Many psychologists would say it is psychologically sound. One of the reasons why our films and dramas usually have such a bad effect is that they stir the emotion to such a high pitch and do not offer any practical outlet for action.6
All present are told to pray, instructed to close their eyes and bow the head, and the form of the words is the auto-suggestive one that hundreds of others are already going forward, finding happiness, peace, love, God. ... The counselors planted all over the audience make the first few moves, create the sense that the statement is true even when it very often is not. ... It might all be true, there might be some nameless peace down there with all the others. The tension screws to the breaking point and beyond. The wonder is that so few actually obey.8
Because of satanic blindness to the gospel of grace (2 Cor. 4:34), unregenerate man cannot comprehend the true basis of salvation, and is therefore ever prone to do the best he knows. This is to attempt to work out his own standing before God by his own efforts. It is this natural tendency to do something of merit that prompts many to respond to the evangelist's appeal. ... A leader with a commanding personality (and every successful evangelist must possess that characteristic in the extreme) may secure the public action of many, when the issue is made one of religious merit through some public act.10
They feel that a cruel trick has been played upon their inexperience by the ministers and friends of Christianity in thus thrusting them, in the hour of their confusion, into false positions.... How natural to conclude that those [experiences of conversion] of all others are delusions also? They say: "The only difference between myself and these earnest Christians is that they have not yet detected the cheat as I have."11 The extension of an appeal for public decision may result in a purely psychological response that provides a catharsis for the emotional pressure of the sermon. Such persons falsely assume that their action has made them right with God. In others, it may drive them further into skepticism and doubt about the reality of the conversion of anyone. Such dangers ought to alarm every person sincerely concerned about the salvation of lost souls.
There's nothing about the mechanics of coming forward that saves anybody's soul. Coming forward is an open acknowledgment and a testimony of an inward experience that you have had with Christ. But this inward experience with Christ, this encounter, is the most important thing.12
I'm going to ask you to come forward. Up there - down there - I want you to come. You come right now - quickly. If you are here with friends or relatives, they will wait for you. Don't let distance keep you from Christ. It's a long way, but Christ went all the way to the cross because He loved you. Certainly you can come these few steps and give your life to Him. ...13
Sometimes shut up that enquiry-room. I have my fears about that institution if it be used in permanence, and as an inevitable part of the services.... If you should ever see that a notion is fashioning itself that there is something to be got in the private room which is not to be had at once in the assembly, or that God is more at that penitent form than elsewhere, aim a blow at that notion at once.17
I am convinced that the giving of some kind of public invitation to come to Christ is not only theologically correct, but also emotionally sound. Men need this opportunity for expression. The inner decision for Christ is like driving a nail through a board. The open declaration of it is like clinching the nail on the other side, so that it cannot easily be pulled out.18
Even the statistics compiled using the invitation system show that only a very small percentage of "professors" show any signs of conversion even a few weeks after the decision. According to Sterling Huston, a survey after a crusade in the Pacific Northwest indicated that only 16 percent of the inquirers became new additions to the churches. While one should be appalled at the low rate of retention, Huston actually considers this a significant fact showing the value of the crusade!19
I am glad you know when persons are justified. It is a lesson I have not yet learnt. There are so many stony ground hearers, who receive the Word with joy, that I have determined to suspend my judgment till I know the tree by its fruits. That makes me so cautious now, which I was not thirty years ago, of dubbing converts so soon. I love now to wait a little, and see if people bring forth fruit; for there are so many blossoms which March winds you know blow away, that I cannot believe they are converts till I see fruit brought back; it will never do a sincere soul any harm.24
Sometimes we are inclined to think that a very great portion of modern revivalism has been more a curse than a blessing, because it has led thousands to a kind of peace before they have known their misery; restoring the prodigal to the Father's house, and never making him say, Father, I have sinned."25
It very often happens that the converts that are born in excitement die when the excitement is over.... Some of the most glaring sinners known to me were once members of a church; and were, as I believe, led to make a profession by undue pressure, well-meant but ill-judged.26
preaching God made use offer the awakening of sinners, and the propagation of this "work of grace among the Indians." ... There was then the greatest appearance of divine power, in awakening numbers of secure souls, promoting convictions begun, and comforting the distressed." 27
As he was speaking, a youth sitting near a window cried out like one shot with an arrow. The people were so engrossed in the evangelist's message that it hardly caused a diversion. Several in one family were aroused at this meeting and went home weeping. The head of the house had gone to bed when they arrived. He listened as their carriage drove up and was startled by a wail of distress coming from without. He leaped from his bed, rushed outside and was met by his daughter-in-law who threw her arms around his neck and exclaimed, "My father, what shall I do? What shall I do?" It was a miserable night for this young woman, but before morning all was well. She received Christ as Saviour and peace came.28
One young man seized my hand exclaiming "I am a sinner. I am a sinner. What shall I do?" They [people at the meeting] left the house and went home sighing, & sobbing in every direction. I came home & found a number around the door of Mr. Williams' house, in the most awful distress, Some were standing, some sitting on the ground, & some on the door steps exclaiming "What shall I do?" I shall die. I shall die. "I Can't live." This alarmed the neighbors who called to witness the awful scene. With much ado I got them into the house, about eight or ten in number. The fact was, the young man aforementioned, who left the meeting house in such distress, was walking in company with them, when all at once he found relief and exclaimed, "I have found the Saviour." He was now very joyful. He sat clothed and in his right mind: and they were afraid. My first business now was to warn them against a false hope. Prayed with them and enjoined it particularly on them not to go home together, but to go alone, & be alone, for the business must be settled between God and their souls. Maria (a young woman living in this family) was one of the number. She retired to her chamber, sighing and sobbing, and crying for mercy, and exclaiming 'I shall die, I shall die." She came down and went out doors, and returned in the same awful distress to her chamber. And suddenly all was still and hushed to silence. I sat still below and said nothing. I soon heard the sound of her footsteps descending the chamber stairs. She opened the door and with a joyful countenance exclaimed O, Sir, I have found the Saviour. I continued to warn her of the danger of a false hope. She exclaimed "I love Christ. I do love him. O how sweet." In the morning, early, she called to see one of her anxious mates, who was so distressed the night before; and Lo: Barsheba exclaimed "I have found the Saviour." That was a happy meeting. The young man aforementioned resided in the same family (this was John Towner's house). On Saturday evening about midnight another, equally distressed, found relief. Within a few days 8 or 10 are rejoicing in hope. What will be the end. I know not. Do pray for us, and your friend, A. Nettleton." 29
Faith [by those using the invitation system] is represented as something to be done, in order to [gain] salvation; and pains are taken to show that it is an easy thing. Better far than this would it be to see it, that those with whom they deal are truly convinced of sin, and to labour to set forth Christ before them, in his glorious completeness as a Saviour. To explain faith to them, that they may do it, is to set them still to work, though setting an easier task before them. I know well the tendency there is, at a certain stage of anxious inquiry, to ask, "What is faith, that I may do it?" It is a legalist's work to satisfy that craving; but this is what is done in the "inquiry-room." "Who is He, that I may believe in Him?" was the question asked by one who approached the dawning of a day of salvation. Explanations of what faith is are but trifling with souls. How different is the Scripture way! The great aim there is to "set forth" the object, not to explain the act, of faith. Let there be conviction, illumination and renewal, and faith becomes the instinctive response of the quickened soul to the presentation by God of His Christ; and, without these, no explanation of faith can be helpful to any one. The labour to explain it is too often the legal spirit. It were wiser to take pains in removing ignorance and error regarding God, and sin, and Christ. Help them know these, if you would not build them up with "untempered mortar" in a false peace. If you would be wise, as well as kind, work in that direction, rather than hurrying them to belief.31
1 By the term, the "invitation system," I mean to include any organized method that requires people to make an outward response to a presentation of the gospel. Various expressions are used in referring to this system including "the altar call," "the public profession," "the public pledge," "going down the aisle," and "hitting the old sawdust trail." It usually entails a "going forward" at a specified time but often may be limited to a show of hands or the signing of a decision card.
2 Many authors have written championing the value of the invitation system. Some of these include: R. Alan Street, The Effective Invitation (NY: Fleming Revell, 1984); Leighton Ford, The Christian Persuader (NY: Harper& Row, 1966); and R. T. Kendall, Stand Up and Be Counted (London: Hodder &Stoughton, 1984).
3 While there is much debate over the precise origins of this practice, most agree that the practice came into prominence in the 1830s with the "new measures" of Charles G. Finney. Since that time, revival and evangelism have come to be largely equated with the methods devised by Finney.
4 Billy Graham as quoted in lain Murray, The Invitation System (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984 reprint), 6
5 Billy Graham notes: "coming out... settles it and seals it.... There's something about coming forward and standing here. It's an outward expression of an inward decision." Quoted in Murray, 6. 6
6 The Christian. July 8, 1966, cited in Murray, 12.
7 Quoted in Sterling W. Huston, Crusade Evangelism and the Local Church (Minneapolis: World Wide Publishing, 1984), 29.
8 From "How Does Graham Do It?" in New Christian. June 2,1966, cited in Murray, 14. 7
9 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971), 273.
10 Lewis Sperry Chafer, True Evangelism, cited in Murray, 22-23.11 R. L. Dabney, Discussions. I: 572, cited in Murray, 27.
13 Cited in Murray, 5.
14 Ibid., 5-6.
15 Erroll Hulse, The Great Invitation (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 1986), 99.
16 Here Spurgeon is referring to the practice of inviting inquirers to come to a room, often called the "inquiry-room," to hear more about their state. Unlike the invitation system which usually counsels inquirers about assurance now that they have come, the inquiry room was used to counsel about the nature of true conversion and to warn seekers about having false hopes. This can be seen in a letter from Asahel Nettleton to a friend (cited more fully below in the text) about experiences with inquirers: "My first business now [after they expressed signs of conversion] was to warn them against a false hope." Invitation counseling today is typified in the interview that Charles Riggs (Director of Counseling at the 1966 Greater London Crusade) conducts with an inquirer: "You've come forward to receive Christ. How do you know that this is what you must do?" "Well, it says so in the Bible." "Then God is saying it, isn't He?" "Yes, I guess He is." "And there's no higher authority than God, is there?" "No, of course not." "Then you accept the Word of God, don't you?" When the answer is in the affirmative, Riggs goes on to further assure the inquirer: "Think of it like this: God says it. On faith, you believe it. And that settles it." Quoted in Murray, 78. (Note also the close connection in Riggs's words about coming forward to receive Christ as something that the inquirer has done.)
17 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, All Round Ministry (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986 reprint), 372-73.
18 The Christian Persuader. 24.
19 Huston, 141.
20 Ernest C. Reisinger, Today's Evangelism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Craig Press, 1982), 76.
21 Dabney, 566.
22 Consult John F. Thornbury, God Sent Revival (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1977) for many accounts of how this contemporary of Finney was greatly used of God although he never used an invitation system.
23 "Did You Know?" Christian History Vol. 8 (1988): 4.
24 Quoted in Murray, 32-33.
25 Quoted in Murray, 34.
26 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Soul Winner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 19-20. 15
27 "The Life and Death of the Rev. David Brainerd" in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1988 reprint), 1:416-17.
28 Thornbury, 97. Also see Bennet Tyler and Andrew Bonar, Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labors (Carlisle, 17 PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996 reprint of 1854 original), 116-17.
29 Letter to Philander Parmele, dated December 1, 1817. All grammatical errors and spellings have been retained as in the original handwritten letter.
30 Hulse, 6.
31 Quoted in Murray, 30.
32 Hulse, 2.
33 Hulse notes: "It is more or less taken for granted that all evangelists use the invitation system of calling people forward at the end of their meetings. A few, like John Blanchard, do not use it. Not to employ the method seems inconceivable to many evangelists." [emphasis mine]. Ibid., 9.
34 Ibid., 11.
35 Ibid., 1.