Should Ministers Still Extend “Decisional Invitations?”

Dr. Braxton Hunter | Professor of Apologetics
Trinity Theological Seminary, Newburgh, IN

**This article was previously posted by Dr. Braxton Hunter on his website www.braxtonhunter.com and is used by permission.

Dr. Hunter is: former president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (COSBE), professor of apologetics at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana

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WARNING: Typically I use a good deal of humor in these blogs, but on this occasion I want to warn you that this will be a heavy, direct and controversial discussion.

Poll the average baptist church congregation (and a number of other denominations) on the subject of when and where each member became a Christian and you will hear a myriad of answers. Nevertheless, one which will repeatedly surface usually sounds something like this, “As the preacher delivered the message, I was convicted. I realized my sin and at the invitation I was one of the first down the aisle. I committed my life to Christ and repented in prayer to God.”  This invitation, as it has come to be known, holds a special place in the hearts of many believers in that it was the moment at which they embraced Christianity and truly became followers of Christ. It does not hold a special place for them because of anything about the physical aspects of the event (walking down an aisle, praying a prayer or getting baptized), rather it was the time at which they stood face to face with the reality of their sin, Christ’s sacrifice and their need for Him, then repented. Has it been abused? Absolutely! There have been many throughout the past several decades who have preached easy believism, made the church altar itself out to be something venerated and Holy and even used the invitation for monetary gains. Yet, the question is, “Should we throw the baby out with the bath-water?” In what follows I am going to give a brief defense of the invitation. If you find these words in opposition to your own point of view, you should know that I say none of this with a spirit of anger or sarcasm. On the contrary, I am happy to discuss it with you via email if you would like.

A biblical case for the invitation

In 1 Corinthians 14:24 and 25, just after Paul discusses the dangers related to speaking in tongues in the congregation, he mentions, But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.” This sounds as though it is a decisional moment wherein an individual who is in one instance described as an “unbeliever” is the next moment proclaiming the existence of the Christian God. It further sounds as though Paul sees this as a desired regular event. One might criticize this interpretation by mentioning that some of the apostolic gifts have past away, but the use of such gifts is precisely what Paul had just finished asking them to limit in the midst of a service. Acts 8:36-38 describes the meeting between Philip and the eunuch at which time the eunuch had a decisional moment of conversion. I fail to see a clear difference between the eunuch’s salvation after hearing the message of Christ and the salvation of an individual in the midst of a congregation and inside of a church building.  Moreover, in passages such as Matt. 4:19 we read of Jesus extending an invitation to those who heard His message. Further discussion could be had of passages such as the Pentecost event. As I have made this very brief biblical case, I must add one caveat before we move on. If you adhere to reformed theology and thus you reject my use of the term “decisional,” I invite you to find common ground with me in that from the human perspective we experience our conversion as though it were a decision whether or not you agree that it in fact is. I believe that if you can accept that, then you should not have a problem with the above statements.

A philosophical case for the invitation

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) formulated a quadralemma argument in favor of belief which is somewhat problematic in the eyes of many today. What has come to be known as “Pascal’s wager” is simply an argument that if you are unsure on whether or not to believe in God, it is safer to err on the side of caution and just believe. It is referred to as a quadrilemma because it states four possibilities,

1) If God does not exist and I do believe in him then I will have lost nothing,

2) If God does not exist and I do not believe in him I have likewise lost nothing,

3) If God does exist and I do believe in him I have gained everything,

4) If God does exist and I do not believe in him I have lost everything.

The point of the argument is that it’s safer to believe than it is not to believe. Problems arise for Pascal when one considers that there are a variety of alleged gods, and thus one who is unsure can never be certain he is erring on the side of caution. Also, belief “just in case” doesn’t seem to be the kind of belief that scripture calls for. Why do I being the wager up then?

An argument similar to that of Pascal’s could be used to make a case for the decisional invitation, which I do not believe makes the mistakes that Pascal’s wager does. Perhaps instead of Pascal’s wager we could go with “Braxton’s best bet.” Of course, I don’t see it as a bet at all. Simply put, my argument would claim that if the preacher wants to be sure he is honoring God’s command in reaching out to the lost, it is safer for him to err on the side of caution and extend the decisional invitation. A note needs to be made in order for you to best see how this argument works. The loudest voice in opposition to decisional evangelism (which by the way is their phraseology, not mine) is coming from those who hold to reformed theological positions. For such individuals (many of whom I have the highest respect for) the reason decisional evangelism is wrong, is because it somehow limits the sovereignty of God by allowing man a part in his own salvation. Paul Washer claimed, at a conference for “The Way of the Master” that the danger of decisional evangelism is that an individual may falsely believe he was saved because he made a decision for Christ and then years later when someone tries to reach out to him he will reject the message because he believes he is already saved based on his decision. But how can this be? If grace is truly irresistible and choice is not a determining factor, then I cannot see how Washer’s claim that the individual may reject the message based on a prior decision can be valid. Such grace would, necessarily be, irresistible no matter what the individual’s former church experiences were. So decisional evangelism does not threaten the salvation of anyone. Thus, a quadrilemma argument in favor of it could be stated as follows:

1. If decisional evangelism doesn’t work and the preacher doesn’t extend it, the church will have lost nothing

2. If decisional evangelism doesn’t work and the preacher does extend it, the church will have lost nothing

3. If decisional evangelism does work and the preacher does extend it, the church will havehonored God

4. If decisional evangelism does work and the preacher doesn’t extend it, the church will not have honored God (in this respect)

To put this in plain language, if grace is irresistible in the sense that reformed theology holds, then decisional evangelism will not hinder salvation (and unless a critic wants to maintain that it is not possible for God to save anyone in the midst of a decisional invitation, it may even be used of God). At most, it will be a waist of time and energy. On the other hand, if decisional evangelism does work, and we don’t do it we are not doing everything we could to reach the lost. Which is safer? As my father often put it, “I would rather have God tell me I tried too hard to reach the lost than to have Him say I didn’t try hard enough.”

The hard part for anyone skeptical of this argument is that unless you are %100 certain that you are interpreting scripture properly (meaning you know that decisional evangelism is unbiblical without a doubt), then you are in danger of erring on the wrong side.

A common sense case for decisional evangelism

Having taken a brief look at the biblical data and the possible philosophical implications, let’s take a step back and look at it through the lenses of common sense. Many individuals on both sides of this debate claim that they were born again in the midst of an evangelistic service when they responded at an invitation. Are we really prepared to tell them that they didn’t get saved at that point, but some other? This strikes me as absurd and it is also the essence of unbiblical judgementalism. Moreover, I have known hundreds of individuals who became believers at evangelistic events and went on to be ardent, passionate, changed servants of God. If the concern here is that we might get false converts then it should be mentioned that such a possibility is always present no matter how the church conducts itself. One might say that we end up with a large number of non-Christians in church pews who really never were saved. This is a possibility, nevertheless, were would we want such individuals, but under the strong preaching of God’s word regularly?

In order to be justified in passionately preaching against what some have termed “decisional evangelism” one must be able to overcome, not one, but both of the above mentioned arguments and in some cases question the testimonies of thousands.