In recent times, the issue of the public invitation has come under scrutiny. I have pastor friends on both sides of the issue. Knowing where they stand biblically, for most Southern Baptists, the issue is not one derived out of a conservative vs. liberal theology but more out of a particular conclusion regarding ecclesiology. Let me state from the offset, I do not believe that a church is necessarily any less evangelistic because the leadership decides not to give a public invitation at the close of the worship service. In fact, some of the churches that are experiencing strong numbers in baptisms do not give a public invitation. I also think the rhetoric among pastors needs to soften a bit. We accuse each other of things that are not so. Our churches may not be experiencing large baptismal numbers, not because we do or do not give an invitation, but because we are mean-spirited and critical of each other. We have essentially quenched the Holy Spirit. This fact is particularly evident when it comes to the discussion of the invitation. While it is true that some pastors have chosen not to do it because they have seen pastors they respect not give an invitation (which is, by the way, the wrong reason regardless), it is also true that many of us who give an invitation simply do it out of tradition (a response that is also incorrect). Yet, there are many on both sides of the discussion who have chosen their particular methodology based upon biblical conviction, and we cannot argue against that process.
I have chosen in my ministry to give an invitation when possible. I am in a position now where I preach at a different church every Sunday. My commitment is to respect the wishes of the host pastor. If he does not normally extend an invitation, neither will I, nor will I insist that he allow me to do so. I am a guest and have committed to act like one. I have had guest preachers who ended up doing more harm than good because they would not take into consideration the culture of the local church. As a pastor, I ended up cleaning up a lot of messes because of guests who did not think that they needed any counsel or restrictions. I have had pastors ask me to give a public invitation for them so that they might observe it and see how it should properly be done, but I would never undermine a pastor’s leadership.
When it comes to the invitation, we have to be honest that much of the hesitancy toward this level of public commitment is due to the fact that the invitation has been abused in the past. I have seen, and so have you, the preacher or evangelist who manipulates people into making decisions for Christ. Sometimes I think their motives were pure, just misguided; other times I am confident that their ego got in the way. Ego is such a dangerous character trait. Everyone recognizes that it is out of control except for the guilty party usually. I do not think, however, that we should determine what we do or do not do based upon someone else’s misunderstanding or even misuse. If we follow that line of thinking, I am not sure that we would do anything.
Therefore, let me share a few of the reasons why I offer an invitation at the close of my sermons.
1. Because the Invitation is Biblical. No, we cannot find a particular sermon where Paul preached and then declared, “If you’ve come on a bus, it will wait.” (That’s a Billy Graham phrase, by the way – one of my heroes). Yet, an examination of Acts 2:40 demonstrates an understanding of exhorting people to respond immediately to the gospel. Peter had been preaching, then the Scripture records, “And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation’” (ESV). The words “bore witness” are connected directly with evangelism. The word martureo (µαρτυρέω) is found 81 times in the New Testament. Many of the NT’s usage deals directly with evangelism. It means to bear witness and to testify (the primary way that the word is translated). Connect that word with the word “exhort,” and I come to the conclusion that Simon Peter must have invited people to respond somehow. Alan Streett, in his book The Effective Invitation, says of exhort that 61 of the 108 times that it is used in the New Testament, it should be properly translated “to plead or to beg.” Five times it is directly linked with evangelistic preaching, including Acts 2 (Alan Streett, The Effective Invitation, 55-65). The fact that 3000 people responded to Simon Peter’s sermon and were baptized demonstrates that they were certainly invited to do something. I think the text shows that the Public Profession of Faith is not the response to the invitation but the baptism. Still yet, there is a connection with the two. I do not have time to work through all biblical texts because there are so many, but this one gives me a clear foundation upon which to build.
2. Because the Preaching of God’s Word is Powerful. The writer of Hebrews declares, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). If that text is true (which it is), then it compels me to invite people to respond to the Word. I believe that people’s hearts are touched and convicted. The Holy Spirit is moving, and, therefore, there is the need to immediately respond. I recognize that sometimes people need time to digest the sermon and meditate on it. An immediate response may be more emotional, while a tempered response results from a deeper commitment of both the heart and will. Neither response, however, deters the need for the invitation. Both responses are valid and necessary.
3. Because Church History Bears Witness to the Invitation. The public invitation is usually associated with Charles Finney and the “anxious bench.” The actual altar call can be traced earlier to the Camp Meetings of the Second Great Awakening that took place in Kentucky and Tennessee. I look, however, even earlier. During the First Great Awakening, no official altar calls took place, but what was happening is that the Awakening preachers were recognizing the role of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the Text (it’s called the Spiritual Sense of Scripture). One of my other heroes, Jonathan Edwards, championed this cause. When he preached his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon at Enfield, Connecticut, Edwards did not give an altar call, but the result of the sermon was certainly extraordinary. Eyewitness Stephen Williams wrote in response to the sermon, “Before the sermon was done – there was a great moaning and crying out through ye whole House – What Shall I do to be sav[ed] – oh I am going to Hell – Oh what shall I do for Christ.” George Marsden, in his biography of Edwards, comments, “As Edwards waited, the wails continued, so there was no way that he might be heard. He never finished the sermon. [Eleazar] Wheelock offered a closing prayer, and the clergy went down among the people to minister among them Individually” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 220-21). Edwards was known to use the words “invite” and “come to Jesus” in his sermons . . . “Consider how earnestly Jesus Christ invites you to come to him and trust in him.” His close friend, George Whitefield, also employed the same technique. Though he also never gave a public invitation, he would invite inquirers to meet with him afterwards, sometimes staying up until 3 a.m. to counsel with those awakened. Whitefield also had those who believed that they were saved to write out their names and experiences. He would then openly read that person’s name and experience (Dan Nelson, The Testimony and Influence of George Whitefield). Within their preaching, there was the urgency and understanding of personal response. Salvation was personal, not corporate or familial.
Here’s my conclusion. Every pastor has to develop his own convictions regarding the close of his sermon. Sometimes culture and surroundings dictate how the sermon is concluded, but do not allow what others are doing to be the only criteria by which you determine your ecclesiological polity and practice. And do not allow criticism, or the fear of it, to change your direction. Regardless of whether or not you give an altar call, MAKE SURE THAT YOU CONCLUDE YOUR SERMON IN SUCH A WAY THAT PEOPLE KNOW HOW THEY CAN RESPOND TO GOD’S WORD. It may be in an altar call. It may be in an inquirer’s room after the service (John MacArthur utilizes this method). It may be in meeting with you after the service, with a trained counselor, or in the inquirer’s home. But make sure they can respond. The power of God’s Word and the conviction of the Holy Spirit demand it.