It was early in the 19th century, right in the heart of the Restoration Movement, when Henry Babcock stood behind the pulpit inside a small church house in eastern Tennessee. It was the culmination of a weeklong gospel meeting where several area preachers had brought their congregations and packed the little church night after night. Mr. Babcock was the final preacher for the series of lessons entitles “Wayward Man and the Road Home.” As he wrapped up his lesson, he issued the final challenge of the week:
“If you are sitting in that church pew thinking about what would happen to your soul if you were to leave this little church tonight and were attacked by a gang of robbers, then it is time for you to make a change. It is time for you to turn your life by repenting of your sins and having them washed away by the blood of Christ through baptism. If you have been baptized but you have fallen into the devil’s evil trap and are once again enslaved by sin, then it is time for you to repent of those sins and ask for the prayers of the church – those people who love you so dearly. If you have any needs tonight, the church wants to help you now. We want to see your wayward feet walking on that road home. Please, come forward now as we stand together and sing the hymn that has been selected.”
It was at that moment that the hearts of many were convicted to the heart and 14 were baptized into Christ while another 22 came forward to confess their sins to one another. It was a great night and all the preachers in attendance saw how effective this new method had been. Mr. Babcock had delivered a wonderful message that convicted many hearts and he kindly invited them forward. And so was born, that little part of worship called the invitation.
Of course, that little story is fictitious but I can imagine that the formal invitation given at the end of every sermon was born out of a similar occurrence. For my entire life, every sermon I have heard has ended with an invitation to “obey the Gospel.” Now, as a disclaimer, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with offering an invitation at the end of a sermon. However, I do think that a couple of problems have arisen from this tradition.
First, not all sermons call for repentance. For example, a sermon about the importance of giving to the work of the church will not necessarily shake someone to the core and cause them to see the error or their ways. The same can be said of the topic of fellowship among brothers and sisters in Christ. Certainly, that does not mean that you shouldn’t keep repentance and baptism in the minds of those who are not Christians but it is unlikely that some topics will produce a penitent heart.
My greatest concern, however, is the lack of urgency that has resulted from the formal invitation to obey the gospel. There are so many people who realize their need for salvation on Monday and yet wait to have their sins washed away until Sunday when the invitation is given. That does not make sense! If you realize that you have dirt on your face, are you going to wait for three days to wash it off because it is inconvenient? No! You will make the necessary arrangements to get the dirt off of your face.
When did baptism become something that needs an audience or an act that needs to be scheduled? The Ethiopian eunuch, after studying with Philip, said, “See here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) The eunuch understood the urgency involved in his decision to have his sins washed away through baptism. I believe we have watered down the necessity of baptism by saying, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that one can wait until Sunday to be baptized.
If the need for salvation is not an urgent matter in the mind of a person, perhaps there is a lack of understanding of the fate of their soul. May we realize that God never intended our salvation to depend on the meeting time of the church or the right invitation followed by the right sermon. God intends our convicted hearts to follow him immediately.