I didn't get to attend the SBC Pastors' Conference this year. And I have much respect for Jack Graham and I don't know the full context in which the above statement was said.
I do know however that several on social media have used this quote (or worded similarly) to imply the necessity of an 'altar call' at the end of a sermon. In other words, 'invitation' = 'altar call.'
It's not my desire to debate whether or not we should give altar calls. But I do want to address this idea that not giving an altar call is not giving an invitation to respond to the gospel. This is simply absurd. The invitation to respond to the gospel is repentance and faith. Repent and believe the gospel (Mk 1:15), Believe in the Lord Jesus (Acts 16:31), You turned to God from idols (1 Thess. 1:9), etc.
I recently finished preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. It's important I think to see how Jesus concluded the most famous sermon anyone has ever preached. Was there an invitation? More like a command: Enter by the narrow gate...(Mt. 7:13). Well yeah but if they didn't play Just as I am and have people close their eyes, how could anyone really make a decision for Jesus!?
This is where I think we need to have a healthier view of conversion. I'm not opposed to a public time of response at the end of a sermon. But I am opposed to the thinking that no public response time is equivalent to 'not giving an invitation'. The invitation is repent and believe the gospel! Right where you are. Right as you are. Come to Christ by faith in His finished work.
But what if somebody doesn't know how to express that?
I actually think we get overly concerned about this. There is not a magic formula. There is not a code sequence that must be cracked. A sinner must feel their need for Christ and come to Him in faith. I actually think of there is too much confusion about what a person needs to 'say', they haven't actually grasped the gospel. And if they haven't grasped the gospel, they don't need a two minute conversation while music is playing. They need the opportunity to have a discussion. And if the Holy Spirit is working in them, asking them to stay and talk with the Pastor is not going to 'quench the Spirit'. (Study for example how Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones handled this matter)
Unfortunately, statistics indicate that many people who have responded to an altar call, leave unchanged. They are now on a church roll somewhere but living in love with the present world. We must remember that the invitation of the gospel is not to respond to the invitation. The invitation is to close with Christ, right now. Practically I have found there are always several 'invitations' throughout the sermons I preach. Have you heard this gospel? Believe it! Believe it now! Repent and come to Christ in faith. These are the sort of exhortations that should be present in various areas of our messages rather than a crescendo of 'come up here' tacked on to the end of a message.
What should be more embarrassing to us is that we are a denomination that can't find 10 million of our members. And one of the causes to this is feeling the need to see people come up front to publicly respond to a message. In fact, I've heard pastors invent categories of response just to get people to come forward! (One example being the need to 'rededicate' one's life). This has lead to a pressured response, even if unintentional. And again I'm not against a time of public response. But I am against saying that the lack of an 'altar call' is embarrassing.
May we declare the gospel with boldness, faithfulness, and eagerness for all who hear us to respond. But may we have a healthier view of conversion in which we understand that the sinner's required response is not walking an aisle, but fleeing to Christ as the only suitable and all sufficient Savior.
May we be more concerned about getting the gospel right and having it saturate our messages rather than figuring out how we can get more people up front at the end of a message.
And the good news is this: proclaim it and we will see fruit.
Keep proclaiming the truth brothers! To God alone be the glory...