Theological Terminology Thursday:
The Study of Specialized Words Relating to Theology

Decisionism


By Ron F. Hale,
Minister of Missions,
West Jackson Baptist Church,
Jackson, TN


Jesus did not call us to anonymity, living and lurking in a shadowy secret society.

Jesus calls us out into the open and into the arena of our community and culture. He promised, “Whosoever confesses me before men, him will I also confess before My Father in heaven” (Matt 10:32). On the other hand, He warned, “But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (v.33). How this has been done publicly has fueled heavy debate through the centuries.

My more Calvinistic brothers have things that we non- or less-Calvinistic brothers need to hear and learn and vice versa. How we share with one another is very important. But when it is done as a doctrinal dressing-down, it is not received sympathetically.

Paul challenged Timothy to do the work of an evangelist as he ministered and proclaimed the Gospel.[1] Every minister or member has a responsibility in sharing the Good News! The Great Commission gives us a compelling reason to be proactive and persistent in our outreach; this commission is for those who stand behind pulpits and those sitting in pews. My motive and means for evangelism should stem from a loving relationship with Jesus; He is to be first and foremost! Sharing Jesus should be done with a dependence on the Holy Spirit and with a humble desire to unfold the Gospel plainly and practically so that a lost person can hear, understand, and respond to God according to His will.

Some years ago, I started seeing the word “decisionism” and related words like “decisional regeneration” or “decision theology.” It is usually referenced by those who are more Calvinistic (Reformed) along with other terms like: “Altar calls,” “clever emotional devices,” “the modern invitational system,” “easy-believism,” “decision cards,” “walking the aisle,” “mourner’s bench,” and “the sinner’s prayer.” It became obvious to me that critics and cynics of invitations and altar calls consider these approaches as dangerous . . . for it is too anthropocentric, meaning it gives man too much control over his salvation or is tantamount to a man-centered salvation by works.

Writing on this subject, Dr. Jay E. Adams explains:

One may read thousands of pages of the history of the Christian Church without finding a single reference to the “old-fashioned altar call” before the last century. Most Christians are surprised to learn that history before the time of Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) knows nothing of this type of “invitation.” The practice of urging men and women to make a physical movement at the conclusion of a meeting was introduced by Mr. Finney in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Dr. Albert B. Dod, a professor of theology at Princeton Seminary at the time of Mr. Finney’s ministry, pointed out the newness of the practice and showed that this method was without historical precedent. In his review of Finney’s Lectures on Revival, Professor Dod stated that one will search the volumes of church history in vain for a single example of this practice before the 1820?s.7 Instead, history tells us that whenever the gospel was preached men were invited to Christ — not to decide at the end of a sermon whether or not to perform some physical action.

The Apostle Paul, the great evangelist, never heard of an altar call, yet today some consider the altar call to be a necessary mark of an evangelical church. In fact, churches which do not practice it are often accused of having no concern for the lost. Neither Paul nor Peter ever climaxed his preaching with forcing upon his hearers the decision to walk or not to walk. It is not only with church history, then, but with Scriptural history as well that the altar call is in conflict.[2]

 

It becomes apparent that Adams (and others) regards the altar call or invitation as new phenomenon in the modern evangelical world and Charles Finney as the instigator of the modern day “invitational system.” Is this a fair assessment of public invitations?

Michael Green studied evangelism in the early church and concludes that early Christians had a basic pattern in their content of sharing the Word. First, they preached a person. Their message was Christo-centric. They preached Jesus to them! They stressed the cross, resurrection, and His present power and significance. Secondly, they proclaimed a gift; the gift of forgiveness, the gift of the Spirit, the gift of adoption, of reconciliation. The Jews had done nothing to merit it, any more than the Gentiles had: it proceeded entirely from the grace of God. Thirdly, they looked for a response. The apostles were not shy about asking men to decide for or against the God who had decided for them. They expected results. They challenged men to do something about the message they had heard. “What shall we do?” was the response of crowd on the day of Pentecost.[3] Thus, we see the early church growing and not being silent about the Christ.

Was Finney the first minister to employ gospel invitations? In his chapter entitled: The Public Invitation and Calvinism, Dr. R. Alan Streett traces back through American history and says,

By the time Finney had stepped onto the scene, the public invitation had been practiced in one form or another for over a century. Among Finney’s contemporaries and staunchest Calvinistic opponents were “old Light” Congregationalists, who, like Calvin two centuries before, ironically called for church members publicly to profess faith in Christ and declare assurance of salvation before taking Communion. These same opponents pointed to Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844), the first American-born evangelist and Finney contemporary, as the ideal evangelist who preached sinners into the kingdom without issuing an invitation. Historical records tell a different story. Nettleton actually gave a delayed-response invitation at the conclusion of his evangelistic sermons, exhorting listeners to attend an “inquirer’s meeting” after the service where they would receive special instruction regarding their soul’s salvation. He used the inquiry room “for those who felt they were ready for such an adventure.”[4]

 

Streett shares a quote by C.E. Autrey,[5] who said,

The inquiry room gave him [Asahel Nettleton] a chance to separate those under conviction from the rest of the congregation in order to instruct them properly. In the inquiry room individuals could speak with others without the excitement and pressure of the crowd.[6]

 

George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, both strong Calvinists used the method of inviting and exhorting sinners at the close of their sermons to meet with them privately for spiritual counsel. These after-meetings were held in various places in the church, parsonage, or buildings nearby. Many came to Christ in these delayed-response invitations. During the Second Great Awakening public invitations were greatly used. The Awakening of the East Coast, led by Yale President Timothy Dwight, combined Calvinism and revivalism and employed the after-meeting model of the invitation.[7]

In the early 1740’s, some 90 years before Finney’s preaching, Eleazar Wheelock, a strict Calvinist and founder of Dartmouth College, called out to spiritually distressed souls to gather in the seats below in order to converse with them more conveniently.[8]

I’m not sure who coined the term “decisionism” but it is obvious that “more Calvinistic” groups and “less Calvinistic” groups have used various forms of public invitations over the last three hundred years. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) was a major opponent of the public invitation and charged that it is based on defective theology.[9] If his statement is true, then both camps share in this “defective” theology.

Could it be that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones experienced some truly bad examples of public invitations in the less Calvinistic camp and those experiences tainted his assessment of public invitations altogether? Surely he would not have assessed the more Calvinistic Dr. John MacArthur Jr. as being “defective” in his theology and practice. Dr. MacArthur has led his church in growing from 450 people to more than 5,000 during his ministry, and he has said, “We see hundreds saved and baptized every year. We never have a service without an invitation, and we never have an invitation without people coming into our prayer room.”[10]

Have you read the book entitled: Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue? Dr. Chuck Lawless does an outstanding job in his chapter entitled: “Southern Baptist Non-Calvinists – Who Are We Really? . . .” in calling non-Calvinists to a higher degree of integrity in our evangelism practices while helping our more Calvinistic brothers better understand certain driving forces in our hearts. He gives both camps strong and straightforward words of wisdom. My respect and appreciation for Dr. Lawless grew exponentially as he served as our Interim Pastor before going to the International Mission Board. He preached the Gospel with enthusiasm and extended public invitations with passionate sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Lawless shares that non-Calvinists still want to be heard in at least four areas.

  • “Do not assume that our approach to evangelism is faulty if we sometimes use a tract in a one-time encounter.” He also encourages us to use tracts that explain the gospel well and calls for the proper response to the gospel.
  • “Please allow us to talk about ‘persuading’ others to believe . . . without assuming that we somehow turn anthropocentric and trump God’s sovereignty when we work to convince. Clearly changing the heart is the work of God (John 16:8; Eph 2:4-5), but still we must often work through proper apologetics and passionate reasoning to teach others the truth of the gospel.”
  • “Understand that many of us who still use a public invitation following the preaching of the Word are striving to do so with utmost integrity.” Here we are reminded to help people understand that it is Jesus who saves and not the physical public response of walking down front with tears in their eyes. The one who extends the invitation has the awesome responsibility to clearly communicate the Gospel and give an opportunity for the lost to express publicly their faith in Jesus.
  • “Please do not be gravely concerned if we still use the word decision and lead a repentant sinner to pray a prayer.” Here we are encouraged to properly present the gospel and have a right understanding of the response that the gospel demands.[11]

Public invitations and altar calls will be extended within SBC congregations for many years to come. Many of us believe that “persuasive” preaching always confronts the sinner with a choice of two destinies. These destinies are as real as the air in our lungs. Therefore, some kind of public call to repentance will be extended in most of our congregations.

Where do we go from here? Here are some closing questions to consider and discuss:

  • Who has been your model or mentor in extending a public invitation for the lost to hear, understand, and respond to the moving of God’s Spirit?
  • Can you share a “model” church that is doing a great job in teaching their people to effectively share the gospel and training new believers to follow Jesus?
  • If it is right to ask a lost person to repent and receive Jesus in a one-on-one personal witnessing encounter, why is it not alright to extend an invitation to many sinners in a church service?
  • For congregations not extending a public invitation, how do they discover “new believers” from their worship services and small groups?

[1] 2 Timothy 4:5

[2] A tract written by Jay Adams entitled: “Decisional Regeneration.”

[3] Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1970), 150-51.

[4] R. Alan Streett, “The Public Invitation and Calvinism, in, Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2010), 245.

[5] C. E. Autrey, Basic Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 131; quoted in ibid. Autrey served as Professor of Evangelism, Southwestern Baptist Seminary and served in evangelism leadership at the Home Mission Board, SBC. He authored the book Basic Evangelism in 1959, which is in its fourth printing.

[6] Allen and Lemke, 246.

[7] Ibid., 244-45.

[8] Ibid., 244.

[9] Ibid., 247.

[10] Ibid., 246.

[11] E. Ray Clendenen and Brad J. Waggoner, eds., Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2008), 164-66.