About a year ago Baptist Press released an article by Keith Fordham entitled, "Intentional Invitation." In the article Fordham argues that Scripture calls preachers to give a "come forward invitation" (also referred to as an "altar call"). He said,
The Greek word "parakaleo" is used at least five times in Scripture in the verb form in conjunction with preaching. It is translated as "exhort" and "beseech," and always means to give a come-forward, stand-by-the-preacher, invitation. Every preacher is commanded to give a come-forward invitation in 2 Timothy 4:2. (emphasis mine)
The whole of his article stands upon his interpretation of this one word, and it just does not stand up. While the word "parakaelo" can mean to "call to one's side" it also means to entreat, instruct, encourage, and strengthen and context usually makes it clear. The article would be funny if Fordham wasn't serious. I would hardly have cared about it when I read it were Fordham not, at the time, the President of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (Bill Britt is now the current president).
That Calvinism is not anti-evangelistic is something I have already explained (here and here), but there is still a question hanging out there. Do we, as Calvinists, make a "public invitation?" We have been recently accused of refusing "to give invitations, for fear of insulting God's sovereignty." Do we give an invitation when preaching Christ? The easy answer is yes, but clearly, we are doing so differently than others.
Something to keep in mind is that not only do most Calvinists blow off the "altar call," so do many outside of the Reformed tradition. It isn't because these churches are not evangelistic, nor because they don't have a heart for those outside of the Kingdom. We don't invite people to come forward because we think it has nothing to do with coming to Christ.
So, from my perspective, what is a public invitation?
1. The invitation is a call to believe. God, the prophets, the Apostles and Jesus all invited people to respond to the offer of salvation throughout the Bible. This offer is given in many different ways. "Come," "drink," "eat," "follow," "die," et al. refer to the basic of idea of faith and repentance. Although there is a first time an individual responds, the invitation is not to experience a one time event. It is ultimately an invite to a life of following Jesus and denying self.
2. The invitation is a "general call" made indiscriminately to everyone. One of the lies told about those who do not make use of the "come forward invitation" is that we do not publicly invite people to respond to the Gospel. But the "invitation" is the public, indiscriminate appeal for all listening to believe, not to join a processional of curious isle walkers. One cannot read the Puritan's sermons and works on evangelism and honestly conclude that Calvinism kills evangelism, or an invitation.
3. The invitation is an earnest appeal for immediate response. If we are not earnest in our invitation, calling people follow Christ today, the problem is one of the heart, not of doctrine. For more on earnestness in Calvinistic evangelism see John Angell James book, An Earnest Ministry or Spurgeon's lecture Earnestness: Its Marring and Maintenance. 4. The invitation is not connected to a superficial physical act. I say "superficial" because coming to Christ does involve action when it relates to leaving sinful habits behind, beginning works of righteousness, and suffering for Christ. But walking the isle is not a part of it.
This is the invitation as I understand it and practice it. Yep, I am one of those guys who has never asked people to come forward to the "altar" to become a Christian. In all of the conversions I have been witness to in my ministry here at Grace not one of them has come forward, or prayed the "sinner's prayer." Yet, an invitation is always present in my preaching.
I am not saying God cannot work through those who use an altar call. He can and does. Nor am I saying there isn't room for counseling, follow up, or further "inquiry" by those who are anxious for their souls after hearing the Gospel. My point is not to launch an attack on those who use the altar call. Some of my friends make use of it. My point is to show that the absence of the "come forward invitation" does not indicate an absence of evangelism, an invitation or passion for the world. In fact, it is our passion for the glory of Christ and our love for man that forces us to be both earnest and careful in our evangelism.