Criticisms of the public invitation almost always make a bee-line to the “altar call” where one “walks the aisle” and “comes to the front” of the auditorium at the urging of the preacher. Jim Elliff represents the criticism of many when he says, “There is no biblical precedent or command regarding a public altar call.” He quickly adds, “It must be said that I espouse a verbal call to Christ in a most serious way and believe that the spoken invitation to come to Christ is a part of all gospel preaching. We ‘compel’ them to come in. But there is nothing sacrosanct about getting people to occupy a certain piece of geography at the front of the building.” Elliff goes on to critique “the sinner’s prayer” and inviting Christ into one’s life. His conclusion? The sinner’s prayer “is not found anywhere but in the back of booklets” and inviting Christ into one’s heart or life “hangs on nothing biblical (though John 1:12 and Rev 3:20 are used, out of context, for its basis).”
Ken Keathley has done an excellent job in cataloging and responding to the more common objections to the public invitation. I’d like to use his list and make a few comments along the way.
Historical Arguments Against the Public Invitation
(1) The practice of giving invitations was invented (or at least popularized) by Charles Finney.
David Engelsma has referred to the altar call as “that johnny-come-lately innovation of Finney.” Because Finney held aberrant views concerning salvation, and because the altar call is a method derived from his spurious theology, some argue we should question the validity of the invitational system.
However, this is an example of guilt by association and begs the question as to whether or not the public invitation has scriptural support. Keathley points out that the Separate Baptists of the Sandy Creek tradition were giving public invitations thirty years before Finney was even born. Many of these Baptists were converts of George Whitefield during the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, who repeatedly and publicly called people to repent and believe.
(2) Historically, the results of invitations are dismal and produce many false converts.
Opponents of the invitation point to the often-disappointing results of many evangelistic meetings and church services. The invitation is said to be a distraction that short-circuits the very process that it is meant to facilitate.
This is by far the most serious accusation, and some of the critiques along these lines are certainly valid. However, the problem is not that an invitation is being given, per se, but that poor and unclear preaching often precedes it and the poor manner in which people are received, counseled, and discipled. There is a lack of clarity about the desperate sinfulness of man, the necessity of repentance and faith, and the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is not the practice of the invitation that is at fault. Rather it is the anemic theology and poor presentation of the gospel by the one giving it. As Keathley rightly notes, “When salvation is replaced with therapy, the result will be false converts whether an altar call is given or not.” In addition, some invitations are unclear in their presentation leaving listeners confused and unsure as to what they are being asked to do.
Without a doubt, the evangelistic methods employed by some are shameful. Others are simply sloppy and poorly given. Again, Keathley notes, “When Christ is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit and the gospel clearly presented, manipulative methods are not necessary. Those who use such techniques are revealing their lack of confidence in the power of the gospel.”
Theological Arguments Against the Public Invitation
(1) There is no “well meant offer” of the gospel to all.
Hyper-Calvinists such reject the view that the gospel is genuinely offered to everyone that hears it. They do not believe that God loves all people and desires their salvation. Therefore a public invitation to all to come to Christ is a gross theological error.
Evangelicals, however, recognize that God’s offer of salvation to all is real. Second Corinthians 5:19 teachers that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” It is to this world that we are ambassadors pleading with and imploring men to be reconciled to God. To this we easily add John 3:16! There is a well meant offer of the gospel to all.
(2) Pleading with men to come to Christ is disgraceful and even idolatrous.
Some remain convinced that preachers are called to proclaim the gospel, not to persuade men to receive it. Giving invitations is tantamount to idolatry because it focuses on the sinner rather than the sovereign work of grace.
Besides being offensive, this characterization is patently false. Certainly salvation is completely a work of God and that the gospel is Christ-centered from start to finish. However, we also believe that God uses intermediate means to accomplish his work. It is clear that it is God who calls men to salvation, but he uses the gospel preacher to issue the summons (Rom 10:14-17). There is a place for earnest, brokenhearted, passionate preaching. The invitation is a natural expression of the sincere, godly desire for people to come to Christ that finds its motivation in the truth that lost people matter to God (e.g. Jonah 4).
(3) Occupying a certain piece of geography does not save people.
Duh. This is a straw man plain and simple. No authentic gospel preacher believes that a person is saved by the act of going forward and walking the aisle. As Keathley again notes, “Gospel preachers make clear that salvation is not in any public act or repeating any prayer. Salvation is [in] Jesus Christ. We publicly invite people to come to him. No method of giving an invitation is sacrosanct and sensitivity to the particular situation in which the minister finds himself is in order. What must be upheld is the principle of calling the hearers to a decision and expecting the Spirit of God to do his work.”
 Jim Elliff, “Closing With Christ,” Viewpoint (Jan-Mar 1999): 11.
 Elliff, 12.
 Ken Keathley, “Rescuing the Perishing: A Defense of Giving Invitations,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 1.1 (Spring 2003): 7-15.
 David Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1994), 63.