The church invitation was always an awkward moment for me. I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church where, after the sermon every week, a formal invitation was given for anyone to go to the front of the auditorium and talk with a pastor. I have often sat with other pastors who gauged the success of their sermon according to the visual response during the invitation time. A formal invitation time cannot be seen anywhere in the text of Scripture. Never do we see described in the biblical account any time set aside for people to publicly approach the pastor(s) and pour out their convictions. So, where did we get the now traditional invitation time? When did people begin making it part of their liturgy?
It is difficult to trace the origin of the “altar call,” but it is most likely a product of the long history of British and American revivalism. According to an article published by The Gospel Coalition, it was popularized by Charles Finney but was practiced prior to Finney even by evangelists like George Whitefield in the 1740s. The practice was designed to get people to make an emotional decision for Christ right then and there. In 1843, theologian John Nevin wrote that because of this sort of practice, false conversions “lamentably abound,” and that their (those converts) last state may be “worse than the first.”
So, there are some obvious problems with the implications of having an altar call. False-conversions and providing a false sense of security are the chiefest. An invitation in many cases is nothing more than religious manipulation, and we are here to make disciples- not emotional conversions. Since we do want to see people come into relationship with Jesus and we do want to see repentance, how do we safeguard the flock of God among us (Acts 20:28)? Can we make disciples without producing false converts by, even unintentional, emotional manipulation?
After Peter preached the sermon at Pentecost, we see the response of the people being saved and making decisions. As with all things, we go to the word of God for our example.
When they heard this, they came under deep conviction and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles: “Brothers, what must we do?”
“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!”
So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were added to them. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.
I have often heard others teach this passage in such a way that they glorify the gaining of 3000 immediate souls for the local church. They dream about preaching a sermon as successful as Peter’s and measure the success by the visual result during the invitation time. “I know God is working in your life,” they say, “come down.” That is bad exegesis and an unhealthy way to apply the text. We see only the material we desire to see and we glorify our own work, the work of preaching, in the process. After Peter’s sermon, the people did not rush down an aisle to an altar. Peter didn’t even make the invitation for people to “come and pray to ask Jesus into your heart.” No, during Peter’s sermon, the people came under deep conviction in response to Peter’s healthy and right expository sermon. God’s word was proclaimed and God’s word accomplished its own work in the lives of the people.
So, a successful sermon is not measured by visible, outward results (like the number of people walking down an isle or number of compliments received), but instead by the faithfulness of the preacher to proclaim the word of God alone-making only right application from the word. The preacher is not the one who affects change in the parishioner. The word of God goes forth and accomplishes its own intended work. The word convicts precisely how it intends to convict the hearts of the hearers.
Work of the word
The people, being convicted, asked Peter what they should do. Peter was available to people for whatever they needed regarding the ministry of the word. Such is the case with the pastors of the church. So, at the least, we want our pastors to be available to answer when the word convicts people. People need to know that we are available without feeling manipulated.
“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Peter gave an appropriate, biblical answer to the people’s question regarding the conviction of the word in their lives. Peter did not tell the people how they needed to be convicted. He responded to their conviction appropriately. This is how we safeguard ourselves and our congregations from manipulation. This is how we ensure that there is a genuine faith being produced in the hearts of people by the conviction of the word. This is how we participate in making disciples rather than merely emotional converts. We preach the whole counsel of Scripture, Scripture accomplishes its work, and we get to participate as others grow into maturity along with us according to the genuine convictions worked out in Scripture. There was the promise, too, of the Holy Spirit, who guides us into all truth (John 16:13).
For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!”
The promise is for all of those whom the Lord our God will call. The Lord is the one who does the calling, not us. So, we testify to the Lord, Jesus Christ, and always urge people to “be saved from this corrupt generation.”
“But to all who did receive Him,
He gave them the right to be children of God,
to those who believe in His name,
who were born,
not of blood,
or of the will of the flesh,
or of the will of man,
but of God” (John 1:12-13).
God accomplishes His own work of salvation by His will alone, and explicitly not by the will of the flesh or the will of people. This means that introducing an “alter-call” into the liturgy of a local church most often accomplishes the work and will of people rather than the work and will of God (which is a matter of conviction by the proclamation of God’s word alone). It produces false converts and unregenerate members in the local church. Instead, we want people to hear and reflect on the words of God. We cast ourselves upon God’s mercy, not trying to affect a result for ourselves, but trusting that God, through His word, will accomplish precisely what He wills to accomplish. We submit ourselves to that will. This is the attitude of an expository church, and it is an attitude of fear before the God of the universe. It is an attitude that states, “Glory to God alone for all the work done here.”
Not all forms of the traditional invitation are contrary to Scripture. Whatever method we employ, we want to be sure that we are seeking the glory of God, the good of God’s people, and not building our own kingdoms upon the name of Christ.