Close to a century ago, C.H. Dodd in his since-controversial The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments argued for a distinction in the New Testament between the kerygma, the preaching of the Gospel to non-believers, and the didache, which he argued was moral instruction given to believers. In other words, Dodd would say when you speak to your church from Scripture, you’re teaching, but it changes into preaching when you speak to the lost. Since then, many have challenged this point and many others Dodd made. Whether you agree with Dodd’s point or not, there comes a moment in every sermon where something does, in fact, change. Exhortation takes the place of instruction and the truth of Scripture begins to call for transformation.
With the knowledge that non-believers will often be present in our worship services (1 Cor. 14:23), it only stands to reason that the exhortation we give not only centers on life change for the saved, but that it also calls the lost to respond in faith and repentance to the gospel.
Despite this, there are plenty, particularly in Reformed camps, calling for an end to altar calls. And to be fair, invitations can be—and often are—done wrong. (I’m looking at you, sinner’s prayer.) While others have countered such arguments with biblical and practical grounds for evangelistic invitations (most recently O.S. Hawkins and Matt Queen’s The Gospel Invitation), I want to instead present six reasons the evangelistic appeals you give to the lost in your worship assemblies also function as a teaching moment for the saved.
1. An altar call reminds your church of the gospel it has already learned.
The apostle Paul never seemed to tire of the gospel. As he wrote to the Corinthian church, he told them,
“I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand…For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” (1 Cor. 15:1-4, 11, NIV)
Of course we all hope for our churches to be able to accept more than elementary teaching (Heb. 5:12), but the gospel is not a truth once learned, now to be discarded. It is the foundation of all that we preach and teach, and consistently presenting the gospel to the lost in your presence strengthens the foundation of faith for the saved. In the same way that the weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper serves as a reminder which “proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26), your evangelistic invitation has the opportunity to do the same.
“The gospel is not a truth once learned, now to be discarded.”
2. An altar call teaches your church the gospel thread throughout Scripture.
Most everyone has heard a sermon where an abrupt change is made from the message of the text to a scripted invitation, as if the invitation were something forced on the preacher against his will. Over and against such invitations, all of Scripture provides the opportunity for an exhortation of repentance to sinners in response to the gospel. This does not mean that we unnecessarily force an allegorical Christ into a pericope like David and Goliath. Nor does it mean that we need to go to the other extreme, where the only passages in which we present the gospel are those we preach on Easter Sunday.
The beauty of it is that Scripture does not demand hermeneutical gymnastics in order to present the sinful state of man and the need for a Savior. Whatever pericope you find yourself teaching on lends itself to an exhortation of repentance to the lost. For example, Sidney Greidanus has presented 7 different ways this can be done in the Old Testament, one of which can be used with any OT passage. Regardless of which passage you preach, as you point people to the gospel thread throughout Scripture, this helps your church see across all of the Bible our need for a Savior met at the cross.
“Scripture does not demand hermeneutical gymnastics in order to present the sinful state of man and the need for a Savior.”
3. An altar call teaches your church how to communicate the same gospel in various ways.
Not only does the text you draw from bring forth our sinful state and the good news of Jesus in a unique way each week, but also the consistent presentation of the gospel allows you to present the same message in various ways. As you use different verbiage and metaphors to explain the good news, it helps the gospel take deeper root in the heart of your church members and helps that blossom into evangelistic competency. Your presentation of the gospel week after week will help your church learn how to articulate the gospel in a variety of ways dependent on their audience and situation.
4. An altar call teaches your church the importance of evangelism.
In addition to teaching your church how to articulate the gospel, inviting people to accept the gospel teaches the importance of sharing the gospel to begin with. If you counter rote evangelistic invitations with ones that are prayerfully discerned, biblically sound, and textually faithful, it will take work. Your invitation will come no more easily than the exhortation you give to the believers in the assembly. However, the work that you put in will benefit your church as much it benefits as your visitors. It communicates to the church that sharing the gospel is important enough to do regularly, even when it involves more sermon preparation to do well.
“The work that you put in will benefit your church as much it benefits as your visitors.”
5. An altar call teaches your church reliance on and faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Although an evangelistic appeal within a sermon differs a lot from a private conversation, it also shares several similarities. It takes bold faith to stand before an audience and invite people to give their lives to Jesus. More than that, it takes reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit if we expect anything we say to help invite such a conversion, and it takes faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to truly believe that something will come of our efforts. The only way we can expect our church members to share the gospel with the lost around them, trusting that God’s Word will not return void, is if we model that ourselves.
6. An altar call teaches your church faithfulness regardless of results.
Earlier this year, I had the joy of witnessing our senior minister, Neil, give a very pointed and sound invitation to all the lost who were in the room to give their lives to Christ. It happened to be on Mission Sunday, and it fit well with his prior invitation to all the saved to give financially to our mission to make disciples. First service went incredibly well, and I looked forward to our second service when I knew our college students would be there, particularly some of our unsaved students.
As second service rolled around, though, I watched as we had some of the lowest numbers of the year, with a good number of people out of town and several of our unsaved students nowhere to be seen. Even still, Neil gave the invitation in faithful faith…and no one responded. At least it looked that way at first. That night, we baptized a student who later said she knew it was time for her to plant the stake of faith in Christ the moment Neil gave the invitation.
The reality of the situation, though, is that not every week leads to a baptism, especially for those of us in smaller churches with fewer visitors. In fact, as a campus minister who only preaches on occasion, I readily admit I’ve never led someone to Christ through an altar call.
“When we faithfully step out in faith, share the gospel, and boldly invite people to respond to Christ, it teaches our church members that they can do the same.”
But visible results aside, when we faithfully step out in faith, share the gospel, and boldly invite people to respond to Christ, it teaches our church members that they can do the same, even though times of rejection are sure to come. It teaches our churches that faithfulness to the Great Commission and the slightest possibility of someone coming to Christ is worth the sacrifice of any potential disappointment. It teaches our churches faithfulness that does not depend on results.
Whether your evangelistic invitations call people to walk forward to be baptized, walk to a different part of the room for counsel, fill out a card to discuss following Christ with a church leader, or some other manner of response, rest in the knowledge that as you call people to profess their faith in Christ, your work bears fruit among your church even if the baptistry doesn’t show it this week. It reminds your church of the gospel, helps them see it throughout Scripture and learn how and why to communicate it to others, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit even when the results are not immediate.