ye must be born again

I am not going to link to outside commentaries on this one, though references abound, particularly in some quarters. My subject is the negative rap placed on ‘revivalism’ and ‘decisionism’ by some. And of course, I’d like to take a contrarian position.

First, let me acknowledge that I oppose the “I prayed a prayer” approach to assurance. A great deal of damage has been done by giving people the misconception that if they say the right words to God, they will magically be born again.

Salvation isn’t a matter of getting the words right in your prayer!

Salvation isn’t a matter of getting the words right in your prayer! It isn’t a matter of crying the appropriate number of tears, walking an aisle, being baptized, or any other such matter of external activity.

Salvation is a matter of living faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Now, is salvation a one-time decision, or not? What does it mean to be born again? And is it right for Christian ministers to call for a decision for Christ?

The term, ‘born again’, comes from the lips of our Lord. In Greek it is ‘gennethen anothen’. The metaphor of physical birth is clearly intended to stand for a second spiritual birth in the Lord’s discussion with Nicodemus. It clearly is what Nicodemus himself understood and the Lord didn’t rebuke this aspect of Nicodemus’ understanding. Nicodemus misunderstood the spiritual nature of the second birth, not the unique, one-time metamorphosis intended by the metaphor.

To be born again is to have the power of the Spirit so change one’s spiritual life that the soul at one moment was dying, subject to the wrath of God and at the next is alive, expectant of the eternal life God offers in Christ. To be born again is to experience in a moment a complete spiritual reversal, to have immediately new life that endures forever, to belong at once to the family of God.

The possibility of instantaneous new birth lies behind the invitations of preachers, the press for a faith decision. This pressure is heard in sermons through the ages, beginning in the first century. Consider Peter’s invitation on the day of Pentecost:

NAU Acts 2:36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ– this Jesus whom you crucified.” 37 ¶ Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Or later, after the healing of the man at the temple gate:

NAU Acts 3:25 “It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘AND IN YOUR SEED ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH SHALL BE BLESSED.’ 26 “For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.”

Can anyone deny that in these messages God is making an invitation to sinners? Let’s consider the example of Paul:

NAU Acts 13:38 “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses. 40 “Therefore take heed, so that the thing spoken of in the Prophets may not come upon you: 41 ‘BEHOLD, YOU SCOFFERS, AND MARVEL, AND PERISH; FOR I AM ACCOMPLISHING A WORK IN YOUR DAYS, A WORK WHICH YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE, THOUGH SOMEONE SHOULD DESCRIBE IT TO YOU.'”

And hear Paul on Mar’s Hill, pressing for a decision of repentance:

NAU Acts 17:30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

Some might say these invitations are unclear. Let’s look at the invitation of someone else then:

NAU Matthew 7:21 ¶ “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’ 24 ¶ “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. 26 “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell– and great was its fall.”

What is this but an invitation? The alternatives are clearly set forth. There is pressure in these words to decide aright.

I don’t advocate long, drawn-out, emotional appeals. But I do advocate appeals. There must be some call – how do you suppose the Holy Spirit intends to issue the call to salvation? Is it merely by invisible internal pressure from within? If that were all that were necessary, why would God ordain preaching as the means by which men are saved (1 Cor 1.21)?

I am afraid there is much despising of the works of our forbears by the young experts of our day. They disparage the work of men who built the church we have today, men to whom they owe their own spiritual heritage, and even to whom they owe the foundation upon which their own conversion was built.

I thank God for the work of Moody, Torrey, Sunday, Chapman, and a host of others who laboured to bring souls into the kingdom. I thank God for men entered into that labour today. May we all have some of their courage as we press men into the kingdom. May we be willing to issue calls to repentance and faith. May we urge the claims of Christ on unrepentant souls and not stop to apologize that we are somehow intruding on the Holy Spirit’s work. Our work in the Spirit is the work of the Spirit through us.

NAU Romans 10:14 ¶ How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?



  1. Keith says:

    Calling people to repentance and singing 80 verses of “Just as I am” while the pastor performs multiple manipulations (things like “If you leave here tonight without coming forward you might get hit by a bus and never have another chance . . .”) are not necessarily the same thing.

    Of course ministers should proclaim the gospel and call all men everywhere to repent and believe.

    The question is HOW should they do that.

  2. Hi Keith,

    Yes, I agree, but I think some people are throwing out the baby, the bathwater, the bathtub, the lino, and the drywall in their anti-invitation zeal.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Keith says:

    Well, that could be because “invitation” as a technical term is most often used to mean the “come down to the ‘altar’ while we sing ‘Just as I am'” tradition.

    I really don’t know of anyone (other than hypercalvinists of the extremely rare, “We shouldn’t offer the gospel to all because its offer should be limited to the elect,” sort) who is opposed to the minister saying, “If you’d like more help understanding the gospel or how to ask God for His grace and mercy, please see me or one of the elders after the service.”

  4. I’m not against a “come forward” offering in principle, though we don’t use that method. I call for people to stay behind as others exit for coffee.

    To hear some of our ‘young fundie’ ‘neo-calvinists’, though, any invitation is anathema.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. Keith says:

    Who would be against inviting people to stay and meet with the minister while others exit for coffee?

    I don’t think that many of us who are anti-“Invitation” would consider that an “Invitation” even though it is an invitation.

    In other words, no neo-calvinist I know is opposed to inviting people to come to Christ in faith. They are only opposed to capital I “Invitation” meaning finneyesque “altar call”.

  6. Greg Linscott says:

    To hear some of our ‘young fundie’ ‘neo-calvinists’, though, any invitation is anathema.

    I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization, Don. I can think of no one who would be opposed to the idea of responding to the gospel as you have generally articulated it. What people are opposed to, in my experience, is the emotional, manipulative methodology that often is lumped in with such justification, as well as the quick pronunciation of genuine conversion after hasty decisions without taking time to observe its fruit.

  7. Hi guys… on the road all day today, just getting in.

    First, to Greg..

    You are well aware of my tendency for overstatement! I am afraid you have caught me at it again. I am as against manipulation as anyone.

    Then to Keith, although I don’t usually give a traditional altar call I am not categorically against them. I think that is what I am trying to get across. I have occasionally given a more traditional style altar call. I think there is a place for them in some circumstances and am not entirely against them.

    Some are manipulative – I am against that.

    Others may overuse the invitation, but I am not too critical of them. While they may use it more than I would, I think that there is nothing inherently wrong with an altar call.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3