Sunday, November 20, 2011

Invitations and Altar Calls

Invitations and Altar Calls

Invitations are ancient, altar calls are relatively recent.

Houston, We have a problem.” Those have come to be favorite words to describe something of great concern in a soft, non-panicked way.
Well we in Christendom, and as Baptists, have a problem. There are many people calling themselves Christians who are not living as disciples of Christ. Now surely, at any given time, they are true believers struggling with some part of their life. They do not want to give up something that God requires, or perhaps they have a blind spot and are not behaving in a way that honors Christ. But they are still true believers and God will bring them through this time of difficulty.
But for many who name the name of Christ and show no devotion to Him there is another answer. They are not truly born again Christians. Jesus said there would be those who called Him Lord whom He never knew.

Is this problem worse now than in other times in history? I think so. It is easy to be called a Christian in our society. There’s little persecution, certainly not what believers in other countries experience. There are instant friends when you go to church. There may even be instant consumers for whatever one is selling.
But chief of all, it’s so easy. You walk down the church aisle, say you want to be a Christian, you repeat a prayer the pastor leads you in, word by word, and Voila! It’s done. They even tell you, “Congratulations you are a born again child of God now!”

Are they? Are they really? Yes, some may have been saved in a very similar scenario to that one, but there were other things at work if they were.
There was the conviction of sin that the Holy Spirit brings to impress upon us we need forgiveness. There is the awareness that Jesus Christ is Lord that leads us to repent from sin and place our faith in Christ. There was the awakening of faith in our hearts and minds, the sense of relief from knowing that our sins are washed away. Without this sort of a work of God, repeating prayers till we are blue in the face do not save.

This does not mean it is drenched in emotion, though it may be. But it does mean there is a desire for salvation, and the understanding that it only will happen through faith in Christ, and there is the placing of one’s faith in Christ, at the very least.

Not wanting to give someone a false hope is why I am wary of how one conducts an invitation to Christ. Some have ceased to offer an invitation with accompanying invitation hymn. I always call them ‘hymns of commitment’ by the way; for believers to commit themselves to Christ as well as unbelievers.

So the main Question we should always ask in situations such as this is “Is it Biblical?”

Isaiah the prophet said, “Come now and let us reason together; though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as wool...” Jesus said, “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” These are invitations from God to come to him and find forgiveness and rest from trying to earn His forgiveness.

The altar call however is an early 1800’s invention. It was called an anxious seat or mourner’s bench, and people were called to come to the front of the meeting room and sit on this bench, or kneel at it to be made right with God.  It seemed like a good idea, to get all those needing to be saved in one place, but why? There are many moves of God in which this ‘altar call’ was never used and many were truly saved. I would even go so far as to say it was more effective that way than with the bench.[i]

You see, helping someone get saved is not in scripture. Telling them the good news and inviting them to repent and believe is; but a sinners prayer which, if repeated, magically saves one’s soul is really heresy. And unfortunately, that is what the anxious bench became and still is in many churches today that employ the altar call.

Many who come are saved, true, and I would say many were saved before they got to the front. God has already called them to Himself and they had already responded in faith before they whispered in the pastor’s ear, “I need to be saved.”

Even though I still issue an invitation at the end of a preaching service some pastors and preachers won’t do an altar call. Listen to what Jonathan Leeman, the editorial director at 9Marks[ii] and a PhD candidate researching ecclesiology[iii], says about a conversation he had with a man in the church where he served as an interim pastor:

“I told this brother and the rest of the elders that I wouldn't do an altar call. Why not?

Because I think altar calls are wrong? No, I think a pastor is free to give one. It's not a sin.

Because I don't believe that people must make a decision for Christ? No, I think people must decide to repent and believe in order to be saved.

Because I don't think Jesus calls us to make a public profession? No, people must publicly profess their faith, which is why Jesus instituted baptism.

Because I think inviting sinners to repent is inherently manipulative? No, I believe preachers should invite non-Christians to repent and believe throughout their sermons. I did this during the interim pastorate, and I did it just last Sunday when guest preaching at another church. I very clearly invited non-Christians to repent and believe in the middle of my sermon, and then told them to speak with me afterwards, or the pastor, or the Christian friend who brought them.

So why wouldn't I give an altar call? In short, I believe that this particular man-made practice, this 19th-century innovation, has produced more bad than good for Christian churches in the West. The altar call relies on the powers of emotion, rhetorical persuasion, and social pressure to induce people to make a hasty and premature decision. And producing professions is not the same thing as making disciples. Surely a number of factors are responsible for the many nominal Christians that typify Christianity in the West, but I believe that the altar call is one of them.

How many people in the last century walked an aisle, and spent the rest of their days convinced that they were a Christian, never considering how they lived!”

The alternative to giving altar calls is sticking with the practices we see modeled in Scripture:

1.      Invite people throughout your sermon to "repent and be baptized" like Peter did in Jerusalem (Acts 2:38). But when you do, don't just stand there waiting with emotionally charged music playing, staring them down until they relent. Rather, make several suggestions about how and where to discuss the matter further.

2.      Ask people what they believe when they present themselves for baptism, just like Jesus made sure the disciples knew who he was (Matt. 16:13-17; also, 1 John 4:1-3).

3.      Make sure they understand what following Jesus entails (Matt. 16:24f; John 6:53-60).

4.      Explain that the fruit of their lives and persevering to the end will indicate whether or not they really believe (Matt. 7:24f; 10:22).

5.      You might even explain that Jesus has commanded your church to remove them from its fellowship if their life moving forward does not match their profession (Matt. 18:15-17).

Yes, let's pray hard for conversions. But then let's do every thing Scripture requires of us in the long work of making disciples---a work that generally requires lots of teaching, lots of time, lots of invitations, lots of meals together, and finally the commitment of an entire church body. –
Jonathan Leeman

I take a both/and approach. I think inviting someone to Christ at the end of the sermon reinforces the idea that something must be happen in order to be saved. But I steer away from emotional appeals, long extended invitations, and any kind of social pressure to get someone to “make a decision.” I’m not interested in decisions; I’m interested in conversions, changed lives, and making disciples.

So while I do offer the possibility of someone coming to the front who needs counsel or assistance in surrendering their life to Christ, I fully recognize it is the Holy Spirit who does the work or nothing truly happens. Repeating a prayer does not save. No matter how many times you repeat it. Only faith in Christ accompanied by repentance from sin can do that; and only God can do that in a sinner’s heart so that they may be saved.

[i] It may have been more difficult to keep records of names and the number of how many made ‘professions’ of faith.
[ii] This is a ministry of Dr. Mark Dever and Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C.

[iii] Ecclesiology is the study of the Doctrine of the Church.

1 comment:

  1. A very well written and thought out posting.

    I also am a reformed Baptist in the SBC and have long believed like you have laid out in this post.

    I would like to post a portion of this at my blog and give this link for the full post -



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