Eccentricities of Evangelicalism: the Invitation
Evangelicals have preached what they call the "gospel" for many years. The gospel consists of the proclamation that Jesus Christ, the Son of God and very God Himself, came to earth from heaven, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross to wash away the sins of a rebellious people. His death cleared them of their wrongdoings and His subsequent resurrection brought them eternal life. These benefits are accrued to them when they "repent," or turn, from their sins and believe in this message. This is the gospel, and evangelicals have preached it since Christ walked the earth. In a world of flux and fluctuation, Christians have steadfastly, stubbornly, even, spoken the gospel to their world.
Historically, gospel proclamation involved the statement of the gospel in passionates tones and with hopeful pleading. "Come to Christ," urged Martin Luther in sixteenth century Germany. "Flee God's wrath," thundered Jonathan Edwards in eighteenth century New England. "Believe on Christ!" shouted George Whitefield to a rapt eighteenth century American audience. "Jesus is the savior," said William Carey to the people of nineteenth century India. The telling of the gospel did not begin in recent days. Such action has a long and glorious heritage.
In the nineteenth century, however, evangelicals, led by Charles Finney, supplemented their gospel preaching with the "invitation." Finney urged lost sinners to make "decisions" for Christ, to walk an aisle, pray a prayer, and make a one-time commitment to Christ that would extend through all of life. Finney's tactic, considered strange and unnecessary by many evangelicals in his day, soon caught on. By the twentieth century, it was commonplace for Christians to consider conversion to Christianity as occurring when a person prayed a prayer or signed a decision card. Billy Sunday helped perpetuate this pattern in the early twentieth century and Billy Graham continued it in the latter half of the century. The last four or five generations of Christians have thus grown up believing that a sinner is saved when they pray a prayer, walk the aisle, or sign a card. The effects of this trend are manifold. In coming days, we'll examine them.