EDITOR’S NOTE: The following essay was first posted on “For the Church,” a blog published by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary online at ftc.co.
I once preached a series of renewal services at Rosedale Baptist Church in Abingdon, VA. Commonly referred to as a “revival,” or, in previous generations, a “protracted meeting,” each service carried a specifically evangelistic emphasis. I prayed the Lord would be pleased to honor the preaching of His Word, call many to faith in Christ, and produce spiritual fruit that remains.
Each service, I preached the gospel, and called sinners to repentance and faith in Christ. My week of evangelistic preaching reminded me of a question a student recently asked me, “Should the sermon conclude with an invitation?” I responded, “Yes, a sermon certainly can conclude with an invitation, but, more importantly, the sermon must be an invitation.”
Such is the New Testament pattern. Preaching is to inform the mind, impact the emotion, and challenge the will. Real preaching is confrontational, always calling for a verdict, and that should happen throughout the sermon, not just during the conclusion.
Invitations Without Sermons
I once sat through a sermon that began, literally, with the invitation. The entirety of the sermon was given to explaining the forthcoming invitation and to encouraging the listeners to come forward during it. There was no preached word; no gospel presentation to which one should respond. I kept thinking, “Come forward in light of what? Come forward for what?” I didn’t have a seminary degree then, but I had a hunch that merely changing one’s geographic location in a room wouldn’t save.
This is not to argue for the impropriety of calling on people to respond publicly to Christ. In fact, every time I preach I do just that. I gave my life to Christ, as a college student, during a Sunday-morning public invitation. My pastor preached the gospel, the Holy Spirit convicted me of sin, and I responded. In fact, many of the people I know most cautious of the invitation system were actually saved in the context of a public invitation. Just like faith in faith doesn’t save, but faith in Christ saves, so walking an aisle during a public invitation doesn’t save, but responding to a call to follow Christ does.
Sermons Without Invitations
Similarly, I have sat through sermons where the pastor explained the gospel, but it came without a sense of urgency or a call for response. The text had been appropriately explained, and the work of Christ expounded, but no plea for repentance and submission to Christ. Such sermons are like setting a plated meal before a hungry guest, but never inviting them to eat.
To be sure, unregenerate church members plague the modern church, and emotionalism, decisionism, and manipulative invitations have produced their share of them. False converts hinder the congregation’s witness and undermine the glory of Christ in his church. But, if not careful, a minister can become so afraid of making false converts that he never gets around to making converts at all. This is tragic as well.
The Sermon as Invitation
A better way—and, I believe, a more biblical way—is for the sermon to be an invitation. Seeking to persuade is integral to biblical preaching. Paul’s ministry evidenced such persuasion. He “was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” Paul testified, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
If you haven’t invited, you haven’t preached. If you haven’t persuaded, you haven’t preached. If you haven’t begged, you haven’t preached. You may have lectured, led an inductive Bible study, or presented an insightful exposition, but to be a preacher is to be a pleader, a persuader, a beggar.
Viewing the sermon as an invitation helps ensure the sermon is intentionally evangelistic throughout. It also forces the preacher to connect the text to Christ; to preach the text in light of Christ, which is a part of faithful exposition. The gospel deserves more than to be politely tacked on to the end of a sermon. When the sermon is an invitation, the entire discourse is a frontal assault on the human heart. Such preaching leads to more gospel, not less; and makes the sermon more direct, and more evangelistic.
This does not negate an opportunity to respond, it ensures it. Whether the sermon concludes with a long, formal invitation, a short, formal invitation, or no formal invitation, the sinner has been consistently presented the gospel and consistently challenged to follow Christ.
Whether the response is at a dedicated time following the sermon, later after the service, or a follow up meeting, the preacher must apply the urgency of the gospel, give his hearers a way to respond, and their commitment must ultimately get public, most appropriately in the waters of baptism.
Should the sermon conclude with an invitation? Yes, a sermon certainly can conclude with an invitation, but, more importantly, the sermon must be an invitation.