In 2 Corinthians 5:11 Paul writes, “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men. . .” Then in verse 20 he adds, “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” And again in 6:1-2 he exhorts, “We then, as workers together with Him, also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you, And in the day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Scripture is clear that it is right for us to invite men and women, boys and girls, to repent of sin, trust Christ, believe the gospel, be reconciled to God, and receive the free and gracious gift of salvation. But how does this translate to what is commonly called the public invitation, attached to a sermon? For many to question the legitimacy of this “tradition” is to expose oneself to the charge of being non-evangelistic at best and possibly heretical. On the other hand, some are greatly troubled by what they designate as “the altar call,” “walking the aisle,” or “coming forward to receive Jesus.” They see the invitational system to be without biblical justification, often manipulative, and potentially misleading when it comes to what constitutes salvation. Because of the danger of abuse, the invitation has come under severe and sustained attack.
While I appreciate the warnings given by those who are skeptical of public invitations, it is my conviction that this practice should not go the way of the dodo bird. Yes, it is open to abuse and manipulation, but then so is marriage! Just because something is abused and misapplied is no argument for its complete rejection. A better approach is to begin by asking two crucial questions: 1) is there biblical warrant for publicly inviting people to respond to the gospel and receive Christ; 2) if there is biblical justification, how do we extend a public invitation with integrity? (I’ll address the first question in this post, and the second in a later one.)
A Biblical Understanding and Defense of Public Invitations
In both the Old and New Testament we find prophets and preachers challenging their hearers to make an open, public, and clear decision for the Lord. Note the following examples from the Old Testament.
- When Moses confronted the people for their idolatry he commanded, “Whoever is on the Lord’s side – come to me!” (Ex 33:26)
- In his last days of leading the Hebrews, Moses concluded his sermon by calling on the congregation to choose: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life . . .” (Deut 32:19)
- Joshua called on Israel to publicly decide between the Lord and false idols when he said, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . .” (Josh 24:15)
- Elijah challenged the people of Israel by asking, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” (1 Ki 18:21). As Ken Keathley has rightly argued, “The very nature of the prophetic message demands a clear and public decision.”
The New Testament also contains invitations to respond publicly to the proclamation of the Word of God.
- John the Baptist called upon his listeners to “repent” and to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:2, 8).
- Jesus called those who were following him to, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).
- On the Day of Pentecost, Peter called the people to, “Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins . . .” (Acts 2:38). Verses 40-41 are even more clear, as we see that Peter “with many other words . . . testified and exhorted them, saying ‘Be saved from this perverse generation.’” What was the result? “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” It must be pointed out that there was both an expectation and actual response (an immediate response!) to Peter’s preaching. It must also be noted that the public response to the message was “get in the water” and be baptized. Regardless of how one understands or even approves of the use of the public invitational system, an individual’s public declaration for Christ is always baptism in the New Testament. There can be no substitute for this act of public confession and obedience (e.g. Matt 28:18-20).
- In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says we persuade men (v. 11) and as Christ’s ambassadors God pleads through us and we implore men to be reconciled with God (v. 20). A public component of this assignment is certainly implied.
- The final book and chapter of the Bible concludes with an invitation, “And the Spirit and the bride say Come. . . . And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely (Rev 22:17).
Though Scripture may not depict the use of the invitation in the exact manner in which it takes place today, there are numerous examples in both Testaments where persons are called and even challenged to publicly declare their allegiance to God. Therefore, the call for the lost to repent of sin, believe the gospel, trust Christ and publicly profess Him culminating in believer’s baptism should characterize the faithful proclamation of the Word of God.
 Ken Keathley, “Rescuing the Perishing: A Defense of Giving Invitations,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 1.1 (Spring 2003): 6. Keathley also highlights these four examples in his excellent article. Note also the public response of the Ninevites to the preaching of Jonah in Jonah 3:5-9.