The evangelist Dwight L. Moody was preaching to a gathering of 2,500 on a Sunday night in his hometown of Chicago. His sermon centered on the key question that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate asked in Matthew 27:22, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
Moody challenged those gathered that evening to spend the week considering the evidence for Jesus Christ being the Savior of the world, and to return the next Sunday prepared to render a verdict about Him.
The story goes that as they sang a closing hymn, the sound of fire engines was heard. That night, Oct. 8, 1871, the great Chicago fire began to rage, burning for two days and consuming nearly four square miles of Chicago. The blaze killed some 300 people, left 100,000 homeless, and destroyed 18,000 buildings, including 50 churches.
Moody was said to have wondered how many people who heard him preach that night may have perished in the fire. He called it one of the biggest regrets of his life.
“I want to tell you of the one lesson I learned that night,” Moody later said. “When I preach, I press Christ upon the people, then and there, and try to bring them to a decision on the spot. I would rather have that right hand cut off than to give an audience now a week to decide what to do with Jesus.”
Deep Biblical Roots
The call for a response to the Gospel has deep Biblical roots. Some people point to Old Testament examples of God’s call to faith; others go straight to John the Baptist’s call to repent in the Gospels, Peter’s sermons about the risen Christ in Acts 2 and 3, or Paul’s sermon to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17.
Whatever the text used to exemplify the call of God to man, O.S. Hawkins and Matt Queen, in their new book “The Gospel Invitation,” write that “the intent of Biblical invitations across both Testaments are the same—Biblical invitations publicly call sinners to be reconciled to God.”
In fact, Queen, in a phone interview, said one could argue that the first example of an invitation is found in Genesis 3—what theologians note as the first foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrificial atonement and covering for man’s sin.
“God called out to Adam and said, ‘Adam, where are you?’ He knew exactly where Adam was,” Queen notes. “Adam was not a better hider than God was a seeker. God was calling for Adam to present himself before Him, so that He could cover up his sin with the clothing of that little animal that He killed to clothe Adam and Eve. And ever since then, that call has gone out to men, women, boys and girls.”
In a similar way, Queen says, preachers extend the same call to the unconverted: stop hiding and “come to God.”
“Lost people, even when they hear the Gospel and are convicted by the Holy Spirit, don’t know what to do,” Queen says “… In Acts 2, Peter preached and they were cut to the heart. In verse 37, they said, ‘What do we do?’ The Philippian jailer hears Paul and Silas singing, and they’re singing about Jesus, and he says, ‘What do I do to be saved?’ So, when they hear about Jesus, they’re convicted, they’re cut to the heart. But they still don’t know what to do until someone tells them. That’s the Gospel invitation.”
For nearly 60 years, millions of Christians and non-Christians alike heard Billy Graham’s Gospel invitation at the end of his evangelistic meetings, whether in person, on television, on the radio, in a World Wide Pictures film or on the Internet. Perhaps no single person challenged more people to face the question of eternal destiny than Mr. Graham.
That invitation to repent and believe—in some churches termed an “altar call” or simply “the invitation”—has taken various forms and has been used mostly in evangelical churches. Studies on the subject are scarce, but if anecdotes are accurate, the practice of public invitations has lost its prominence in many church services, if it is used at all.
If a church is preaching the Gospel, doesn’t that message, loaded with eternal import, beg for a response?
R.T. Kendall would say so. Kendall had offered invitations as a pastor before, but when he succeeded Martin Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel in London, where the invitation wasn’t practiced, Kendall stopped giving them.
Five years into his pastorate, in May 1982—guest preacher Arthur Blessitt, an evangelist known for carrying a cross around the globe, offered the first public invitation ever given at Westminster. Blessitt insisted on ending each sermon with a Gospel invitation, but Kendall was wary because the congregation was set in its ways.
“I told him, ‘Wait, wait, wait. We don’t do that here,’” Kendall recalled. “He said, ‘We don’t?’ After seeing the look on his face, I told him, ‘If you feel you should, go ahead.’
“Well,” Blessitt told Kendall, ”I can tell you right now, I do.”
After a month of sitting through Blessitt’s preaching and invitations, Kendall said he literally paced the floor trying to decide whether or not to give a public invitation the next Sunday when he resumed preaching. He did, and seven people came forward. He continues to offer invitations to this day when he preaches. In 1984, he even wrote a book about the importance of the public invitation titled “Stand Up and Be Counted,” with a foreword by Billy Graham.
Faithful Preaching, Prayer
Jim Cymbala, pastor of The Brooklyn Tabernacle, also believes in the importance of a public invitation. Cymbala says because the church draws a steady flow of visitors, it’s not a matter of whether unconverted people are there, but how many. Even in churches with no visitors, if the late Warren Wiersbe was right, there are unconverted church members in the pews, Cymbala says.
But preceding discussion of the invitation, Cymbala insists, is the question of whether the Gospel is being preached. He worries that too many churches are fixated on numbers and not offending people.
“The Gospel is confrontational,” he says. Churches are to welcome all people with loving hospitality, but to effectively call people to saving faith, we must first inform them of their need for salvation.
Prayer is also foundational for evangelism, and The Brooklyn Tabernacle, known for its large weekly prayer meetings, has a group of people dedicated to praying before worship services, during worship and during the invitation.
Queen says an effective Gospel invitation “has a whole strategy to it,” not out of pragmatism or man-centered motivations, he says, but because it is a Biblical practice in which Christian preachers have the privilege of cooperating with the Holy Spirit as He moves in hearts.
Effective preaching, Queen says, allows the Biblical text to drive the call to a hearer’s heart. It also begins preparing people for the invitation at several intervals throughout a sermon rather than making it merely an add-on at the end of the service.
Also, within any Biblical text, preachers should find what Hawkins calls “Gospel cues” and note the larger redemption story across the whole Bible that points to Christ, Queen says.
“The text is always there to invite us into a relationship with God,” he says. “For believers, into a deeper relationship with God through His Word, but for the unbeliever, the text is there to attract us and point us to Jesus.”
After that, the call for a decision is the natural next step. ©2023 BGEA
The Scripture quotation is taken from the Holy Bible, New King James Version.
Photo: Shealah Craighead/©2022 BGEA