Billy Graham isn’t wrong to emphasize the decision to accept Christ as Savior and Lord.
I have a Methodist clergy colleague and Facebook friend who tends to post things that make me feel both inspired and guilty—or maybe “convicted” is the right word. A post of his from this week was no exception. He said that while he enjoys seeing online photos from various church Christmas musicals, cantatas and programs—and he knows first-hand how much work goes into pulling these things off—he finds it perplexing that he rarely hears about conversions at these events. Is it because we’re not inviting people to respond to the good news of Christ’s incarnation?
Meanwhile, he said, Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek, Georgia, the largest United Methodist church in our North Georgia Conference, reported over 100 professions of faith during their recent Christmas program.
Over 100 professions of faith! During a Christmas music program!
I can’t comprehend that. I am, like most of my colleagues, one of those pastors who hasn’t offered an invitation to salvation at a Christmas program. Nor have I ever seen it done (at least since I was a child in a Baptist church).
Why? We are not betraying our Methodist heritage, or becoming more “Baptist” (if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that fear expressed by clergy colleagues, I could at least buy a grande latte at Starbucks), if we offer an altar call at the end of our services. Revivalism is more authentically a part of our Methodist tradition than the ecumenically-minded liturgical reforms that mainline churches implemented in the wake of Vatican II.
I say this as someone who is not anti-liturgical. I have a great love for our denomination’s Anglican roots. I love the Book of Common Prayer. I appreciate that our movement’s founders, John and Charles Wesley, were lifelong clergy in the Church of England.
But inasmuch as the Wesley brothers were high-church, they were high-church evangelicals. They rightly understood that merely being baptized and confirmed, and going through the motions of liturgy week in and week out, without a corresponding change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit, is meaningless.
All that to say, even we Methodists need to be converted! Indeed, we need to be saved!
And, yes, we understand that salvation is a lifelong process of inward change that begins with God’s prevenient grace—by which we are able to repent, believe in Jesus, and be justified—and continues throughout our lives through the Spirit-initiated process of sanctification. We understand that God has given us means of grace, such as the Eucharist, holy scripture, prayer, and worship, through which God sanctifies us. We understand that we are not fully and finally saved until we arrive safely in heaven on the other side of death, the Second Coming, and resurrection.
And more controversially, unlike most of our fellow evangelicals, Methodists do stress the possibility of backsliding. Even after we’ve been converted, we believe, God grants us the terrifying freedom to turn away from Christ, such that we lose salvation.
I think I’ve faithfully represented—in a very brief sketch—our Wesleyan understanding of salvation. I affirm all the doctrines underlying this understanding.
So I understand that salvation is much more than a one-time decision made in response to a preacher’s invitation at the end of a church service. I understand that leading someone to pray the “sinner’s prayer” is, by itself—apart from genuine conversion, without the corresponding change of heart wrought by the Spirit—insufficient for salvation.
I get all that. But for all the outrageous slander directed against pastors like me who affirm praying a sinner’s prayer (bless your heart, mainline Protestants!), would somebody please tell me a better way for someone to get started down the path of salvation and lifelong discipleship? What would you have someone do when the Holy Spirit has led them to accept for themselves God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life through Christ?
Everyone must ultimately decide for themselves whether they want this gift of salvation. Everyone must make a decision! That’s what the sinner’s prayer represents.
And this, in my mind, is the rationale for preachers like me inviting people to “accept Christ as Savior and Lord.” I have no problem with using this revivalistic language. Because it’s true—even if, in respectable corners of our dying mainline Protestant tradition, it’s unrespectable.
I couldn’t care less about respectability. We are facing a desperate need on the part of people to be saved. We Methodists have enabled them to avoid making a decision long enough. We’ve taught them—at least unintentionally—the damnable lie that simply going to church, getting baptized, going through confirmation, and being a “good person” is somehow enough.
I’ve been part of that problem, believe me!
Jesus said, “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.”
We Methodists keep saying, “There are yet four months.” Then, when four months pass, we say there are four months more. And so on. The harvest, oddly enough, never arrives.
As you can tell, I’m convicted.
Our church’s Christmas music program is this Sunday evening. It just so happens that even before I read my clergy friend’s Facebook post, my music director and I had built into the service an altar call for people to receive God’s gift of salvation. There will be people who come to that service—I have no idea who they are—who haven’t yet made a life-changing, soul-saving decision to accept Christ. I’m going to invite them to do so.
Will they respond? I don’t know. But I’m praying with all my heart that they will. Will you join me in that prayer?