Thinking Out Loud

March 12, 2013

“He said the prayer, that’s enough.”

Altar Call 1

The sinner’s prayer produces false converts.

I was going to use this as an item in tomorrow’s link list, but it truly deserves a much larger audience. This appeared at Arminian Today.

I remember once attending a Baptist church with a buddy of mine.  At the end of the meeting, the Baptist preacher gave a typical, “bow your head and close your eyes” type of altar call in which he asked people to “accept Christ into your heart today, before it’s too late.”  A young teenager “came forward to receive Christ.”  The preacher spoke to the lad, prayed with him, and then announced that the teenager was saved and was a candidate for baptism to which they had a quick congregational vote on the matter and a man raised his hand to second the pastor’s vote for the teen’s baptism.  They then asked us to come up and shake hands with the teenager and welcome him into the family of God.

When I got to the teen, I could tell that he really had no clue what was going on.  So I quickly said to him, “Do you understand what it means to repent of your sins?”  To which he said no.  I was just starting to explain to him what it means to repent when a woman pushed me out of the way and said loudly, “He said the prayer, that’s enough now move on.”

The teenager never came back again.

“The prayer.”  That is how many see salvation.  Just say this prayer and you are in.  Repeat these magic words and you’re in the kingdom of God.  Despite not one example of anyone “praying to receive Christ” in the New Testament and despite not one example from the ministry of Jesus where He instructed His disciples to do this, the modern evangelical church seems fixed on practicing this unbiblical practice.  One large church in Charlotte, NC likes to boast about how many “prayed to receive Christ” and they boast that thousands upon thousands have asked Jesus into their hearts for the first time through this church.  Yet not one New Testament passage is offered for such a practice.

Furthermore, compare the ministries of the great saints of God in Church History.  John Knox.  William Tyndale. William Carey. John Calvin.  James Arminius.  John Wesley.  George Whitefield.  Peter Cartwright.  Charles Spurgeon.  Jonathan Edwards. Not one of these men of God used the “sinner’s prayer” or exhorted sinners to pray to receive Christ.  They certainly used John 1:12-13 and called sinners to look to Christ alone to be saved but none of them had modern altar calls.  The modern altar call does not even appear until the late 1800′s and was especially used by men such as D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and of course, Billy Graham. Charles Finney seems to be the first to introduce what he called, “the anxious bench” where seekers could come and hear more about how to be saved.  From here came the modern practice of “coming down front to receive Christ.”  Spurgeon would call his hearers to receive Christ but he would exhort them to go to a prayer room where a waiting Christian would instruct them on what it means to truly be saved.  This is also the practice of John MacArthur today.

I believe the modern altar call has produced countless false converts.  Since sin is rarely preached against or at least is not even biblically defined (1 John 3:4), many also don’t understand what it means to be saved in the first place.  Saved from what? Saved from whom?  Why must we repent of our sins?  Why does God require repentance?  The modern church seems to have forgotten also that salvation is a work of God (1 Peter 1:3). Regeneration is not a work of the flesh that comes from praying a prayer or saying words or raising a hand. Regeneration is a divine work of God (John 3:3; Titus 3:5-7).  We cannot save ourselves.  We must cast ourselves completely upon the Lord Jesus to deliver us from God’s just wrath (Romans 5:8-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).  To be honest, too often gospel messages spend too much time focused on our sin instead of the holiness and justice of God.  It is God whom we should fear and it is His laws that we have violated (Luke 12:4-5).  We should be preaching the justice of God in regard to sinning (Hebrews 10:31).

I do praise God that more and more are realizing after studying both the Word of God and Church History that the sinner’s prayer is not a biblical nor historical practice. It is not based on the clear examples of the New Testament nor upon the examples of great church leaders.  We find nothing in the early Church Fathers to suggest that they used a practice of altar calls.  The Church has preached salvation through Christ for 2000 years and this must be our message again if we are to see the lost saved (Romans 1:16-17). Salvation does not come by the tools of the flesh (1 Corinthians 2:1-5) but the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Let us trust again in the power of the Holy Spirit to convict and save the lost (John 16:8-11).

…In sourcing the image that appears below, I ended up at an article by Caribbean pastor Thabiti Anyabwile.  Since I believe we linked to it back in 2011 when it was published, I’ll just include the numbered points in the middle of the piece, but you can read it all at this link.

1. The altar call is simply and completely absent from the pages of the N.T.

2. 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.

3. The altar call very easily confuses the physical act of “coming forward” with the spiritual act of “coming to Christ.” These two can happen simultaneously, but too often people believe that coming to Christ is going forward (and vice-versa).

4. The altar call can easily deceive people about the reality of their spiritual state and the biblical basis for assurance. The Bible never offers us assurance on the ground that we “went forward.”

5. The altar call partially replaces baptism as the means of public profession of faith.

6. The altar call can mislead us to think that salvation (or any official response to God’s Word) happens primarily on Sundays, only at the end of the service, and only “up front.”

7. The altar call can confuse people regarding “sacred” things and “sacred” places, as the name “altar call” suggests.

8. The altar call is not sensitive to our cautious and relational age where most people come to faith over a period of time and often with the interaction of a good friend.

9. The altar call is often seen as “the most important part of the service”, and this de-emphasizes the truly more important parts of corporate worship which God has prescribed (preaching, prayer, fellowship, singing).

10. God is glorified to powerfully bless the things He has prescribed (preaching, prayer, fellowship, singing), not the things we have invented. We should always be leery of adding to God’s prescriptions for His corporate worship.

Altar Call 2

Upper image source  Lower image source via source

Related item here at Thinking Out Loud

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6 Comments »

  1. Reblogged this on Seeking God's Truth and commented:
    I love this! My relationship with God didn’t start at an altar. It didn’t happen because of a certain “sinners prayer”. I believe what is being said here by experience. I hope you will read it and understand it as well.

    Comment by lala1966 — March 12, 2013 @ 8:45 am

  2. This is one of those issues over which I’m torn. I grew up in fundamental, evangelical churches and the altar call was an obvious component of each and every service. I can say with certainty that I was saved one Sunday evening (June 19, 1988) during an altar call; not from raising my hand or repeating magic words silently from my seat, but after coming forward and talking to a pastor who prayed with me. On the one hand I would cite Romans 10:9-10 to support the sinner’s prayer: “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” If you drop the vocabulary terms (altar call, sinner’s prayer) this is the way all Christians have come.

    On the other hand, thanks to the mentoring of one Michael Spencer, I examine all the verses of the New Testament and wonder what we are even doing with an altar in our churches, much less calling people to them. In the Old Testament, the altar was the place of sacrifice. Blood was shed at the altar for the remission of sins; in the new covenant the altar has been replaced by the cross, and the sacrifice of Christ’s blood was sufficient for once and all time. He told the Samaritan woman the time time was coming when believers would worship in Spirit and in truth, and it didn’t matter if one was on this mountain or in that city. There is no New Testament reference to anyone praying at an altar, only to eating of the sacrifice or referencing Old Testament stories (i.e. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac).

    While there is nothing in the New Testament about coming to the altar, praying at the altar, or calling sinners to the altar, is the sinner’s prayer only capable of producing false converts? How does any person become a Christian without believing in the heart and then confessing with the mouth?

    Comment by Clark Bunch — March 12, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    • I think the word “altar” is being overused. Most of the churches with which I am familiar have, if anything, a Communion table at the front. I think the Salvation Army’s concept of a “mourner’s bench” is probably more appropriate, but it didn’t catch on with other denominations. So I think the “altar” part of “altar call” serves as a bit of distraction to the core issue in the two articles above.

      The apologetic for “going forward” in the church I grew up with — where invitations were a fact of life every Sunday — was the story where the woman touches Jesus’ garment, and Jesus stops what he is doing and asks rhetorically, “Who touched me?” We were told that Jesus “called her out of the crowd,” and that was the reason we were now [i.e. then] calling people out of the crowd.

      Right now, there are people in our churches who have never taken that next step, and perhaps a physical step does help confirm what is taking place in the heart. (Apologies to Thabiti’s 3rd point.) Once in awhile, someone needs to stand up and say, basically, it’s time to fish or cut bait. Certainly believer’s baptism (or the Reformed ‘profession of faith’) accomplishes this to a greater degree, with the added benefit of inviting friends of family; but as Billy Graham often quotes it, “…Now is the accepted time, today is the day of decision.” The first step, even though public, may be among strangers.

      The idea of “turning” in repentance means there has to be a point at which I was going in one direction, and then started going in another direction. What we would call “a 180.” Yes, salvation can be process as well as a crisis (C. S. Lewis stated this well, and the Christian & Missionary Alliance teaches both) but there has to be a point where you know things changed, where you know you’re not the same person you were, even if you don’t write down the date and time.

      So personally, like you, I see pluses and minuses on both sides of the issue, but the story in the first article is horrifying, and an example of a system gone wrong. The woman in the story was as hopelessly confused as the young man.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 12, 2013 @ 9:08 am

  3. Reblogged this on GoodOleWoody's Blog and Website.

    Comment by goodolewoody — March 12, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

  4. Possibly the most disappointing thing in decades of children’s and youth ministry is encounters with “easy believism”.

    I have counselled so many whose faith is in “I repeated a prayer” or “I signed a pledge” or “I went forward” or “my pastor/mother/SS teacher/leader told me I am saved” even though further talk reveals they have NO concept of sin, repentance, the NEED of a Saviour and whose lives have not changed and show NO signs of a spiritual life.

    I responded to a “come forward call” myself, but I wasn’t told I was saved. I was counselled and I left the Church a completely different person.

    I have counselled people who have “come forward” but I have never told anyone they are saved. I have assured them that “IF . . . THEN . . . on the authority of God Himself, they are now His”. I have also seen some leave, knowing they are not saved, but also knowing they have been shown the Way, that we have opportunity for more witness, and that God can still continue His work in them.

    Like Clark, I see two sides of the issue. It is not the “call” itself, but the way it is used. I see a ‘public confession of faith’ (or a public confession of seeking) a great benefit with the opportunity of personal counselling which may or may not lead to conversion. On the other hand, hearing “twenty people were saved last night” because they ‘went forward’ or ‘raised their hands’ is sickening to say the least. While it could be true of at least some, and not limiting the power of God, they were more likely given false assurance which keeps them from true faith.

    Comment by meetingintheclouds — March 12, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

  5. Thanks for this. It has seemed more and more that the church has become obsessed with getting people ‘over the line’, that somehow we are doing our job if we can just get the magic words to be said. Nothing about discipleship, mentoring; nothing that says that this is about following(a continuous act). It’s so much easier for us as a church to have people admit to Jesus as saviour than to show them that this is a continual process, because that requires us to then be examples and involved in community. If we, as the church, make conversion about ‘crossing the line’, then we absolve ourselves of having to say ‘follow me, as I follow Christ’. It makes it easier to lives our life on our terms. Shame on us.

    Comment by Timso — March 12, 2013 @ 10:36 pm


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