Should ministers still extend “decisional” invitations?
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 have honored 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.
Response to critic Paul Washer
In Paul Washer’s message regarding decisional evangelism at the “Way of the Master Conference,” there was much said from which evangelical pastors and evangelists could learn. This should not be diminished, and at times, it is good to hear a thorough critique of one’s own view that they might adjust their ministry in such a way that it is more usable by God. Nevertheless, there are a few points which should be addressed regarding the message. At times, Washer mis-characterized the way in which many non-calvinist ministers offer their invitation. Moreover, he makes many implications about such ministers which turn out to be straw-man arguments. Whether Washer is aware of this or not his caricature may get a laugh or rouse an amen, but it will not stick to the majority of the ministers upon whom his aim was likely set. What follows is a brief discussion of the problems.
- Use of scriptureIt is Washer’s claim that such ministers never demonstrate from scripture what sin really is, but rather simply ask “are you a sinner?” Personally I never give an invitation at which I do not quote scripture at every point. Nevertheless, I imagine this could be true of some of our evangelists and pastors. Still, when an evangelistic minister doesn’t explain what sin is during the invitation it is typically because he has done so for the totality of the message. It should be kept in mind that the types of congregations who give such invitations, or invite evangelists to preach, are usually the types that would insist on the kind of preaching that demands repentance from clearly defined sin. Moreover, it is interesting to note that while Washer continually criticized such ministers for not using scripture enough, he barely returned to his Bible at all after reading a barely related passage about the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) Though he spoke often of exegesis, he would have to agree that he did not engage in it on this occasion.
- Use of emotionWasher then demanded that via stories and emotional manipulation, ministers woo the sinners down the aisle for a false conversion. This he said just before raising his voice, pounding on the podium and demanding that this, rather than liberal politicians was the reason for the state of America. He did this with much emotive vigor. Moreover, when he was speaking of his own beliefs he assumed a somber tone and spoke with reverence, but when he referred to the ministers he was critiquing and how they function he (by his own admission) took on a sarcastic and satirical tone.
- Mis-characterization of sinner’s prayer In my own book, Blinding Lights, in a chapter on work’s based salvation, I assert that it is not the praying of a prayer, nor the walking of an aisle that somehow merits salvation. Rather, the moment that the individual, wherever they may be, recognizes their need to be born again and repents, they are immediately a child of God before they even move toward an aisle or open their lips to speak a prayer. In my experience this is also the belief of every single pastor I have worked with over the past 4 ½ years. This is what philosophers refer to as a straw-man argument. Washer has set up a false (though I don’t believe he meant to) image of what non-calvinists preach and then knocked it down as though he has decisively demonstrated his point. In reality, an individual is urged to pray a prayer articulating their acceptance of the gospel and then told that if they truly believe, have repented and are committed to what they just prayed, then they have been born again (John 3:1-7).
- Mis-characterization of follow-upWasher explains that what usually happens when an individual is showing no signs of fruit after years of abandonment of the church is that the pastor will visit that individual and tell them that they just need to “try harder” and that “if you were really sincere, then you really got saved.” I can honestly say that I have never encountered any pastor, evangelist or layperson anywhere, from any denomination who would simply leave it at that. Every pastor I have ever worked with would say to such a person something like, “Only you know if you were truly born again, but if you were, then there should be some sign of that salvation.” Most ministers I know, including myself, would go further than that and say something to the effect of, “If you are in sin and you are not convicted to the point of getting right with God, then you were never saved to begin with.” This is another straw-man argument. Maybe Washer has encountered ministers like this, but it is certainly not the norm.
- Vacation Bible Schools What Washer says about the way children are evangelized in VBS I completely agree with. However, if he means to say that he does not believe a child can be saved then I and many of his listeners are lost. Yet, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was not in view.
- His charge that evangelicals such as this are the reason America is going to HellI will assume he simply got caught up in the moment when he said this, for surely he would agree that sin and separation from God is the reason individuals are going to Hell. Still, one must wonder what fault such a minister bears at all. Washer claims that the reason some individuals are not truly born again when they are confronted by the Gospel is because they made a false profession of faith as a child and are trusting in that. I do not mean what I say next to poke fun at the reformed position on election as some do, but rather I mean this very seriously. If election is determined by God, and grace irresistible, then how could anything that happened in that person’s past church experience cause them to miss out on grace when they truly are drawn upon by the Spirit. The irresistible nature of grace, as understood by those of Washer’s persuasion, would render this whole discussion moot.
There is much more that Washer said in the message, some of which I could have shouted “amen” the loudest to. The problem is that his mis-characterization, mockery and satire of the invitation as it is often given poisons the well of truth from which he is drawing. Worse still, I would wager, though I admit I have no way of demonstrating this conclusively, that the majority of believers who were in attendance at this event came to Christ via the means he denigrated herein. If it did not take place in a congregational setting it likely did in a home, workplace or school. It will always be true that wherever churches exist there exist also false converts. This however, does not mean that we should do away with the official invitation.