Public Invitations in the Church
Prior to the 1963 first Congress on Evangelism, Billy Graham invited noted evangelical theologian, Dr. Carl Henry, to serve as Chairman of the event. Dr. Henry reported, “I said I’d make a bargain: if he would stop the general sponsorship of his campaigns – stop having liberal and Roman Catholics on the platform – and drop the invitation system, I would wholeheartedly support him and chair the congress. We talked for about three hours, but he didn’t accept these conditions.”1
A working definition of the invitation system might be: The invitation system is the practice whereby hearers are instructed to physically move to a designated place or perform some other physical act in order to show their conviction of sin, or their desire to become a Christian, or their decision to become a Christian. This decision is commonly referred to as receiving or accepting Christ. This physical act is not spontaneous; it is directed.2 Sometimes this invitation is denoted as an altar call. This is unfortunate in that there are no altars in a New Testament church. The term “altar” is an erroneous carryover into certain Protestant churches by way of the Roman church.
So why was the public invitation such an essential element for the success of the crusade in the eyes of the Graham organization? And why was Carl Henry so concerned about the practice? I offer some brief observations and comments in order to help bring perspective to the issue.
The Origin of the Invitation System
Many evangelical Christians unthinkingly believe that the church has always practiced the public invitation. It is presumed to be part of the identity of being evangelical and evangelistic; that is, it is part of who we are. It has been viewed as a mark of orthodoxy and as a litmus test to being evangelistic. However, it is generally accepted that a public invitation in conjunction with the worship of the church was non-existent until approximately 1798 when Jesse Lee, a Methodist circuit rider, introduced the practice. And yet, any undergraduate church history student will affirm that people—indeed many people—were converted through the auspices of the church prior to the 19th century. In fact, just prior to the advent of the public invitation, there was an incredible outpouring of the Holy Spirit under the ministry of Puritans that has become known as the Great Awakening (circa1740). And public invitations were not utilized.
Beginning in 1830, the evangelist Charles Finney popularized the use of public invitations as part of what he called the “anxious seat,” a bench down front where people were invited to come and indicate that they were under conviction.3 Apparently, Finney decided to employ this method because it worked. The method itself flows from and is a reflection of Finney’s defective theology in at least two critical matters.4
Sin and depravity. Finney believed in the innate spiritual ability of man to please God. In his view, if God commanded men to repent, then men have the inborn capacity to do so immediately and at any time. He also held that man was only psychologically depraved rather than a sinner by nature. He viewed man as having “all the faculties and natural attributes requisite to render perfect obedience to God…In his Revival Lectures he contended that a revival was not a miracle but a purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means. In so many words, man could produce a revival situation, he could produce evangelistic results. All he had to do was find and follow the right formula.”5 Thus, the job of the preacher is to induce men to use these powers.
Regeneration. In Finney’s view, regeneration was purely a matter of man’s choice. It had nothing to do with a supernatural work of God. Thus a man can regenerate himself; God merely influences the sinner to change himself. Ken Good quotes Albert Dod regarding Finney’s deviant view, “…Mr. Finney asserts the perfect, unqualified ability of man to regenerate himself. The revivalist writes of his own views, ‘Instead of telling sinners to use the means of grace, and pray for a new heart, I call on them to make themselves a new heart and spirit…’ ”6
Some Guides for Public Evangelism in the Church
We must appeal to hearers’ hearts and minds. We must avoid putting direct pressure on their wills or wooing their feelings. The Holy Spirit uses biblical knowledge to effect regeneration. Lloyd-Jones relates his next-day encounter with the town drunk who was moved to tears by the preaching during a Sunday evening service: “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 ne 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’ ”7
Scripture affirms that, before regeneration, we are slaves of sin and can be freed only by the supernatural intervention of God. “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed” (Romans 6:17). “…who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).8
We must always keep in mind the basic nature of those we are trying to win. There is absolutely no possibility that they can “come to Christ” as a simple matter of their own volition. Jesus Himself said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). Thus, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to use the truth to convict men and impart life. We are message bearers, not salesmen.
We must avoid giving the impression that an external response to the offer of the gospel is genuine saving faith. It is almost impossible to use the public invitation and not give a false impression. Thus we must exercise care in creating an atmosphere charged with emotional influence or manipulation. Charles Smith addresses this issue: “And who has not had his emotions stirred…by beautiful music, sympathy, feelings of guilt, or a sad story told by a minister? We may interpret these stirrings as the work of the Spirit or as the result of the ‘soft hearts’ which we have as believers, but it should not be forgotten that unbelievers also may have ‘soft hearts’ and may often experience some of these same ‘feelings.’ It is all too easy to confuse, and difficult to distinguish between, our own emotions and the work of the Spirit!”9
One of our neighbors in the small town where I first pastored (everyone in town was a neighbor) illustrates this danger. She was hanging her eternal future in heaven on the basis of her “going forward” at a revival meeting when she was a little girl. She was a delightful person, yet there was no evidence of genuine faith in her life. Her decision was in effect damning her.
We must always invite hearers to Christ. We must not be slack in indiscriminately offering the gospel to all. Certainly the preacher should be cognizant of his need to commend the gospel to hearers as he preaches. This inviting people to Christ should be an integral part of the message rather than a separate add-on segment at the end. We must reject the advice given by one preacher, “Many of us in our preaching will make such statements as, ‘Now in conclusion’; ‘Finally, may I say’; ‘My last point is….’ These statements are sometimes dangerous. The sinner knows five minutes before you finish; hence he digs in and prepares himself for the invitation so that he does not respond. However, if your closing is abrupt and a lost person does not suspect that you are about finished, you have crept up on him and he will not have time to prepare himself for the invitation. Many people may be reached, using this method.”10
We must refrain from equating “decisions for Christ” with God’s blessing on our ministry. Success must be measured, if at all, by changed lives, not by aisle walking. I vividly recall the scene created by a disgruntled deacon as he left our church. His triumphant declaration on the way out the door was, “At [name of church] the Lord blesses every Sunday.” Of course he meant that there were people coming down the aisle every Sunday morning. As you might surmise, I found it impossible to have a rational discussion with him about the matter. We can easily adopt the wrong standards, as suggested in 2 Corinthians 5:12: “We are not again commending ourselves to you but aregiving you an occasion to be proud of us, so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart.”
Additional Concerns about the Invitation System
The invitation system produces mostly superficial and temporary results. This caused Ian Murray to observe, “In parts of America, where the invitation system has been practiced for many years, it has become necessary to record ‘second-time decisions,’ as a number who respond have already done it before.”11 In fact, it is common to hear estimates that approximately 5% of those who have responded to the invitation at a Billy Graham Crusade could be later found in a church of any kind. Charles Finney is widely reported to have described his converts this way: “the great body of them are a disgrace to religion.”12 In fact, historians have derogatorily labeled the western sections of New York state, where Finney conduct his initial ministries, as the “Burned-Over District.”13
The invitation system is often associated with pseudo gospel preaching. At the height of the Promise Keeper movement, my son and I attended an event in Indianapolis. A well-known pastor of a mega church brought the opening message that was promoted as a gospel presentation in order to set the tone for the event. It certainly was anything but a gospel message—nice stories, but no gospel. Yet hundreds of men went forward to receive Christ. What gives? To what were they responding? What decision were they making? They were told that they were becoming Christians. How was this possible?
The invitation system is neither prescribed nor described in the Bible. The practice is solely an invention of well-meaning men.14 We are compelled to admit that this is an extra-biblical practice. Appeals that the invitation enables believers to satisfy the need to publically express faith overlook the fact that baptism is intended to do exactly that. In fact, some advocates of the invitation system have suggested that the invitation is a replacement of baptism. Regarding a necessary test for proving the genuineness of conversion, Finney himself declared, “The church has always felt it necessary to have something of the kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles baptism answered this purpose. The Gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ were called on to be baptized. It held the precise place that the anxious seat does now, as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians.”15
The invitation system muddles the nature of salvation. Salvation is not a decision. Raising the hand, going forward, signing a card, being baptized, profuse weeping, etc., have absolutely nothing to with genuine conversion. Salvation is not a work performed by people. God is not dependent on any one specific external method to bring about the supernatural regeneration of humans. By contrast, note the incredible claim made by one writer that “[w]hile John 16:8 says that the Spirit would convict he world, yet something more than conviction is needed to see men fully converted. Not long after those words were spoken by Jesus, a needy man was on his way home from a religious visit to Jerusalem. He even possessed a copy of a portion of the Old Testament Scripture. Could the Holy Spirit do the rest? Apparently not. The Spirit was there, but evidently had to work through a human channel…”16
The use or non-use of invitations is a matter of liberty. The invitation system is clearly an extra-biblical practice. Thus, each preacher and each church must follow wisdom and the dictates of conscience. While I am personally convinced that the downside of the practice is far greater than the upside, I do not make refraining from its use a mark of orthodoxy or a test of fellowship. However, on the basis of what I consider wisdom, I cannot employ the practice.
Make no mistake: people have been genuinely converted in connection with the public invitation system in some form or another. I am eternally grateful for every such conversion. We should be of the same mindset as Paul, who confessed that ”[s]ome, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice” (Philippians 1:15-18).
1 Interview with Carl Henry in Christianity Today, (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today International, February 8, 1980), 29.
2 Some erroneously reference passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:25 as examples of a public invitation. This is clearly faulty interpretation. See Kenneth Good, Are Baptists Calvinists? (Cleveland:Regular Baptist Heritage Fellowship, 1975), 48.
3 Charles Finney, The Autobiography of Charles G Finney, as quoted by Dennis Clark in Charles G. Finney and the Public Invitation (non-published paper presented at pastors’ conference, n.d.), 37.
4 Ibid., 38-50 (quotations from Finney’s Systematic Theology).
5 Fred Evans, “The New Measures Controversy of 1826-27: Watershed in American Evangelism,” excerpted from his M.A. dissertation, “Revivalist in Conflict: Asahel Nettleton and the Controversy Over New Measures,” (Indianapolis: Christian Theological Seminary, 1974), 128.
6 Good, 32.
7 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971),275-276.
8 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New American Standard Updated Version (Anaheim, CA: Foundations Publications, 1995).
9 Charles Smith, “Experience-Oriented Christianity,” Grace Seminary Spire (Winona Lake, IN: Grace Seminary, no date), 42.
10 Jack Hyles, “How to Boost Your Church Attendance” as quoted by James Adams in Decisional Regeneration (Allentown, PA: Sword and Trowel Publications, 1973), 22.
11 Ian Murray, The Invitation System (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), 27.
12 David Scott, “The Invitation System: A Survey of its Beginnings, its Causes and its Acceptance,” Baptist Reformation Review (Nashville: Baptist Reformation Review Press, Spring 1976), 43.
13 Evans, 7.
14 See Good, 26-27, for a listing and brief discussion of passages appealed to by the advocates of a public invitation.
15 Oberlin, “Lectures on Revivals of Religion,” as quoted in Good, p 50.
16 Samuel Fisk, The Public Invitation: Is It Scriptural? Is it Wise? Is it Necessary? (Brownsburg, IN: Biblical Evangelism Press, 1970), 16.
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.