It is obvious to our twenty first-century eyes that the altar call has played a major role in modern evangelism. The altar call, also known by other various forms such as raising a hand or coming forward to sit on the front pew, is now seemingly synonymous with salvation, and pastors and preachers alike have used it frequently to incite a response from the congregation of people.
No one really knows where the idea of an altar call came from, except that it began to surface in churches and evangelistic meetings during the early 1800s. At least, no historian can be sure that the idea originated in America where it currently is most popular. But, what historians can do is trace the results of the idea.
In his book, Revival and Revivalism, Ian Murray lays out five objections to the idea of the altar call given by pastors who lived during the early 19th Century. Their objection can be felt much stronger for us living two hundred years later.
1. It confuses the external act with the inward change.
There were warnings given by those who used the method of the altar call not to confuse these distinctions between the external act and the internal change, but by the simple use of the altar call, they inevitably got them confused. It is not difficult to see why this is the case. When the crescendo of the gospel call is a simple call to physical movement, the physical movement becomes the primary focus of the sinner.
Scripture makes clear that God alone causes the inward change (see Ezekiel 36:16-38; or John 3:1-8). It is this internal change that will cause external actions, but it must be noted that external actions can occur without internal change. And this is the trouble: if all you cared about was external change, discipleship would not need the gospel; all you would need is a set of rules and a gifted motivator. But that is not true gospel discipleship at all.
2. What becomes of those who do not experience change?
Those who used the measure of the altar call to convert sinners did not see the deadly result their technique would have on those who came forward but did not experience lasting change. They would not “go back to the world the same as they were before.” No, they would be hardened by the idea that, in regards to Christianity, there was nothing in it for them.
3. Feigned Humility
Annexed to the altar call was the idea that if a sinner was not humble enough to come forward to the altar, they were not humble enough to receive salvation. However, if it was only a matter of coming forward, spiritual power to give humility was not required to do so. There could be numerous reasons as to why sinners would come forward. Perhaps the preaching caused all sorts of emotions to well up within them, compelling them forward (ex. Benjamin Franklin was often emotionally moved by George Whitefield’s preaching, yet never converted). Perhaps it was pride that compelled them.
People are interesting creatures, performing certain actions because of various reasons. Actions are always caused by something, be it emotional, intellectual, or natural inclinations. Therefore, for them to say that a certain action is only caused by one factor is to provide the world with evidence of their short-sightedness.
4. Gain one, slay one hundred.
In connection to the second point, the argument to continue using the altar call usually went thus: “At least it worked for a few. And if it works for a few, and we are willing to use whatever means possible, then we must keep it.” However, the counter argument seems much stronger: If it works for a few, it does so at the expense of many.
The primary problem with the altar call is not that it only works for a few, but that it deceives many into believing a false kind of Christianity. It mitigates the power of the gospel in the eyes of the world, because it shows them an ineffective gospel. The results of the altar call tell the world that because so many walk away from their ‘conversion’ or remain unaffected, the gospel has no lasting power. The confidence that could be won in the eyes of the world is lost. More importantly, those who are saved will inevitably struggle to find assurance of their salvation.
5. Confused Assurance
That brings me to the last point: assurance. If the altar call stands as the gateway between life and death, and all that is stopping a sinner from entering life is their ability to come to the front, where will they look for their assurance? Obviously themselves. All they will have to fall back on when times are tough is the fact that they once walked up to an altar. They will be resting in their ability to act, and if that is their resting ground, any inevitable shortcoming or sin will wreak havoc with their assurance.
As Christians, we trust in Christ to be assured. His work is our only hope and plea before the Father, and so it follows that those who wish to find full assurance must proclaim that Christ alone has saved them, and not some action they performed at one time.
Each one of these reasons given as to why the altar call should not be used in evangelism is based upon the idea that the only way hard hearts become pliable is by the Holy Spirit as the unadulterated gospel is proclaimed. As Christians, our goal is not merely to gain numbers, but to see sinners changed. Since this is the case, let us carry out our evangelism God’s way instead of man’s way.
You can read the book review of Revival and Revivalism here.