The Hellishness of Altar Calls

Most of us have experienced it: the enthusiastic preacher, the classic phrase “If you were to die tonight…,” the bowing of heads and raising of hands, the pronouncements of spiritual birthdays, and a preacher writing in his Bible the name of yet another soul who he had saved after another successful altar call.

If you have not experienced these things, you are among the fortunate, and, hopefully, more doctrinally sound.

For these things are indicative of the doctrinal fallacy that has slowly crept into the post-Reformation church, namely the doctrine of justification by acceptance. This doctrine says simply that one is saved by accepting Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and asking him to come into his heart. This doctrine stands opposed to the doctrine of justification by faith, for it warps the nature of faith from that which not meritorious to that which is meritorious. In other words, it takes faith and shifts its weight. Instead of faith being mere belief in the God who has revealed himself to his people through the Spirit and the preaching of the Gospel, faith, in this “justification by acceptance” doctrine, is fully an act of human reason and free will whereby one evaluates the case of Christ and chooses to accept him by asking Christ into his heart or to reject him by doing nothing.

Therefore, since by this doctrine of “justification by acceptance” makes the redemption of Christ a universal act and places the burden of one’s salvation on whether or not he asks Jesus into heart, many unbiblical, nay, hellish practices have come about:

1. The Distortion of the Gospel
When Christ went about preaching the Good News of the kingdom, he did so in ways that would make most contemporary evangelists cringe. First, he went about preaching repentance from sin. Many popular presentations of the Gospel have much to say about a person’s past sins but little about present and continual repentance. These presentations of the Gospel are quick to tell of man’s separation from God because of sin, but they often neglect to say that repentance from sin is necessary. Instead, there is now this dichotomy that has arisen that is demonstrated in a question created by the devil himself, expressly, “You have accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior, will you now accept him as your Lord?” Nowhere is Scripture is the Gospel ever expressed in such a way, but it state quite the opposite:

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Rm. 8:12-14).

In other words, there are no persons who are saved by the Spirit of God who continually live according to the flesh, and there is no one who Christ saves who is not his subject by right of his blood.

Secondly, opposed to current evangelists, Christ made the costs of discipleship quite clear. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). Christ’s call was never a call to an easy life nor did he attempt to sugarcoat his call. He in actuality did quite the opposite, for when Christ gave an invitation, it was an invitation to kill one’s self and to hate that which one is predisposed to cherish (viz. father, mother, wife, husband, etc.) (cf. Lk. 14:26). Christ made sure that his followers knew precisely what they were getting into before they took the first step toward him.

Contrast Christ’s method with the method of modern Gospel preachers, many things stand out. First is the intentional non-mention of the costs of discipleship. These preachers distort the very heart the Gospel and warp it into a magical prayer that acts as a “get out of hell free” card. Christ, by their testimony, is not a Savior who redeems a soul from his slavery to sin and then makes him a slave to righteousness (cf. Rm. 6:17,18), but he is merely an eschatological Savior who saves one from God’s wrath at the final judgment. All this disregards that which the apostle writes in Romans 2, expressly:

He will render to each one according to his works. To those who by patience in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury (vv. 2:7-8).

All this is to say, is that if Christ saves a soul, it is demonstrated in this life, “for it is God who works in [the saved soul], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Ph. 1:13).

2. The Giving of False Assurance
One of the most despicable things that I have heard from the mouths of some is that one cannot be sure of his salvation unless he knows his “spiritual birthday,” i.e. the day which he accepted Jesus as his personal Savior and asked him to come into his heart. Evangelists will tell their converts when they walk the aisle to write that day in their Bibles so that they will have something to show the devil when he supposedly tries to convince someone that they are not genuinely saved. They tell their convert that they simply need to look at the date and remember that they pray the prayer and remember that the prayer has saved them therefore any conviction they have to the contrary is of the devil.

First, this is notion of spiritual birthdays and using them to ward off the “doubts of the devil” is absolutely unbiblical. The only biblical assurance of salvation we are given is the inward testimony of the Spirit of God (v. 8:16) and the outward testimony of our fruits (Mt. 12:33). Second, to attribute doubts of one’s salvation to the devil exclusively is border line if not explicitly blasphemy against to Holy Spirit (cf. Mk. 2:22-29), for how does one know that one is not being convicted by the Spirit of God concerning the state of his soul? It would seem to me that devil would much rather one be comfortable in his present sinful state (to which spiritual birthday dung heap contributes) than make one uncomfortable in his sinful state and thereby fear God.

3. The Peddling of the Gospel
Since, these evangelists believe and preach that they are doing men a favor by having them come down an aisle and praying a prayer, they will do almost anything to get a soul down the aisle. If they must use psychological trickery, so be it. If they must tell a couple of fabricated stories about former people not walking down the aisle and dying after leaving the church, so be it. If they must hide some of the demands of the Gospel so that they can trick someone into repeating a prayer after them, so be it. They are saving a person’s soul, and therefore the ends justify the means.

This is how the apostle Paul felt about such preaching:

For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ … for, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s work, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even is our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:17; 4:1-2).

Paul goes onto say that he does not tamper with the word of God or try to sell it, because it is God who saves souls, not him. If he preaches the Gospel and people reject it, it is because the devil has blinded their eyes and God has chosen not to reveal himself to them. If they do believe, it is because God has said, “Let light shine out of darkness” and has thereby removed the veil (cf. 2Cor. 4:6). And Paul does this, why? So that if a soul believes in God, God gets the glory (cf. 2Cor. 4:7), demonstrating that it is the Gospel, not the evangelist, that is the power of God to salvation (cf. Rm. 1:16).

Conclusions
This short look at what is so common in American Christianity is not a renouncement of calling people to believe in the Gospel and to repentance and belief, but it is, as the apostle Paul did, a renouncement of underhanded manipulations of God’s word and the Gospel that rob God of his glory and sends people to hell who have a “spiritual birthday” written in their Bibles. We, in the church, need to understand first and foremost that is God who saves souls, and when he does so, he does so in this life as well as in the life to come. To give people who look like the world, act like the world, and smell like the world any assurance as to their right standing with God because of a prayer they prayed, an aisle they walked, or any other past experience is a practice straight from the pits of hell and is one that should be denounced as heresy any time it is encountered. We as those who claim to love the souls of men, should not be so flippant about how we speak about the destiny of one’s souls.



Categories: Theology

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7 replies

  1. The good news is that some are genuinely saved by the grace of God, even if the Gospel is distorted to the point to which it cannot even be recognized as the same Gospel that Jesus and the apostles preached. The bad news is that there are so many falsely assured souls that believe that since they "made a decision for Christ" then they are genuinely saved, even if there is no fruit of regeneration in their lives.

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  2. Your arguments against altar calls seem to apply to fewer than all altar calls, and only some aspects thereof. The primary purposes of the altar call include:

    -offer help in the form of prayer, advice, or biblical answers to particular questions (especially those related to salvation) from people of God ready and able to teach.

    -grant opportunity to confess sins, share a testimony, or share prayer needs with the church.

    -to make a public profession of faith in Christ.

    That we might talk to them directly, who believes, teaches, or acts otherwise? Are there specific actions that are or seem in disagreement with the purposes I listed above?

    Indeed, it is VERY important to make it clear that the front of the building is no more spiritual than the rest; and that salvation is found in Christ, not in walking down an aisle or talking to the pastor or praying the sinner's prayer.

    You do a very good job of pointing out common shortcomings of how salvation is preached.

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  3. I don't know if I would consider the "acceptance" language to be *necessarily* heretical, if one understands that our "acceptance" of the gospel is really not us doing anything at all, but rather the Spirit. Indeed, there's some "acceptance" language in the Bible (e.g. Mark 4:20; 1 Thess 2:13). But, certainly, the way "accept" is used in mainstream evangelical Christianity today is a manifestation of the distorted gospel understanding, so the word isn't helpful at all.

    Speaking of altar calls, want to hear a horror story? I know of a church in the South where the pastor gives altar calls…right before Communion. So it's like, "Communion is for Christians….but if you want to be a Christian, then here's how you do it." Now, to the church's credit, they complained to the elders, and this practice has apparently stopped now.

    Just one more to tingle your spine: There's an evangelical church here in the Bay Area that I visited a few times, and one time they talked about their guidelines for becoming a member. Yay, for church membership, right? Well, guess what Step 1 was? "Become a Christian." That's when I realized that if unbelievers feel so comfortable and so un-convicted in a church that they could think about joining…well, there's something really wrong with that church. I'd even take fundamentalism over Christ-less moralism.

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  4. @Brad

    Yes, God still continues to demonstrate his faithfulness to men through men's unfaithful means. To his glory, of course.

    @Jason

    You're right, and I did make the title overly broad. And I'm not against "altar" calls per se, just the practices outlined here. Though I'm not sure why the front of the church building is called the altar.

    @Daniel

    I think you're right about the acceptance language, and it depends on the connotations. I guess I have used that as a way to distinguish between the biblical portrayal of faith and what we call faith today. And I'm sure you have some interesting encounters on the West Coast. I need to get out of the South.=P

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  5. Right on brother…right on.

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  6. "Though I’m not sure why the front of the church building is called the altar."

    A holdover from Catholicism, I guess.

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  7. @Daniel

    Probably so. I'm sure that there is much that is held over.

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