Understanding and Repentance
Updated: Sep 12
If you have been around me, even for a little while, you will know that I am not a fan of the obligatory 'altar call' for salvation in the Sunday morning service.
Part of the reason for this was that, as a pastor, I didn't have that gift of persuasion that some ministers seemed to exude. My heart was often racing when it came time of invite people to raise their hands if they wanted Christ. I always had a bit of a fear that no one would respond and my ministry would be gauged us 'lacking anointing' by the members of the church who had one eye open when both should have been closed.
But the bigger reason I dislike giving an invitation to receive Jesus at the end of every sermon is based in practical theology. Often my messages had a different focus than a pure gospel presentation. The sermons were gospel based but not necessarily an exposition of the gospel message. Thus, to prep for the invitation to receive Christ, I would end with a short 2 to 3 minute summary of the gospel as an addendum to the message.
This condensed gospel didn't have enough substance in it to adequately lead people to a place of repentance (i.e. a fundamental change in a persons thinking about themselves and Christ as their saviour). If people responded it was often because they were facing a crisis in a relationship, or suffering with mental health, or feeling isolated but were not in a place to turn their lives fully over to Christ. They weren't responding to the gospel but reaching out for help.
During my 35 years of ministry I came to a place where I realized that the obligatory call to receive Christ in every message might be doing more harm than good.
The obligatory altar call
This phenomenon of inviting people to 'give their hearts to Jesus' after a short explanation and through the raising of hands or repeating a 2 min prayer is a very modern invention. It evolved partly from 'tent crusades' where an identifiable and large number of responses meant more donors would support the ministry. It then crept into the church and became a mainstay measure of success in the 80's and 90's.
But the roots of it are also based in theological bias.
It was particularly popular with the semi-calvinistic world view of the Southern Baptist's and Pentecostals. The reasoning went that if a person can be 'born again' spiritually, even without them knowing what was really happening, then this 'supernatural' process of rebirth will secure their eternity and do the work of transforming them. The belief is that people only needed to be stirred emotionally to repent - they did not necessarily need to understand much about the message - because conversion is an entirely supernatural work.
This gave way to 'events' such as Christmas Pageants, concerts, craft fairs etc. The thinking was that the event will bring large numbers of people in, and then we can give a 5 min explanation of the gospel at the end, and invite them to respond to Jesus.
Please don't get me wrong.
I love pageants, concerts, and craft fairs! They are a great way to connect with community, break down walls, and start to reshape thinking. Some churches need to start doing more of this stuff. When I pastored we would have a huge community fair to kick off church in the fall and it was very successful in terms of connecting with the community. The issue is, however. many churches are confused about what these events are for. If there is not room for an extensive gospel presentation then you need to think of the event as a 'community engagement' event rather than a crusade with an altar call.
The 'obligatory altar call' is also rooted in the theology of 'once saved - always saved'. It is the belief that if we can get them over the line in anyway possible then they are secure and Jesus will do the rest. Thus the goal was to get people to say 'the sinners prayer' as quickly as possible in the hope that this would bring about 'spiritual rebirth' and all the work was done.
Jesus's take on the altar call
Jesus was a master at gathering crowds. In Matthew 13 we are told the the crowds were so big that he had to preach from a boat so the crowds would not crush him and he would have better amplification to reach the masses.
If there was ever a time to give an invitation to follow him it was from the boat in front of the masses.
Yet Jesus not only failed to make an invitation to follow him but he also kept the message quite light. In fact, he only taught with stories that day (Matt 13 : 10) and didn't seem to explain the meaning of many or any of them to the crowds.
The disciples were bewildered by all this so they asked him what the heck is going on. He answered them by giving the meaning behind the parable of the sower that he had told the crowds.
Contextually, the point of the parable of the sower was to highlight to the disciples the importance of people understanding the message of the gospel before they commit to following Him.
When Jesus explains the parable to his disciples he immediately makes it clear that the parable is about the danger of people not understanding the gospel before responding to it.
"When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it... you will find that it will never take root, or when trouble comes it will wither up, or as life progresses it will become impotent as problems cloud out the message..". (Matt 13 : 18, 19). (underlined text is my paraphrased summary of the parable).
Jesus tells the disciples plainly (Matt 13 : 13 - 15) that for this particular crowd on the shores that day he chose not to invite them to follow him, or even give deep teaching, because they weren't ready. They were simply not in a place to 'grasp' the message of his divine nature, that he had come to fulfill the law, that he was greater than Moses, and that righteousness would only come through faith in him and him alone.
Maybe the crowd that day was new to his teachings. Maybe his fame was growing as a miracle worker and exorcist and it was a public holiday so it was a huge crowd of first timers. I don't know. But it seems as Jesus surveyed the crowd he saw that few were in a place to truly hear (perceive, understand, fundamentally change their way of thinking) the gospel so he refrained from going deep or giving a call to discipleship.
This is important for us as ministers and church leaders. We need to discern the crowd and recognize where they are at before we make a move.
Jesus saw the process of coming to a place of repentance as both an emotional experience (a change of heart) and an intellectual experience (a change of the mind/thinking). He warned us through the parable that when people come to faith entirely on an emotional bases, without grasping the actual message, they are on a shaky foundation.
I have always found the meaning of the parable relatively easy to grasp but I have really struggled over the years, as a minister of Christ, with the application.
Most commentaries tend to focus on applying the parable in a personal manner. The exhort us to pay heed to places in our own lives we are shallow, or distracted, or wilting in our faith. This a a valid form of application but it misses primary reason the parable was given.
Some ministers take this parable as a forewarning that in a crowd there are only a few who are really in a place to hear and receive. They believe that Jesus gave the parable to encourage us, while we will see many not follow through on their decision to follow Christ, there are a remnant who do. Therefore, the application is that we should scatter and invite as many as possible because though many will fall away we will see a remnant remain who will be our reward.
I see the application of the parable in a very different way.
To me the parable is a challenge by Christ to his followers to make sure, when they invite people to faith and conversion, that the respondents are in a place of understanding as well as being emotionally moved. Through this parable he is highlighting the importance of the giving attention to sharing the content of the gospel as much as the promise of the gospel.
It as if he is calling us, in some cases, too till and water that ground before thinking about reaping. That day, on the shores of the lake, Jesus tilled the ground and watered it but refrained from reaping. He let those 'with ears to hear' begin to hear the message and seek him while letting the crowd quietly check him out without pressing it.
The explanations of the parables, and the deeper teachings by Jesus, happened in private. He gathered his followers (a group of 500 or so), and those who longed for more (seekers), and taught plainly but in a more intimate setting. It was to those who sought him out that he made the call to 'follow him' and gave the promise of eternal life. They were in a place to hear and understand the full implications of the message.
When it's done right
I am in favour of the altar call or invitation for faith when it is done right. In fact, when it is done right it is one of the most beautiful things to behold.
Billy Graham is a great example. His crusades were focused solely on the gospel with testimonies, songs, and the word. His messages were 30 - 45 minutes long and were a clear and forceful explanation of Christ, his work, and our state. If you have never listened to one I would encourage you to do so. When he got to the end the listeners had been given enough understanding particularly as many attended two or three nights in a row.
I have met many people who can clearly identify their conversion moment at a Billy Graham crusade. For those I talked to they always identify this as the moment they 'grasped' the message and responded. It wasn't just emotional but it was proceeded by understanding that came from a full explanation in the word.
The apostle Peter on the day of pentecost was under the power of Holy Spirit. His message was to a group of people with a knowledge of the scriptures, which helped, and his message was clear. It was a full explanation of Christ. He was compelled at the end, having seen what God was doing and that understanding had been imparted, to give a clear and forceful invitation for people to respond.
I also think of Phillip with the Ethiopian eunuch. It was after a period of time of explaining the scriptures in the self driving chariot that Philip suggested the eunuch be baptized. Philip could see that the man had grasped the message and his mind had been opened. This was the gift of repentance at work.
When the gospel message has been clearly articulated under the anointing of the Holy Spirit the minister now has a scriptural obligation to give a clear and forceful invitation to respond.
So what to do?
On the one hand, we are now aware that we need to be careful inviting people to Christ if the word has not yet penetrated their hearts AND mind. Yet on the other hand, we find it very hard to make space in our weekend services for the kind of 'gospel focused message' that would truly prepare hearts and minds to repent.
Here are a few ways around this dilemma...
A. Gospel Infused Preaching
Rather than end loading the message with a 3 minute homily on salvation it is better to ensure that in every message, no matter what the topic or text, that one of the points draws out the outworking of the cross in that text or context. This may not be enough to give a full understanding but it does open peoples minds to the width and breadth of the work of the cross on a weekly basis.
B. Evangelistic Sundays
A 'water baptism' Sunday is a good day for this. A lot of friends and family should be attending so it is a good time to devote the service fully to being a presentation of the gospel. Special events, guest speakers etc can also be days that the service is 'gospel focused' which releases you to give a full account of the gospel as your message with a dedicated invitation to receive Christ.
C. An invitation to come and 'learn more' vs and invitation to 'receive Christ'.
Programs like ALPHA have been a huge help in giving a time and place in church programming for a clear presentation of the gospel message. Instead of inviting people to make a decision for Christ in the services churches invite those who are being touched to come to a place where they can gain understanding. ALPHA is particularly successful because of the community experience and because of the Holy Spirit encounters on the weekend.
Recalibrate Ministries (this ministry) offers a shorter version of ALPHA that is 3 sessions long and uses the core lessons that are the gospel presentation . Because it is only 3 weeks long it can be run monthly which gives a church a continuous place for people to understand the gospel. Many churches run this on a Sunday morning at the same time as the service so that they know, on any given Sunday, people are engaging specifically with the gospel. You can go to our resource page to see more.
We want to see more and more people to come to Christ AND we want them to come with understanding so that their roots will go down deep. Both of these are possible and both are incredibly exciting for the church.