Calling for Decisions

Calling for Decisions—Undue pressure or the Spirit's Opportunity?

There are Seventh-day Adventist ministers on both sides of the question, says John Fowler, and the answers may be more complex than either assumes.

John Fowler is president and Ministerial Association secretary of the Missouri Conference.

Should ministers call for decisions in each Sabbath sermon? Or should such appeals be left to the evangelist? Or is calling for a decision at any time putting undue pressure on a person?

The answers may be more complex than most Seventh-day Adventist ministers assume. There are, of course, different kinds of appeals. And both Adventist and non-Adventist clergymen can be found on both sides of the question.

If some of those who answer affirmatively are correct, a great deal is at stake in our answers. One implies that decisions "for time and for eternity" are not made when spirit less ministers fail to make direct appeals! If ministers fail to add a call for decision to the evidence presented, writes a preacher, the listeners "pass on without identifying themselves with Christ." Certainly, then, the subject should be of vital interest to every minister committed to saving souls. Even his own may be at stake!

Affirmative voices

"It is the work of the ministry to bring men to a decision," said I. H. Evans, a general vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Addressing an audience at Pacific Union College in the summer of 1936, he was emphatic: "I repeat, bring men to a decision. Encourage them to take their stand for the truth. ... I urge that you so shape every sermon, whether it is to be preached to our own people or to an outside audience, as to bring men to a decision." 1

In the first H. M. S. Richards Lectureship given at Washington Missionary College in 1957 H. M. S. Richards, Sr., spoke of the importance of calling for decisions. He used the word invitation, yet the concept is the same as that of I. H. Evans: "It will make the people know that you are preaching for a decision when you extend some kind of invitation to them. You may not get anyone for weeks; then again you might. But one soul is worth six months' invitations." 2

This emphasis on decisions is not unique to Seventh-day Adventists. Andrew Blackwood quotes G. Campbell Morgan: "If you do not move the will of the hearer to act you have not preached." 3 George Sweazey writes: "There must be a note of urgency in evangelistic preaching. The minister is like a lawyer pleading for a verdict and that verdict has to be definite." 4

Negative voices

However, this position is not without its critics. Calling for decisions is said to be putting "pressure" on a person. Others say it is an attempt to do the work that only the Holy Spirit can do. Charles B. Templeton, though not critical of all evangelism, is opposed to a strong emphasis on appeals for decisions. He writes that a great many appeals for decisions are "disillusionary and dangerous to mental health." 5

Some preachers who lean strongly toward a Calvinistic view of the sovereignty of God find calling for decisions inconsistent with their theology. Even some Seventh-day Adventist preachers appear to hold this position. If nothing else, their Sabbath discourses, without appeal from week to week and even from year to year, support this conclusion. A casual perusal of their thinking would seem to put the burden of decision on the Holy Spirit rather than men. "Just preach the gospel and let the congregation know that you love them," says one who seldom, if ever, makes an appeal.

A negative attitude toward "preaching for decisions" is seen in those who feel preachers should be social reformers. According to a study made of concepts and activities of mainline Protestant ministers, which included the conservative and fundamental groups, a new breed of clergy is emerging that is more concerned with social reform than with leading men to Christ. "The clergy man's new theology has moved him beyond the four walls of the church and prompted him to express God's love in concern for the world, particularly the underprivileged and in the desire to change the structures of society which have ascribed to man a lower and disadvantaged status in life." 6

Why call for decisions?

If we are to understand the importance of decision in the plan of salvation, the question "Why?" must be asked. What role does a decision play in the experience of redemption? Although we are dealing with the psychology of decision and not specifically the theology relating to it, it might be in order to deal briefly with the problem of man's total depravity, which holds some men back from appealing for decisions. Though we accept man's total depravity, we also believe that God illuminates the mind and frees the will to the point that man can choose to surrender to the purpose of God. E. G. White speaks of the "conscience, illuminated by divine grace," 7 which allows the sinner to decide for Christ.

Decision is necessary because of the legal nature of the plan of salvation. Man is guilty of breaking God's law. The penalty is death. However, since Christ died in man's place, thus satisfying the demands of the law, and rose again from the dead, He holds the right to give men eternal life. However, man must decide to accept Christ and the gift He offers. If he refuses Christ's offer, he does not receive the gift. There fore, a decision is imperative. Jesus speaks of this in Matthew 10:32: "Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven." Paul writes, "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved" (Rom. 10:9).

The second reason for decision is the need of a change in man's thoughts and habits. The only way to a better society is to improve the quality-of man himself. Man must be led to appreciate and honor the great moral principles revealed in God's Word. He must decide to change his life through the power of God. Per suasion that appeals for decision plays a vital role in such a change.

That a person's life can be radically changed in one brief encounter is supported from a number of different sources. One is modern psychology. Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist, asks this penetrating question: "Suppose you could take a group of people, give them a twenty-minute pencil-and-paper task, talk to them for ten to twenty minutes afterward, and thereby produce long-range changes in core values and personal behavior in a significant portion of the group. . . . My colleagues and I have in the last five years achieved the kinds of results suggested in the first paragraph of this article. As a result we must now face up to the ethical implications that follow from the fact that it now seems to be within man's power to alter experimentally another per son's basic values, and to control the direction of the change." 8

The power of the will

Though this concept of rapid change may be new to psychology, it is not new to Christianity. The Bible is filled with experiences of almost-instantaneous change. Examples include change from immorality to chastity (John 8:11), insanity to normalcy (Mark 5:1-19), disbelief to certain faith (Acts 9:3-6), dishonesty to integrity (Luke 19:5-9). The stories are exhaustless, and conviction grows as they are considered.

The real issue today is how change takes place. Certain changes are within the power of man to make, such as general attitudes and outward ethical conduct; however, the most important and deeply significant changes needed by man—such as love to God and his fellow man—are beyond the power of man to accomplish. Yet, all change in man depends upon the decision he makes. The power of decision lies with the "awakened will," which is the governing power in the nature of man. One who had deep insight into the nature of man wrote: "What you need to understand is the true force of the will. . . . Everything depends on the right action of the will." 9

We do not conclude that the will is our Saviour or that it has power to make essential changes in man. Ellen White cautions against this: "Man cannot transform himself by the exercise of his will. He possesses no power by which this change can be effected." 10 The right action of the will, which is right decision, simply opens the way for a power outside man to change him. This is why any effort to change man can be realized only through personal decisions by the man who wants to change.

The psychologist Rokeach led his subjects to a decision by subtle per suasion. He writes: "We exposed a person to information designed to make him consciously aware of in consistencies within his own value-attitude system, inconsistencies of which he is normally unaware." 11 This principle—leading a person to awareness of his own personal needs—is that used by God Himself. Through awareness of a felt need, whether it be personal salvation or a change in ethical conduct, the individual decides to change. The problem then is simply to reveal the proper motive power for that change, which, in the Christian experience, is Christ.

When we choose to surrender our lives to God that decision opens our lives to the transforming power of God. He is the source of change and transformation. There is no limit to what the Creator God can do in the work of re-creation if only the subject will allow God to act: "Through the right exercise of the will, an en tire change may be made in the life. By yielding up the will to Christ, we ally ourselves with divine power." 12

The need for continuing appeals

In view of this awesome possibility, should not every effort be made to lead men to commitment to Christ? And not only to the first experience of conversion but also to subsequent growth decisions? Men must always be deciding to accept a continuing revelation of God's will. This is why appeals for decision should be made "in every dis course."

Ellen White is emphatic in her ad monition to make calls for decisions, and notes the reason many preachers fail to do so: "There are souls in every congregation who are hesitating, almost persuaded to be wholly for God. The decision is being made for time and for eternity; but it is too often the case that the minister has not the spirit and the power of the message of truth in his own heart, hence no direct appeals are made to those souls that are trembling in the balance. The result is that impressions are not deepened upon the hearts of the convicted ones; and they leave the meeting feeling less inclined to accept the service of Christ than when they came." 13

She is equally forthright in emphasizing that appeals should be made in every sermon: "With an unction of the Holy Spirit upon him, giving him a burden for souls, he will not dismiss a congregation without presenting before them Jesus Christ, the sinner's only refuge, making earnest appeals that will reach their hearts." 14

Because of this need for continuing decisions, there must be no dichotomy between our regular church worship services and evangelism. All worship must be evangelistic. Significant results can be realized in our worship if this concept is practiced. One author puts it this way: "Worship always reaches to the center of the human person. It touches and releases the will. It is more than emotional and intellectual; it involves the will." 15

Decision then drives out vagueness and indecision; it crystallizes conviction into a clear and conscious commitment to Christ and brings a person to where God can manage and direct his life. When the decision is made, then God begins to change the life: "When the Spirit of God takes possession of the heart, it transforms the life. Sinful thoughts are put away, evil deeds are renounced; love, humility, and peace take the place of anger, envy, and strife. Joy takes the place of sadness, and the countenance reflects the light of heaven. No one sees the hand that lifts the burden, or beholds the light descend from the courts above. The blessing comes when by faith the soul surrenders itself to God." 16

Decision, then, is the key to re leasing the power of God in the life. When there are no appeals to decision no vital power is received, and a lifeless state results. Though D. Martyn Lloyd Jones does not place the same emphasis on decision that some evangelicals do, he writes of the evils of unevangelistic preaching: "If our preaching is always expository and for edification and teaching, it will produce church members who are hard and cold, and often harsh and self-satisfied." 17

Timing is important

Also we recognize that it is important to call for a decision at the proper time. When the message is clear in the mind, the evidence presented and conviction gripping the conscience, a decision should be made. If a decision is not made at this point, it may never be made. Notice these words: "If words are not spoken at the right moment, calling for decision from the weight of evidence already presented, the convicted ones pass on without identifying themselves with Christ, the golden opportunity passes, and they have not yielded, and they go farther and farther away from the truth, farther away from Jesus and never take their stand on the Lord's side." 18 It is not difficult in this light to see why calls for decision are imperative in every sermon and also that evangelism should characterize every worship service.

Three avenues to decision

But of what nature should appeals be? Some feel there should be no emotion, no music, and no effort to influence a person's decision "unduly." Surely the proselyter who grabs the throat of everyone he meets and says, "I have the whole truth; accept it or be damned," is unethical and unchristian. Reaction to offensive and overbearing appeals has driven many to look with prejudiced eyes on all appeals.

But there seem to be three basic legitimate avenues through which we may appeal for decisions. One is through information. This is the approach Rokeach used. Information provides the basis for intelligent decision. Sermons must always present relevant information that appeals to the intellect by helping the person to see the opportunity and blessing that God offers, as well as his own need of what God offers. The way to obtain the blessings God provides must also be clearly presented.

However, this material must be organized with an aim to persuade. One college teacher, after hearing a successful evangelist, complained, "I could never be an evangelist; the sermon was 40 percent information and 60 percent persuasion." Since the business of the preacher is to persuade, shouldn't he give persuasion a large place in his message?

Phillips Brooks states that "a sermon exists in and for its purpose. That purpose is the persuading and moving of men's souls. That purpose must never be lost sight of." 19 The material then must be subservient to persuasion. It must be organized and presented in an order that leads logically to a conclusion or decision for the argument presented.

Emotion is a legitimate avenue through which decisions can be gained. In fact, if decisions are to be made, emotion must be a vital part of every presentation. Henry Ward Beecher speaks of the necessity of emotion in persuasion: "A minister without feeling is no better than a book. You might just as well put a book, printed in large type, on the desk where all could read it, and have a man turn the leaves as you read, as to have a man stand up, and clearly and coldly recite the precise truth through which he has gone by a logical source of reasoning. It has to melt somewhere. Somewhere there must be that power by which the man speaking and the men hearing are unified. And that power is emotion." 20

The point where the man in the pulpit and those in the pew are unified is the point where positive decisions are made. Genuine heart felt emotions awaken sympathy and harmony, which lead to a positive decision. A man who does not feel deeply about what he is saying will persuade no one. During the weeks before the Flood Noah made deeply emotional appeals to those who would listen. E. G. White writes: "The servant of God made his last solemn appeal to the people. With an agony of desire that words cannot express, he entreated them to seek a refuge while it might be found." 21

Emotion is not the motivation for decision, but it provides the proper atmosphere of sincerity and confidence in which issues can be clearly understood and the proper response made.

Direct appeals

Then there is the value of direct appeals for decision both in the pulpit and in private. We refer to this as creating a crisis situation in which the individual is "pressed in tender love" to surrender his life to Christ. Care must be taken to be sure the person is under conviction and the time is right, or irreparable damage may be done.

An experience of E. G. White in bringing a young man to a decision illustrates the principles presented in this article.

''When laboring in Nimes, France, we made it our work to save souls. There was a young man who had become discouraged through the temptations of Satan and through some mistakes of our brethren who did not understand how to deal with the minds of the youth. He gave up the Sabbath and engaged to work in a manufacturing establishment to perfect his trade in watchmaking. He is a very promising young man. My watch needed repairing, which brought us together.

"I was introduced to him, and as soon as I looked upon his countenance I knew that he was the one whom the Lord had presented be fore me in vision. The whole circumstances came distinctly before me. . . .

"He attended the meeting when he thought I would speak, and would sit with his eyes riveted on me through the entire discourse, which was translated into French by Brother Bourdeau. I felt a duty to labor for this young man. I talked two hours with him and urged upon him the peril of his situation. I told him because his brethren had made a mistake that was no reason that he should grieve the heart of Christ, who had loved him so much that He had died to redeem him. . . .

"I told him I knew the history of his life and his errors (which were the simple errors of youthful indiscretion), which were not of a character that should have been treated with so great severity. I then en treated him with tears to turn square about, to leave the service of Satan and of sin, for he had become a thorough backslider, and return like the prodigal to his Father's house, his Father's service. He was in a good business learning his trade. If he kept the Sabbath he would lose his position. ... A few months more would finish his apprenticeship, and then he would have a good trade. But I urged an immediate decision.

"We prayed with him most earnestly, and I told him that I dared not have him cross the threshold of the door until he would before God and angels and those present say, 'I will from this day be a Christian.' How my heart rejoiced when he said this. He slept none that night. He said as soon as he made the promise he seemed to be in a new channel. His thoughts seemed purified, his purpose changed, and the responsibility that he had taken seemed so solemn that he could not sleep. The next day he notified his employer that he could work for him no longer. He slept but little for three nights. He was happy, so thankful that the Lord had evidenced to him His pardon and His love." 22 (Italics supplied.)

Mrs. White persuaded, and the decision was made that released the power of God in the young man's life. In view of this possibility, should not every person be encouraged to open his life to the power of God?


1 The Preacher and His Preaching (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1938), p. 136.

2 Feed My Sheep (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1958), p. 40.

3 Leading in Public Prayer (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 35.

4 Effective Evangelism (New York: Harper & Row, 1953), p. 173.

5 Evangelism for Tomorrow (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 35.

6 Jeffrey K. Hadden, The Gathering Storm in the Churches (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1969), p. 111.

7 Testimonies (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1948), vol. 2, p. 408.

8 Rokeach, "Persuasion That Persists," Psychology Today, vol. 5, No. 4 (September, 1971), p. 68.

9 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1956), p. 47.

10 Christ's Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1900), p. 96.

11 Rokeach, op. cit., p. 69.

12 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1942), p. 176.

13 Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1946), pp. 279, 280.

14 Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 315, 316.

15 Franklin Segler, Christian Worship (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1967), p. 77.

16 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (MountainView, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1898), p. 173.

17 Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1971), pp. 152, 153.

18 Evangelism, p. 283.

19 Lectures on Preaching (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1877), p. 110.

20 The Heart of the Yale Lectures (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 268.

21 Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1913), p. 97.

22 Evangelism, pp. 449-451.

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John Fowler is president and Ministerial Association secretary of the Missouri Conference.

April 1978

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