Distinctive Baptist Beliefs:
Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians
Distinctive Baptist Belief #9:
Decisional Conversion/Gospel Invitations (not Confirmation)

September 29, 2011

By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the
Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.


This series has attempted to delineate historical doctrinal differences between Baptists and Presbyterians. Most of the nine points I have addressed were explicitly held by the Particular Baptists in contradistinction from the Presbyterian or Reformed theology from which they separated themselves. These, then, are distinctively Baptist beliefs. The first Baptist distinctive I addressed was a cluster of interrelated beliefs — soul competency, priesthood of all believers, and religious liberty. The second Baptist distinctive addressed was the age (or state) of accountability; the third Baptist distinctive I addressed was believer’s baptism (or “the gathered church;” and the fourth Baptist distinctive was baptism by mode of immersion, the fifth Baptist distinctive (in contrast with Presbyterian Calvinism) was baptism and the Lord’s Supper as symbolic ordinances, not sacraments; the sixth Baptist distinctive addressed congregational church polity (in contrast to Presbyterian elder rule); the seventh Baptist distinctive, examined the autonomy of the local church and how it is not a hierarchical denomination; and the eighth Baptist distinctive, I described the two scriptural officers (Pastor/Bishop/Elder and Deacon) and how they are not three (Pastor/Bishop, Elder and Deacon). The ninth and final Baptist distinctive that I will discuss is the importance of human freedom at conversion and how that undergirds the rationale for decisional conversion offered through gospel invitations.[1]

Distinctive Baptist Belief #9:
Decisional Conversion/Gospel Invitations

One basic fault line between most Baptists and Presbyterians regards the ability of sinful humans to respond to God.[2] The BF&M repeatedly affirms human freedom to respond and to make decisions. The “future decisions of His free creatures” are foreknown by God;[3] and God’s election to salvation “is consistent with the free agency of man.”[4] Persons are created by God “in His own image,” originally “innocent of sin” and endowed by God with “freedom of choice.” Even after the Fall, “every person of every race possesses full dignity.”[5] Salvation “is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” In regeneration the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus,” and repentance “is a genuine turning from sin toward God” and faith is “acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Savior.”[6] The picture that emerges from the BF&M is that while sinful humans certainly cannot save themselves by any combination of good works, God requires persons to utilize the freedom of choice He created within them to respond to His gracious offer of salvation by grace through faith in Christ.[7]

Central to this Baptist perspective is that salvation fundamentally involves a response or choice on the part of the convert. Note the role for human response in the words of W. T. Conner, longtime theology professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in expressing the balance between God’s sovereign grace and human agency:

Jesus regarded men as sinful–all men–but He did not believe that men were fixed in their sinful state. He knew the love of God toward men, and He believed in the possibility of winning men to a favorable response to God’s grace. . . . Jesus did not believe, then, that man could lift himself out of his sinful state in his own strength, but He did believe that men could respond to God’s grace and let God lift them out of their sins. It is true that this response was one that was won from the man by the grace of God offering to save man. Yet it was man’s response. And Jesus counted on such a response on the part of sinful men. . . . He welcomed such a response. He eagerly watched for it. He said there was rejoicing over it in the presence of the angels in heaven.[8]


The primary vehicle for facilitating and experiencing this sort of human response in decisional conversion has been the public invitation. The Second Great Awakening engendered the explosion of the number of Baptists in North America, and although models for offering public invitations go all the way back to Pentecost, the use of the public invitation or altar call became a fixture in Baptist worship services after the Great Awakenings. The Separate Baptists of the Sandy Creek tradition brought this revivalistic focus into the Southern Baptist mainstream. There have been many famous Southern Baptist pastors and evangelists for whom the public invitation has been designed to be the high time in the worship service – none more prominent than the famous evangelist Billy Graham, whose image is canonized in a statue in front of the SBC building in Nashville.

There are scriptural and historical reasons for offering such a public invitation,[9] but doctrinally a decisional public invitation is logically entailed in other Baptist beliefs such as soul competency, believer’s baptism, and the gathered church. Only adults (those beyond the age of accountability) can have soul competence, can make a life commitment through repentance and faith that is the prerequisite to believer’s baptism, and become a member of a gathering of intentional believers. Many such decisions come at the end of a fairly long process as the Holy Spirit works through many events to lead the person to make such a decision (by convicting them of their sin and convincing them of the life-saving truth that is in Christ), but at some point it all comes down to a moment of decision. This moment of decision often comes in the midst of a worship service in response to the preached Word of God. The preaching of the Word in a worship setting and public invitations provide a particularly effective vehicle for the Holy Spirit to enable persons to get away from the distractions of life and focus on eternally significant spiritual issues. The public invitation presupposes what might be called a “decisional” view of salvation, as opposed to a more gradual or developmental view of salvation. In the “decisional” view of salvation, a sinner presented with the gospel can respond to God’s calling in a decisional moment through repentance and faith. Public invitations provide the opportunity for persons to be confronted with life-changing decisions and to make public the decisions that have been made.

There are many forms of public invitations. Some call for the person to come to the front of the church at the end of a worship service, counsel with the pastor or other spiritual counselors, and if the person comes to a decision for Christ (or has already made a decision), that decision is announced to the congregation. This approach is called by some an “alter call” (though I do not prefer that designation). Sometimes a more gradual approach might be taken, asking persons who are struggling with a decision to raise their hands or stand, pray for them, and then make an appeal to come to the altar if they feel led to make a decision. In other cases those who are struggling with a decision may be invited to come to the altar to pray, or to sit on an “anxious bench” (this was utilized particularly in the Second Great Awakening), or to go into another room to receive prayer and spiritual counseling. However, what all these various methodologies have in common is that they present an opportunity for persons struggling with a spiritual decision (whether for salvation, rededication, church membership, or a call to ministry) to come to a prayerful decision. It also affords a way to meet the scriptural requirement to publicly identify themselves with Jesus Christ, who Himself said, “Whosoever therefore shall confess Me before men, him will I confess also before My Father who is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33). Thus, any form of invitation which provides an opportunity for personal decision and public confession would seem to be consistent with the requirements of the BF&M doctrine of salvation.

Presbyterians, on the other hand, tend to downplay public invitations and decisional presentations of the gospel. Although there are notable exceptions, most Presbyterians tend to focus on a more gradualist developmental approach to salvation. After infants are sprinkled, they later undergo catechetical training and are confirmed. In practice, the catechetical training is often more cognitive than volitional, and confirmation is more age-driven and developmental than decision-driven. The anti-conversionist “Old Light Calvinists” opposed the Great Awakenings because of their soteriological convictions. Although the pro-conversionist New Light Calvinists became the majority, the presence of infant baptism nonetheless diminishes the significance of decisional conversion in the Presbyterian doctrine of salvation. Modern day Old Light Calvinists such as David Engelsma reject the notion that adult or decisional conversion is required at all: “Speaking for myself, to the brash, presumptuous question sometimes put to me by those of a revivalist, rather than covenantal, mentality, ‘When were you converted?’ I have answered in all seriousness, ‘When was I not converted?’”[10] Further, Engelsma declares, “As a Reformed minister and parent, I have no interest whatever in conversion as the basis for viewing baptized children as God’s dear children, loved of him from eternity, redeemed by Jesus, and promised the Holy Spirit, the author of faith. None!”[11] This gradualist, covenantal view of salvation is far from the Baptist decisional view of salvation.

Some strongly Calvinistic Baptists have become enchanted with the Presbyterian model and would like to inject it into Southern Baptist life, particularly in regard to public invitations. In a discussion that would be astonishing to most Southern Baptists in the pew, a Southern Baptist seminary publication printed a debate between three of its faculty members about whether or not it is unbiblical for churches to have an invitation for the lost to be saved at the end of the worship service.[12] Jim Elliff argued that “it is my contention that our use of the altar call and the accouterment of a ‘sinner’s prayer’ is a sign of our lack of trust in God.”[13] Elliff claimed that “there is no biblical precedent or command regarding a public altar call,” but it was an invention of Charles Finney, and that “the sad truth is that it [the sinner’s prayer] is not found anywhere but in the back of evangelistic booklets.”[14] Elliff further questions the practice of pastors who would share Scripture verses about assurance of salvation with new believers, or to present them to the church publicly for baptism, because Elliff believes that the majority of these would-be converts are probably not genuinely saved.[15] As Ken Keathley has demonstrated,[16] Elliff’s suggestions do not stand up to the tests of Scripture and logic. While we should always guard against excesses of revivalism or emotional manipulation which might lead to a mere emotional response that lacks any real commitment, we should be eager to accept even a thief on a cross into the Kingdom. C. H. Spurgeon complained that some of his fellow Calvinists seemed “half afraid that perhaps some may overstep the bounds of election and get saved who should not be,” and claimed that “there will be more in heaven than we expect to see there by a long way.”[17]

It may be that the move away from having public invitations in Baptist churches is a contributing cause to why Southern Baptists baptized 50,000 fewer people per year in 2010 than we did in 1955, when public invitations were standard in virtually every Southern Baptist worship service. SBC churches baptized only 349,737 persons last year, which is 84,546 baptisms fewer than the 416, 867 baptisms we witnessed in 1955.  This stunning decline in baptisms is made all the worse by the fact that in the last 55 years our churches have increased significantly in every key statistical area except baptisms. We have over 15,000 more new churches in 2010 than in 1955, an increase of 50 percent (45,000 now vs. 30,000 then), but we had about 85,000 fewer baptisms. Church planting alone has obviously NOT been the answer. We have almost doubled our church membership from 8.4 million members in 1955 to 16.1 million members in 2010, but with 85,000 fewer baptisms. Our giving has increased exponentially from $334 million in 1955 to almost $12 billion in 2010, but there were 85,000 fewer baptisms. The population of the United States nearly doubled since 1955 (from about 165 million to over 308 million), but baptisms in Southern Baptist churches has been reduced significantly. In 1955 a person was baptized for every 20 church members; in 2010 that had more than doubled to 49 church members needed to reach and baptize one person. What’s worse, over half of the adult baptisms in SBC churches are actually rebaptisms, including believers coming from other denominations, so to count them is really double counting the same people. And nearly 80 percent of our churches are plateaued or declining.[18] At some level, if one might transpose the truth of James 4:2 (we have not because we ask not) to a different application, it may very well be that we have fewer decisions for Christ because we ask fewer to make decisions. It would seem that a re-emphasis on intentional evangelism and well-crafted public invitations could help reverse these embarrassing numerical trends, which reflect that we have been disobedient to the Great Commission and that we are not being the pliable vessels that God is using to transform lives through our churches that we were fifty years ago.

A Call for Doctrinal Integrity and Diversity within Christian Unity

In an earlier post entitled “The Middle Way,” I asserted that centrist Baptists are “the middle way” between Arminians and Calvinists/Presbyterians, and listed a dozen ways in which centrist Baptists differed from various Arminian groups. Now, this series has focused on nine key doctrinal differences between Baptists and Presbyterians (which did not include the five point summary of Reformed soteriology best known by the TULIP acronym–for a critique of five-point Calvinism from a centrist Baptist perspective see our book Whosoever Will).

Why all the focus on differences of belief?  Because we live in an era in which doctrinal distinctives tend to be minimalized in a non-denominational and ecumenical babble that suggests all Christians essentially believe the same things, or relegates important doctrinal issues to a tertiary status through a subjective theological triage. The high value given to multiculturalism and toleration in our culture tends to encourage breaking down barriers and to discourage the erection of fences between various traditions. The purpose of this series has been to point out that real doctrinal differences do still exist between various Christian traditions. To paraphrase Robert Frost, “Good fences make good (denominational) neighbors.”

In no way is this series of articles intended to diminish the practice and beliefs of fellow believers in other denominations. All denominations that broadly share the Reformation heritage share more beliefs in common (orthodox Nicean Christianity plus key Reformation beliefs) than beliefs on which we differ.  I have spent little effort in arguing that the Presbyterian perspectives are incorrect (which is not to say that I do not have reasons for believing so). My focus has been pointing out that real differences exist in doctrine between Presbyterians and Baptists, and to define what some of those differences are. Each of us has the right and responsibility before God to interpret the Bible to the best of our ability and practice what it says.

Let Baptists be Baptists by conviction, and let Presbyterians be Presbyterians by conviction. May we be unified as witnesses to Christ for the glory of God, and one in the Spirit in our affirmation of Jesus as Lord, but also people of integrity who do not compromise our doctrinal convictions!

[1] The paper from which these posts are drawn (plus responses from three theological perspectives) was originally presented at a conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. See Steve Lemke, “What Is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 5, no. 2 (Fall 2008):10-39, available online at http://www.baptistcenter.com/Documents/Journals/JBTM%205-2_Baptists_in_Dialogue_Fall_08.pdf#page=11. It has been posted in this blog format in SBC Today to facilitate discussion on these issues.

[2] In the Calvinistic understanding of total depravity, humans are incapable of such a response to God’s gracious offer of salvation. While some Calvinistic Baptists do affirm “total inability,” this is a minority view. Many might Southern Baptists say they believe in the “T” of the TULIP (total depravity), in fact their view is closer to the radical depravity described by Timothy George – that is, they believe in the radical and universal depravity of all humanity, but they believe that humans can still respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and express faith in Christ. For more on this approach, see Timothy George, Amazing Grace: God’s Initiative – Our Response (Nashville: Lifeway, 2000), 71-83. All Baptists believe that all persons of age are sinners, and that they cannot be saved without the grace of God and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, but most Baptists still believe in some role for human choice or response to the gracious offer of God.

[3] BF&M, Art. 2.

[4] Ibid., Art. 5.

[5] Ibid., Art. 3.

[6] Ibid., Art. 4.

[7] These issues of interpretation about the human and divine role in salvation did not arise originally with Calvin and Arminius, of course, but from Augustine and his successors in conversation with Pelagius and the semi-Pelagians. As Rebecca Harden Weaver ably details in Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1996), Augustine had argued that salvation comes totally and gratuitously from God, because fallen humans are incapable of responding positively to God in any way. Pelagius and the Semi-Pelagians affirmed that salvation is by grace, but Pelagius (to a greater degree) and the Semi-Pelagians (to a lesser degree) affirmed some role for human agency in salvation. In an excellent survey of the controversy, Rebecca Harden Weaver points to the role that the culture of good works in the monastic system played in discussion. Personally, I found the Augustinians to understate the role of human response in salvation and the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians to understate the role of divine grace in salvation. I suppose you could call me a semi- Augustinian semi-Pelagian, or, as we are better known, a Baptist.

[8] W. T. Conner, “Jesus, The Friend of Sinners,” in The Christ We Need (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1938), 45. Mark Coppenger in his article in The Founder’s Journal on “The Ascent of Lost Man in Southern Baptist Preaching” cited this quotation as a mistaken view of human depravity (see http://founders.org/journal/fj25/article1.html). I believe that most Southern Baptists resonate with the balance between divine sovereignty and human response in Conner’s perspective. But in the Calvinistic understanding of total depravity, humans are incapable of such a response to God’s gracious offer of salvation. Although many Southern Baptists say they believe in the “T” of the TULIP (total depravity), in fact their view is closer to the radical depravity described by Timothy George. While all Baptists believe that all persons of age are sinners, and that they cannot be saved without the grace of God and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, most Baptists still believe in a role for human choice or response to the gracious offer of God.

[9] See R. Alan Streett, “The Public Invitation and Calvinism,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. Steve Lemke and David Allen (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Academic, 2010), 233-251.

[10] David J. Engelsma, The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2005), 13–16.

[11] Ibid., 82.

[12] The three articles were printed under the heading of “Walking the Aisle,” in Heartland (Summer 1999):1, 4-9, a publication of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The three articles were “Closing with Christ,” by Jim Elliff, which argued that altar calls were unbiblical; “Rescuing the Perishing,” by Ken Keathley, which argued that invitations were biblical and appropriate, and “Kairos and the ‘Altar Call’,” by Mark Coppenger, which allowed for some limited use of altar calls.

[13] Elliff, “Closing with Christ,” 6.  (For a rebuttal of this claim, see Streett, “Calvinism and the Public Invitation,” in Whosoever Will, 241-245).

[14] Ibid., 7.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Keathley more than adequately refutes these claims with biblical evidence in “Rescuing the Perishing,” 4-5. See Ken Keathley, “Rescue the Perishing: A Defense of Giving Invitations,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 1, no. 1 (Spring 2003):4-16, available online from the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at http://baptistcenter.com/Journal%20Articles/Spr%202003/02%20Rescuing%20the%20Perishing%20-%20Spr%202003.pdf.

[17] C. H. Spurgeon, Tabernacle Pulpit, 17:449, and 12:477, cited in George, Amazing Grace, 77.

[18] This data comes from United States census reports and Annual Church Profile (ACP) reports from Southern Baptist churches, collected by Bill Day, Associate Director of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. For more details, see studies such as his “The State of the Church in the Southern Baptist Convention” and “A Study of Growing, Plateaued, and Declining SBC Churches: 2004.” Most of the information in these studies in published in William H. Day, Jr., “The State of Membership Growth, Sunday School, and Evangelism in the Southern Baptist Convention 1900-2002,” in Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, vol. 1, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 107-21, available online at the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry website at http://baptistcenter.com/Journal%20Articles/Fall%202003/07%20The%20State%20of%20Membership%20Growth%20-%20Fall%202003.pdf.