Thursday, March 20, 2008

Altar Calls: The New Sacrament

One of the great controversies about the Reformed resurgence within the SBC is that some Calvinists are questioning the practice of the "old fashioned altar call." In fact, some Calvinists are stopping the practice altogether! Of course, this is looked upon as a travesty by many non-Calvinists. Naturally, they use it to support their claim that "Calvinism kills evangelism."

What may surprise many people is that the "old fashioned altar call," isn't really all that old fashioned at all! As I've studied the Scriptures, I have yet to find this practice taught, yet hardly anyone questions it's validity or tries to correct abuses of the practice. In many churches, the practice has been elevated to such a degree that to question it's validity is nigh unto blasphemy.

I'm not totally against the practice of giving people the opportunity to come forward for prayer or to be saved at the end of a sermon. What I am against is how some men use the altar call to say anything and everything they can think of in order to goad people into walking down the isle. Because some preachers are so persuasive and seem to get great results, modern pragmatic minded churches and denominational leaders (like those that litter the SBC) don't like it when people begin to question the practice on Biblical and theological grounds.

It recently came to my attention that during certain mass evangelism crusades, many of the people we see respond to the altar call are not people needing to be saved, but councilors who are planted in the audience who are there to "prime the pump". They stand and proceed to the "altar" when the call is given. This is supposed to encourage others who are feeling shy to get up and come too..

I once had a pastor in the Church of God of Prophecy who taught that when a person responds to an altar call, that the act of coming forward is a suitable public confession of faith so that water baptism was not necessary! He actually said "the altar replaces water baptism". In another meeting, I heard a preacher confess that he once believed that the only place a person could be saved was during an altar call! I think these examples clearly illustrate how some people have made a sacrament out of this practice!

Some leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention condemn Calvinists for trying to examine the validity of this practice, but I do not. I believe we should be diligent to examine our practices and make reforms where there is a need. With fall-away rates as high as 90%, I think it's high time we take a hard look at our modern evangelistic methodology in light of Scripture and church history.

One interesting thing I want to note:

It's not just Calvinists who question (or do not practice) the invitational system. Many churches in the Restoration Movement (Churches of Christ) do not believe in giving an "altar call." Some ministers in that movement are almost Pelagian in their theology, so questioning (or abandoning) altar calls is not something only Calvinists are guilty of doing.

Here are some links to some articles that examine the topic of altar calls. Please examine their contents with a Berean spirit:

Semper Reformanda!


Exist-Dissolve said...

Given that the majority of altar-flockers (at least in my experience) are frequent fliers, I wonder if the altar call would disappear if catechism were pursued more meaningfully.

kelly jack said...

A good catechism would solve a multitude of problems.

Rev. said...

For many years now (about 15 or so), I've spoken of the "sacrament of the altar call." The reason for this is because some people believe God's grace is only dispensed through the altar call, and that one may only come to faith when the altar call is given. Like you, I'm not against the practice, per se, but the practice of walking the aisle should lead one to a biblical profession of faith - baptism. Even Rick Warren notes this in 'The Purpose Driven Church.' The altar call should be neither demonized nor idolized.

Gordan Runyan said...

Rev, I would need more explanation about what you mean, when you say the altar call should lead to baptism. Do you mean baptism as part of the altar call? Or baptism very shortly thereafter? I think I have a hard time thinking of a one-to-one relationship there.

Anonymous said...

I can attest to the mass evangelism statement. I worked as a councilor at a mass event in Cedar Rapids some years ago and the councilors were assigned to come down in groups. There was a specific numbers of 'calls' given; each councilor was told which call they were supposed to come down in.


Mike Leake said...


Great post! I am working on a several posts that compare Modern Evangelicalism (mostly focusing on the SBC) with Roman Catholicism.

I once had a pastor that was "trainin' me for ministry" tell me that if I did not give an altar call then I have not preached the gospel. I watched a video put out by my state's convention that pointed to the Altar Call being the most important part of the service. And I have been to numerous events where mass altar calls are given, and have to sort out the confusion later with my teens. Thanks for this post, nice to know others agree.

Rev. said...

People tend to emphasize the altar call and diminish or neglect the sacred ordinance of baptism. The altar call is not one's "public profession of faith," baptism is. I don't mean one is not actually confessing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord at that moment and time. That may very well be the case. I'm touching upon the "public" nature of the matter.

Does that help or have I muddied the waters further?

Rev. said...

I might add, the "public profession of faith" in the New Testament is baptism. Nothing else.

Gordan Runyan said...


No more mud. I think we're on the same page.

The SBC almost universally holds to the altar call as a sacrament, but also as a sacrament in the Roman Catholic (in distinction from a Calvinistic Protestant) mold: that is, it is a sacrament in which the thing symbolized is actually, and always, conferred.

ChosenClay said...

The alter call didn't really gain popularity in U.S. until Charles "The Heretic" Finney started spewing it from pulpits in the 1800's

Red & Black Redneck said...

It is also my understanding that Charles Finney is the one who brought about broad use of the altar call as one of his "additional measures" which also included the wailing bench, calling out local "sinners" and others. I remember that the first time I went to a Presbyterian service (PCA) with no altar call, I wondered where everyone was going. I didn't think a service ended until there was an altar call.