Recently, I was asked why we have an invitation at the end of all our services, since we do not read of such an activity (so organized) in the New Testament. We should start by understanding that the practice of “offering an invitation” is a tradition, but one that is based on Bible principles. This is no violation of sound hermeneutics, by the way, since the practice neither interferes with nor replaces some revealed truth. In fact, it is an expedient method of fulfilling a very important function of the local church.
The Biblical concept of an invitation comes from several scriptures. Consider, first of all, what Jesus says in Matthew 11:28ff: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Jesus encourages His audience to “come” to Him. Similarly, the reader is encouraged to “come” in Revelation 22:17: “And 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 wishes take the water of life without cost.” Notice that it is not just the responsibility of the Spirit to invite, but the “bride” also. The Bride is the church within the symbolism of the Revelation and other NT scriptures (Ephesians 5:22ff), and its duties include the proclamation of the Gospel (Matthew 28:18-20).
When we say “come” through the typical invitation, we are following the spirit of great sermons in the Book of Acts. From the very beginning, Christian preaching was meant to convict and encourage others to come to Jesus. Peter’s discourse in Acts 2 evoked a change of heart and action on the Day of Pentecost. His listeners were cut to the heart and asked what their response should be. In those immortal words, Peter responds, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). In response, around three thousand people became Christians that same day. They were not coming to Peter, and it was not Peter who was saving anybody. Rather, it was Christ working through the preaching, just as it is Christ inviting all people to repentance whenever and wherever preaching takes place (Revelation 3:20).
The component of the practice that is traditional is merely the form, not the substance. There might be many ways to invite unbelievers to salvation, or the unrepentant to a change of heart, or the weak and weary to comfort and love. But we are still left to wonder about the specifics of the practice. What does God expect from those who obey the invitation? And what purpose does it serve in a practical sense? Most importantly, who is under consideration when the invitation is extended?
Obey The Gospel
First (and most fundamentally), the invitation is a time to obey the Gospel. As has already been stated, preaching is intended to bring about a change in the hearts of listeners. Sometimes that change is in thinking or perspective. Other times it is a change in attitude. But our first priority in preaching is always a change in the spirit. Christ offers the message of salvation through preaching. He is depending on His saints to do their part in promoting the Gospel all over the world. “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!’” (Romans 10:13-15).
Someone might wonder, however, whether the invitation has value for him or herself personally, thinking, “Well, I don’t need it, I’m already saved.” Peter notes in 2 Peter 1:12-18 that it is always valuable to be reminded of the first principles of the Gospel. Even if I have been a Christian for decades, I still need to have the sacrifice of Jesus, the need for atonement through Him, and the power of His grace on my mind all the time.
We offer the invitation every service because the opportunity is there all the time. If preaching is intended to provoke a change of heart, then there must be some device for facilitating such a change. What good would a powerful message do if no opportunity were given to respond? What if the moment of greatest spiritual need was overlooked? What if we simply ended the sermon and walked away awkwardly?
When I read about those who responded to the Gospel in Acts, I find several examples of immediate response. Notice Acts 16:25-34, in which a Philippian jailor and his family hear the Gospel and respond that very hour. In Acts 22:16, Paul recalls the way his own conversion came, quoting Ananias, “And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” In both instances, be amazed that the conversion did not take place in a worship service, at a church building. Rather, these individuals were compelled to act in accordance with God’s will the very moment they were convicted. Therefore:
· Baptism is not a ceremony. It is not an initiation ritual into the local congregation, but entrance into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13);
· Baptism cannot wait for a convenient time. If you are so convicted by the Gospel in the middle of the night, then do not delay. If you are touched by a sermon during a worship service, then respond. In either case, obey!
· Baptism is not for the sake of your parents, family members, friends, or other Christians. No special emphasis should be placed on the location or the season.
There are times when the invitation is accepted by those who have been guilty of sin and wish to confess such to the congregation. This is highly encouraged and appropriate when one is so convicted, as James endorses in James 5:16. But some perspective should be applied, especially regarding our priorities in public confession. Remember that forgiveness comes from God, and that we are all responsible to Him first and foremost. When I have sinned, I cannot replace God’s approval with the approval of men. Confessing my sins to other people may only be the first step in the road to recovery from a damaging situation – I need to make my life right with God! Contrary to the reasoning behind the “confessional” in some religious circles, there is nobody who can do my confessing for me. Between God and man there is but one mediator, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:3-5). My obligation begins with honest communication with Him (1 John 1:9-10).
So why even accept confessions after the invitation? Is this even appropriate? I try to remember a concept found in 1 Timothy 5:24-25: “The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after.” In a sense, public sins become everybody’s problem. When a Christian has failed to resolve private sins, it sometimes becomes very evident to others that “something isn’t right.” In other cases, such as Diotrophes in 3 John, sins start out public. Even Christians can become so brazen that they openly admit or practice immorality. Sin has a tendency to grow, to overflow from its private confines.
Paul notes a particularly disgusting example of this in 1 Corinthians 5, explaining that a widespread report had reached his ears of a man fornicating with his step-mother. Such a situation was so shocking to him that he castigated the entire congregation for tolerating a relationship that was so damaging to their reputation and effectiveness. This sin became public and needed to be dealt with publicly. Jesus affirms such a truth in His statements in Matthew 18:15-17.
None of this is intended to embarrass or harass those who have been caught in a trespass – it is, rather, to motivate and restore them (Galatians 6:1, 2 Corinthians 2:5-8). Public confession is a purifying activity, as difficult as it is. Often, those we have hurt have a very hard time moving on without an obvious gesture of apology. For some situations, public confession is required in order to show that we have taken responsibility for our actions, that we have “owned up” to what we have done. Even though salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, we cannot move on with a faithful life until we have made amends for the damage we have done to others (Matthew 5:23-24). If those sins can be dealt with privately, than that is often best. But when a sin becomes public, and many have been hurt by it, confession should be equally public.
The invitation is always open to those who simply need encouragement. Consider what is written in 1 Thessalonians 5:14: “And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all men.” Life is very burdensome for us at times. We feel crushed because of health problems, issues in our relationships, worries about our jobs or finances, or questions about our faith that never seem to get resolved. Rather than trying to “go it alone”, we ought to reach out to other Christians and seek their love and prayers, their encouragement and uplifting influence. We are to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:1) and “weep when others weep” (Romans 12:15). Coming forward as a response to the invitation is a powerful way of reaching out to others for help, and will always be met with equally powerful love.
· It is never a sign of weakness to come forward. Rather, weakness is not accepting responsibility for sins, not asking forgiveness, not seeking help in time of need.
· Try to be specific when explaining the trouble. Often, vague explanations do not help the congregation find specific ways of assisting you, and can lead to imaginations running wild about “what could possibly be going on.”
· Do not run away immediately after coming forward. If you want forgiveness, love, or salvation, give other Christians the time they need to help with those things.
· Finally, have some follow-through. If you are caught in sin, do not go back to the same people, places, and situations that tripped you up in the first place (2 Peter 2:20ff). Show by your actions that you are going to maintain the same level of zeal and honesty that led you to come forward (Luke 3:8). If you are having trouble remaining faithful, then actually make changes to your life. A confession on Sunday means nothing without a change of habit on Monday.