In previous years I came across the criticism of the British preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of the invitation and the altar call that are given in many evangelical churches, and the criticism has been echoed by some in recent years.
I never agreed with these criticisms, and here are the reasons why.
There are a large number of scriptural precedents to leading others in prayer in a pattern of repeating what someone else has said.
The Lord’s Prayer comes immediately to mind. The evidence is that Jesus never really intended it to be memorized and repeated by rote, but rather as a pattern for prayer. It looks like his intention was more that we would use each sentence as the beginning of praying on each subject. These kinds of prayers are also common in the Old Testament, and throughout the Psalms. For instance, in Hosea 14:2-3 the prophet gives repentant Israelites the kinds of things to say to God on the path of repentance.
Simply repeating the words in prayer that someone else says is not wrong scripturally. It is not wrong either in any Christian tradition or denomination that I know of. There is no unbreakable law that says that someone who repeats in prayer words which are supplied by another person is praying in vain. When Jesus mentioned ‘vain repetitions’ in prayer, it was about a large volume of words, not about repeating phrases in prayer which are provided by someone else. It does not in itself make the prayer that is repeated illegitimate. Rather, it can be a case where someone else understands and is giving direction to the spiritual need of another person.
Many genuine conversions do come this way, as exemplified in the lives and testimonies of people who professed conversion this way.
The fact that some people pray to receive Christ but do not follow Christ afterwards does not in itself negate either the genuine salvation of those who have prayed to receive Christ. (There is no need to quibble over the terms here. The term ‘receive’ is used in John 1:12, for one.)
The truth is that false conversions cannot be avoided by simply refusing to ask someone to repeat a prayer or issue an invitation to ‘receive Christ.’ There are plenty of people who make professions of faith in Calvinist circles but later turn away from those professions. In the Calvinist theology they may be considered not to have been truly saved from the beginning, and usually that’s the reaction that these situations receive. But the four different outcomes that Jesus said would happen in response to the gospel in the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8) happen whether there is an explicit invitation and repetition of a prayer or not. A Calvinist theology in itself does not prevent false conversions.
The statistics on those who fail to follow Christ after repeating a prayer may be skewed or misquoted by the critics at this point. The ones that I have heard came from a Billy Graham crusade many years ago in an Asian country where followup was entrusted to a parachurch organization. Very few were found to have made their way to local churches upon later examination. The Billy Graham organization took this situation to heart, and worked much harder to connect those who came forward and made professions of faith to churches. It’s been estimated that the actual rate since then is more like 50% being added to churches. And many organizations now that I know of do not count praying the prayer as a conversion; some simply call it ‘expressing spiritual interest.’ They do not count it as conversion until a person starts regular church attendance and involvement, and this is a legitimate scriptural point to say that a person is converted (Acts 2:47). It is not a final infallible statement on that person’s eternal destination, but rather a reasonable assessment of that person’s profession of faith and conduct of life.
I personally know of no one that thinks that simply repeating the prayer means that anyone is saved eternally from that moment forward. The truth is that for the person who has made a profession of faith, whether that person has repeated a prayer or not, that only God infallibly knows the heart of that person and his or her final eternal destination. And sometimes, taking the time to go over a person’s spiritual history and convictions can unmask a false assurance and praying with them can bring them into a scriptural assurance of salvation and a new life that bears scriptural evidence of salvation.
In discussions with brothers and sisters in the past, we’ve recognized that some people will go through the motions of what is presented as a scriptural response to the gospel and yet show no fruit or fail to follow Christ afterwards. In retrospect, these are the things we’ve found:
- Sometimes the gospel was presented too positively, as a path to peace and joy without having to follow Christ. The remedy, as acknowledged in many evangelism training courses, is to make the demands and cost of living under the Lordship of Christ as his disciple (when was the last time you heard that phrase in an evangelical church?) clear.
- Sometimes the person came with deceitful motives. For instance, a woman who was an occasional church attendee called me frantically one Saturday and said she wanted to come forward in church. I knew enough about her personal situation to be suspicious of her motives; the enemy of our souls and the hardness of the hearts of sinners keeps this from being a common occurrence. An elder and I visited her, and I discouraged her from coming to church and going forward. I went over the gospel with her, and she said that she wanted to pray to put her faith in Christ. I led her through it, since I gave her the benefit of the doubt that there might be some sincerity there. She did come to church for several weeks, but left off. It came out that she simply wanted to show her boyfriend after getting dumped ‘that she was getting on with her life.’ In these cases, it’s the wicked heart (Jeremiah 17:9) that’s the problem, and the prayer offered with sinful intentions in the heart (Psalm 66:18).
- More often than many realize, it seems that the act of going forward and praying a prayer is itself seen as a good work, as a social ritual that leads to church membership (which is really what they want and what they delude themselves into believing is salvation), or as adding Jesus to a panoply of gods that one already has. In these cases the gospel has not been presented clearly enough, or misunderstood intentionally or unintentionally by a person who fits what he or she has heard into his or her previous religious understanding, background and filters. These previous filters function as part of the spiritual blindness upon the hearts of unbelievers (II Corinthians 4:4, Ephesians 2:2).
There may be other reasons, but I don’t know anyone personally that would say that any of these situations were genuine conversions. It’s more the clarity and completeness of the gospel presentation and taking the time to understand the person when that person expresses that he or she wants to be saved that needs to be addressed here, not the mere act of repeating a prayer. And most of the time I’ve discussed these situations with brothers and sisters, it results in a renewed vigor to make the gospel clear, to talk frankly with people, and to pray for the conviction of the Holy Spirit and his witness to Christ (John 14:26-17, 16:8-11). These situations grieved my brothers and sisters in Christ, but they did not over-react by refusing to pray with anyone any more.
A scriptural response of repentance and faith in Christ to the gospel will need to be addressed to God in some way at some time, and it’s reasonable to give people guidance on how to do it.
In scripture, the response of genuine conviction is more often “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37), rather than taking the time to think things through privately and offer a prayer of repentance and faith. A sinner under conviction of sin does not necessarily know how to respond to the gospel; it’s reasonable for believers to give them clear guidance. To me, it seems cruel to leave a sinner under the conviction of sin and concern for his or her eternal destination without giving clear guidance on how to receive the gift of salvation by repentance and faith. And in scripture, many, many came to repentance and saving faith in Christ on the spot after hearing the gospel, and not after taking a lot of time to think things over privately and offer a prayer of repentance and faith. The only example from church history that I can think of where someone did do that is Charles Finney – and he is generally held with little esteem by the people who advocate this ‘do it yourself project’ of going aside, thinking things through privately and then offering a self guided prayer of repentance and faith.
As far as I can tell, the way that it’s done in Evangelism Explosion is extremely reasonable and workable. No one is asked to pray until the gospel is thoroughly explained, and the response to the gospel, of repentance and faith in Christ, is thoroughly explained as well. The person who is guiding the other person to faith in Christ actually prays before asking the other person to repeat a prayer. He or she prays for understanding, repentance and faith in the other person first. And this does not come under a lot of emotional pressure but after a thorough explanation of the gospel.
There was a brief time when witnessing to someone, and the time came when the person indicated that he or she was willing to profess faith in Christ, that I would ask the person to pray without asking them to repeat a prayer after me. Practically no one, even when given directions, would express anything that sounded anything like repentance and faith in Christ. One even started praying ‘for the sick and shut in.’ I found that generally, unless they were given explicit guidance and direction in prayer, that they would pray anything and everything that they had heard in some set prayers of the past. After that, I went back to giving them guidance in prayer.
One of the things that I’ve been careful about is to try to make sure that any leading in prayer is using scriptural language and scriptural phrases. When I explain the response to the gospel, I explain any words such as ‘repentance’ and ‘faith’, and what it means to have Jesus as Lord and Savior. Repentance, faith, Lord and Savior are all scriptural terms, and I find that the paraphrases seem to foster a disconnect between a person seeing his or her profession of Christ and spiritual experience in the scriptures. Long ago I dispensed with phrases such as ‘accepting Christ into one’s heart,’ and stayed with the phrases that I saw throughout the Bible, and especially in the words of Jesus and Paul.
When it comes down to it, it’s hard to see why anyone would object to a believer leading someone in prayer that expresses repentance and faith in Christ in scriptural terms when that person has indicated that he or she wants to make a profession of faith in Christ after a clear presentation of the gospel.
Sometimes this is the preferable method when the person who wants to place his or her faith in Christ has a problem with some form of occult and demonic bondage.
One of the common symptoms of occult and demonic bondage is a difficulty in praying to the one true God and expressing faith in Christ. Indulgence in such practices as necromancy (seances and Ouija boards), ‘white’ or black magic, and astrology, among other occult practices, can lead a person into demonic bondage. There also seem to be some kinds of other sins, such as extreme pride and arrogance and sexual sins, that can bring a person under this kind of bondage as well. This kind of bondage does not seem to be the natural unbelief and rebellion of the human heart, or the hardness of heart that comes from repeated indulgence in these kinds of sins, but rather a kind of deception and bondage that is demonic. One of the key indicators that it is demonic is that it yields to a believer who exercises his or her God-given authority over the demonic in the name of Christ (Luke 10:19).
I have dealt with people who said with tears to express their faith in Christ, but kept on saying, “I can’t . . . I can’t . . . I can’t.” I prayed with them, for them Christ to shine in their hearts (II Corinthians 4:6) to give them understanding, repentance and faith, and I then took authority over the source of unbelief and bondage in the name of Jesus. I then led the other person in prayer, giving them personalized scriptural phrases to profess repentance and faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. Repeating the phrases of the prayer expressing repentance and faith came harder for some than for others, but the “I can’t” stopped. These people were then grateful someone took the time and had the spiritual discernment to help them past this bondage to the Savior who “ . . . came to destroy the works of the devil,” and who destroyed this stronghold of unbelief in their own heart.
I believe that this kind of stronghold of unbelief is more common than many would believe. The religious soup that permeates the culture on the fringes of and outside institutional evangelicalism gives many, many opportunities for demonic strongholds to enter the hearts of unbelievers. I personally believe that the growing semi-paganism outside the evangelical world has been leading many into demonic bondage and that this is partially responsible for the current vocal and irrational hostility to evangelical Christianity among some in the modern world. And where God shines his light in the heart of someone from a background like this, it may require someone to help them through this kind of demonic stronghold of unbelief.
Here is the basic prayer which I customize according to the person that I’m praying with. The next column could be a set of directions for anyone who is uncomfortable with a prayer, and several scriptures that go with each phrase.
||Pray to the one true God who created heaven and earth.
|I confess that I have sinned. I repent and I ask you to forgive me.
||Repent before God of your sins.
||Isaiah 55:6-7, Acts 3:19.
|I believe in Jesus, that he died on the cross for me, and that he rose from the dead.
||Place your faith in Christ, that he died on the cross for you and that he rose from the dead.
|I acknowledge and receive Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
||Openly acknowledge that Jesus to be your Lord and Savior.
||Romans 10:9-10, John 1:12.
|I will love him and follow him all of my life.
||Make it your commitment to love and follow him for the rest of your earthly life.
||John 14:21. This is not strictly necessary as a reception by faith of scriptural salvation, but I include it as a logical followup of what it means to acknowledge Christ as Lord and Savior.
|I ask that you would fill me with your Holy Spirit.
||Ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit to live a transformed life.
||Luke 11:13, II Corinthians 5:17. Again, this is not strictly necessary as a reception of salvation, but indicates faith for the working of the Holy Spirit in regeneration in response to saving faith.
|I thank you for loving me and saving me . . .
||Thank God for his gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, as an expression of faith that he will fulfill his Word in granting salvation to faith.
||Expression of trust in God fulfilling his Word in granting salvation to receptive faith as in John 6:47.
|In Jesus’s name, Amen.
From now on:
- Could there be no mockery or mischaracterization of someone who has some different ideas or practices in evangelism? Could we not rather ask each other to examine all that we say and do according to scripture, and charitably allow for differences?
- Could there be no more, wherever it existed, assumption that praying the prayer saves anyone if there is no scriptural evidence of salvation afterwards?
- Could there be no dwelling on Christians who have problems or problem Christians as having false conversions as an unnecessary guilt trip unless there is clear evidence that there is some departure from the scriptural gospel and evidence of salvation? Could there not rather be instruction in the scriptures, prayer, encouragement and patience with the former, and scriptural correction of the latter (Galatians 6:1) rather than questioning the reality of their salvation? It’s a real possibility that should be brought up from time to time, but it can become a quick, easy answer to question the reality of someone’s salvation rather than take the time and put in the effort to help them grow in a salvation which has repeatedly shown has a scriptural basis. Only Jesus is perfect and sinless!
- Can there be more direction of those who have professed faith in Christ into the scriptures and church fellowship, and more initiative in our churches to love them, accept them and instruct them in the scriptures? Could there be more initiative to love them when they are going through problems, guide them and go with them to witness to their family and friends, and encourage them to be grounded in Christ? This is not insulating them from the world but rather the real fulfillment of Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 20:27, and I Thessalonians 2:8-12.