Altar Call? What’s An Altar Call?

Posted on August 1, 2017 in Theology by

altar_callAnyone that has spent time in a Baptist Church has no doubt witnessed the often-discussed altar call. But what exactly is it and why is it only found in some churches?

Much of my life has been spent in the Baptist Churches where cultural Christianity was often the order of the day. Our churches didn’t teach lessons on why smoking and drinking alcohol was wrong, we just knew they were wrong. As far as I knew, everyone was a Republican because only lost people were Democrats. Piano was okay but drums were the devil’s music. And you better believe that at the end of every sermon there would be an altar call.

The preacher would end his sermon by saying “every head bowed and every eye closed.” I knew that the next few minutes would be spent listening to the pianist play “Just As I Am” on the piano while the preacher encouraged people to come down front and pray. At some point the preacher would inevitably say “if you want to be saved, repeat this simple prayer after me,” after which he would recite the “sinners prayer” from memory. Then, with every head bowed and every eye closed, the preacher would ask if anyone said that prayer. He would ask people that said the prayer to raise their hand while assuring them that “no one will see and no one will approach you.”

That might be a familiar routine to you. You also might be wondering what it is and why some churches do it.

First, let’s talk about the history of the altar call and how it came to be a sacred ritual in many churches today. An article at Christianity Today shares some of the history of the altar call:

“The altar call gained popularity in the 1830s with the preaching of Charles G. Finney. Finney rejected Calvinistic teaching that human nature was irreparably depraved; he believed only men’s wills, not their natures, needed to be converted. His ‘new measures,’ then, set out to make regeneration as easy as possible. ‘A revival is not a miracle,’ Finney wrote. ‘It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.’ In other words, preachers might create revival if they used proven methods, chief of these being the ‘anxious bench’ or ‘seat of decision.’ ‘The object of our measures is to gain attention,’ Finney said, and for that ‘you must have something new.’”

Finney sought to push human will to accept the Gospel and be saved. A revival, according to Finney, was nothing more than a “philosophical” exercise that was purely the result of using “the constituted means.” Finney believed that if only he had the right methods, the right process, people would be saved.

Others have rightly pointed out that the invention of the altar call in the 19th century was a result of bad theology:

“The altar call is historically absent until the 19th century, and its use at that time (via Charles Finney) was directly based upon bad theology and a man-centered, manipulative methodology.”

It seems Finney was very much like many of the seeker sensitive preachers of our modern era. The emphasis seems to be on quantity rather than quality. Ignoring human nature and the need for regeneration, Finney, and others like him, wanted to make salvation “easy.” And yet, we are told in Scripture that salvation requires denying self and taking up our cross (Luke 9:23-25). There’s nothing easy about that. And it certainly is not something that requires merely a change in human will.

For me the most glaring truth around this issue is the fact that there is not a single altar call in the entire Bible!

From Old Testament through the New Testament there is not one altar call given. At no time did any preacher, prophet, or anyone else instruct people to silently repeat a prayer in order to be saved. With all those crowds that Jesus preached in front of, we have not one single instance of Him giving an altar call. It is easy to conclude that if Jesus did give an altar call, and thousands were saved, that the Gospel writers would have recorded it. After all, we have the account of the day of Pentecost when thousands were saved at one time.

Lest anyone argue that the day of Pentecost is an example of an altar call, let’s look at what Luke explicitly wrote in the book of Acts:

“37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ 38 And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’” (Acts 2:37-39)

There’s no invitation here. There’s no one closing their eyes and repeating prayers. After the “sermon” the people asked Peter what to do to be saved. They didn’t wait for Peter to prod them to come and promise no one will see. These people boldly asked how to be saved and didn’t care who was watching. Maybe the reason we have so many ashamed Christians is that we promise anonymity when they get saved and then expect them to be bold witnesses.

Thabiti Anyabwile had a wise thought concerning the use of altar calls:

“I’m sometimes asked by people why we don’t do ‘altar calls’ at our services. Like the people who ask the question, the churches in my personal background pretty much all practiced ‘altar calls’ at the conclusion of a sermon or service…So, why don’t we practice ‘altar calls’? I don’t think the pastor who practices an ‘invitation’ at the end of a sermon is in sin, but he may not be acting wisely either.”

Anyabwile correctly points out that there is nothing inherently sinful or unbiblical about an altar call. There’s nowhere in Scripture that we can point that explicitly (or even implicitly) forbids the altar call. But neither can we see any example of the altar call being used. And we certainly do not have any commandment to use such a method.

What I appreciate most about my own church’s lack of altar call is that it emphasizes the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. I’m afraid that at times an altar call becomes the work of well-meaning men in convincing people to say a prayer. I am thankful for the weekly reminder that the Holy Spirit does not need me or anyone else to perform his work of conviction and regeneration. Again, Anyabwile makes a wise comment here:

“The need to be pastorally careful and sensitive with the souls of men needing to repent and believe couldn’t be more urgent. So, anything that obscures the reality of God the Holy Spirit’s work in conversion and the necessity of repentance and faith must be regarded–at best–a practice with potential to undermine the very work we’re giving our lives to.”

God has given us His prescription for our corporate gatherings (preaching, prayer, singing) and we should be fiercely loyal to God’s pattern. We should be equally cautious about defending a man-made tradition (Matt. 15:1-9). It’s one thing to say that the use of the altar call is acceptable. It’s another thing entirely to defend the altar call as a sacred or necessary part of the corporate worship service. Neither of those claims can be supported with Scripture: the altar call is neither sacred, nor necessary. (Considering the fact that no church ever used an altar call before the 1800’s, and plenty of people were saved, it’s easy to see how it is not necessary.)

I am certainly no fan of the altar call. I’m thankful my church does not use this method in our worship services. While I can’t definitively say that it is sinful, I can say that I believe it is a poorly used method in many churches (I’m certain some churches do it very well – but they are in the minority). Thankfully, this is not a Gospel issue (whether to use the altar call or not) and we can extend grace and liberty to one another on the issue. However, a word of caution, while the use of the altar call is not a Gospel issue the way the altar call is conducted could very well be a Gospel issue. Proceed with caution.

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