The test of preaching ultimately is what men do about it. The decision is what counts. A sermon must move the human will to action if it is to accomplish its purpose (Rom. 10:13). The truth of the message is saved from degenerating into mere rationalism on the one hand and emotionalism on the other by giving it some proper expression. In fact, to stir people religiously without helping them do something about it leaves them worse off than they were before. They will become more confused in their mind or more indifferent in their will. Consequently, the preacher must do everything possible to make the issue plain, and then call the congregation to account. Eternal destinies are at stake.
Preaching that is dilatory about this fact has no evangelistic relevance. The Gospel does not permit us the luxury of indecision. The Son of God died for our sins, and whether we like it or not, we must answer for what we do with Christ. We cannot be neutral. For us to ignore the responsibility is to blaspheme God. It is the preacher’s business to make people face this fact, and cause them to seek the Lord while He may be found.
For this reason, the appeal for commitment is the most decisive point of the message. The wise preacher, thus, should give as much or more consideration to the invitation as to any other part of the sermon. Like the rest of the discourse, it should be bathed in prayer. While meditating upon it, he or she can decide what will be expected and how to ask for it. Clarity here is essential. A preacher who ends up in confusion has lost the effect of all his labor. Sometimes the whole sermon might be woven around the invitation, but always it should be so constructed as to make the invitation compelling in logic and winsomeness. This is the crowning achievement of the message.
Every sermon should demand a verdict, but the method of asking for it may vary according to the particular circumstances. Sometimes preachers may feel led to give the appeal in such a way as to call for no immediate public response; for example, asking those present to join in a closing prayer of dedication while they bow in their pews. People might be told to go home and pray about what God would have them do, to write a card or letter telling of their decision made in private, or to visit personally in the office to talk it over.
Invitations of this kind are probably more appreciated when speaking to Christians on subjects related to growing in grace. They should normally be used sparingly when addressing hardened sinners in fields white unto harvest. Such appeals can cause indefiniteness and encourage postponement of a decision.
With invitations calling for a public response, one of the most popular methods is to invite people to record their decision by signing a written statement of faith on a specially prepared card. Sometimes the preacher might ask for a show of hands or call people to stand to indicate some resolution. Convicted persons may be asked to remain after a service for counsel. Some prefer to direct them to an inquiry room where they may receive further instruction.
Any one of these methods can be employed in combination with others to make the invitation more impressive. The idea in them all is to get the concerned person to seek the Lord in a definite way. The emphasis upon a public display of need is intended primarily to help the seeker to specifically bear witness to the inward resolution. When this is done sincerely, it not only strikes a mortal blow to pride, but also inspires determination to see it through.
What is known today as “the altar call” is Methodism’s unique contribution to these invitational methods. As a distinctive technique, it had its origin during the second great awakening in America when distressed persons were invited to come to the communion rail for prayer. Since the altar had long been used to administer the Lord’s Supper, it seemed an ideal place for sinners also to make their supplications known to the Lord. In time it became an indispensable part of most Methodist preaching services, and has now become an accepted pattern in other evangelical groups.
The method of extending an invitation, whatever it might be, is only a means to an end. It should never be allowed to get in the way of the Spirit’s sovereignty in applying the truth. Sometimes a preacher may be led to open the invitation in a way and at a time totally unexpected. When the preacher relies upon the Spirit to direct in all that is done, one can be assured of the message accomplishing its intended purpose. God will not let His Word return unto Himself void.
Among early Methodists, if there was no response to the invitation by way of some visible evidence of conversions or sanctifications the preacher actually felt that the sermon had failed in its purpose. Thus, while many of them had much to learn about sermon organization and delivery, they all excelled in the exhortation for souls to come to God. Here they became desperate in discharging their office.
Typical of their concern is an exhortation of Asbury concluding a sermon on the words of I Corinthians 7:29, “The time is short.”
“How many… find that the time is short; Alas! too short for them. O Sinner, the time is short! Seeker the time is short! Strive, agonize to enter in. Backslider, surely to thee the time is short! Believer, O remember the time is short! (Journal, III, p. 387).
Indeed, the time was short. They had no assurance that they would ever pass that way again. Thus, to be realistic, they had to plead as if everything depended upon what was accomplished in that one sermon.
Perhaps that is what is wanting most in our preaching today — the desperate sense of the urgency of the Gospel. Lack of this, coupled with a starved faith conditioned by a long drought of barren altars, has led many to expect nothing to happen in their preaching. Preaching is considered an art in itself apart from any consideration of seeing results.
But let those who cherish this view dispel any idea that they are in the Wesleyan tradition. From the beginning Methodists have been taught to preach for a verdict, and to expect results in every sermon. If Wesley found a preacher who reported no one either saved, sanctified or at least angered as a result of the message, a rebuke could be expected.
Here we might well test our own preaching, remembering that it is ultimately the decision that counts.

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