eventhough we might continue the bandwith spent on the topic, it gets to the core and is worth it.

  14. Larry   •  

    In Timothy it says there is one God and only one mediator and that is the man Jesus Christ

    Jesus Himself says He is the way the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father but by Him.

    How can anyone be saved by Jesus if their focus is not on the way their saved.

    It’s about His love for us and our love for Him.

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