Some people call it “drawing the net” or an “invitation,” while others simply refer to it as an “altar call.” It’s typically a time of decision at the end of a sermon where people are invited to the front to counsel and pray to receive Christ. What methods do we see employed in the Scriptures?
Years ago I was approached by our local association of Baptist churches to support a local evangelism event in our community. Since I value the work of evangelism and the collective work of local Baptist churches, I supported the event. Each evening the sermon came to an end by the guest evangelist offering an invitation to respond. It was a fresh reminder that methods matter.
As I watched the whole scene unfold, I became very uncomfortable. When the “invitation” was given, the counselors all got up and walked to the front from where they were seated in the audience. All of this was a preplanned and well organized routine that happened each evening at the conclusion of the sermon. It was a means of priming the pump—resulting in others following in their footsteps to be counseled. As you can imagine, it worked. Many people over those few days walked to the front for counseling. I’m not saying that there wasn’t a single true convert in that meeting, but I have yet to meet one in the years that have passed since that meeting. Tactics like this have been employed for many years in the evangelical church. What does the Bible teach about altar calls and the public invitation system?
God calls people to Himself. He invites sinners to come to Him. As early as Genesis 6:18, we see God directing Noah to come into the ark with his family where they would be spared from God’s wrath. Later, through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, we see these words, “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” (Is. 55:1). It’s clear that God calls people to come to Him for salvation.
In Jesus’ ministry, we see similar language. Jesus once said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). God loves sinners and He calls sinners to come. God calls sinners to Himself where they will receive mercy (Rom. 10:13). In Mark 1:17, we see Jesus calling His first disciple to “follow him.” In Matthew 10:32-33, Jesus said these words, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
The Bible comes to an end with a glorious invitation from God. We find these words in Revelation 22:17:
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
Through the Holy Spirit and the work of God’s church, sinners hear the words, “come.” This is the work of evangelism. As we go teaching and preaching as God’s ambassadors, we are to implore people to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20). We direct people to find their hope in God through Jesus Christ. Through the power of the gospel, God calls sinners to Himself (Rom. 1:16).
Charles Finney and the Manipulation of the Invitation
In many cases, the images of Billy Graham’s crusades are still fresh on the minds Christians in the evangelical church in America. Graham used the tactics that were greatly popularized by Charles Finney in the 1800s. Finney, an unlikely convert, rose to great popularity during the days of the Second Great Awakening. Finney directed people to come to the “anxious seat” at the front of the church where they could literally agonize over their soul. It would be there that they would receive counsel and be instructed to pray the “prayer of faith” for the salvation of their soul.
Still today, at the conclusion of many evangelical church services, you will hear these familiar words, “Please bow your heads and close your eyes.” It’s at this moment that music is often played softly as the pastor gently speaks to unbelievers. Soon, he will say something like, “If you believe you need to be saved today, please raise your hand so that I can see it. Nobody is looking around, and I don’t want to embarrass you.” As you sit there with your eyes closed, you often hear his voice echoing in the quiet room, “I see that hand. I see that hand.” Soon, he will direct them to come forward to receive counsel.
In many of these cases, the person who responds is counseled with and then immediately presented as a new brother or sister in Christ. Without any fruit demonstrating genuine conversion, the entire church is expected to embrace the individual as a fellow Christian. However, if we’re all honest, the glorious invitations by God in the Scriptures—including the direct invitations to specific men by Jesus—look and sound different than what we see practiced in our modern churches today.
Charles Finney severely manipulated the biblical invitation methods that we see used by the apostles. At one point, Finney told parents that he could assure the salvation of their children in 15 minutes if they would come to the “anxious seat” and pray the “prayer of faith.” Today’s form of Finneyism is full of all manner of tricks, gimmicks, and games to elicit a response. As the golden rule of pragmatism always says—whatever works, do it. So it is with so much of the modern invitation system. Charles Spurgeon once lamented, “It very often happens that the converts that are born in excitement die when the excitement is over…. Some of the most glaring sinners known to me were once members of a church; and were, as I believe, led to make a profession by undue pressure, well-meant but ill-judged.” 
Toward a Biblical Invitation System
As we look at the preaching and teaching of Jesus and the apostles, we hear the echoes of the ancient prophets. All of those men were faithful and bold preachers of God’s Word. Rather than giving an “invitation” at the end of their preaching, their entire sermon was invitational. That’s what we should strive for in our church ministry. Rather than using gimmicks and trickery to entice people to come to the front of a room, we should point people to faith alone in Christ alone for the remission of their sins.
Charles Finney, reflecting on his ministry, doubted the authenticity of the overwhelming majority of the decisions he witnessed. R. L. Dabney, in his day, commenting on the invitation system said that most people had come “to coolly accept the fact forty-five out of fifty, or even a higher ratio, will eventually apostatize.”  Not only do we see many people who seem to fall away after making such a decision through the modern invitation system, but we likewise see many false converts coming to faith and needing to be rebaptized.
The same Jesus who called sinners to Himself also made a very important statement in John 6:44 (later repeated in John 6:65). He said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” In all of the debate about the methods of the altar call and public invitation, we must remember that the preacher is not in charge of the souls of people. Only those whom God calls can respond to embrace Jesus. Sadly, too many pastors and evangelists truly believe that if they can get people to the front of the room, they can get people saved by having them “ask Jesus into their heart” through a quick prayer.
How many people are in hell today who once walked to the front of a church and repeated a prayer? How many went to hell with a false assurance that they were saved when in all reality their assurance was based on their decision to walk to the front and pray? We must not lose sight of the fact that there are two very different calls that take place. One call is offered by a preacher (general call) while the other call is offered by God (divine or effectual call). The preacher calls everyone to repentance in a general manner, but only those to whom God calls by His effectual and special call will respond in true saving faith.
Charles Spurgeon would often point people to respond to God’s call by saying, “Today is the day of salvation, tomorrow is the devil’s day.” Spurgeon was urgent in his invitational preaching, but he didn’t employ the tactics of men like Charles Finney. For Spurgeon, he preached the gospel boldly and left the work of conversion up to God. In one sermon titled, “Now,” preached on December 4th, 1864, Spurgeon repeated the word, “now” 173 times in the sermon as he urged people to cling to Christ. In his sermon on that day, he said:
As a sinner, I also address thee concerning this “now.” “Now is the day of salvation: thou needest it now. God is angry with thee now. Thou art condemned already. It is not the torment of hell thou hast to dread only, but if thou hast thy senses, thou wouldst tremble at thy present state. Now without God, now without hope, now an alien from the commonwealth of Israel, now dead in trespasses and sins, now in danger of the wrath to come, thou wantest a Savior this morning, young man. 
Offering a time for biblical counseling at the end of a sermon is not a bad thing. Allowing people to meet with the pastor for counsel—especially those who have a troubled soul—is never a bad idea. However, if your idea of an invitation and biblical counsel time is three verses of “Just As I Am”—just long enough for the individual to repeat a robotic prayer before being presented before the church—you need to seriously rethink your methods. If your idea of an invitation is a pastor challenging people at the end of his sermon to stand up and come to the front in order to prove they aren’t ashamed of Jesus, you need to rethink your methods.
We must stop treating the public invitation at the end of the service like a salvation pill. Please stop giving bad invitations. If you need mood music and a team of counselors to march forward at the end of a sermon to prime the pump and get people moving to entice people to respond, then you don’t need the Holy Spirit to do His work. Bad invitations hurt the local church and provide false assurance to lost sinners. Remember, the most biblical way to offer a public profession of faith is through baptism, not by walking down the aisle at the end of a sermon.
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Soul Winner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 19-20.
- Jim Ehrhard, “The Dangers of the Invitation System” (Parkville, MO: Christian Communicators Worldwide, 1999), 15.
- “Now” – A Sermon (No. 603), Delivered on Sunday Morning, December 4th, 1864 by C. H. SPURGEON, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington.