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Spirit of Grace Ministries
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The Invitation: Is it Valid?

reponding to Christ

by Dennis Pollock

It is known as "the invitation,” but it is also called “the altar call.” I am referring to a challenge given by ministers and evangelists for their listeners to make some physical response to the gospel as an indication of their willingness to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This may involve raising a hand or coming to the front of the auditorium, field, or church. It is followed by a “sinner’s prayer” in which the concerned individuals pray to ask Jesus to save them and give them the gift of eternal life.

There are no set forms for this process. Although most invitations are similar in nature, none are ever identical. Over previous generations various types of invitations and sinner’s prayers have resulted in countless millions of men, women, and children professing Christ publicly, vowing to follow Jesus and live as Christians. In some cases, these folks truly have a life transformation, and their subsequent lifestyles demonstrate that something significant truly happened. But with others, life goes on as usual, and there is little evidence of the grace of Christ at work. They do what they have always done, think like they always thought, and live like they always lived.

These days the invitation seems to be dying, or at least gone AWOL in many quarters. Most of the modern churches, especially the larger ones, have given up on the idea, apparently feeling it makes people uncomfortable, and is just so 1800’s. Sermons are preached or taught, a prayer is offered, and people are sent home. The idea seems to be that if they can be kept coming back to church they will eventually find Christ in their own way and in their own time. In this little study we are going to consider the concept of the invitation and attempt to answer the questions: “Is it Biblical,” “Is it necessary,” and “What should its nature be when employed.”

Is it even Biblical?

Most of our modern preachers have dropped the invitation, not on Biblical grounds, but out of a sense that it makes their church seem hopelessly out of date. But there are some who suggest that the practice is entirely unbiblical and totally wrong. These people usually come from a Calvinistic persuasion. They see salvation as something so entirely in the hands of God that to try to do something or pray some words which we hope will result in salvation would be arrogant and presumptuous. In their thinking, God will save whom He likes, and He will do it His way and in His time, and there is virtually nothing any of us can do which will make God more or less likely to save us. To be fair, these people believe in the preaching of the gospel to be sure; they just don’t like the idea of anyone responding to it by an act of their will. Just proclaim Jesus and His redemptive work, and then allow God to sovereignly and mysteriously work in hearts as He wills. Such folks despise a “Billy Graham” approach, where men and women are encouraged to come to the front and pray to receive Jesus as their Savior, and make a “decision” for Christ.

I have never felt this way. If we look at the Scriptures we find that neither did the apostles. When we read of the early church in the book of Acts, we don’t have to read long before we find the first invitation. It was given by Peter on the Day of Pentecost to the multitudes that gathered around the disciples when the Holy Spirit first fell. Peter wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to preach the gospel, and gave them a good evangelistic sermon, focusing on the Old Testament prophecies which predicted the coming Messiah, and demonstrating that Jesus perfectly fit the bill. After his excellent sermon he was not content to send everyone home and allow God to sovereignly convert them in “His own time.” Peter demanded an immediate decision, telling the astonished crowd who had been “cut to the heart” by his preaching: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The people were not only commanded to repent, but to express their newfound faith through a physical act – that of baptism. There was something for them to do. Those who rejected the gospel could go home and forget all about it, but not those who believed. They must believe on Christ, change their minds and hearts about the way they had been living, and submit to the act of baptism. At that point they were considered Christians and the Bible says of those who obeyed Peter’s charge: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added to them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). By saying that these new believers were “added to them,” we must believe they were now Christians. Here was the first gospel invitation, given by the apostle Peter, and it was highly effective in bringing non-Christians to faith in Jesus.

Is an Invitation Always Necessary?

While invitations by Christians to non-Christians are normally useful, they are not always necessary. The classic example of this is the story of how the Gentile soldier, Cornelius, found Christ. An angel had told Cornelius to call for Peter, “who will tell you words by which you and your household may be saved.” When Peter arrived and saw the large group of friends and family of the devout Cornelius, he immediately launched into a gospel sermon. He covered the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. After proclaiming the basics of the gospel, he made the statement, “To him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whoever believes in Him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). At this point the Holy Spirit took over and fell upon all who heard Peter’s preaching. These folks were saved and filled with the Holy Spirit at the same time, and began speaking in tongues.

Peter had given no altar call, no invitation whatsoever. No one had raised a hand, none had come to the front and prayed a sinner’s prayer. God had simply showed up and brought about the salvation of one and all. What kind of evangelistic meeting was this? No cards were signed, no Christian literature was given out, no Christian hymn was played softly at the end of the sermon to put everyone in the right spiritual mood. This event clearly shows us that we must never limit evangelism to certain ways and means. God is bigger than we are, and the gospel of Jesus Christ is so potent that sometimes it jumps the boundaries of how we think it must always be presented.

One thing can be said, however. These folks heard the gospel. Peter’s sermon was all about Jesus Christ, and by the time the Holy Spirit fell, they learned the basics of who Jesus was, what He did, and how He died for our sins and rose from the dead. And this brings us to a fundamental point about invitations.

All invitations are Meaningless unless Preceded by the Gospel

One of the saddest aspects of the modern church is that not only are people rarely challenged to receive Jesus, but when they are so challenged, often it is after a rather anemic sermon which contained little of Jesus and virtually nothing about His cross and resurrection. In order for there to be effective evangelism, one truth must be thoroughly grasped: The gospel of Christ is about sin and righteousness (our sin and Jesus’ imputed righteousness unto all who will believe). It is not about receiving Jesus as a divine buddy or finding a solution to self-esteem issues, or getting some heavenly assistance for our poor social skills. These things may follow salvation, but the essence of salvation is all about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and being raised from the dead the third day, in order for us to be reconciled to a holy God with whom we have previously been at enmity. Any invitation to “ask Jesus into your heart,” which has never even made reference to Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and our sins and our desperate need for forgiveness, is futile. One may be able to convince people to raise a hand or come forward, but if they have never heard the genuine gospel, nothing is truly accomplished.

Imagine a farmer standing in the middle of a field of weeds, shaking his head. When a buddy comes along and sees his friend’s distress, he asks, “What’s wrong?” The despairing farmer laments, “I was hoping for a wonderful corn crop this year, but there is not a single corn plant in the field. The only things this stupid field is producing are these terrible weeds. The other man asks, “When did you plant your corn?” The farmer declares, “Oh, I didn’t plant any corn. I was just hoping and praying that I could get a crop by faith, without any planting done on my part. I was wanting this to be my year of “miracle harvest.” Such a foolish farmer would be ignoring one of the basic principles of God, who declared that throughout the history of the earth there would always be “seedtime and harvest.” Corn crops are the result of corn planting, and changed lives are always the result of the proclaiming of the gospel and telling people about Jesus. Paul wrote: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

Styles and forms in the church will always change. When the church stubbornly holds onto styles and forms which worked beautifully 75 years ago but are nearly impotent today, it is doing no one any favor. Probably one reason the “altar call” has gone out of style is that it was not producing the results it once did. I get that. And I do not suppose it necessary for every Christian gathering to have a proper invitation at its conclusion with “Just As I Am,” playing in the background. But never to challenge men and women to come to Jesus, to go through Sunday after Sunday, year after year without ever telling non-Christians “You must be born again,” is just plain wrong. People must be told and reminded from time to time that to be without Christ is to be without hope. And it helps when they are sometimes encouraged to make that decision to receive Christ “right now,” and not wait around for some more convenient time.

“I Feel Different”

I have been talking about ministry invitations, but personal invitations are equally valuable. When we share Christ, we need to be sensitive to recognize when people are on the brink of salvation, and when we do sense this, we would be foolish not to suggest that we pray right there and then to receive Jesus. My Dad was saved this way. At the age of twenty-nine, in 1939, he went with his mother to an Assembly of God “revival meeting.” There was a lady evangelist who preached, but the sermon didn’t quite do the job for dad. He resisted the “altar call,” staying in his seat. But afterward the lady preacher approached him and talked with him personally about Jesus. Finally, she asked him if he would like to pray with her to receive Jesus. This was an invitation Dad could not refuse, and he prayed the sinner’s prayer with her. On his way home that night, he told his mother, “Mom, something has happened to me. I feel different.” Something indeed had happened, and he was genuinely changed. Dad became a follower of Christ, and his Christian faith played no small part in his son (me) surrendering to the One he loved and served.

In the book of Revelation, we read these words, “And the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ ” This is our job. It is not just the Holy Spirit who tells the world, “Come to Jesus.” We, the bride of Christ, the believers, must also say, “Come!” Whether that involves a raising of the hand, coming forward at the conclusion of an evangelistic service, or simply asking a friend to pray with us to receive Jesus, we need to be comfortable with the idea of inviting others to believe on Jesus, to come to Jesus. It was Jesus who gave that first invitation which is at the heart of every invitation: “Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”


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