In the churches where I first came to know Jesus Christ, no service was complete without an invitation—a time for the people in the pews to respond to the message by making their way down the aisle. Especially during weeklong revival services, “Just as I Am” inevitably ran out of verses before the preachers ran out of steam. And so, with “every head bowed, every eye closed, and no one looking around,” the preacher would call for “one more, just one more” as the pianist continued to play. As a child, I remember watching these visiting revivalists through half-closed eyes, waiting for the preacher’s furtive nod to the pianist that would bring the invitation to an end. Whatever you may think about invitations in general or about those preachers’ particular methods, one thing is clear: They weren’t afraid to preach for conversions. Preaching for conversions was part of what they did and how they lived.
Neither were the preachers and prophets whose words the Holy Spirit has preserved in the pages of the New Testament.
John the Baptist heralded the coming of Christ with a call to turn from one way of life to another (Mark 1:3-5). When Jesus made his way back to Galilee from the desert of temptation, his proclamation to the people was, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15). Repentance was an imperative in Simon Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). In a letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul put it this way: “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:20). “Urge immediate decision and acceptance of the gospel terms, with public confession of Christ,” one nineteenth-century professor of preaching instructed his students in a call to preach for conversions.
When you preach for conversion, you imply that the way people are is not the way they ought to be
In a culture intoxicated with the rationalization and justification of each individual’s lifestyle, no call for “immediate decision and acceptance of the gospel terms” will ever be particularly popular. After all, to urge such decision is to declare implicitly that the way hearers are is not the way hearers ought to be—this, in a world where the way people are is widely assumed to be the inescapable result of their own unquestionable expressions of their own individuality. Possibilities for popularity plummet even further when proclaimers of the Word introduce the inconvenient truth that explicit faith in Jesus represents the sole pathway for persons to become what they ought to be.
Early in my ministry, there were a couple of years when I flirted with theological liberalism and found myself uncertain about the exclusivity of the gospel. During those months, I looked back on the decision-seeking preachers of my childhood with embarrassment and disdain. Convinced that I had grown beyond the need to call for conversions, I placed as many miles as possible between my pulpit and the proverbial sawdust trail.
I soon realized that — without a passionate conviction that the gospel of Jesus Christ is necessary and exclusive — preaching quickly degenerates into therapeutic moralisms, denuded of power and authority. I assuaged my conscience during those months by appealing to an aphorism supposedly spoken by a popular medieval saint: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” What I wasn’t willing to admit at the time is that, because the gospel includes assent to specific truths about a specific person, preaching the gospel requires words. A gospel without words is something less than the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ.
What I learned at a funeral about how to preach for conversions
Oddly enough, it was at a funeral that I glimpsed the full folly of my false wisdom. A drug overdose had claimed a young woman’s life, and the funeral director asked me to officiate at a memorial service. When I arrived at the funeral home, I wasn’t certain whether I was at a memorial service or a rock concert. The family had littered the front lawn with beer bottles, and a few family members had clustered near the corners of the building, smoking something stronger than tobacco.
Moments before the service, the sister of the deceased woman slipped into the chapel, bypassing the activities outside. She asked if she might share a few words with the mourners after my message, and I agreed. After an opening hymn, I proceeded to present the well-polished platitudes that I had prepared for the service. When I stepped aside, the sister stepped to the microphone. Roughly and without the slightest rhetorical flourish, she shared how Jesus Christ had saved her and how other members of their family would likely suffer the same fate as her sister unless they turned from their present way of life. Sitting beside that casket, I watched as God used this woman’s words to transform the hearts of some of her hearers.
At first, I watched the scene with condescending smugness. Then, God began to break me. This woman, plainspoken and only recently converted, was speaking the truth that I should have proclaimed with clear and shameless confidence. I, who had been called and trained to preach the gospel, had bartered that calling for a fleeting sense of inclusivity. That moment represented far more than my recognition of the utter bankruptcy of theological liberalism. The conviction that I felt in that moment also marked the beginning of a journey back to boldness in my preaching. I can’t claim that my preaching has been perfect ever since that moment. I can say this, however: From that moment onward, my preaching has centered on the cross of Christ, and I have never hesitated to preach with the expectation of conversions.
There may have been times when those old-time evangelists leaned too hard on emotional appeals as we sang one more verse of “Just as I Am.” But this I know: It is equally dangerous to err in the other extreme. As long as there are persons who have yet to embrace the gospel, there is a need for preaching—and not just any preaching. What is needed is gospel-centered preaching that boldly appeals to lost women and men to turn to Jesus Christ. The true power of such appeals is not found in the eloquence of the speaker or in the emotions of the listener but in the faithfulness of the God who still speaks through his Word.