What is an altar call?
An altar call is a practice in many evangelical churches in which those who desire to make a new spiritual commitment to Jesus are invited to come forward publicly. An altar call typically begins with a simple show of hands from the congregation signifying who has been ‘touched’ by the preacher’s message. Subsequent to this show of hands is a persuasive drive on the part of the preacher to convince those who have raised their hands to move to the front of the church.
Most altar calls occur at the end of the service and are normally accompanied by an instrumental hymn of invitation. The preacher quite often will begin his appeal with the following script, “With you heads bowed and your eyes closed, with nobody looking around. Is there someone here today who would signify by the raising of their hand that God challenged them on a particular subject and would like me to pray for them? I will not call out your name or embarrass you publicly; I just want to pray for you. Is there anyone like that today?” Once this appeal has concluded, the preacher will pray for those collectively who have raised their hands and will then lead the congregation in the final song. It is at this time that the preacher challenges the people to publicly acknowledge their decisions by moving to the front of the church building where they can receive prayer and counsel from a member of the church.
Where did the altar call originate?
The practice of the altar call, although widespread, is a very new phenomenon in the Christian church. For nearly nineteen centuries no one had ever heard of the practice. The well known evangelists such as George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley knew of no such appeal.
The altar call first came into being through the influence of Charles Grandison Finney, a nineteenth century revivalist. In Finney’s crusades (c. 1830) seats at the front were reserved for those who, after the sermon, would respond to the challenge to come to the Lord’s side. Those who were thus “anxious” for their souls were invited to walk forward to the “anxious seat” where counsel and prayer would be given them.
The following quote from Finney’s Lectures on Revival explains his view well.
“Preach to him, and at the moment he thinks he is willing to do anything . . . bring him to the test; call on him to do one thing, to make one step that shall identify him with the people of God. . . . If you say to him, “there is the anxious seat, come out and avow your determination to be on the Lord’s side,” and if he is not willing to do a small thing as that, then he is not willing to do anything for Christ.”
The practice was designed to force decisions, to get results. So it did, and with slight variations the new method spread with increasing popularity through Finney and, later, Dwight L. Moody, and finally into virtually all of nineteenth and twentieth century evangelicalism. R. A. Torrey, Billy Sunday, Bob Jones, Gipsy Smith, Mordacai Ham, John R. Rice, Billy Graham all employed the method with impressive “success”.
Is the altar call a Biblically supported practice?
The first question we must ask when considering any modern practice within the church is; did the Lord Jesus Christ or the apostles employ this method or practice? The answer to that question with regards to the altar call is no. This does not immediately condemn this practice, for there are many things that Jesus and the apostles did not do which are permissible church practices today. However, it does mean that the altar call is NOT required to bring about genuine salvation in an individual!
One might suggest that the Bible is full of examples where invitations to salvation and challenges for revival occur. Offers such as, ‘Come unto me! Come and drink. Be reconciled unto God’ and many more. It is not only correct to say that the Bible is full of invitations, it is imperative that these appeals are made to others and must form an integral part of our preaching. We dare not try to remove God’s invitation to salvation for sinners from the Bible else we leave ourselves without hope, for we who know Christ have accepted His invitation of grace!
There is not a shred of evidence in Scripture to support the idea of persuading men and women to move to the front of the church building to publicly confirm a decision made in the heart. Nor is there a prerequisite for salvation or surrender which involves the need to raise a hand or shuffle to the front of church building.
Is the altar call helpful or harmful?
1. The great ‘sin’ of the altar call is found in the emphasis on ‘coming forward to receive Christ.’
What does it mean to ‘come to Christ?’ We are to ‘look to Him’, ‘run to Him for refuge’, ‘receive Him,’ all these Biblical expressions speak of matters of the soul. They speak of faith, an absolute dependence upon the finished work of Jesus Christ on my behalf. “Come here to receive Christ” is a criminal confusion of the object and nature of saving faith. God is not concerned about where a man is, or whether he walks to the front of the church. There is no ‘special platform of grace’ upon which a man must stand or kneel in order to be saved. It is a direct attack on the work of Christ in salvation to have men assume that the only way they can receive Christ is at the front of the church building!
2. Another great problem with the altar call is the lack of reliance upon the Spirit of God.
There has been a great shift in the fundamental movements of our day. It would appear that most conservative Christians are afraid to speak of the Holy Ghost, let alone attribute the quickening work of salvation and revival to His power. What have we done? The Bible says in 1 Peter 3:18 ‘For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.‘
Sadly we see that the modern technique of the altar call actually opposes the very work of the Holy Spirit. As a preacher, my job is not to bring about decisions through psychological methodology, it is to preach the Word and leave the convicting and converting to the Spirit of God!
3. The altar call lends itself to a false assurance of Salvation.
My experience in camp ministry over many years has caused me to develop a great concern for those who testify of a decision made during an altar call. Instead of confessing that Christ saved them from their sin when they called upon Him, campers and young people all over this land rely upon a walk down the aisle or a discussion with a pastor. Friends, an altar call never saved anyone! Christ is the only means of salvation. It does not matter how many pastors or preachers you have sought counsel from, it is Christ and Christ alone that brings about regeneration in the life of a sinner.
4. The altar call shifts the focus of the believer upon the external rather than the internal.
All must admit that the modern practice of the altar call has resulted in a shift of focus. The focus has shifted from the spiritual to the physical, from the internal to the external. That evangelistic meeting was ‘wonderful’ because so many people ‘went forward.’ It is obvious that God was ‘working’ because so many people responded to the altar call. How damaging it is for us to assume that God has not been working in the hearts of His people because nobody ‘came forward’ at the end of the service!
Summary of the altar call
There is much more to cover in this topic and I have not yet had the opportunity to address the motives of those who practice the altar call, the incredible alignment of the altar call and the sales techniques taught in psychology, the false view of human ability demonstrated in the altar call and the confusion of mere professions of faith with true, saving faith. Perhaps these additional topics can be covered at another time, Lord willing.
It is sufficient to say that there are grave dangers in the modern invitation system which should be carefully considered.
“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; restoring the prodigal to the Father’s house, and never making him say, ‘Father, I have sinned.’ How can he be healed who is not sick? or he be satisfied with the bread of life who is not hungry? The old-fashioned sense of sin is despised, and consequently a religion is run up before the foundations are dug out. Everything in this age is shallow. Deep-sea fishing is almost an extinct business so far as men’s souls are concerned. The consequence is that men leap into religion, and then leap out again. Unhumbled they come to the church, unhumbled they remained in it, and unhumbled they go from it.” ~ Charles Spurgeon
Because of Calvary,