“Leave Your Seat. Leave Your Sin” Part II
It’s all good? Hardly. How the invitation has corrupted evangelicalism.
by Michael Spencer
When I say that the public invitation isn’t in the Bible, my fellow Christians look as me as if I have just evidenced severe dementia. How could something that is so much a part of the life and worship of evangelicals not be in the Bible? Am I just so blindly opposed to the invitation that I can’t see all the Biblical support for calling people to get right with God? How are you supposed to preach the Gospel if you don’t give people an opportunity to publicly declare their faith in Christ? Without the invitation, aren’t we denying people the opportunity to come to Christ?
If you consider the language used by many evangelical practitioners of inviatationalism, it’s not surprising that people would conclude that the public invitation is the way to Christ. Rick Gage’s invitation was reported in our Baptist State newspaper as “Leave your seat. Leave your sin. Come to Christ.” If one doesn’t leave his or her seat, one doesn’t get to Christ. I have heard youth evangelists say that Christ was at the front of the room, and you were invited to come down and receive him. The similarity of this type of instruction to the Roman Catholic Mass is remarkable.
My own experience of invitationalism comes from a tradition that did not hesitate to say that those who failed to come forward had failed to receive Christ. Invitation hymns pleaded with the lost to come forward. Preachers and evangelists used every bit of their skill to persuade you to let go of that pew and come to the front. With no less conviction than Tetzel these preachers were convinced that if you walked that aisle you were coming to Christ. The whole atmosphere of invitationalism is full of language adapted to express that the trip down the aisle is the saving response to Christ. “Hey guess what? I went forward last Sunday!”
Of course, the Bible is abundantly clear that we are saved by faith alone. And I doubt if any of my altar-calling friends would take any issue with that at all. Many would even say that the altar call is not synonymous with faith, but is a profession of faith. I could peacefully live with this distinction if the advocates of the altar call could do the same, and shape the altar call in that format. Most of them cannot and will not.
Most evangelicals advocate believer’s baptism. If there is an external act that is Biblically required in order to credibly profess faith in Christ, it would be baptism. But the altar call is rarely a call to baptism. Instead, the altar call is the call to Christ, and to receive Christ by coming forward and praying. In other words, advocates of the altar call add one or two physical actions as requirements for either salvation or a credible profession of faith. Since scripture does not add these requirements, we have no warrant to do so.
Advocates of the invitation may want to protest this observation, but it is undeniable. Attend any evangelistic event long enough to hear what is said after the invitation. It is more than normal to hear an applause line built around the news that a certain number came forward and are now saved as a result. People who walk aisles are people who were lost before they left their seat and saved when they came forward.
Let’s now turn to some of the passages commonly cited as supporting the public invitation.
Luke 12:8-9 “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.
This scripture (and many similar passages) is probably the first one that is cited as a defense for the public invitation, but its weakness is readily apparent. The context has to do with encouraging the disciples to live fearless, faithful lives in a hostile world. Jesus is saying that his disciples must publicly acknowledge him if their faith is to be honored on the day of judgment. It is easy to see the passage talking about what a Christian ought to do when persecuted or in the ordinary course of a Christian witness. To make the passage apply to an altar call is not completely inappropriate, but it is clearly not what the passage is talking about. If anything, the best understood context for the early Christians would have been baptism or the pressures to deny Christ when brought before hostile magistrates.
Romans 10:8-9 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Of course, the altar call is not mentioned here either and one has to impose it on the verse to imagine that an altar call is envisioned. Here, faith and public confession are held together. It is unlikely that the early Christians would have viewed a person as a believer if they had not confessed Christ in and at baptism. This isn’t to say that they did not understand a distinction between faith and baptism or that they believed in baptisimal regeneration in a literal sense. It is to say that the call to faith and the call to obedient confession- most likely in baptism- were not separated. That is why the closest thing to a public invitation you will find in the New Testament are passages urging persons to declare their faith through baptism.
Acts 2:37-41 37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Acts 8:35-36 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”
The call to be baptized is not a call to the evangelical altar, and no matter how we may view the relationship of faith and baptism, the duty of resting on Christ and the proclamation of faith in baptism do not constitute an endorsement of the sacramentalizing of the altar call. If anything, we might rightly criticize the public invitation for de-emphasizing baptism as public confession and inventing a new sacrament.
What about passages that mention an invitation? Don’t these substantiate an altar call?
Isaiah 55:1 “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Matthew 11:28 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Isn’t the best way to use these scriptural invitations to actually have an invitation to the altar in a worship service or evangelistic setting? Well….no. These are invitations from God Himself and their beauty is that those addressed are urged to come to Christ. This is a spiritual call. It is not a physical call. Listen to Jesus in John 6 and Paul in Galatians 3:
John 6:63 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
Galatians 3:2-3 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
These are passages with remarkable importance in the matter of using public invitations. Walking the aisle is a work of the flesh. Unlike baptism, which is commanded, altar calls are not commanded. What we have is a spiritual invitation to come to Christ; an invitation that cannot be fulfilled by a physical response. We cannot leave our sin by leaving our seat. We cannot come to Christ by walking forward. Faith in Christ is a spiritual response and there is great danger- GREAT DANGER!- in leading someone to conclude that their physical response automatically entailed a spiritual reality.
At this point there may be some agreement that the invitation is not explicitly taught in scripture, but now the pragmatic argument will be heard. I often say that we are living in the “Dictatorship of the Pragmatariat” in evangelicalism these days! Whatever works, whatever “helps,” whatever makes things easier, is automatically endorsed as approved by God and, if not taught in scripture, approved by passages such as
1 Corinthians 9:22b-23 I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
When pragmatists use this verse, I marvel that they do not see how its simple meaning escapes them. In I Corinthians 9, Paul isn’t celebrating pragmatism, but Christian freedom. To whatever audience he brought the Gospel, he was free to identify with them as much as was possible to communicate the Gospel without compromise. If Paul was saying he would employ any method that worked, he certainly had changed his mind from I Corinthians 1, where he stubbornly says that he knew nothing (methodologically and pragmatically) among the Corinthians but preaching Christ crucified. Paul was flexible missionary, removing many obstacles so that all might hear. Calling him a full blown pragmatist doing whatever got a crowd to respond doesn’t seem to fit the facts.
Look at Acts 17. In Athens, Paul came to the philosophers to preach Christ on their turf and in answer to some of their own questions. it’s a great example of missiological and evangelistic flexibility, but not much of an example of “doing whatever seems to work.”
So what about the pragmatic contention that the public invitation works? It gets people to leave their seat and come to Christ. It helps people make a solid, public commitment that they will always remember. By walking forward, they are not only confessing Christ but publicly professing Christ in a way that makes the decision meaningful? Does it really help people leave their sin and come to Christ?
I gotta tell you, if this were the case, I would probably not be writing this article. I am pragmatic enough to be pulled in if I actually saw that this were the case. As strongly as I believe scripture speaks, if you could show me the Holy Spirit pragmatically honoring the altar call, I would be able to come up with some kind of an endorsement.
The problem is, this is NOT what happens. The public invitation has become the ecclesiastical equivalent of a dog chasing his tail until he passes out. It starts out slow, gets faster, looks even more ridiculous, and the poor mutt is determined to catch the thing, but just can’t do it. The invitationalists just can’t quit playing with the altar call. Their pragmatic creed dictates that if we just can add a little this or that we will get even more results. The feeling of riding in a vehicle without brakes may be familiar to anyone observing this phenomenon.
Shake the preacher’s hand. Come tell the preacher about your decision. Come make your decision. Come get saved. Rededicate. Get saved again. Make a commitment to full-time Christian service. Pray at the altar. Fill out the card. Prayer this prayer after me. Prayer counselors. Prayer teams. Come with a friend. Raise your hand, stand up, get prayed for, THEN come forward. Come to the altar and hang around. Get slain in the Spirit. Come and tell us about your healing. Come and get healed. Come and get delivered. Come and get prophesied over. Come and get anointed. Come and get knocked over. Come every week. Come and pray for someone else. Come and pray with someone else. Come and testify. Come, run around a couple of laps, then return to your seat. Come and then go back to a room. Jesus is down here. Angels are down here. Come down here and touch the cross. Everyone who is a real Christian come down here. Sing another verse. Come without singing. Let go of that seat and come. Take someone’s hand and ask them to go with you.
I’ll stop there, but there is plenty more where that came from.
What have we concluded? First, there is no plain endorsement or example of the altar call in scripture. Second, the scripture passages used to endorse or concoct the altar call don’t do either. Third, a pragmatic endorsement of the invitation runs aground on both a lack of scriptural endorsement of pragmatism in general or the altar call in particular. Fourth, there is good evidence that the public invitation isn’t just an ever-enlarging circus of a mess, but a corrupting disease within evangelicalism.
For a look at what invitationalism has done to evangelical spirituality and church health, read part III. Until then, I’m stayin’ in my seat.