“Decisionism” – Pro or Con?

Our sister at Biblical Beginnings (see here) and I were recently discussing “decisionism” (sinner’s pray, altar calls, coming forward, etc., for salvation) and so I ordered this booklet, which I had already been planning on reading at some point.

The Invitation System
By Iain H. Murray
The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002, 38 pages

The independent fundamental Baptist church my wife and I attended for eight years after we accepted Christ as Savior had a familiar routine. The pastor closed all three weekly services – Sunday AM, Sunday PM, and Wednesday PM – in the same way: first with a prayer that related to the teachings of the sermon followed by an invitation to receive Christ, followed by the sinners prayer, and then an encouragement from the pastor, “with all heads bowed, and all eyes closed, and nobody looking around,” for anyone who had prayed the prayer and accepted Christ as personal Savior, to raise their hand. Perhaps the most famous (some would say infamous) example of the “invitation system” was at the crusades of Billy Graham* who asked “seekers” to physically leave their seats and walk to the front of the speaker’s platform where they would be led to pray the sinner’s prayer.

That all seemed to me like a reasonable way to lift up Christ and His salvation to lost people and encourage them to accept Christ. Personally, I had accepted Christ after years of reading the Bible and then talking with Christians at work and reading the tracts they strategically placed in the men’s restroom. I had read over the sinner’s prayer on the back of the tracts many times, but resisted praying it for several reasons. But the Lord continued to convict me of my sinful and helpless condition and my need of the Savior and I finally ran out of excuses and repented of my sins and asked the Lord to save me!

Fast forward to 2014. After my very dumb extended prodigal “season,” I returned to the Lord, but at the small SBC church we attended, an invitation was rarely given. Our current church that we’ve attended over the past two years also rarely extends an invitation to accept Christ during the service. What had happened? What did I miss? I’ve learned over the past four years that many churches and pastors don’t favor the “invitation system,” which has also been somewhat disparagingly labeled, “decisionism.”

In this short booklet, Iain Murray, former ministerial associate of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, critically examines the invitation system. He argues that many people have raised their hand or walked the aisle in response to an invitation without genuinely accepting Christ. They didn’t really understand the Gospel, but they responded due to some other internal or external pressure. Years later, they are, in essence, trusting in their physical response, e.g., they raised their hand in a Sunday School class when they were a child because everyone else was doing it, not in a genuine acceptance of Christ. Murray argues that pastors and workers should definitely lead people to a point where they realize their sinful state and their need of the Savior, but maintains that such methods as leading people in the sinner’s prayer or asking people to raise their hands or walk the aisle can lead to confusion and false conversions. The focus, he says, is on numbers rather than on genuine conversions that often take years (like mine).

Murray makes many good points, but I’m in the middle of this debate. It’s obvious that the invitation system can and has led to disingenuous conversions, but I believe there’s also a Biblical mandate to press people to make a decision for Christ.

“For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” – 2 Cor.: 6:2

For many people, having been invited to pray the sinner’s pray and then asked to acknowledge that they did so was eternally helpful.

Reading the sinner’s prayer over and over on the back of tracts was very helpful for me, although it took me a long time to finally trust in Christ. Are there also dangers if we don’t press people to decide for Christ and show them how that can be done through using the sinner’s prayer as an example and guide? Can vital opportunities be missed? Without leading people to pray the sinner’s prayers and pressing for positive affirmations of accepting Christ, do we encourage people to just drift along without understanding how to accept Christ and the desperate urgency of doing that? After getting my groundings in a church that used invitation system methods, our current church’s “non-decisionism” approach feels almost lackadaisical and indifferent.

I can see positives and negatives on both sides of this argument. There’s no doubt the Lord has blessed various approaches to giving out the Gospel. But I can certainly understand why someone who had a false conversion experience through the invitation system and then genuinely trusted in Christ afterward would have criticisms of it.

Comments are welcome.

“The Invitation System” by Iain H. Murray can be ordered from Amazon here.

*Unbeknownst to most evangelicals, Roman Catholics who came forward at Billy Graham’s crusades were referred to Catholic workers who counseled them that their decision for Christ was simply a “reaffirmation” of their confirmation or infant baptism. Beginning in the early 1960s, Graham disappointingly solicited local Catholic bishops to participate in the planning and administration of his crusades.

21 thoughts on ““Decisionism” – Pro or Con?

  1. Thank you for this post, brother! I’ve expressed some concerns over the past few months that my own experiences have caused me to be unbalanced. Iron sharpens iron, God has blessed me with our fellowship! You help me see both sides, which can help protect against error. May God bless you, dear brother!

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    1. Thanks, sister! I’m glad I read this short booklet to get a better understanding of the “anti-decisionist” viewpoint. Both MLJ and J. MacArthur, two teachers I respect a lot, were/are strongly opposed to decisionism. I can easily argue both viewpoints and I hope I conveyed that in the post, although I probably do lean toward having some type of invitation method because that is what I was used to. I had been thinking about this for some time because of MLJ, JMac, and my recent church experiences so our conversation expedited this “thinking out loud” post. Thanks for your feedback! I don’t mean to counter or minimize what you experienced. Unfortunately, there are probably millions of souls who were also treated as a number by an ambitious evangelist, pastor, or SS teacher without any real personal follow-up and who fell through the cracks. Thank you, sister, and God bless you, too!

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  2. Tom,
    I myself don’t use the invitation system…but as you mention Christian preaching must call for a response to the Gospel. I myself believe preaching should end with the Gospel and grace and a call for the listeners to turn to Him and trust in Him.

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    1. Thanks, Jim. After coming from an IFB background, where an invitation to accept Christ along with a raised hand acknowledgement ended EVERY service, attending a church that didn’t use those “pushy” methods was very strange to me. I get the rationale although I guess I lean towards “decisionism” because of how we started out.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a very thought provoking subject. The more I ponder it the more debate erupts. I definitely see validity in both viewoints. However one point might be missing on the ‘con’ side. In this ‘megachurch’ era, pastors define success in ‘numbers’ which creates a vested interest in drawing ‘sinners to the sinners prayer’. Mood music & special effects are not the grief that Paul expressed. Do responders have ‘godly sorrow that leads to repentance’? It must be the work of the Holy Spirit.

    I think in the end I look at our commitment to the Lord as the Bible compares it to marriage. Would a minister dare pump up a decision to marry or is the challenge posed to people already decided in their hearts? “Do you repent and receive the Lord as your Savior?” The decision must already be rooted. “I do!”
    God bless you brother !

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    1. Lisa Beth, thank you for your comments! Your thought about the megachurch era brings to mind another very important point, but this one falls on the “pro” side of the invitation argument. I’ve read from several sources that the church growth marketing “gurus” – e.g., Hybels/Warren/Drucker – counsel their followers to eliminate all invitation methods because they make the seeker/attendee/visitor “uncomfortable.” In my mind, that’s a good reason FOR the invitation system. Yes, I definitely see Murray’s and MacArthur’s point about “decisionism” preachers and teachers pushing people to an ingenuous conversion, but I could also argue all day for the invitation system. I like your analogy about marriage. It would be ridiculous for a minister to drag a couple to the marriage altar kicking and screaming. Repentance must come from the heart. But I believe people should be strongly challenged to accept Christ at church services because we don’t know what a day may bring forth. I have brought unsaved family members to our new church and it’s been somewhat disappointing because they were not strongly challenged from the pulpit regarding their sinful condition and their immediate and pressing need for the Savior. Well, I could go on and on, from both sides of the argument. Thank you and God bless you, too, sister!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow, I definitely believe in hard preaching against sin, leading to conviction and repentance. You make more compelling arguments here and I must agree with the last, “I could go on and on, from both sides…”! May the Holy Spirit lead and ground every decision. Press on brother!

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  4. Good conversation, Tom. We have an invitation every Sunday, and even most Wednesdays for that matter. I certainly agree that many who make a “decision,” have in fact done nothing but take a walk. On the other hand, as you said we are to preach that folks should respond. If nothing else, it gives the rest of us to know who is feeling God’s drawing and might be receptive….just in case their stroll to the front was not a real conversion.

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    1. Thanks, for chiming in, Wally! Yes, I lean toward an invitation regularly being given at services myself. I’m the type of person who would strongly resist raising my hand or walking the aisle because I would not want to feel like I was being “manipulated” by some sharp tongued preacher. People are different. But in my case, the Lord used the sinner’s prayer on the back of those tracts and I’m sure the Lord uses the invitation at your services. Even if people don’t accept the Lord at the time, it challenges them to think about their sinful condition and their need of the Savior.

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      1. I concur, Tom. We have some folks from a local Reformed Baptist church who visit now and then for whatever reason, and one of the men actually won’t stay during the invitation. They can become very manipulative if done wrongly. We do ask, though, that even those who have come to faith outside of service to present themselves for Baptism and church membership. I was saved during an invitation myself, and not sure if it would have happened otherwise, because frankly I was not really into talking to people about God at the time. But that preacher…he preached that day LOL.

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      2. Thanks, Wally. Good testimony of how personalities are different and the Lord uses various means to draw individuals to Him. Glad you brought up the Reformed aspect. Critics say Charles Finney who leaned toward Wesleyan Arminianism (even though he started out Presbyterian) was one of the first to popularize “decisionism.” If I understand correctly, invitations to accept Christ as part of a service or event are generally frowned upon in Reformed/Calvinist groups but embraced in Arminian leaning groups? Back at my old Baptist church and other like-minded Baptist churches in the area, you could not attend a church service or a sponsored event (including softball games!) without an invitation being given out. Not to give out an invitation would have been heresy. Maybe the only time the pastor didn’t give out an invitation was when there was a snowstorm and the only people who showed up for service were the deacons and Sunday School teachers.

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      3. Maybe there is some linkage, although I would not really place us in the Arminian camp so much. We are, as you say(If i say it correctly, ) Calviminians LOL. But I do think you are actually correct in your overall thinking.

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      4. Thanks for clarifying, brother. Same with my old Baptist church. It would have fit in the middle of the Arminius-Calvin debate. Eternal security? Yes. Predestination? No.

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  5. You are arguing from experience rather that from principle. You failed to ask the fundamental question: is the invitation system biblical?

    I read Murrary’s book years ago. It was after I began questioning some of the practices I was seeing. I was certain that the invitations as now practiced were in the Bible. They are not. The system is a man-make construct. Its abuse makes it worse. I remember Joe’s “every head bowed, every eye closed.” I silently added “every hand raised.”

    Do not confuse an invitation to a decision with an invitation to Christ. Study the Book of Acts in this regard. Let’s use the apostolic method. Maybe we will be “stoned and left for dead.”

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    1. Thanks, Randy. Leaving Gospel tracts in restroom stalls isn’t spelled out in Scripture either, but I’ll be eternally grateful that someone loved the Lord and lost souls enough to regularly place tracts in our workplace restroom.

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  6. Thanks for reading, commenting and following my blog. I have so much to learn yet and I welcome any opportunity to read more of what you’ve written. I’ve been reading through your blog all day. 😬
    As a young person I remember praying that prayer every time I heard it…but I never surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus. I see your point though, I’m sure there are many who have…so it would be wrong to think that it isn’t used by God to bring about true repentance and conversion. I guess in my post I should have made it clearer that just saying the prayer alone doesn’t guarantee anything. I only bring this up because, I’m my experience, so many Catholics think that Protestants believe it does. Does that make sense? (I’m even finding my explanation confusing now! Lol!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jackie, for reading my posts and following my blog as well! It’s always a great blessing to converse with other ex-Catholic brothers and sisters. Unless a person has been in Catholicism they cannot understand what we experienced.
      After becoming a Christian, I thought “decisionism” was just how it was done, so I appreciate the views of others who point out its pitfalls. I agree with you. We believers can discuss our different views on the secondaries with charity but we are united in Christ!

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