|"The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism
is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions, but the willingness
to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh Biblical scrutiny
and, if necessary, reform" (John Stott)
Evangelicals are often quick to criticize
the Roman Catholic Church of error because it perpetuates teachings and
traditions which run counter to the Word of God (and rightfully so). In
doing this, however, we have failed to realize that our churches have,
likewise, inherited traditions which contradict Scripture.
One of the more popular traditions
that evangelicals are fond of is the modern invitation system. It is the
practice of calling people forward at the end of a church meeting or Gospel
rally to accept Jesus ("altar call") through a presubscribed prayer ("sinner�s
prayer"). After repeating the prayer given by the evangelist or Christian
worker, the person is usually assured that they are now born-again. They
are told that God has accepted them and, when any doubt of their salvation
arises, to resist the Devil by claiming the promises of Scripture and to
remember their public pledge.
This is, essentially, how it is practiced
in many churches, although there might be slight modifications depending
upon the evangelist who employs it. Its widespread popularity is evidenced
in that every prominent evangelist of the 19th and 20th centuries has used
it, including such well-known men as D.L. Moody (1837-1899), Billy Sunday
(1862-1935), Luis Palau (1934 -- ), and Billy Graham (1918 -- ). It has
become an inseparable part of American Christianity and relatively few
have bothered to question it. To use the words of Erroll Hulse, it has
become the "new evangelical sacrament." Those who refuse to use such methods
are frequently accused of not genuinely inviting sinners to Christ. When
I was pastoring a small church in Southern California, some of the members
were quite perturbed when I did not repeatedly give an invitation to receive
Christ at the end of each sermon. One such member even left the church
because of this. After carefully explaining my reasons for not doing so,
he was still unsatisfied and could only reply, "But how could Billy Graham
be wrong?" It is, admittedly, difficult to reason with such people, for
their thinking is more influenced by human tradition than the Word of God.
To question our evangelistic methods,
however, should not be viewed as theological nit-picking or as evidence
of disinterest in reaching lost men and women. Rather, it is because we
take Scripture seriously and wish to conform all of our practices (even
the popular ones) to its authority that we raise these issues. Why, after
all, should we fear such scrutiny? If the invitation system is genuinely
based on the Bible, then we have lost nothing in such an endeavor, but
only confirmed our belief. On the other hand, if it can be shown to be
contrary to God�s Word, then we should abandon such methods and thank God
that He has graciously revealed the error of our ways.
Surely, our church traditions, regardless
of who endorses them, are not above constructive criticism. But it is these
considerations that most unsettles us, for who likes to discover that their
beliefs are wrong? Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, do not
enjoy change. The idea of changing cherished traditions takes us out of
our comfort zone and leaves us with the stark reality that we have been
misled. Nevertheless, the road to change or, better, biblical reformation,
is the divinely-appointed path to spiritual growth and, therefore, should
not be feared by those willing to follow Christ wherever He leads.
The remainder of our study will briefly
examine the origin and history of the invitation system; the key passages
used to support it; and the practical and theological problems inherent
in the method.
II. A Brief History of the Invitation
Most Christians are not aware that
the "altar call" method in evangelism was not practiced by Jesus or His
apostles. It is nowhere to be found in the Gospels or in the Book of Acts
which records the evangelistic activity of the early church. This alone
should cause the discerning student of Scripture to rethink the validity
of such an approach.
In fact, the practice of publicly
inviting people to come forward at the conclusion of a Gospel sermon, did
not begin until the time of the 19th century revivalist, Charles G. Finney
(1792-1895), who was probably the first to employ this method. The fact
that it came to be known as the "new measures" shows that it was not previously
practiced. This was, indeed, "new" and was never implemented by any prior
evangelist such as George Whitefield (1714-1770), John Wesley (1703-1791),
or Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).
The reader might also be interested
to know that Finney was less than orthodox in many of his beliefs. For
example, he was opposed to the doctrine of original sin (calling it an
"anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma"); the imputation of Christ�s righteousness;
the biblical teaching of regeneration; substitutionary atonement (preferring,
instead, the "moral influence" theory of the atonement); and the Reformation
teaching on justification. He also consciously and purposefully molded
his theology to conform to his revivalistic practices, which helps to demonstrate
that he was motivated more by pragmatism than by Scripture. "Finney was
a dogmatic proponent of the notion that methods produced commensurate results,
in the absolute sense. The sovereignty of God in salvation exercised no
power or influence in his theology, which contrasts completely with that
of Jonathan Edwards, who is rightly regarded as the church�s foremost theologian
Finney, in addition, was fiercely
hostile to Reformed theology which, if he had seriously studied, could
have prevented him from falling into the errors that he did. To show how
man-centered Finney really was, one of his most popular sermons was titled,
"Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts"!
Furthermore, it should not be thought
that Finney went unchallenged during his career as a revivalist, for Lyman
Beecher, Asahel Nettleton, Gardiner Spring, and others wrote devastating
critiques of his theology and methods. However, because American Christianity
was beginning to shift from its Calvinistic heritage to a more man-centered
theology, their criticisms, in many respects, went unheeded by the vast
majority of professing Christians. At that time, as even now to a much
greater degree, there was beginning to be less appreciation for serious
theological study (especially of the Calvinistic sort) and more interest
in pragmatism and immediate results. It was a period in history that was
ripe for such a man as Finney; and he exploited it to the best of his ability.
Contrary to what some might believe, Finney was an enemy to Evangelical
Protestantism and, for that matter, historic Christianity.
Unfortunately, his style of evangelism
has become the norm for almost every popular evangelist which followed,
including the likes of Billy Sunday who was more of a show-man than a Bible-centered
Although the invitation system has
been modified since the time of Finney, it has, in many respects, remained
the same. People are still assured that their coming forward is a sign
of conversion; there is still a highly pressured atmosphere within these
meetings to publicly answer the "altar call"; there is still an emphasis
upon dramatic conversion stories, as opposed to serious biblical exposition;
and there remains, as always, a disproportionate amount of people who come
forward, but who eventually return to their former manner of life.
While incredible numbers of people
are alleged to have been saved through the invitation system, the facts
do not really support this. When the statistics of how many "walked the
aisle" are given, they are not only often exaggerated, but nothing is said
about the large percentage who never join a church and who return to their
sinful lifestyles. It is no wonder that Ernest C. Reisinger has said, "This
unbiblical system has produced the greatest record of false statistics
ever compiled by church or business." At best, such claims for the success
of the invitation system are mistaken; at worst, they are down-right deceptive.
One often hears people say, "I received
Christ twenty years ago at a Gospel crusade, but didn�t really begin living
for Him until last year," without first thinking that maybe they were not
truly converted when they made their initial walk down the aisle. Many,
however, are offended at this suggestion, but it only proves how deceptive
the invitation system is and how strongly we equate it with salvation.
It is interesting to note that the
evangelists who have most used and popularized the invitation system have
not been marked as particularly keen theologians. This is not meant as
a personal attack, for not everyone is as schooled or prepared to teach
biblical doctrine. Even still, it seems to me that those who are called
to proclaim Christ before the masses should, at least, have a basic grounding
in Scripture, systematic theology, hermeneutics, and church history. Yet,
sadly, these men are frequently ignorant of such truths - possessing, at
best, an elementary understanding of them. Typical is the evangelist, D.L.
Moody, who once said, "My theology? I was not aware I had any?" It seems
to me that the complaint of the South Carolina Gazette (1741) stills holds
true even in our day: "The churches are being overthrown by private persons
of no education and low attainment in knowledge and in the great doctrines
of the Gospel."
How often do we hear at modern Gospel
crusades a serious exposition of the Scriptures or a clear explanation
of what took place at Calvary? How often do we hear a substantive presentation
of Christ, man�s inability, or the sovereignty of God in salvation? How
many evangelists bother to first establish human depravity and the judgment
we deserve as law-breakers before presenting the remedy to our sin in Christ?
Usually, we are given the psycho-babble of how Jesus can make life meaningful
and happy; and whatever Gospel is preached, is almost always devoid of
repentance. Other evangelists may not be as soft. Like Billy Sunday, they
will preach to a sweat against drinking, smoking, and other vices, but
say next to nothing about God�s holiness or justification by faith alone.
They tend to moralize rather than articulate the truths of the Gospel.
Even Billy Graham, although a sincere and devout man, has been guilty of
this (unfortunately, since this writing of this article, Graham has apostatized
from the exclusivity of the Christian faith, believing that "everybody
that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they�re conscious of it or
not, they�re members of the body of Christ . . . whether they come from
the Muslim World, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the
non-believing world - they are members of the body of Christ because they�ve
been called by God"; cf. [ed.] John H. Armstrong, Reformation & Revival
[Journal], Spring - 1998, Vol.7/No.2, pp.151-164).
To speak of the world�s woes or even
the unsatisfying nature of this present life, is not the same as forcefully
declaring an unadulterated, God-centered Gospel. But, again, these are
the men who have most perpetuated the invitation system and whom we should
least consider as authorities in our evangelistic methodology.
One also wonders whether our modern
revivalists have bothered to study the lives and ministries of past evangelists,
such as George Whitefield and Daniel Rowlands (not to mention the preaching
and missionary endeavors of saints like David Brainerd, Henry Martyn, and
John Eliot). Not one of them employed anything even remotely similar to
an "altar call." Special mention should also be made of the great 19th
century Baptist preacher, C.H. Spurgeon, of whom contemporary evangelists
can learn much. Although Spurgeon proclaimed the Gospel to thousands weekly,
he sensed no necessity to urge lost sinners to come forward nor to lead
them in a pre-subscribed "sinner�s prayer." In fact, he considered any
undue emphasis upon public appeals or enquiry-rooms as forms of Roman Catholic
Let me say, very softly and whisperingly,
that there are little things among ourselves which must be carefully looked
after, or we shall have a leaven of Ritualism and priesthood working in
our measures of meal. In our revival services, it might be as well to vary
our procedure. Sometimes shut up that enquiry-room. I have my fears about
that institution if it be used in permanence, and as an inevitable part
of the services. It may be a very wise thing to invite persons, who are
under concern of soul, to come apart from the rest of the congregation,
and have conversation with godly people; but if you should ever see that
a notion is fashioning itself that there is something to be got in the
private room which is not to be had at once in the assembly, or that God
is more at that penitent form than elsewhere, aim a blow at that notion
at once. We must not come back by a rapid march to the old way of altars
and confessionals, and have Romish trumpery restored in a coarser form.
If we make men think that conversation with ourselves or with our helpers
is essential to their faith in Christ, we are taking the direct line to
priestcraft. In the Gospel, the sinner and the Savior are to come together,
with none between. Speak upon this point very clearly, "You, sinner, sitting
where you are, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, shall have eternal life.
Do not stop till you pass into an enquiry-room. Do not think it essential
to confer with me. Do not suppose that I have the keys of the Kingdom of
Heaven, or that these godly men and women associated with me can tell you
any other Gospel than this, �He that believes on the Son has everlasting
It is clear that church history,
prior to the 1830�s, will not support the methods of the invitation system.
Its origins are relatively modern and was erected at a time when Reformed
soteriology was in decline. Moreover, its preeminent advocate, Charles
G. Finney, was less than orthodox in many of his beliefs. At heart, he
was a Pelagian; and those revivalists who came later merely perpetuated
his errors. The end result was a watered-down Gospel and a method of evangelism
which duped many into thinking they were regenerate, when they were not.
III. Examining Key Proof-texts for
the Invitation System
Aside from the pragmatic reasons
frequently given to support the invitation system (e.g., it works; Billy
Graham uses it, etc.), there are a few passages which its proponents commonly
cite to defend the practice. But, as we shall see, they are greatly misinterpreted
and offer no real basis upon which to promote this method. We will look
at three of the most popular ones.
Matthew 10:32-33: "Everyone therefore
who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father
who is in heaven. But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will also deny
him before My Father who is in heaven."
These verses supposedly prove that
Jesus demanded a public profession of faith in Him if one was to be counted
a true disciple. However, the altar call system can only be seen if we
ignore the words in their historical context.
First of all, Jesus is not standing
before a mass of unbelievers urging them to make a "decision."
Secondly, Jesus is addressing those
who have already professed allegiance to Him (namely, the twelve disciples),
not men and women who remain undecided. Matthew 10:1 says that Jesus "summoned
His twelve disciples" or "twelve apostles" (v.2). The instructions contained
in this chapter are exclusively directed to them (v.5; cf. 11:1). This
finds further support from the context where Jesus gathers His disciples
to Himself, separating them from the crowds which surrounded them.
Thirdly, Jesus� words in verses 32-33
are within the context of the early preaching mission of the disciples
who were told to avoid the regions of the Gentiles and Samaritans and,
instead, go only "to the lost sheep of the House of Israel" (vv.5-6). Since
hostility to the Gospel would inevitably come; and because of fear, there
would be the temptation to deny Christ, Jesus thus warns His disciples
that if they deny Him, He will also deny them before His Father.
It remains obvious, then, that Matthew
10:32-33 has nothing to do with urging sinners to "walk an aisle" or "make
a decision"; unless, of course, we want to also insist that everyone who
responds to an altar call engage in a missionary journey!?
Romans 10:9-10: "that if you confess
with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised
Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes,
resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting
Some have seen in Paul�s words justification
for a public profession of faith as is commonly done in our modern invitation
system; but this is probably not his meaning for the following reasons.
First of all, there is nothing here
to suggest that Paul would gather a group of unbelievers and personally
lead them in a public prayer of repentance and confession. And neither
does the Book of Acts, which records his various missionary activities,
ever imply such a practice.
Secondly, although Paul is referring
to the preaching of the Gospel and what he communicated to lost sinners
(vv.8-10), he is not speaking of what we should prompt or assist people
in saying. Granted, if they are sovereignly drawn to Christ in faith, they
will, indeed, confess Jesus as Lord and believe in their hearts that God
raised Him from the dead. The confession, however, only comes after the
heart has been regenerated, not before (v.10). Moreover, it is the individual�s
responsibility to confess and not that of the evangelist�s; it is something
the sinner himself consciously chooses to do (vv.11-12), rather than what
he mindlessly repeats in the words of another.
Thirdly, it should not be thought
that those who oppose the invitation system are against any form of public
declaration of faith in Christ. On the contrary, we believe that the place
where one makes their public identification with Christ is at baptism.
It is here that the new believer openly confesses his allegiance to Jesus
and voluntarily submits to water baptism as proof of his union with Him
in death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4).
Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand
at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will
come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me."
This is another popular proof-text
for the invitation system. However, like the two previous passages that
we have examined, this text also will not lend support to the practice.
First of all, our Lord is not speaking
of what we should lead others to say or anything of this sort.
Secondly, it is more than likely
that Jesus� words are addressed to the lukewarm members of the church at
Laodicea, as opposed to a universal appeal to outsiders (Revelation 3:14-16).
As the late Bible commentator, Philip E. Hughes, has written:
Though frequently used in evangelism,
this appeal is not addressed to outsiders but to church members. It is
an exhortation to the latter to rouse themselves from apathy and lukewarmness
and to open their lives unreservedly to Christ so that the pre-eminence
may be His alone. In their complacency the Laodiceans have in effect been
closing the door against Him. Self has subtly usurped the place of Christ...
The appeal to the Laodiceans is an appeal to the church whose lukewarmness
has made it careless and unwatchful.
Robert H. Mounce similarly writes:
Verse 20 is often quoted as an invitation
and promise to the person outside the community of faith. That it can be
pressed into the service of evangelism in this way seems evident. Compared
with other world religions the seeking God of the Judaeo-Christian heritage
is perhaps its major uniqueness. In the context of the Laodicean letter,
however, it is self-deluded members of the church who are being addressed.
To the church Christ says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." In
their blind self-sufficiency they had, as it were, excommunicated the risen
Lord from their congregation. In an act of unbelievable condescension He
requests permission to enter and re-establish fellowship.
Thirdly, there is a sense in which
Jesus� invitation is particular, since it is for those who "hear His voice."
This appears to be what theologians have termed the "inward call" or "effectual
call." Although it is true that many people hear Christ�s call to repentance
and faith outwardly (via the preacher), only those who have been given
ears to hear will respond inwardly to that call � as Loraine Boettner states,
"The cause of any person believing is the will of God; and the outward
sound of the Gospel strikes the ear but in vain until God is pleased to
touch the heart within" (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination [Philadelphia,
PA: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1974], p.359). This explains
why Jesus so often said, "He that has ears to hear, let him hear" (Matthew
11:15; 13:9; 19:11-12).
Fourthly, however one chooses to
interpret Revelation 3:20, it must not be thought that the sinner possesses
the power to open his own heart to Christ. Only God can do this (John 6:44;
Acts 16:14; James 1:18). Although God�s sovereignty in salvation does not
negate our responsibility to proclaim the Gospel to all men, we must never
suggest to people that the power to convert their hearts lies within them
(Psalm 110:3; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:24-26).9
IV. Practical and Theological Problems
of the Invitation System
Numerous problems are inherent within
the modern invitation system. The following is a small sampling of some
of the major ones.
1. It is always dangerous to promote
a practice which cannot be substantiated from the Word of God. Our methodology
or philosophy of evangelism must always be formed by a careful study of
Scripture, rather than by what "works." Yet, it amazes me how little painstaking
exegesis is offered by the proponents of the "altar call" method. Even
the twenty-two reasons given in support of the invitation system by R.T.
Kendall (Stand Up and Be Counted [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984]), are
based more on pragmatism than a direct treatment of clear, biblical passages.
The reader might be interested to know, however, that Erroll Hulse has
refuted, point-by-point, the various reasons offered by Kendall in his
outstanding work, The Great Invitation (England: Evangelical Press, 1986),
2. The invitation system tends to
equate the act of coming forward with salvation. According to Billy Graham,
"Coming out, settles it and seals it... There�s something about coming
forward and standing here. It�s an outward expression of an inward decision."
Even though the supporters of the invitation system attempt to explain
that "walking down an aisle" doesn�t save anyone, the practice still subtly
suggests that coming forward is an act that leads to salvation. This notion
is reinforced when those who respond are assured that, because they came
forward and prayed the "sinner�s prayer," they can have confidence that
they�re saved. The modern evangelist may not wish to imply this, but the
people who "walk the aisle" and who possess less theological sophistication
than the preacher, are clearly given this impression.
Although regeneration will always
result in an outward change of behavior or lifestyle, it is not, in itself,
a physical thing; but inward and spiritual. It is the sovereign and supernatural
work of the Holy Spirit in making alive those who were formerly spiritually
dead (John 3:3-8; Acts 16:14; Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13); transferring
them from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God (Acts 26:18).
If they are regenerated and granted
faith to believe the Gospel (Acts 18:27; Philippians 1:29), there is no
further need to prompt them to come forward. If regeneration has, indeed,
taken place, their lives will demonstrate "deeds appropriate to repentance"
(Luke 3:8-14; Acts 26:20). If it does not, we can be assured that our Gospel
preaching has fallen on stony ground or hardened hearts (Matthew 13:19-22).
Our primary concern, however, is
not with their response per se, but in whether we have faithfully articulated
the true Gospel message; making certain that we have not spoiled its truth
with human opinion or unnecessary theological baggage. Unfortunately, this
is probably not the foremost concern of the modern evangelist, but rather
in securing large numbers of people to come forward. In fact, I have personally
witnessed the frustration which some evangelist�s undergo when very few
respond. Because they base the success of their crusade upon what they
can do to illicit a response, they may tend to doubt their abilities, the
performance of the music, or other factors, when very few come forward.
But this only shows how much more they trust human devices, than the Spirit
3. The invitation system tends to
attach an undue importance on numbers. We have already explained that the
numbers given to demonstrate the effectiveness of the invitation system
are greatly exaggerated. Its proponents wrongly assume that all or, at
least, most of the people who come forward get saved. A large percentage,
however, simply return to their former manner of life once the excitement
wears off or when the cares of this world choke whatever has been sown
in their hearts (Matthew 13:19-22).
The emphasis or preoccupation with
numbers goes contrary to Scripture which is not especially concerned with
how many people make a "profession" or "decision." Although Luke records
the conversion of three thousand souls on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41),
he is also quick to note that these and others were added by God�s doing
(v.47), and not through any manipulative techniques of an evangelist.
Furthermore, those who were converted
went on to demonstrate the genuineness of their faith by being baptized,
gathering with God�s people, and by "continually devoting themselves to
the apostles� teaching" (vv.41-46). In fact, if we were to look only at
numbers, we might be tempted to conclude that Jesus Himself was not an
especially gifted evangelist. He started His ministry with a multitude
of followers, but ended with only eleven faithful disciples. He often spoke
words that offended His hearers (John 6:41-56; 8:31-59), which eventually
provoked many of them to abandon Him (John 6:60-66). His discipleship demands
were also hard (Matthew 10:34-39; 16:24-26; 19:21; Luke 9:57-62). Nevertheless,
everything He said and did was in complete accord with the Father�s purpose.
Thus, we should never conclude that a large, positive response to the Gospel
message, by itself, proves that God is blessing our methods or that such
a response is genuine (John 2:23-25). Instead, we must faithfully declare
the whole counsel of God (Acts 5:20; 20:27) and leave the results to Him,
who alone is able to add to the church (Acts 2:47; 13:48; 1 Corinthians
3:6-7; Psalm 127:1).
4. The invitation system gives assurance
to people who may not yet be converted. It is not our place to give assurance
of salvation to others, regardless of how sincere they may initially appear
to be. This alone is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:16; 1
John 5:10). In fact, to give assurance to people who may not be converted
is to deceive them and, perhaps, even harden them to any future suggestion
of not being genuinely saved. Because we humans are so prone to self-deception,
especially in spiritual matters, the Bible repeatedly urges us to examine
ourselves to see whether we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5) and to
make certain about God�s calling and choosing of us (2 Peter 1:10). Let
us, then, be careful in dealing with the souls of men, for those who continue
to deceive others into believing something that is not true of themselves,
will one day answer to God Himself (Romans 14:10-12; 1 Corinthians 3:10).
5. The invitation system seeks to
condition people for a response through the use of such externals as uplifting
music, dynamic personalities, and a charged or emotional atmosphere. The
problem with this is that it tends to provoke a response which is based
on factors other than the truth of the Gospel. If we appeal to the emotions
of people we will probably only secure an emotional response. This is,
essentially, dishonoring to the Gospel which is a message wed to redemptive
truth. This is not meant to suggest that reverent music has no place, but
rather, that whatever music is employed should not seek to psychologically
condition sinners to come forward.
We need to remember that emotions,
by themselves, are a poor indicator of inward regeneration. Humans are
fickle and can be easily swayed towards an emotional reaction depending
upon what form of stimulation is used. Not only do our emotions come and
go, but convictions which are not deeply rooted within the mind and heart
can also be easily discarded. The great preacher and pastor of the Westminster
Chapel in London, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, offers one such example:
In the church where I ministered
in South Wales I used to stand at the main door of the church at the close
of the service on Sunday night, and shake hands with people as they went
out. The incident to which I am referring concerns a man who used to come
to our service every Sunday night. He was a tradesman but also a heavy
drinker. He got drunk regularly every Saturday night, but he was also regularly
seated in the gallery of our church every Sunday night. On the particular
night to which I am referring I happened to notice while I was preaching
that this man was obviously being affected. I could see that he was weeping
copiously, and I was anxious to know what was happening to him. At the
end of the service I went and stood at the door. After a while I saw this
man coming, and immediately I was in a real mental conflict. Should I,
in view of what I had seen, say a word to him and ask him to make his decision
that night, or should I not? Would I be interfering with the work of the
Spirit if I did so? Hurriedly I decided that I would not ask him to stay
behind, so I just greeted him as usual and he went out. His face revealed
that he had been crying copiously, and he could scarcely look at me. The
following evening I was walking to the prayer-meeting in the church, and,
going over a railway bridge, I saw this same man coming to meet me. He
came across the road to me and said, "You know, doctor, if you had asked
me to stay behind last night I would have done so." "Well," I said, "I
am asking you now, come with me now." "Oh no," he replied, "but if you
had asked me last night I would have done so." "My dear friend," I said,
"if what happened to you last night does not last for twenty-four hours
I am not interested in it. If you are not as ready to come with me now
as you were last night you have not got the right, the true thing. Whatever
affected you last night was only temporary and passing, you still do not
see your real need of Christ."
In addition, we should not put much
stock in preachers with dynamic personalities or in dramatic conversion
stories. Although it is true that good preaching involves the whole person
(which includes his unique personality and enthusiasm), the message should
never be presented flippantly nor should the preacher�s dynamics within
the pulpit overpower the Gospel proclamation.
We want sinners to be strongly attracted
to Christ and His glorious Gospel, not to the antics of the speaker. While
the God-centered preacher is moved by both his love for sinners as well
as the eternal realities he is presenting (Lloyd-Jones terms it "theology
on fire"), he is to be serious in his demeanor and absorbed in only declaring
what is revealed in Scripture.
We must also make sure that people
do not confuse a dramatic conversion story with the Gospel itself. To tell
others what Christ has done for us or of the circumstances surrounding
our conversion, is not the same as telling them what God has done in Christ
at Calvary. Although one�s testimony may have its time and place, it should
never replace a clear presentation of Christ�s Gospel. As a matter of fact,
if presented properly, the redemptive event of the cross is itself quite
dramatic! If the Gospel is truly "the power of God unto salvation" (Romans
1:16), why would we declare anything else?
6. Invitation system preachers frequently
appeal to the will of their listeners and virtually by-pass their minds.
Because the modern evangelist is less concerned with propositional truth
in the more abstract sense (although the Gospel should never be presented
as merely abstract truth), he tends to by-pass the minds of his hearers
and put an undue pressure upon their wills.
But this is surely a misguided approach,
since it tends to illicit a response which is motivated more by influences
other than the truth. We should, instead, appeal to their minds; provoking
them to think of their plight before a holy and wrathful God, their transgression
of the Divine Law, and the remedy found only in Christ�s atoning death.
It is only after their minds are persuaded by truth (Jeremiah 23:28), that
their wills follow in obedience, not the reverse. All of this presupposes,
of course, that such a response is sovereignly and powerfully granted by
the Holy Spirit. Lloyd-Jones further explains:
The first is that it is wrong, surely,
to put direct pressure on the will. Let me explain that. Man consists of
mind, affections and will; and my contention is that you should not put
direct pressure on the will. The will should always be approached primarily
through the mind, the intellect, and then through the affections. The action
of the will should be determined by those influences. My scriptural warrant
for saying that is Paul�s Epistle to the Romans chapter 6, verse 17, where
the Apostle says: "God be thanked that ye were servants of sin, but ye
have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered to
you." Observe the order in that statement. They have "obeyed," yes; but
how? "From the heart." What was it [that] made them do this, what was it
[that] moved their hearts? It was this "form of teaching" that had been
delivered to them. What had been delivered or preached to them was the
Truth, and Truth is addressed primarily to the mind. As the mind grasps
it, and understands it, the affections are kindled and moved, and so in
turn the will is persuaded and obedience is the outcome. In other words,
the obedience is not the result of direct pressure on the will, it is the
result of an enlightened mind and a softened heart. To me this is a crucial
7. The modern invitation method implies
that sinners have the power inherently to believe on Christ any time they
so choose. I have heard contemporary evangelists declare to their audience
more times than I wish to count words to the effect, "God has done His
part, now you must do yours," or "It�s all up to you! Christ can do no
more. He now waits for you to make your decision." This is the modern equivalent
of Finney�s famous sermon, "Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts."
The truth is, the sinner cannot change
his own heart nor is the moment of salvation dependent upon his choice
or timing. Only God can do this, for "Salvation is from the Lord" (Jonah
2:9). Men and women, as we have previously pointed out, must be sovereignly
granted grace in order to respond to the Gospel message (John 6:44; Acts
13:48; 16:16; Romans 9:15-16; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; James 1:18), for in their
own strength, they are powerless (Jeremiah 13:23; Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians
2:14; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4; Ephesians 2:1-3). Thus, while people must be
commanded to repent and flee to Christ in faith, they must never be given
the impression that the ability to do so resides within them. They ought
to be urged to seek Christ that He might grant them the grace to believe
(Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 65:1; Jeremiah 24:7; Acts 8:22).
8. The invitation system tends to
produce spurious converts. Although we have already made this clear, it
is interesting to note that even some prominent evangelists have said the
same. They, too, recognize that a disproportionate amount of people who
"walk the aisle" eventually return to their old sinful ways. Like Demus,
they desert the assembly of the righteous, "having loved this present world"
(2 Timothy 4:10).
Unfortunately, very few seem to consider
that much of this is due to the kind of Gospel presented and the methods
used to procure conversions. But what else are we to expect when the Gospel
is watered-down and replaced with a "felt needs" kind of theology? Why
should anyone sense their condemnation as lawbreakers when nothing is said
about God�s righteous standards? Why should anyone sense their spiritual
inability when they are repeatedly assured that they possess the power
to come to Christ at will? Why should any person have a deep conviction
of sin when nothing or, very little, is said about God�s holiness? Why
should anyone want to endure the Christian life which is marked by self-denial,
suffering, and rejection, when they are told that Christ will make them
happy and self-fulfilled? Why would anyone endure the hostility of the
world when they were never advised about the cost of discipleship? Why
should they ever seek to be covered by Christ�s righteousness alone when
a minimal amount is said about their own unworthiness? Why should they
ever fear the flames of everlasting judgment when the reality of hell is
not soberly declared? Why should any person tremble at the thought of God�s
wrath when only the love of God is preached? Why should any person despise
those inward sins which spring from the heart when only external vices
such as smoking, intoxication, and cursing are condemned? Why should any
person possess a heavenly hope when they are assured that they can have
the best of both worlds?
The reader should, hopefully, see
my point. If we desire to see sinners saved, but begin our endeavors with
a faulty Gospel coupled with a deceptive evangelistic methodology, we should
expect nothing more than apostasy and lives which make mockery of the Gospel.
If we start with a man-centered message which seeks to present as little
as possible any doctrinal content, we might indeed see people come forward,
but very few (if any) will truly comprehend the Gospel and most will soon
return to the passing pleasures of sin.
This is what upsets me most about
the state of today�s church: We are preoccupied with making America a "Christian
nation" (which, in the biblical sense, it never was) and in turning the
tide of secular humanism, but rarely seem to think that something might
be horrifically wrong with the kind of Gospel we preach. Those issues that
matter little in the eternal scheme of things, we are completely absorbed
with; while that which has everlasting consequences, namely the kind of
Gospel we should proclaim, seems to scarcely raise a brow!
This is, undoubtedly, due to our
assumption that the Gospel currently proclaimed from our pulpits is the
same one that Paul preached; and because this is so widely assumed, we
evangelicals seem content to turn our attention to other matters like secularism
or recapturing the political landscape for traditional values. But we have
assumed wrongly. Our modern Gospel differs in many ways from the apostolic
one. Regardless of how bad things may morally and politically appear, the
church�s priority must always be directed toward fidelity to Christ�s Gospel.
Comparatively speaking, nothing else really matters. This explains why
proponents of the contemporary invitation system must rethink not only
the kind of Gospel they tell sinners, but also the methods they employ
to "get them saved." Unless we begin here, our churches will continue to
spew forth false disciples.
Perhaps someone will reply, "But
haven�t people been saved through the use of the invitation system?" Yes,
they have; but this should not be construed as God�s full endorsement of
our modern methods. We must always remember that God often uses the faulty
methods of men to accomplish His Divine purpose. However, He does so not
because our current system is right, but in spite of its errors. The modern
evangelist generally says enough that is true of Christ for God to use
in the salvation of His elect. If anything, this demonstrates how sovereign
and powerful He is, since He is able to work above our misguided attempts
at evangelism to redeem sinful men and women. The "altar call" method,
however, is not God�s best and we would be wise to dispense with this approach
Simply because God can use the invitation
system for His greater purposes, does not absolve us from the responsibility
of warning people of its dangers. We must speak out and identify its errors,
rather than tolerate its existence as a necessary part of evangelism. Its
two-hundred year or so history provides no justification for its continual
use any more than the long history of Roman Catholicism provides legitimacy
for its existence. The fact that our churches have historically had only
one man serve as pastor offers no warrant for its continued practice, since
the New Testament is clear that local congregations are to be shepherded
by a plurality of pastors (Acts 14:23; 20:17,28; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus
1:5; Hebrews 13:17; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Our churches continue to
also limit corporate instruction to one man alone (usually the "senior
pastor") in direct violation of the New Testament pattern (Acts 13:1; 15:35;
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17). None of these firmly established
traditions should be perpetuated or condoned merely because they have a
long history or even because some good has come from them. In the same
way, neither should the popular "altar call" method find continued acceptance
among evangelicals because of its long history or seemingly positive results.
9. The "altar call" proponents tend
to approach evangelism in a fixed, mechanical manner. Contemporary revivalists
seem to think that one approach or method is sufficient for all. The problem
with this is that it ignores the variety of approaches found in Scripture.
Although the message remained the
same, the New Testament records a multiplicity of ways in which sinners
can be reached. For instance, the way Jesus dealt with Nicodemus in John
chapter three is not quite the same approach He took in dealing with the
woman at the well in John chapter four; nor is it the same strategy used
when addressing the rich young ruler in Matthew chapter nineteen.
Neither is Paul�s approach the same
when evangelizing Jews in Thessalonica as it was when witnessing to the
Greek philosophers in Athens (Acts 17). While the message remained the
same in both instances, he approached lost sinners in ways that were unique
to their individual culture and concerns. In contrast to the modern invitation
system, there was no one standardized method guaranteed to reach all; nothing
mechanical or pre-subscribed which every missionary was to employ; and
there were absolutely no recorded instances of leading people in a "sinner�s
prayer." Each person is different and so also is there knowledge of spiritual
matters, not to mention the degree to which they are sensitive to their
own sin. Thus, we should use discernment in addressing each individual
in order to make our Gospel opportunities more profitable.
It is understandable when a Christian
first begins his witnessing endeavors to use a prearranged approach (perhaps
in the kinds of questions asked or in the Scriptures cited), but as he
matures in Christ and in his knowledge of God�s Word, he should become
less dependent upon such crutches. He ought to be able to think on his
feet and creatively apply God�s truth to the direction of the conversation.
Being creative, however, does not
mean employing what I term the "survey method." This is the practice of
telling people that you are taking a religious survey and, after a series
of very general questions, begin to press them about their personal standing
before God. Such an approach does not fulfill our Lord�s advice to be "wise
as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16), since it is deceptive
at the core. These so-called "surveys" are not promoted by any legitimate
statistical organization nor is there any real intention in gathering statistical
data. Lost sinners do not need the Gospel sneaked up on them, but openly
and faithfully declared by honest Christians!
10. When engaged in evangelism, there
is no need to employ a "sinner�s prayer." People who begin to sense their
own wretchedness before a holy God should themselves be urged to seek Christ
in prayer, as opposed to being given the words to say (a rather artificial
approach it seems to me). Allow them, on their own and apart from any outside
pressure, to begin to pour out their hearts before the Savior. Isaiah 55:6
commands the sinner himself to seek the Lord and to call upon Him while
He is near. To tell them, then, what to say is a greatly mistaken approach,
especially since the evangelist�s words may not even be their own convictions;
it may not be what they sense at all
Besides, if a man is truly being
drawn to Christ in faith, no evangelist will have to tell him what to say
or confess, for he will naturally cry out on his own as the Spirit of God
begins to prompt him to "hunger and thirst for righteousness" (Matthew
5:6). In fact, his prayer and contrition will probably be much deeper and
sincere than any evangelist could provide, since they spring from the person�s
own mind and emotions. Granted, the seeking sinner might pray in simple
words devoid of any eloquence or sophistication, but Christ is not looking
for these anyway. Rather, He desires sincerity, honest confession, and
contrition (Psalm 138:6; Isaiah 66:2; Luke 18:13-14).
I cannot help but believe that the
"sinner�s prayer" is a contemporary form of incantation; a mystical formula
that magically brings forth the desired result. Although modern evangelists
may not see it as crudely as this, far too many of them treat it as a powerful
key that unlocks the doors to salvation. However, we ought never to trust
in pre-subscribed prayers or religious exercises, but only in Christ who
alone possesses the power to resurrect sinners to new life. Our focus must
be on Him and what He can accomplish, not upon what we can do.
The "sinner�s prayer," as commonly
used, also suggests that one instance of prayer will usher in regeneration.
Church history, however, reveals that many saints have not experienced
peace and reconciliation with God until after long, agonizing periods of
prayerful searching. In some cases, a span of several months passed before
they sensed any relief from heaven. In no way am I suggesting that God
always works in this manner, but only that people must not be given the
impression that God�s response to their prayers will be instantaneous;
that no amount of Scripture meditation or wrestling in prayer is necessary,
for the Lord may indeed require great periods of despair and anguish before
He sovereignly grants peace within one�s soul.
But how often does the modern evangelist
tell his hearers this? Because we live in an instantaneous society where
almost everything is quickly provided, we tend to carry this same mindset
into the spiritual realm; thinking of God as some Divine belhop who can
be beckoned at will to do almost anything and that at breakneck speed!
Lastly, the reader should not conclude
that I am against inviting sinners to the Savior. On the contrary, having
previously engaged in several years of street evangelism, in addition to
my preaching duties as a pastor, I know what it is to give a Gospel invitation
to the lost. But mark this: An invitation is not something which one attaches
to the end of a sermon; but rather, the Gospel message is itself the invitation.
When one declares the Gospel message and urges sinners to flee to Christ
for refuge, he is, at that very point, engaged in inviting sinners to the
Savior. There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that the two are
to be separated, for the Gospel message is a summons to repent and believe.
Under this scenario, the Spirit of God may cause the unregenerate to see
their spiritual bankruptcy and look to Christ without ever standing up
and walking an aisle.
The invitation system, as we have
seen, is riddled with one problem after another. Among the items noted,
it violates the New Testament pattern of evangelism; tends to produce spurious
converts; gives assurance to people who may not yet be regenerated; raises
a superficial conviction of sin; equates the mere act of coming forward
with salvation itself; and seeks to illicit a response through emotional
and psychological factors.
It is a human invention that attempts
to do what can only be accomplished by the powerful hand of God. This explains
why, at first, it appears so successful but, eventually, results in so
many returning to their sinful patterns. Within the invitation system,
the so-called "saints" do not persevere because most of its adherents are
not saints to begin with. It is man saving man apart from a clearly defined
Gospel and with no real need for a sovereign God "who does according to
His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth"
Our modern methods in evangelism
are only symptoms of a much great problem. The real culprit is the semi-Pelagian
theology which permeates this unbiblical system. It is wrong conceptions
of God, the message of the Gospel, and the nature of salvation itself,
which gives life to this practice � and so long as today�s church continues
to wallow in the mire of semi-Pelagian error, turning its nose against
Calvinistic soteriology, the invitation system will remain. But so will
our ignorance, superficial holiness, and general disdain for biblical theology.
Thus, evangelists committed to continuing the legacy of Charles Finney
are guaranteed to perpetuate the errors found in today�s church into the
What, then, can be done to correct
the errors of the invitation system and reverse our semi-Pelagian trend?
First and foremost, God must bring
about a powerful reformation and revival to His church. Our problems are
so severe and deeply-rooted, that nothing short of such measures can return
us to the "ancient paths" (Jeremiah 6:16).
Secondly, we must boldly speak out
against its errors and warn believers of the inherent dangers in using
it. The popularity of the invitation system demonstrates the need for Christians
to think deeper about matters of soteriology and evangelism. Far too much
sloppy theology is allowed to pass as Christian doctrine because of poor
exegesis and spiritual laziness amongst our modern evangelists. We need
to hold them to a higher standard, both morally and theologically, if they
are going to represent Christ in the public arena.
Thirdly, we must pray for a resurgence
of Calvinistic soteriology within our churches. Our prayers, however, should
not be merely limited to seeing believers return to their Reformation heritage
but, ultimately, to New Testament Christianity in all its soteriological
and ecclesiological forms.
Fourthly, those men within our congregations
gifted to teach and who possess a strong grasp of the Doctrines of Grace,
must begin to take on the responsibility of teaching such truths to others,
seeking to influence as many saints as possible. I fear that there exists
far too many capable men within our churches who have a deep knowledge
of Reformed theology, but who choose to do nothing or very little with
it. Many of them seem perplexed about what role or function they are to
exercise within the church but who, in the meantime, do nothing to remain
active or develop their teaching skills. Absorbed in the conflict of whether
God is calling them to pastoral ministry or not, they allow repeated teaching
opportunities to slip by because they imagine that only speaking behind
a pulpit can secure any real influence. Such confused and direction-less
men will rarely be agents that God will use to reform the church. Remember:
Knowledge brings accountability. If God has graced you with a deeper knowledge
of His Word, you are responsible, within your abilities and sphere of influence,
to share it with others.
Fifthly, we must all do what we can
to promote sound, God-centered literature into the hands of others. In
this sense, every Christian is a publisher.
Finally, we should pray that God
will raise a host of Calvinistic evangelists who possess caring hearts
to reach lost men and women within our culture. This would not only profit
the unregenerate, but serve also as a corrective and model to the Arminian
revivalists who have inundated our churches.