THE INVITATION: HOW TO GIVE A GOOD ALTAR CALL
By Evangelist Hyman J. Appelman
“And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.”–Acts 2:40-41.
My subject is “The Invitation.” It is a difficult subject, as you will all admit. One has to have a certain amount of temerity, which I definitely do not possess, to have the boldness to speak on such a theme. It is only because, in a manner of speaking, it has been forced upon me by our evangelistic conference leaders, Dr. Rice and Dr. Wells, that I stand before you during these minutes. I verily believe that the very weakest point of my entire ministry is in the invitation. I have heard other preachers, pastors and evangelists, say the very same thing over and over again. It is far easier for me to preach a dozen sermons, and infinitely less exhausting, than to press one invitation. However, as all of you pray for me, I should like to tell you out of my own humble heart what I feel about the invitation.
Please remember three thoughts. First, the invitation is expected. Second, the invitation will invariably be opposed. Third, the invitation will certainly be honored. I believe, in these three words, you have my humble beliefs on this vital proposition, perhaps even the mind of the Spirit.
THE INVITATION EXPECTED
The invitation is expected by the Lord. We are told to go and make disciples. How can we make disciples, if after pouring out our souls in the preaching of the gospel, we do not give people a chance to make a public decision for, and a public surrender to Him about whom we have preached, Him whose claims we have thus pressed upon them? Even as a business concern sending out a traveling salesman–and I speak very softly, very reverently–expects results: sales, prospects, customers; even so does the Lord look to us to get people to “sign on the dotted line” by a public confession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe it is historically true that the great, probably the very greatest American evangelist, Charles G. Finney, first introduced what he called the anxious seat, what we call the mourners’ bench. Surely no man since apostolic days was so honored by the Holy Spirit, witnessed so many definite results as did this same preacher, Finney. Certainly he must have had the mind of the Holy Spirit, or else he would never have dared to engage in such a radical departure from the usual custom. Not only Charles Finney, but other great preachers since that day, have utilized the public confession method. Definitely the Lord expects it of us, also.
The invitation is expected by the consecrated, compassionate people of God whom we have in our congregations as we preach the gospel. While we are pleading for the souls of men, they are constantly interceding for us and these same souls. I have had them come to me, almost shake me, as they wondered, and, at least in a small way, criticized, because I did not give an invitation. The people of God are expecting the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to honor every gospel sermon. You recall how Charles Haddon Spurgeon told the young preacher that the reason he was not constantly seeing converts was because he did not constantly expect them. For any of us to go on preaching in the average evangelical, fundamental church without giving an invitation would sorely hurt the hearts of those whom we love, and those who love us. Our good workers have prayed incessantly, and witnessed just as carefully. They have gone into the highways and hedges and compelled the wayfaring wanderers to attend our services. It will take the wind out of their sails, be a matter of definite discouragement, were we to fail to follow up their testimonies by a public appeal for a decision.
The invitation is expected by sinners. True, as every one of us knows, there are many of these who will go away angry, embarrassed, as they say, by thus “being pointed out.” But you will agree with my contention that it is infinitely better to embarrass them, to make them angry even, than to let them go on in the wicked tenor of their ways on the road to a devil’s Hell. If, after we have done our careful, conscientious Christian best; if, after we have pled with them, given them a chance to decide for the Lord, they still turn away, I verily believe that our hands are clean of their blood. That is what matters a great deal.
However, I definitely believe because of personal experience that most sinners expect the invitation. They may not respond to it. They may turn their backs upon it. Yet, even they will feel that there is something missing in the sermon and in the service if pressure is not put upon their hearts to say aye or no to the call of the Redeemer. I have had unsaved people say to me again and again, both about myself and about other preachers, that had the invitation been given they could not see how they could have stayed away. I am sorely afraid that we are so fearful of hurting their feelings that we lean over backwards and do the devil’s bidding in this matter of letting sinners slip through our fingers.
A FITTING CLIMAX
It seems to me that the invitation is the only fitting climax for a gospel sermon. To stir up in the name of the Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit, conviction in the hearts of men, women, children then to let them go without giving them an opportunity to express their emotions in a decision for the Son of God, is certainly coming short of the mark of preaching. Of course there is such a thing as preaching stewardship, or missions, or Sunday School work, or temperance. Even then, the real gospel proclaimer will bring the thoughts of the people back to their sins, to their Saviour, to their salvation. In this case, as in all else, it is use or lose. Stirring up the emotions of the people and then not giving them the chance to follow their feelings in a stand for the Lord will sooner or later coarsen them, harden them, make them impervious to the gospel appeal, An invitation brings to a focus, to a pointed summary, all that may have been said in the message. The best invitation is a summarization of the sermon itself.
THERE WILL BE OPPOSITION
That the invitation will be opposed, I need not tell you. First, it will be opposed even by some of the twice-born, at least by some of the church members. The invitation cannot be correct, cannot be exactingly courteous, cannot be superfine. It is the stroke of the hammer driving the nail of the gospel into the heart of the hearer. As such, it is bound to cause some indisposition, even some pain. Many of our people are sold on decorum. They want everything done, as they call it, “decently and in order.” They are more or less ritualistic. They are definitely formal. The invitation is neither ritualistic nor formal. It must be definitely informal by the very nature of the thing. Consequently, it seems to go against the grain of those who claim to want the services more “worshipful.”
Of course there are many of our church members who are not right with God themselves. They are willing to sit and enjoy a good song service, to be stirred a little by the preaching of the Word, especially if it does not deal too much with the sins in their lives. The invitation presses home their own responsibility. They do not like it. It is their sins rising to the surface, Satanic possession, more or less, that causes these to criticize the invitation.
Sinners will also oppose the invitation. Some of them will be vociferous in their objections. The reason is quite easy to understand. The invitation faces them with the responsibility of making a decision. They know that they are compelled by it to yes or no to Satan, yes or no to the Saviour. The invitation stirs them, convicts them, makes them uncomfortable. If properly given, summarizing as it does the entire gospel message, as I said before, it gives the Holy Spirit the greatest opportunity to probe their hearts, to search their souls, to expose them, their shortcomings, their foolish excuses, to themselves. They claim they are singled out. It is just not so, unless the preacher foolishly does it that way.
Since sinners claim they are put on the spot, as it were, that they are held up in the limelight, that they are embarrassed, what is there to say about all this? Any of you who love the souls of men, who are concerned for their salvation, will agree with me hands down that it is better for these sinners to be singled out, to be embarrassed, to be held up in the limelight, to be exposed in their rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ here, than for us to let them go on in the tragic anesthesia of death, to sink into a devil’s Hell without warning. My experience has been that when these sinners are converted, they become the protagonists of the invitation, insisting that the opportunity for a decision be given all the time, at every service. They just turn about face.
The greatest opposition that will come to the invitation will be, of course, from Satan. Satan is not too much afraid of our preaching. It is when we permit the Holy Spirit to use us to draw the net that he becomes alarmed. It is he, definitely he, who opposes us through the Christians and the unsaved. I have stood in the pulpit many times during the invitation, my heart torn with the agony within me, almost hearing Beelzebub crying to his hordes, to his hosts, “Hold that line! Hold that line!” The preacher can see the devil leering at him as he calls together his myrmidons to oppose any decision that might be made. It is he who gets the babies to crying. It is he who gets some discourteous older person to stand up and leave the auditorium because of the need to make a streetcar or bus, during that awful, tense moment of battle and decision. It is he who puts the strain on the heart of the preacher, the fear in his mind, to make him think that perhaps he is doing wrong by pressing the invitation too hard. Any way you look at it, any way you study it, you will come to the definite conclusion that, granted that the invitation is given as courteously, as spiritually as possible, the only one who can logically object to it is the prince of Hell.
May I say this before I hasten on to my last point. There is no outstanding preacher, no outstanding pastor, no outstanding evangelist who could not fill almost any auditorium with a crowd to hear him preach, if he limited his preaching to current events, to ethical culture, to the sweet things of the Bible, of the gospel. It is only when these men start pleading for an immediate decision that the crowd becomes restive. Go from one end of this country to the other. You will find that so many of our modernistic, liberal preachers take particular pains in avoiding anything that even appears to be putting the pressure for decision upon the souls of men. It is so much easier to prepare, to preach a well-arranged, a well-presented message, then to stand the people to their feet, to dismiss them with a beautiful benediction, than it is to finish the sermon with a passionate invitation plea for immediate surrender to the Son of God. Again I say that to the feeling heart, to the burdened soul, it takes more strength, more grace to give one extended invitation than to preach a dozen sermons.
THE INVITATION WILL BE HONORED
But we must hurry on to the last point of this humble dissertation. Not only is the invitation expected, not only will the invitation be opposed, but, thank God, the invitation will be definitely rewarded and honored. First, again it will be rewarded in the hearts of the twice-born in your congregation. They have been praying while you have been preaching. It is their anxious desire that souls be converted right then and there. It is their joyous anticipation that the Holy Spirit will honor your testimony and their intercession by giving you fruit for your hire. These will see in your invitation the passion of your heart for the salvation of perishing sinners. They will honor you for it. They will recognize that to you preaching is not a matter of making a living, but a labor of passionate love, of earnest, heartfelt concern. They will back you to the limit as they sit there or stand there, toiling with you in drawing in the net. Should there be no response to the appeal, you will find very definitely that they are the ones who will most sympathize with you, that they are the ones who will hasten to you to help you bear the sorrow of the hour.
Strange though it may sound, I am convinced in my soul that the invitation will be respected, honored, regarded even by most sinners. They know what you are after, especially in an evangelistic service at the end of an evangelistic sermon. The great majority of them came to your services expecting to hear the gospel. Consciously or unconsciously, most of them consciously, they also anticipated that you would offer them a chance to close with the gospel mercies. Every one who has ever preached for any length of time, especially those of us who have been engaged in evangelistic endeavors, have had sinners tell us again and again that even though they were not ready to step out on the promises of the Lord they thanked us for our interest in them. To most sinners, there is something lacking in the hour if they are not pled with to make that vital surrender. I have had them stop me in the street to apologize for the fact that they did not come to the altar while at the same time telling me in no uncertain terms that they were grateful for my interest in them.
There is one more thing I must remind you of as I hasten on. The invitation presses the point of your message into the heart of all those present. It makes them think more definitely of what you have said. It stays with them. It is the best way to end a sermon, most sermons at least. They will be thinking about the invitation, about their attitude towards it, about the stand they took, or did not take, long after they will have forgotten most of what you said in your appeal. In this way, you will readily see that you have cleansed your hands of the blood of these perishing souls. Thus, whether they come or forbear coming, you have done your part. You cannot say that until you will have pressed to the utmost possible limit every opportunity that you can afford them for a decision for Jesus Christ.
The invitation will further be honored and rewarded by the Holy Spirit. I believe that with all my soul. If I did not, I certainly could not be an evangelist. What is the point of being an evangelist if you are not constantly offering people a chance to make things right with God through the Lord Jesus Christ? Your fellow Christians may misunderstand you. Your preacher brethren may misinterpret and misquote you. You may raise all sorts of opposition. The Holy Spirit knows what is in your heart. He knows the literal anguish through which you go as you stand there before a crowd of people, after exhausting every resource of your brain, of your heart, of your soul, of your body, in the preaching of the Word, then going on the second mile to prostrate yourself, as it were, before sinners, before backsliders, making a bridge out of your life for them to walk over out of Hell into Heaven, or out of the far country into the Father’s arms. I definitely believe that the Holy Spirit will honor your pleadings in the invitation. I am firmly convinced that the Holy Spirit will reward you with fruitfulness and multitudes of souls if you go on with the invitation.
What more is there for me to say? There are ways and ways of giving the invitation. If you feel yourself growing nervous or jittery, that is no time to press the invitation. If something has happened to upset you, and you cannot get control of yourself, the best thing to do, I believe, is to sweetly dismiss the congregation with the fervent prayer of your soul that God may add His blessing to the Word that you have preached. There are other times, there are other things that may come up to cause you to believe that it would be better to let the crowd go without an invitation. In this, as in all else, but especially in this, you must be guided fully by the Holy Spirit. He will not permit you to make any mistakes.
Under general, normal conditions, however, when you would have preached on any aspect of sin, on any aspect of salvation, when you feel that the Holy Spirit has used you to impress the Word of God on the hearts of the people, give
the invitation. Plead with souls to be reconciled to God through the merits and mercies of the Lord Jesus Christ. Do it lovingly. Do it tearfully. Do it prayerfully. Do it anxiously. Do it faithfully. Do it in humility. Do it in faith believing that God will understand your motive and give you souls in response to your endeavors.
How to give the invitation is an entirely different matter. One does it one way. Another does it in another way. One does it quietly. Another does it pressingly. One pleads for a little while. Another persists for a long while. In the same place where you get your message from God, over the pages of the blessed Book, in the private devotions of your prayer closets, prostrate before God’s throne of grace, ask God to give you the wisdom to know how to give the invitation, what to say in it.
So I finish my humble testimony. I do not lay any pretense to being an expert. These are just simple thoughts that the Holy Spirit has put on my heart to preach to you in these moments. There are men sitting before me a thousand times more fitted to give you better opinions on this than I have been able to pronounce. I sincerely hope that at some not too far off evangelistic conference these other men will be asked to speak on this terrifically important subject.
May I close by lifting my heart to God and saying, “God bless us all in all that we do, in all that we say, but especially in this matter of the expected, the opposed, the honored, the rewarded invitation. God lead us in this as in all things. For Jesus Christ’s holy sake. Amen.”
(The original publisher of the above material is unknown.)
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