Don’t Walk the Aisle, Carry Your Cross
A few weeks back, my wife and I went out on a much-needed date night. Everything was set—we had a babysitter and plans to check out a new and popular Mexican restaurant. The night was going well. We even found parking, a miracle in DC. When we got to the restaurant, I skipped past the long line right up to the receptionist with pride. After all, I had a reservation, and those poor souls didn’t.
What happened next was shocking. Our name wasn’t on the list. But how could this be? Surely, they’d made an error on their end. I had my reservation, and I could prove it. I opened my phone, eager to prove my good works, only to find out that I had made a reservation for the wrong date. How humiliating. I then proceeded to sincerely plead my case to why they should give us a table—we have three kids with a fourth on the way and date nights are exceedingly rare—but my sincerity wasn’t enough.
I imagine that’s how many people live their lives today. They think they’re right with God when they are not. They are sincere in their assurance. But they are sincerely wrong. Who’s to blame for this? Well, ultimately, every man and woman will face the Lord and be held accountable for their own sins. At the same time, at least some blame belongs to a lot of churches and pastors. People like me.
Here’s why. A few weeks back, I decided to watch Easter services at gospel-preaching churches all over the country to see how they celebrated resurrection Sunday. What I found was concerning and troublesome. I heard pastors—my brothers in Christ; men who faithfully preach the gospel—say things that undermine the gospel they just preached.
While beckoning people to come to Christ, they led people through the sinner’s prayer. A few pastors said something like this, “If you prayed that prayer sincerely, the Bible says there is rejoicing in heaven over you, and I want you to walk forward now so we can rejoice with you.” At this point, many people flooded the aisles.
Years ago, when I was a youth pastor, I rejoiced over seeing students respond after I gave a similar invitation. Don’t get me wrong, I pray and hope that all of those who prayed and walked the aisle were truly born again. But I have my doubts. Why? At least two reasons.
1. These invitation methods are biblically deficient.
In Luke 15:7, Jesus doesn’t say, “There is rejoicing in heaven over one who prays a prayer, or walks an aisle, or who is spontaneously baptized.” No, he says, there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who “repents.” How does repentance happen? According to Jesus in Luke 15:3–7, it happens when the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and goes and finds the lost sheep. Repentance happens because the shepherd knows his sheep and won’t lose a single one. Jesus is calling his sheep to himself, not through man-made invitation methods, but by pastors faithfully preaching the gospel.
2. These invitation methods create a crisis of assurance.
Methods like the sinner’s prayer, walking an aisle, hyped-up worship music, and spontaneous baptisms are the devil’s version of Robin Hood. They give assurance of salvation to those who shouldn’t have it, and steal assurance from those who should.
For example, If you say to a group of people, “Do you want to go to heaven and not be eternally punished for your sins in hell?” No one in their right mind will say, “Nah, I’m good!” So you keep going: “Here’s how you get to heaven: sincerely pray this prayer, walk the aisle, and get baptized!“
What happens at this moment? Possibly some conversions. Praise God! At the same time, you’ve probably just assured a bunch of people who haven’t counted the cost of following Jesus that they will spend eternity in heaven because of their sincere prayer and immediate obedience to your simple instructions, both of which were emotionally stirred up by a good musical set and the preacher’s rhetoric of guilt, fear, and desire. How many non-Christians sit in your pews every Sunday, hardened in their unbelief because they’ve been given false assurance?
But that type of evangelism is unhelpful even for those whom God really does save because it more or less ensures that they will struggle with assurance. Why? Because you’ve connected their right standing before God to the sincerity of their prayers and their obedient response to an invitation. Put simply, they’re standing on sinking sand. When the emotions fade, when temptations and trials come, when obedience flags and sin seems to rule the day, the poor saints will be gripped with fear and anxiety that they didn’t pray the prayer sincerely enough and that God is now suddenly against them.
Pastors, offer people something greater and more secure than their own works. Offer them Christ!
So what’s a better alternative to calling people to pray a prayer and to walk an aisle? Here are four things you should do instead:
1. Preach God’s holiness.
Sinners will never see themselves clearly until they see God clearly. They need to see that God in his essence is holy and perfect. He needs nothing and no one. He is self-sufficient. He is wise, just, and good in all that he does. There is none like him. And they are enemies of this God. Why? Because they are sinners and have rebelled against him.
2. Preach man’s sinfulness.
Pastors need to help people feel the weight of their own sin. For the gospel to do its healing work, it first must wound. Before any man can come to Christ, he needs to see that his nature is corrupt. That he not only does wrong but is wrong. He must feel and see his miserable state before a Holy God. Commenting on the invitation methods of his own day that were seeking to speed up conversions, Charles Spurgeon once said, “Sometimes we are inclined to think that a very great portion of modern revivalism has been more a curse than a blessing, because it has led thousands to a kind of peace before they have known their misery.” When a man feels his helplessness before God, he is finally in a place to be helped by God.
3. Preach Christ’s righteousness.
For years, John Bunyan was grieved and tormented over his sin and saw no way to be reconciled to God. A prayer or responding to an invitation couldn’t heal his burdened conscience. What finally freed Bunyan was not his works, but Christ’s. Bunyan was converted when he finally realized: “Thy righteousness is in heaven. . . . I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday, today, and forever.” What makes a sinner right before God is what Christ has accomplished for them on their behalf. They cannot earn this righteousness, but only can receive it by repentance and faith.
4. Call them to carry their cross.
If you only preach Christ’s righteousness, then you haven’t yet preached what the gospel demands. Sinners must be called to respond. How do they respond? Not by walking an aisle, but by carrying their cross. Here is Jesus’s invitation to those who would come after him: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34–35).
Pastor, you need to preach that same explicit and hard message Jesus did. Here is what your gospel invitation should sound like:
You want to be made right with God? You want Christ’s righteousness? It will cost you everything. You’ll have to quit the sins you love. You may lose your job. Your family may hate you. You need to know following Jesus is always right, but rarely is it easy. If you are here today and you see that losing everything is worth gaining Christ, then this is the place for you. That’s what a church is, a people who have counted the cost and are imperfectly denying themselves and carrying their cross. We would love to talk with you after the service about what it means to follow Christ and how to make your faith public and join this church.
This kind of message and invitation doesn’t produce quick results. The masses probably won’t walk the aisle. It is, however, the means that Christ has entrusted preachers with to call his sheep to himself. So, pastor, model this for your people by denying any desire or method for quick growth and trust that Christ will bring about true and sincere results through the faithful preaching of his gospel.
 Murray, Iain Hamish. “Apostasy and Calvinism.” Archibald G. Brown: Spurgeon's Successor, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2011, p. 293.
 Bunyan, John. “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.” Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2018, p. 89.