The Public Invitation: how biblical is it?

February 1, 2014

by Dan Nelson, pastor
FBC Camarillo, Calif.

A popular opinion is that public invitation is outdated, unbiblical, and is a manipulative ploy that hinders people from actually experiencing the Lord’s salvation. Opponents of the public invitation deem it a man-made scheme to get people to respond by walking to the front of the church after the sermon, in some sort of a declaration that they have become a Christian.

With the cessation of the Billy Graham mass crusades, the public invitation is not used in as many churches like it once was. Contemporary churches vary their approaches in calling for commitments.

The Calvinistic movement in general has been critical of the public invitation. The primary accusation being that the public invitation is a human work, substituted for the saving that comes by a free gift of God and not through any self-effort of anyone. Many critics go further in believing the invitation induces, among children, especially, a false assurance of salvation. Some charge that those who offer the public invitations say that “all” the potential convert has to do is walk the aisle, pray with the pastor or a counselor, and that’s it – you’re in.

Some Calvinists falsely assume that there is no follow-up after a person responds to the public invitation, and that the convert will receive no further counseling, instruction and discipleship that informs converts that the work of Christ has saved them, and not the mere walking of an aisle in response to a public invitation.

Frankly, I never thought I would see the day when calling people to come to Christ would be called superstitious and evil. Yet, the public invitation has been turned upside down by many with this line of thinking, which is faulty, ill-conceived and unbiblical.

Traditionally, the public invitation has been a distinctive mark of evangelistic churches. Yet, many contemporary churches (who don’t give a public invitation, per se) are winning people to Christ and baptizing them. I certainly am not speaking against any approach that is truly reaching people for Christ. Yet, those who say the public invitation is unbiblical are the ones fueling the fire, though, on the altar call. This brings us to ask the question: How biblical is the public invitation, and what are its origins?

The modern public invitation, as most churches give it, is not as clearly defined in the Scripture. However, the principles behind the public call for commitment to God may be seen throughout Scripture. God’s call to Adam in the garden was a call to publicly declare his condition (Gen. 3:9). Moses called Israel to decide between the golden calf and God, asking who was on the Lord’s side. The distinctive challenge was stated when he said, “Let him come unto me”  (Exodus 22:26). Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel was a call not to be double-minded by halting between two opinions. The people decided after seeing the powerful demonstration of fire from heaven by declaring the “Lord is God” (I Kings 18:21-39).

In the New Testament, Christ’s call for the disciples to drop their nets and follow him was a call for an immediate decision (Matt. 4:18-22). A speaker once I heard said, “Instead of them catching live fish, which die after they caught them, he called them to catch men, who were dead but would live forever, after they followed him.”[1]

Peter’s sermon at Pentecost concluded with a natural answer to the question, “What shall we do?” The answer, “Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Baptism was evidence of their new found faith in Christ.

Every sermon should bring people to the climatic question: “What must we do?” This would be a welcome change from people folding their Bibles and looking at their watches.

Paul’s sermons were concluded with an appeal to the individual. He asked Felix and Agrippa to decide regarding Christ. He asked Agrippa, “Believest thou the prophets?” (Acts 26:18a). This appeal was to his knowledge of Scriptures, and to conclude how Christ was the Messiah.

Each invitation should be so personal that, it would be as if the preacher would ask every person, individually, “Now, what will you do on the basis of what you have heard?” Nearly at the very end of the Bible we have this appeal to come and live forever in heaven through Christ.  Revelation 22:17 states:The spirit, bride and he that heareth all say come. And let him that is athirst say come. And whosoever will, let Him take of the water of life freely.”

These biblical references help us to understand that God does want people to respond in a personal way to his call on their lives. He expects them to do that personally in some shape, form or fashion. The majority of messages in Scripture lend them­selves to an appeal for man to make a decision on the basis of the challenge given.

W. A. Criswell referred to the invitation as an “appeal,”[2] which probably is more of an appropriate term to describe the conclusion of many messages in the Bible.

Whatever way we can accomplish in calling people to Christ, we should use it to the glory of God. The public invitation, as well as other methods, have their place if they issue a clear call for commitment.

(All comments are initially moderated for propriety, relevance and general content.)

[1] Quote from California Southern Baptist Evangelism Conference in the 1980s. The speaker has long since been forgotten.

[2] The popular description Dr. Criswell gave for the issuance of public invitation every Sunday at the end of his message.