Has salvation been reduced to a "Get Out of Hell Free" card? That's what one Southern Baptist believes.
Ken Keathley, professor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., says many Christians are presenting 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," he wrote in a recent commentary. "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."
The professor was weighing in on a debate regarding the "sinner's prayer," where one asks Jesus into his or her heart.
The Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution in June supporting the "sinner's prayer" amid debate over whether it is biblical and effective. The resolution came after David Platt, pastor at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., called the prayer "superstitious" and said it doesn't exist in the New Testament.
He further referred to it as "modern evangelism built on sinking sand" that "runs the risk of disillusioning millions of souls" in his talk at the Verge Conference earlier this year.
Platt later clarified that he does not believe it is wrong for someone to prayer the "sinner's prayer" but said he made those comments out of "a concern for authentic conversion and regenerate church membership."
Keathley believes the entire debate has been misguided.
"In my opinion, what is driving the concern of many is the paltry results of much of our evangelistic efforts," he wrote.
"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 isn't with a particular prayer but rather with the way salvation is presented, he maintained.
"Salvation," he underscored, "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."
The professor affirmed the penal substitution of Christ and did not reject the use of language such as "purchase," "redemption" and "transaction" when discussing salvation.
"But," he added, "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."
He continued, "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."
Keathley has nothing against the "sinner's prayer." But he encourages Christians to make sure they are leading others to Christ and not just "selling them on a really great deal."