June 2, 2020

Leave your seat, leave your sin (part 3)

“Leave Your Seat. Leave Your Sin” Part III
It’s all good? Hardly. How the invitation has corrupted evangelicalism.
by Michael Spencer

Occasional abuse does not render a thing evil. This is common sense and evident to any reasonable person. Defenders of the public invitation are usually congenial about admitting to its abuse, yet they are quick to maintain that those abuses do not interfere with the many benefits of the invitation when rightly practiced. While a cursory critic of the altar call might be persuaded by this claim, a closer examination will find just the opposite to be the case. The public invitation itself has corrupted much of evangelicalism.

It is important to remember the basic historical background of the invitation. In short, it was unknown in Christianity until the middle of the nineteenth century. If the advocates of the invitation can convince themselves from a highly biased reading of scripture that the public invitation is biblically sanctioned, they will be disappointed to find that the invitation apparently vanished without a trace from Christian history. It cannot be found until the innovations of America’s second great awakening took hold in the ministries of Finney and Moody.

Most interesting to me is the absence of the public invitation in the ministries of two important evangelical figures: George Whitefield and Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Both Whitefield and Spurgeon are among the greatest evangelists of their generation, but neither practiced the public altar call in any form. Whitefield preached the necessity of regeneration, but not the public invitation. Spurgeon saw many thousands come to Christ during his ministry, but he never used an altar call, and criticized Moody for using it in his British meetings. Interestingly, the altar call was imported into Spurgeon’s church after his death, and the church declined immediately. While there is no claim of cause and effect, Ian Murray has helpfully documented that the older members of Spurgeon’s congregation knew a significant shift had been made by the addition of this innovation, and they specifically noted Spurgeon’s refusal to use such means.

The use of the altar call came alongside a series of theological shifts in evangelicalism. These shifts were foundational, as evangelicals rejected the Biblical foundations of reformed theology. The invitation was not simply pragmatic- it was deeply rooted in significant theological changes regarding human ability, the extent of depravity, the work of the Holy Spirit, the place of regeneration, the nature of faith and the relationship of faith and works. What were these shifts?

Each one could occupy an essay unto itself. I will simply list several of the most significant.

  • The shift from believing regeneration was a work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith to believing regeneration was a work that resulted from a human action.
  • The shift from believing that baptism was the only Biblically prescribed public response to the Gospel to seeing altar calls and enquiry rooms as Biblically endorsed responses.
  • The shift from depending on the work of the Holy Spirit apart from means other than preaching and prayer to assuming the Holy Spirit would use any means calculated to bring people to faith in Christ.
  • The shift from insisting that a person establish a visible testimony in a local church to assuming that anyone responding to an invitation was converted.
  • The shift from the preacher being an expounder of scripture to allowing the preacher to direct the invitation through whatever means he might choose.
  • The shift from emphasizing human inability and depravity to emphasizing human ability and responsiveness.
  • The shift from scriptural regulation to pragmatic experimentation.
  • The shift from guarding a faith response from any association with a human work to freely associating faith with many human works.

An exploration of these shifts will reveal that each one is a corrupting error with devastating consequences. It is to those consequences that I will now turn in the remainder of this essay.

The public invitation has filled local churches with the unconverted.

I am not an advocate of any notion that the local church can ever be completely free from unconverted members. Scripture is very clear that the visible church will always contain members who are unconverted. Yet, while the visible church is not commissioned to try and discern what only God can know, there is a very real danger of making a credible profession of faith so easy that the church will be filled with those who are not converted.

As a lifelong Southern Baptist, I have been keenly aware of the “inactive” church member, the invisible church member, the walk-the-aisle-and-right-out-the-door member. Southern Baptists have millions of professed members who have no place or part in the visible church. In fact, many of these inactive members made little more than a one time response to an invitation and were immediately baptized and counted as members of the church. This absurd situation- which grows worse every year- is a direct result of Southern Baptist’s love affair with the public invitation.

The public invitation gives a false assurance of salvation to the unconverted.

While few invitationalists will spend any time debating the invitation, they will spend hours debating the salvation of those who have responded to the invitation. The consensus among Southern Baptists, with their devotion to once-saved-always-saved and their almost total neglect of the Biblical teaching on perseverance, is that these invisible Christians will be in heaven BECAUSE they responded once upon a time to a public invitation.

This assurance to the church is doubly tragic as an assurance to the lost that they are saved as a result of responding to an altar call. At least Arminians have a theology that will conclude these persons are lost (again!) and need salvation. The Southern Baptist formula of “once you walk the aisle you are going to heaven” is a four lane expressway to hell.

The public invitation corrupts the role and practice of the preacher.

One of the truly remarkable results of the use of the invitation has been the transformation of Christian ministers from preachers and proclaimers to manipulators and salesman. In fact, sales techniques and other pressure tactics are highly valued among invitationalists as “getting results,” and results are what matters.

When anyone reads Spurgeon’s sermons, they will be impressed with the earnest, impassioned invitations which often conclude the messages. Of course, these were invitations where the preacher was representing the invitations of God in the Gospel, and Spurgeon spared no emotion in presenting those invitations with all the powers of persuasion he possessed.

Yet, Spurgeon did not tell the congregation to close their eyes and raise their hands. He did not say go to a friend and bring them with you. He did not use tactics to manipulate a result. Spurgeon could be criticized- and was- for his use of emotional pleading, but those pleadings were never joined with tactics to bring people to the front to register a decision.

Today ministerial manipulation is a highly valued skill. Ministers who can effectively get people down the aisle are considered superior evangelists. Of course, once this corrupting error has been set loose in Christianity, there has been no limit to what some will do, and if it results in “decisions,” it will be defended as an anointed work of God.

The public invitation makes pragmatism, not scripture, the authority that regulates worship.

I have never met an avowed Christian pragmatist in principle, though I have met hundreds in practice. There is an instinctive resistance to openly rejecting scriptural regulation of the church, even by those who want no part of confessional or governmental regulation in the church.

But the public invitation has been the battering ram that has brought down scriptural regulation within evangelicalism. Thousands of churches now accept anything and everything in the church because it will reach or entertain or possibly draw in SOMEBODY. Pragmatism has become a stronger influence in the PRACTICE of the church than scripture itself. It matters little to evangelicals today that prayer and scripture reading are specifically and repeatedly endorsed in the Bible as part of worship. The question is “What will the seekers think?” Unbelievably, many evangelicals want no real scripture reading or public prayer in their services. In other words, pragmatism now reigns supreme, and the public invitation was the beginning.

The public invitation has excused an increasing collection of excesses.

The public invitation has allowed any number of unnecessary excesses into many churches. Invitational excesses are almost always excused under the all-purpose excuse “You never know what God may be doing.” I have been in the unenviable position of attempting to correct excesses during the invitation at the ministry where I serve, and I can testify that no matter what a distressed, disturbed or purely selfish person may do during the invitation, there will be support for overlooking it. Some have even concluded that the more bizarre the excess, the more likely it is a “God thing.”

Recent events in evangelicalism have shown the powerful influence of the invitation on the thinking of evangelicals. Laughing, drunkenness, animal sounds, vomiting, screaming, falling over- all these activities now have a lobby urging their acceptance into Christian worship because they represent responses seen at the “altar.” The invitation itself is morphing into an independent arena of its own in many churches. At the altar, “prayer ministers” conduct “ministry time,” often taking over a service for hours.

Each of these matters should be considered scripturally. I am simply contending that it is the continuing impact of invitationalism that has brought churches to the point of being so confused about what are obviously excessive manifestations of human emotionalism.

The public invitation has promoted a false spirituality that replaces faith with works.

My own greatest concern about the invitation is the most simple observation that I can make. Christian spirituality is a matter of the Holy Spirit and the response of faith. Invitationalism has birthed an entire spirituality of works.

Who is the most spiritual person? Why the person most often down the aisle and at the altar. Who is the person most in tune with the Holy Spirit? Who is the most evangelistic? The most prayerful? The most zealous? Invitationalism provides an easy way to answer these questions. Just look down front.

I attended a Promise Keepers meeting this year, and at the conclusion of the meeting, a cross was brought down to the floor and an elaborate invitation was offered with the stated goal of getting everyone down to the floor to touch the cross. Those of us who refused to participate in the pre-announced Holy Spirit inspired commitment to bring five lost men to a PK meeting next year were looked at as if we were the Taliban, or at least unconverted ourselves.

This sort of thing is a false spirituality. It is the spirituality that says wearing a Christian t-shirt, listening to Christian music, going to Christian concerts, eating Christian cereal is somehow an expression of faith. But anyone familiar with medieval Roman Catholicism would quickly spot what evangelicalism is turning into by going this road.

Faith is not a fleshly proposition. The public invitation was the major breach in Protestantism’s resistance to the works oriented salvation of Rome. The Old School Presbyterians who resisted Charles Finney’s “New Measures” knew that if Finney was able to say that faith was simply a decision to raise a hand, or stand up or walk forward, the resulting infusion of works into the response to the Gospel would be a road back to Rome. Finney won, and his critics were right.

Evangelicalism is now at a crisis point, where the crosswinds of entertainment, entrepreneurism, marketability and numerical success are pulling it in many dangerous directions. The anchor of scriptural authority has been abandoned, and the sails of pragmatism have been set. The various crews and passengers may find these to be exciting times, but more experienced sailors know what the future holds. This is a gathering storm, and there will be no escaping disaster if the mistakes of the past are not admitted and forsaken.

The call for a second reformation is nothing less than a call to save evangelicalism from destruction. My critique of the public invitation isn’t just tilting at windmills. It is a call to repentance, reformation and revival.