In this lesson, I'd like to talk to you about a familiar part of our worship service, something that we do several times each week but we rarely discuss it. We never talk about it, and that is, the response. Do you know what I'm talking about? That moment at the end of the sermon when the preacher invites the listeners to come forward for various reasons.
Some people come to the front and they ask for prayers concerning various struggles in their lives. Others decide that they need to be baptized and they respond by coming forward and being immersed, that very moment, that very day. Sometimes a person hears something in the lesson that touches their heart and they need to demonstrate their renewed commitment by coming forward to be restored. There's a situation where perhaps a person has been unfaithful to the church, or guilty of an unchristian lifestyle or action that has affected others and they need to signal to God and to the church that they are back, and they want to be faithful and fruitful again in the Lord. This is called a restoration. And people respond to this need by coming forward.
And then there are Christians who are new to the area and the community, and they want the church to know that they wish to be recognized as being part of the Christian family here at Choctaw, and an expedient way of doing this is to come forward and allow the elders to recognize them and introduce them to the congregation. And then, one more reason to respond is to share with the congregation one's gratitude and joy for various blessings that God may have given a member, perhaps acknowledge this by asking for a prayer to be made because of the joy of having a new baby, or a good job, or a prayer answered that has been long standing in that person's heart.
Now, I've heard some folks comment that coming forward or responding is simply a tradition or that it's not really something that's based in the Bible. People say things like, "Why do we have to do that every time?" or "Why can't you finish the sermon in some other way." Sometimes the sermon is not even about coming forward and a preacher finds a bridge to get himself to offer an invitation. Even on Wednesday, we have some songs and we encourage people if they want to respond. Why do we do that all the time? Well, the idea that it's not biblical, that itself is not accurate. Extending an invitation or calling on people to respond to God's word is a very biblical practice.
For example, Matthew describes the outcome of John the Baptist's preaching,
1Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." 3For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said,
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
'Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight!'"
4Now John himself had a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; 6and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.
- Matthew 3:1-6
Notice that John preached and the result was that people responded in a dramatic way. They acknowledged what their sins were and they were immersed in the Jordan river, baptized in the Jordan river. In other words, they responded. It wasn't just, "I listened to John the Baptist and I went, 'Yeah, pretty good,' a little applause and then go back home." No. He was demanding that they deal with what he just said. And in this context the way to deal with that was to come forward and be baptized in preparation for the kingdom to come. That's what he was preaching. Then on Pentecost Sunday, Peter preaches the gospel of Christ for the first time. And what does he do? He finishes his sermon with an invitation to his hearers,
37Now 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?" 38Peter 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. 39For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." 40And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" 41So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.
- Acts 2:37-41
What is it that we see here? We see the response. And we see Peter extending that invitation with many words with many words that he's already preached the sermon and then it says, "With many other words, he continued to exhort them to be saved from this generation." And the people responded, and 3,000 people came forward to be baptized. There's no passage in the Bible that says, "Thou shalt offer an invitation every time you preach." No passage that says that. However, we see the Apostles and the disciples they teach, they preach and we observe that when they did so, they made an appeal for their hearers to respond to their teaching.
For example, Paul when he was preaching to King Agrippa and Festus, these are kings. These were the important people of his time. And so when he preaches to them, he urges them to become Christians at the conclusion of his lesson.
And Paul said, "I would wish to God, that whether in a short or long time, not only you, but also all who hear me this day, might become such as I am, except for these chains."
- Acts 26:29
He's in front of these two kings. They have the power to release him. He's a prisoner. They can just say, "Okay, just let this guy go." And what does he do? He preaches to them. He convicts them of sin. He tells them, "You people are sinners, you people are lost. You need to respond. You need to become Christians." Did they respond? Yeah. Sure, they said, "Maybe some other time. We'll think about it." That was their response. We can't fault Paul. He made the invitation. And so to extend an invitation to respond in some way and to come forward, as a result of that invitation, follows the biblical example of preaching with a purpose, and listening with the desire to obey.
See, that's one of the big issues, are we preaching with the purpose of obedience? Are we teaching, not just from the pulpit, but are we teaching the kids in second grade and third grade, are we teaching them that God requires them to respond to Him? Isn't that what Jesus said? "Teaching them," to do what? "To obey all things that I have commanded you." Not, "Teaching them to hear all things. Teaching them to obey." What is it that we're supposed to be teaching, or are we just supposed to be teaching the facts? No. We're supposed to be teaching, you've got to obey. From cradle roll to the pulpit, we teach with a purpose. We preach with an objective.
Brothers and sisters, you are to listen with a responsibility. And the responsibility is to obey, not me, not the teachers, but to obey God's word. In other words, if you went back in time and you listened to Jesus and the Apostles preach, at some point in their lesson you would be encouraged to do or change something in your life in response to their teaching. The response, therefore, is an important and biblical part of our worship service. It's an individual's response to God's word. It is a time where the congregation ministers to its own. It is an opportunity to teach and encourage others by our example of courage, humility and willingness to confess our faith.
There is nothing more edifying than to see a young person come forward and give their lives to Christ, so encouraging. Those of us who are older, we're seeing this young person 12 year old, 16, we see them and we're thinking, they have just saved themselves from so much heartache. They have just saved themselves period. They have just put themselves in a position where they will be able to know and serve the Lord for the majority of their lives. And those of us who were baptized when we were 30 or 50 or 70, didn't have that chance. Or when we see an older saint come forward or put in a prayer request admitting fault, and humbling themselves before God, before the brethren, how encouraging that is, how humbling for ourselves that is. This can be such a life changing moment.
There are always many obstacles that will stop a person from actually coming forward. The heart wants to, but the feet remain nailed to the floor. I call these obstacles: response killers. I'd like to talk about just a few of these response killers and hopefully find a way to overcome them. So here are a couple of response killers:
I don't mean stupidity, I mean ignorance. Some people just don't know the procedure. They may be new Christians or they are new to our congregation, not familiar on how things are done. Hopefully this lesson will help some to understand more clearly the purpose of the invitation and how it relates to them personally. For others, however, the ignorance is rooted in their lack of knowledge of self. They don't realize that the invitation is for them. They always think the invitation is for somebody else, never them.
I've just done a class on marriage and divorce, marriage enrichment. And I love during the classes, I always see one of the partners elbowing their mate and saying, "This is for you." I think we have that mindset when the preacher is going at it, thinking, "He's really stepping on her toes." We never seem to think it's for us. Many times their ignorance of self is caused by the fact that they're not really listening. If you're not really paying attention, if you're not examining yourself in light of the word, you're never going to feel the need to respond. How can somebody come to church for 40 years and never respond? How can that be? Ignorance is also the reason why people put off responding. They know and feel that they have to in some way, but they keep putting it off until some other time in the future when they will be better or they'll be more ready to respond. How do you get more ready?
Ignorance is a terrible response killer because the Lord says, "That no one knows the day or the hour of judgment," Matthew 24:36. He's either going to come at the end, and it's all going to be over, in the twinkling of an eye. Or He's going to come for you in a heart attack. Or He's going to come for you or I through some driver that blasts through a red light and T-bones us. One minute we're driving to the store to pick up some stuff at Wal-Mart and the next minute we're dead. We never expect it, we never think it's going to happen. Even people who are this close to death, they just want one more breath. They don't think this is the breath that's going to be the last one. They think they're going to have one more breath. To risk eternal punishment simply because they want to put off their response to God to a more convenient day, this is ignorance indeed.
Many people will not respond to the lesson because they're too proud, they're too proud to admit fault or to admit sin. They're too proud to give in and obey God in the simple command to repent and be baptized. They're too proud to acknowledge the fact that they are weak and need prayer and support. They're too proud to admit, "I need the church. I need the Lord. I need to get rid of this burden of sin. I need to throw off this guilt. I need to confess this, and I need to stop the secret junk that I'm doing. I need to do it." When your heart or conscience is touched by God's word and you know you have to come to Him somehow, but you do nothing, you just let the moment go by, usually pride has had its victory, not Jesus. Oh there'll be a lot of excuses and rationalizations to comfort you in the decision to not respond, but in the end it was foolish human pride that killed the flickering flame that was lit within you by God's word. Brothers and sisters, coming to church, singing the songs, hearing the sermon, yes, it's supposed to make us feel good and encourage us, absolutely- and assured, but it's also there to deal with our sinfulness.
One other response killer: worldliness. Paul describes one of his former helpers, Demas, who became unfaithful, and as far as we know, was never restored. And he describes him in the following way. He said,
Demas, having loved this present world has deserted me.
- II Timothy 4:10
Can you imagine being Paul the Apostles's assistant? You know, when I was in college I admired great men that taught me and I still do. Dr. North, who comes here on Wednesday night. I have such admiration for that brother. He's 86 years old traveling back and forth from Edmond, teaching us on a Wednesday night. He's sharp as ever, has a lucid mind. I admire him. And I would do anything if he said, "Michael, I need your help to do this." Boy, I'd be right on it. Can you imagine being Paul's assistant, the Apostle, witnessing the miracles, and then just deserting him?
What do you think is happening when a person would rather eat than be restored? Worldliness is happening. Well, what do you think the problem is when someone refuses to respond to God with obedience in repentance and baptism, because they don't want to change their lifestyle? What's causing that? Worldliness. Anytime we prefer our life here to the life that God has promised to those who respond to Him, with faith in Christ, we are guilty of worldliness, just like Demas. In the end what causes us to lose our souls is about 40 feet. That's the distance between where you're sitting and the front of this auditorium.
There are many ways to respond to the invitation.
The Bible shows us that John, and Jesus, and then the Apostles and early disciples appealed to their audiences for a response of some kind. The New Testament writers often describe the final results of the responses, "Some repented, some were repenting and being baptized, or some were making a commitment to a certain ministry." What the Holy Spirit left out is the manner in which many of these responses were made. This, God leaves to each generation and culture to figure out. For example, I've mentioned this before, in Haiti during the invitation song the deacons and the elders go into the congregation and encourage individuals, whom they have studied with or know, to respond to the lesson. So you'll have a brother, a deacon, go out while we're singing, and then the deacons the elders go out and say, "Well, Billy, don't you think you need to stop drinking and it would be time to come forward?" I've spoken to the elders at our congregation about a change in that system, but for some reason or other they are hesitant. We don't want to start any fistfights in the church. Let's put it that way.
Of course, we don't do that here. They're used to that. They started doing it like that there. But we do have various ways that people in the assembly can respond to the invitation when it's made. They can come to the front during the singing of the invitation song and let the elders know what they need at that time. For example, maybe they need to confess Jesus to be baptized or be re-baptized, if they're not sure of their original baptism. Or they need to be restored to faithful service to the Lord or the church because of bad behavior or the neglect to attend worship over a long period of time. Some people come for prayers for illness or struggle with problems or sins and don't necessarily come to the front but they fill out that blue card. One of the elders will read the need. Some people come forward and say, "I have a need." Others either come forward or put on prayer cards their need to be recognized as members of this congregation, as we have seen this morning. Some need to give special thanks to the Lord, again, during our prayer time.
Coming to the front during worship is not the only way to respond. However, remember our response is to God and His word. A public response is not always necessary. Sometimes a personal call or visit with an elder or minister is more appropriate for a particular need. Yeah, I need to come forward but I need to talk to somebody, and it needs to go on for a long conversation. I need to study something, I'm not sure about a certain decision, whatever it is, and coming forward for five minutes is not appropriate. So maybe making an appointment or dropping in and visiting with one of the ministers, maybe that's the coming forward.
During our worship services many people will fill out, as I say, a prayer card as a form of a response and this can be done at any service. And of course a personal and sincere encounter with God in private prayer is still an effective way to respond to what He has said to us in a public sermon. I personally have sat there and heard Marty and others preach and realize, "He's touching an area I just need to think about a little bit more." And I add that to my personal prayers that day and the day after, because I've been shown a new way, a better way of approaching something, or a weakness has been revealed that I need to work on. There's no need to make a public thing out of it, but I do need to discuss this with the Lord in prayer.
This sermon is not to up the total number of responses for selfish reasons, we don't put a notch on the gun belt every time somebody comes forward. We don't get paid by responses. Responses are not about ego gratification for preachers. The response is for members not ministers. The lesson is given so that you will think differently about this important part of this worship program. And this lesson is given so that when you feel the need to respond you will not allow the response killers to destroy a legitimate and potentially life changing experience for you.
Of course it is impossible to speak about the response portion of our worship service without referring to the invitation that all of us will have to answer one day. When Jesus returns, Paul says that He will do so, "with a shout," (I Thessalonians 4:16). I believe He will say to all, the same thing He said to Lazarus who lay dead in his tomb. He said, "Come forth." And Lazarus came forth from the grave. This is the response that all will have to give one day, no matter who you are and what you believe: Jesus' call to resurrect, to come forth from the dead, in order to be judged.
I encourage all who are gathered here today to be ready for the final invitation by responding to this morning's invitation to prepare yourself for that day. Examine your life and if you see that you need to respond to the invitation, do not let the response killers of ignorance, pride or worldliness hold you back. Come right now. Don't delay another moment, as we stand and as we sing our song of invitation.