Must You Share the Gospel in Every Sermon? Invitation Without the Altar Call
I’ll never forget the first time I heard the gospel preached. On one hand, I was mesmerized—he spoke straight to me, as if I was the only person in the room. On the other hand, I thought it must be a trick. Perhaps seminary trained him to preach in such a way that everyone felt singled out, like the eyes of the Mona Lisa following each person who walks by.
Eventually, I realized the gospel had gripped me. His sermons were neither expositional nor rich doctrinally. But the preacher knew God saves by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and he made that clear every time he spoke. Week after week, he preached that simple message, and eventually I believed it. Like Lydia by the riverside, God used his gospel to open my heart.
Now I’m the preacher. I do work through books of the Bible. I labor to feed God’s sheep sound doctrine. We regularly have non-Christians in attendance, and I desperately want them to hear the gospel that saved me so many years ago. I also recognize it’s not just non-Christians who need the gospel—it’s Christians, too.
We should preach the gospel in every sermon because no preacher can do better than the Apostle Paul who said to the church in Corinth: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). We should call listeners to repentance and faith in every sermon because the Day is coming quickly, “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Cor. 7:29).
But how do we thoughtfully deliver the message of a crucified and risen Savior along with the call to repentance and faith from every text we handle? In many churches, the answer is simple: an altar call. Regardless of the text, the pastor ends his sermon by urging the audience to make a physical response. He calls for a decision and then exhorts them to respond by walking an aisle, raising a hand, or even being baptized on-the-spot. I’ve explained before why I think altar calls do more harm than good, but even in churches with no altar calls, sometimes the gospel invitation seems forced or wooden. Carl Trueman pointed out the hokeyness of such messages, calling them “contrived contortions of passages to produce the answer ‘Jesus’ every week. It doesn’t matter what the text is; the sermon is always the same.”
How can we preach the Bible faithfully, keeping Christ and his gospel front-and-center? How can we deliver the main point of the sermon and call sinners to repentance and faith? Over the years, I’ve sought to heed the counsel of the Welsh minister quoted by C. H. Spurgeon:
I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one; I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savour of Christ in it.1
The gospel should be in every sermon, but the road will often look different. Here are some examples of how I walked “the road to Christ” in passages where the way might be unclear. Here are some ways I invited men and women to come to Christ without an altar call.
Acts 16:6–10, “Make Much of Christ”
In this passage, Luke recounts Paul bumping around modern-day Turkey looking for a city to evangelize. God’s Spirit surprisingly stopped him from going to Asia and Bithynia before finally making it clear he needed to cross the Aegean Sea. Most astonishing is the vision God gave Paul of a man pleading with him to come to Macedonia.
This is a great passage to talk about the Holy Spirit, visions, how God guides today, and why believers don’t receive the same, clear-cut direction as did Paul and his team. But to focus simply on God’s guidance and decision-making would be to miss the forest through the trees. The overarching point of this passage is that the Spirit sent Paul and his team to the Macedonians in order “to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10). The Spirit is at work ensuring the gospel of Jesus is proclaimed.
Admittedly, the road to Christ is pretty clear-cut. How might a preacher bring the gospel to bear in this sermon? Perhaps like this:
None of us are apostles and few of us are pastors, but we’re all called to make much of Christ. To be a Christian is to exalt Christ in word and deed—in the office, the cafeteria, and the classroom. How do you know the Holy Spirit is guiding you? You’ve given your life to this gospel—to this message of the Lord who died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to bring forgiveness. Make much of him! We live in a world full of people who like to say that are “spiritual but not religious.” Remember, you are not truly “spiritual” unless you have turned from your sins and trusted in Christ—this is Exhibit A of the Spirit’s influence in your life.
Psalm 77, “He Has Delivered Us”
It’s not always obvious how to preach the gospel from the Psalms. Some paths to Christ are certainly clearer than others. For example, Psalm 2 is cited in Acts 4 and applied to the crucifixion of Christ. Psalm 110 is quoted by Peter in Acts 2 and applied to the resurrection. The road to Christ in these Psalms is a mile wide!
But what about Psalm 77? The psalmist despairs; at times he’s too disturbed to speak (77:4). God seems distant (77:7). And yet, amidst his sorrow he looks back and remembers “the deeds of the LORD.” He recalls the day God saved Israel from bondage to Egypt. God went to war for his people. His “way was through the sea” and “his path through the great waters” (77:19)—clearly a reference to the Exodus.
Now the road to Christ stands out. God still rescues; he still redeems! Describing a new exodus, Paul writes of the LORD, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13–14). The hope in Psalm 77 is not to blandly trust in God; it’s to exercise vibrant faith in a crucified and risen Savior. Perhaps you could tell the congregation:
Christian, God didn’t free you from Egypt. He freed you from something far worse. He freed you from the domain of darkness. From slavery to your sin. And it’s not like God simply took the chains off and told you to run for your life. No, God did it all. He fought for you, he released you, he forgave you entirely. And how did he do it? Through the God-man Jesus. Here’s what you need to believe: he lived, he died, he rose for sinners. You deserve the wrath of God. Christ is your only hope. Turn to him now. He will save you.
1 Kings 12:25–14:20, “Hearts that Seek the Lord”
Sometimes it’s wise to preach long texts because it helps Christians see the Bible’s big picture. This lengthy passage is about the judgment that comes upon Jeroboam for leading Israel into idolatry. Jeroboam made golden calves thinking it would keep his people from turning back to Rehoboam, the king of Judah.
This passage is also about a deceitful prophet from Israel who tempted the prophet from Judah to doubt God’s Word. God told the prophet from Judah to deliver his message to the northern kingdom and return home—no pit stops! But the prophet from Israel sinfully convinced him to stay. In fact, we are told, “he lied to him” (1 Ki. 13:18). Still, the prophet from Judah knew better. He had God’s Word but he denied it, giving into the false prophet’s lie.
Not every insertion of the gospel into a sermon is a call to salvation. For example, at this point, seeing the foolishness of the prophet from Judah, a preacher might tell his church:
Like that prophet from Judah, we’re tempted to doubt God’s Word. His sin should remind us of Paul’s warning in Galatians 1:8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Let’s preserve and protect the gospel. It’s the most precious news ever delivered! Don’t be like that prophet from Judah who gave into the lie. Protect the Good News of the Savior from Bethlehem who lived the life we should have lived and died the death we deserved to die.
This, of course, isn’t the main idea of 1 Kings 12:25–14:20, and it’s not even the best path to the gospel. That’s found in 1 Kings 14, when God’s judgment falls on Jeroboam. The king is told by the LORD, “You have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart” (1 Ki. 14:8). How did Jeroboam rebel? Many ways, but in a parallel passage in 2 Chronicles we’re told Jeroboam kicked all the faithful priests out of the northern kingdom. These priests weren’t like Jeroboam. They “set their hearts to seek the LORD” and in so doing they “strengthened the kingdom of Judah” (11:16, 17).
The road to Christ has now been cracked wide open. You can tell your congregation:
We all need hearts set to seek the Lord. Such hearts won’t come as we try to build our own kingdom the way Jeroboam did. There is only one source of true heart change: faith in the redeeming blood of Christ. What those faithful priests looked forward to, we look backward to—a Savior, as Peter said, who “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live for righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). Put your faith in him today!
No altar call shouldn’t mean no call to repentance and faith. No altar call shouldn’t mean no gospel. But to preach the gospel faithfully requires careful Bible study and prayer. Sometimes the road to Christ is wider, and sometimes it’s narrower. But it’s always there, and the faithful preacher will call believers and unbelievers alike to repentance and faith whenever the Book is opened.
1 C. H. Spurgeon, “Christ Precious to Believers” (13 May 1859). Found at https://archive.spurgeon.org/sermons/0242.php.