|Invitations: To Call or Not to Call?
by James M. Harrison
Although I grew up in a church that gave invitations every Sunday, regardless of the subject of the sermon, and though I used it myself on an ever decreasing basis, over the last couple of years I have ceased to issue invitations all together. And there are three primary reasons for my doing so.
1. It Ainít in the Book.
Many of us talk a good game when it comes to Sola Scriptura, but we often end up instituting our own extra-biblical practices in the place of those things that we avoid because we donít see them in the Bible (like Baptists not having a liturgy). But just try to mess with the order of service!
When I began to examine the invitation system, I could not find any biblical foundation. Those who support the practice use two "proofs" for the validity of the system. First, the "Follow me" and "Come unto Me" passages in the gospels. But what is really going on there? Surely Jesus isnít calling for simple a physical movement on the part of those He is addressing. He is calling them to repentance and faith. And now that He is no longer on the earth, it is even more clear. There can be no other sense. Is Jesus present in a greater or lesser degree in one part of the Sanctuary than in another? Of course not.
The second thing they try to do is refer to Matthew 10:32, "... everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven." But what is Christ teaching here? Is He teaching that by this act of confession we become Christians? Or, is He teaching that one indispensable mark of those who are Christians is that they openly acknowledge Him in their lives? If one says that He is teaching the former, we have just destroyed the gospel, by adding to it a work. What is interesting to see when we examine the Scripture is that the examples we find are, in fact, the exact opposite of the invitation system. It is not the preachers who ask the questions, it is the hearers. In Acts 2:37, Peter has just concluded his sermon at Pentecost and we do not find any kind of invitation from Peter. Rather, it is those hearers, who have been convicted by the Spirit of God through the preaching of the Word that ask, "Brethren, what shall we do?" And then what is Peterís response? He doesnít call them to the front of the room or ask them to raise their hands. He tells them to repent and then be baptized.
The same thing is seen in Acts 8 in the example of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Philip preaches Christ to the Eunuch, and we hear nothing of Philip pressing the Eunuch for a decision, but rather, immediately after we are told that Philip preached Christ to him, we read that they were going along the road, and the Eunuch brings up the subject of baptism.
Acts 10, is another example. Peter is preaching to the household of Cornelius. The text says that "While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message." No invitation, no altar call. He wasnít even finished preaching, but the Holy Spirit, in the sovereignty of God, saved them through the preaching of the Word.
Acts 13, Paul comes to Pisidion Antioch and stands in the synagogue to preach. At the end of his sermon, we read of no call for a response on the part of Paul, but we read this, "As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people kept begging that these things might be spoken to them the next Sabbath. Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God." The picture that we see here is that simply through the preaching of the Word, these Jews and proselytes were converted, so that Paul had no need of any kind in invitation, but rather urged them to "continue" in the grace of God.
Acts 16 is another example. Paul is preaching to Lydia, in v. 14, and the text says," A woman named Lydia, from the city Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening and THE LORD OPENED HER HEART TO RESPOND TO THE THINGS SPOKEN BY PAUL." No altar call, invitation, or call for a decision. God, through the instrumentality of His Word, caused her to believe.
Later in the same chapter, we have the account of the Philippian jailer. Again, who asks the questions? The jailer does! "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" And the answer? "Believe." I could go on but you get the idea.
2. It Does Not Comport with Biblical Theology (Specifically, With the
The invitation system is based on the assumption, which I reject entirely, that salvation is merely a matter of oneís own personal decision. If one takes seriously the doctrine of human inability (total depravity) then one must reject the invitation as incompatible with the biblical truth of passages such as ...
Romans 3:10-11 -- "there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands there is none who SEEKS FOR GOD ...
1 Corinthians 2:14 -- "But a natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually appraised."
2 Corinthians 4:3-4 -- "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God."
If all this is true, then it doesnít matter how many verses of Just As I Am we sing. Either God is going to regenerate them, causing them to be able to understand and believe, or He will not, and they will remain in their state of blindness and deception. The point is, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. The preaching of the Word is that which is instrumental in conversion, and conversion is subject to the sovereignty of God, not the manipulations of men. Acts 13:48, "When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed."
I think it is very telling that the Invitation system has only been around for about 150 years, and that it began with Charles Finney, who was the 19th century version of a full-blown Pelagian. He denied total depravity. He denied the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and held instead to a view of the atonement that makes Christ's death nothing more than a moral example for us. It had no actual saving affect. The altar call makes sense only when one denies key biblical and theological principles.
3. The Practical Consequences
Practically speaking, I think we can pretty clearly see the futility of the altar call, and the confusion which it causes.
Billy Graham has denied that coming forward equals salvation. He has said, "Thereís nothing about the mechanics of coming forward that saves anybodyís soul. Coming forward is an open acknowledgment and a testimony of an inward experience that you have had with Christ. This encounter is the most important thing."
But elsewhere he has also said, "I am going to ask you to come forward. Up there -- down there -- I want you to come. You come right now -- quickly. If you are with friends and relatives, they will wait for you. Donít let distance keep you form Christ. It's a long way, but Christ went all the way to the Cross because He love you. Certainly you can come these few steps and give your life to Him ..." "God is speaking to you. Get up and come right now ... a little voice says 'You ought to come to Christ.' Come quickly! You may never have another moment. You have to come by faith. You need Christ, you get up and come ..."
So which is it? These last two statements sure make it sound as if I have to go up in order to be saved.
Imagine the confusion of one who is not grounded in the Word. And what are the results that we see from this system? Churches full of people who demonstrate no evidence of true conversion, but simply point to "a decision" as proof that they are saved. Thatís not where Scripture points us for assurance. Instead, Paul tells us to "Examine ourselves to see whether we be in the faith." John wrote his entire first epistle for that purpose. One of the bases of our assurance, according to Paul and John, is whether or not the process of sanctification is taking place in us. "I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6). If one is truly saved, then God will change them. But it seems pretty obvious that we have evangelical churches full of unchanged people. But they can point to a decision and so believe that true conversion has taken place even in the absence of spiritual fruit.
The Southern Baptist Convention is a great example of this. Reverend Bill Ascol, a pastor in the SBC and a leader in the SBC Founderís Conference sees the problem. They are supposed to be 14 million strong, a number arrived at largely on the basis of their altar calls. But thereís a problem. They canít find 7 million of those people. They have no idea where they are. Of the 7 million that remain, three and a half million never or rarely attend a worship service.
Now, I have to note that none of this implies that we do not preach the gospel or appeal to men to come to Christ. But we must trust the power of Godís Word to convince, convert, and change lives (Romans 1:16, 10:17; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23). And when we preach that gospel, we preach it to everyone. It is a universal call. And we preach it urgently. Today is the day of salvation. And we call them to Christ. Christ commands all men, every where, to repent. But we call them to Christ, acknowledging the sovereignty of God in the conversion of His elect, not the manipulations of men.