In the churches where I first came to know Jesus Christ, no service was complete without an invitation—a time for the people in the pews to respond to the message by making their way down the aisle. Especially during weeklong revival services, “Just as I Am” inevitably ran out of verses before the preachers ran out of steam. And so, with “every head bowed, every eye closed, and no one looking around,” the preacher would call for “one more, just one more” as the pianist continued to play. As a child, I remember watching these visiting revivalists through half-closed eyes, waiting for the preacher’s furtive nod to the pianist that would bring the invitation to an end. Whatever you may think about invitations in general or about those preachers’ particular methods, one thing is clear: They weren’t afraid to preach for conversions. Preaching for conversions was part of what they did and how they lived.
Neither were the preachers and prophets whose words the Holy Spirit has preserved in the pages of the New Testament.
John the Baptist heralded the coming of Christ with a call to turn from one way of life to another (Mark 1:3-5). When Jesus made his way back to Galilee from the desert of temptation, his proclamation to the people was, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15). Repentance was an imperative in Simon Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). In a letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul put it this way: “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:20). “Urge immediate decision and acceptance of the gospel terms, with public confession of Christ,” one nineteenth-century professor of preaching instructed his students in a call to preach for conversions.
When you preach for conversion, you imply that the way people are is not the way they ought to be
In a culture intoxicated with the rationalization and justification of each individual’s lifestyle, no call for “immediate decision and acceptance of the gospel terms” will ever be particularly popular. After all, to urge such decision is to declare implicitly that the way hearers are is not the way hearers ought to be—this, in a world where the way people are is widely assumed to be the inescapable result of their own unquestionable expressions of their own individuality. Possibilities for popularity plummet even further when proclaimers of the Word introduce the inconvenient truth that explicit faith in Jesus represents the sole pathway for persons to become what they ought to be.
Early in my ministry, there were a couple of years when I flirted with theological liberalism and found myself uncertain about the exclusivity of the gospel. During those months, I looked back on the decision-seeking preachers of my childhood with embarrassment and disdain. Convinced that I had grown beyond the need to call for conversions, I placed as many miles as possible between my pulpit and the proverbial sawdust trail.
I soon realized that — without a passionate conviction that the gospel of Jesus Christ is necessary and exclusive — preaching quickly degenerates into therapeutic moralisms, denuded of power and authority. I assuaged my conscience during those months by appealing to an aphorism supposedly spoken by a popular medieval saint: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” What I wasn’t willing to admit at the time is that, because the gospel includes assent to specific truths about a specific person, preaching the gospel requires words. A gospel without words is something less than the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ.