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21 Flaws of the “Altar Call”

Posted by Scott on March 25, 2008


by Pastor David Wooten

The invitation system is a modern evangelism innovation…

  1. …without scriptural warrant.
  2. …that is faulty and dangerous.
  3. …that has created a new, unbiblical vocabulary (i.e., “repentance and faith” have been replaced with “decide for Christ,” “ask Jesus into your heart,” “Give your heart to Jesus,” “first-time decisions,” etc.)
  4. …not practiced by the church until about 150 years ago.
    • It was begun by Charles Finney who believed conversion was a psychological event and used this “anxious seat” to replace the purpose of baptism.
    • It was popularized by Dwight L. Moody.
    • It was standardized by Billy Graham.
  5. …that has contributed to filling our churches with unregenerate church members.
  6. …leading easily to abuse and manipulation of the method, especially towards children and teenagers.
  7. …established upon psychological premises.
  8. …mistakenly equated often with the new birth and/or conversion.
  9. …involving a high rate of apostatizing (90+% according to the Billy Graham Evangelisitic Association).
  10. …that is unnecessary for the Holy Spirit to do His regenerating, saving work.
  11. …that is used to attempt to quantify soul-winning results.
  12. …that is not the biblical mark of whether a church is committed to evangelism or not.
  13. …where often the appeal to “come forward” supercedes or replaces any explanation of sin, repentance, or faith.
  14. …that implies (or sometimes states explicitly) that those sinners who do not “come forward” are disobeying a divine command.
  15. …climaxing with the recitation of a sinner’s prayer that is equated with conversion.
  16. …that some respond to in their attempt through human effort to earn their standing before God.
  17. …calling for the sinner’s instant performance rather than his careful contemplation of his sinfulness and the One whom he has offended.
  18. …that adds a condition for salvation (”come forward”) that Christ never gave.
  19. …that confuses the unregenerate man as to the specific obligations of his duty.
  20. …that morphs the task of the evangelist to the duty of “drawing the net” by coaxing people to come down the aisle.
  21. …seeking to give men relief from God’s conviction before He has made them fully humble and miserable over their sin.

I believe that the altar call has become the modern evangelical equivalent of Roman Catholicism’s pennance. Ask a Catholic how he knows he is right with God, and he will tell you that he did his pennance (x number of Hail Mary’s, etc.). Ask someone in a modern evangelical church how they know they are right with God, and he will likely tell you that he “came forward” during a public altar call. Both are woefully inadequate and unbiblical evidences of the new birth.

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6 Responses to “21 Flaws of the “Altar Call””

  1. Mathew said

    Thanks for your articles on this website on the altar call. Anything you could share with me on how to encourage a Baptist congregation to believe this would be helpful. Of course, without me becoming unemployed.

  2. Scott said

    Hey Matthew,

    I feel for you brother. Unfortunately it semms the Baptist are the worse abusers of the atler call system….this all stems back to Charles Finney. I grew up Southern Baptist, my father n law is a Southern Baptist pastor now…so, it is still around, but for some reason over the past 10 years I sensed that something was terribly wrong with it…after reading writings by Martin Lloyd Jones and others on this changed my mind totally. My wife and I now attend a non-denominational church pastored by Chuck Swindoll. We do not have alter calls…amazingly people are still coming to Christ without it:o) People have discovered that the Holy Spirit can work without an alter call and the Holy Spirit can work without one of us helping these people with “The Prayer” which is another hot button of mine.

    About all you can do for now to stay employed is to first pray diligently to the Lord about this issue in your church and maybe ask some others that believe the same way you to pray with you about this…the Lord can work in the people heart and change their minds on this. Secondly, you might just start introducing this thought in your teaching and explain that it is not someone walking an isle that saves them…it is not that a call in the service is so wrong, but that the purpose of that call to the altar has been believed in the wrong way. I have watched so many in my life time think that walking that isle, going through the baptistry saved them…they are walking around now 20 years later thinking they do not have to dawn the doors of a church again in order to go to heaven….they were never saved in the first place, but have a false sense of hope because they answered an Altar Call from an Armenian leaning pastor. It is not a specific prayer that saves them….it is not baptism that saves them. Put all of that together and it has created a disaster with the younger generation. Sometimes we have to inject these truths gradually so that people start to think about these things. Sometimes it takes peoople a little time, but it gives the Holy Spirit something to work with since you planted that seed of thought into them.

    You certainly do not want to jump up in the pulpit and start going through your 3 points of how wrong everyone has been on this…I know you would like to, but I would not advise it..that might be the fastest way to get the “order of the boot” as Winston Churchill put it one time. I have slowly injected these thoughts to my parents who are gradually understanding this. They still attend my home church and really have sensed something not right with this system either. They have been receptive to it so far and their beliefs in this area are changing. Now, introducing these thoughts to my father n law is another subject that I do not think will ever happen. But that is ok.

    I will be praying for you, brother. Just keep preaching to full gospel of Christ. Try not to skip over something that might be difficult for the people to grasp or even causes them to get into an uproar…if they get into an uproar over God’s word being preached in truth and love then you may not want to stay there anyway. However, I know that God is working mightily in His people these days. He is calling every true authentic believer to be a holy and righteous bride for Christ and part of this is getting back to the truth rather than what has historically been the norm for a century like alter calls and “revival” services, which brings us to another topic.

    Soory to go on forever here….I have a passion to see God’s men teachign to truth of God’s word and God’s people understanding and living out the truth about God’s word instead of unbiblical rituals made of men.

    Keep the faith and keep commenting…I enjoy hearing from you guys in the trenches that are desiring to run your churches according to God’s word rather than historical traditions.

    Pressing on in Christ,
    Scott

  3. Scott said

    Matthew, refer to my other post on “The Dangers of the Invitation System”. Here is the first two paragrpah’s:

    “As a young minister, I once made the “mistake” of closing a Wednesday evening service without extending a public invitation.1 Early the next morning, an irate husband came to my office. For the first time in years, his unsaved wife had come with him to church. “If you had only given an invitation,” he angrily explained, “she would have gone down the aisle.”I explained that if the seed of God’s Word had been planted in her, then she would come to faith. Then she could “go down the aisle” on Sunday and share what God had done. My explanation fell on deaf ears. I had missed the opportune time, and if she never came to Christ, I would have to bear her damnation on my conscience for eternity, he retorted.

    In the ensuing months, God granted me many opportunities to speak personally with this lady about her spiritual condition. Not only was it obvious that she was not under conviction of sin; but she had little real understanding of the gospel. Through our conversations, she came to see her sin and real conviction made her life miserable. One morning she called and said, “I’ve finally come to Jesus. Now I understand what you’ve been talking about.”

    Goto: https://devoteddads.wordpress.com/2008/03/25/the-dangers-of-the-invitation-system/ to read the complete article.

    Pressing on in Christ,
    Scott

  4. Camagu Potelwa said

    Hi there

    I’m a leader in the evangelism team in my church. This issue of invitation has been bordering me for quite sometime and I’m doing it ever since I started evangelism. We mainly do door to door evangelism. I live in South Africa. So what is an alternative to the Altar call so that we can recognise those people who are a fertile ground or have been regenarated by the Word through the Holy Spirit.

    Thanks .
    Camagu Potelwa

  5. Scott said

    Greetings Camagu,

    I pray that the Lord is blessing your evangelistic efforts in S. Africa. Per your question about the “Altar Call” I am glad that it has bothered you…that is the Holy Spirit working in your life to make changes.

    You ask the question concerning an alternative to the “Altar Call” in services? Rather than a call for people to come forward during a service…train several lay people within your congregation on how to mentor converts. Train them on how to speak with those that want to be saved. The proper goal here is to spend as much time as it takes in making sure each individual understands what true authentic salvation is and what it requires. Salvation is not a simple prayer with the lips of any person. Salvation comes first with the Holy Spirit working within the persons heart. Then that person realizes they are sinful and depraved as an enemy of the living God. However, the Holy Spirit has opened them up to understanding their need to repent of their sinfulness and ask God for forgiveness and speak of their allegiance to Him now in salvation. This requires more than a two or three minute session within an “Altar Call” in a church service. What you do is offer a prayer room or area and time outside the church that anyone who would like to know more about becoming a Christian can go to with trained people that can handle them. This way it can be handled properly.

    Too many times the majority of people equate walking to the front of a church service as a part of their salvation and that cannot be further from the truth. So, in order to get rid of that false security, handle it in private after the service each week. You can even offer a particualr day of the week for someone to meet back at the church to discuss their salvation. If the Holy Spirit is moving in their life, and God has chosen them for salvation, nothing will happen to them until they have become a true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. Their destination is to be a believer and nothing man can do will alter that.

    I pray that this advice helps. May the Lord bless all the work you do for Him and may many people in your region be found in Christ.

    You can goto: https://devoteddads.wordpress.com/2008/03/25/the-dangers-of-the-invitation-system/ for more on this topic.

    Pressing on in Christ,
    Scott

  6. Scott said

    Camagu,

    Here is an excerpt from the link I just gave you in the section called “A Better Way”.

    “A Better Way”

    “But some will ask, “What other way is there to bring people to Christ?” I would respond: “The way that was used by Jesus and the apostles, the Reformers, the Puritans, and most others until the 1830s.” That way is simply to proclaim the truth, to call men to repent and believe, and to leave the results in the hands of the Spirit who alone can bring people to faith (cf. John 3; 6:44, 65; etc.).

    To explain a little more fully, let me give you two “musts” for those who would be evangelistic apart from using the invitation system.

    1) We must learn to trust the power of God’s Word to convince, convert, and change lives

    Paul said: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). In I Corinthians 1:18, he contended: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Peter was likewise convinced that the Word of God has power to convert. He reminded believers that they had been “born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).

    To be evangelistic, we must be convinced of the power that God’s Word has in converting men without the help of our man-made systems. Remember the evangelist whose appeal was separated from his message by a half-hour of hymn singing? It is obvious that he was not convinced of the power of God’s Word apart from the addition of his appeal. We must be, or we will be tempted to add things to the preaching of the Word to secure greater commitments.

    Those who ministered before the development of the invitation system saw the awesome power of the Word to work in men’s hearts. David Brainerd testifies to the:

    preaching God made use offer the awakening of sinners, and the propagation of this “work of grace among the Indians.” … There was then the greatest appearance of divine power, in awakening numbers of secure souls, promoting convictions begun, and comforting the distressed.” 27

    Accounts from the ministry of Nettleton show the deep and penetrating work of the Word of God on hearers:

    As he was speaking, a youth sitting near a window cried out like one shot with an arrow. The people were so engrossed in the evangelist’s message that it hardly caused a diversion. Several in one family were aroused at this meeting and went home weeping. The head of the house had gone to bed when they arrived. He listened as their carriage drove up and was startled by a wail of distress coming from without. He leaped from his bed, rushed outside and was met by his daughter-in-law who threw her arms around his neck and exclaimed, “My father, what shall I do? What shall I do?” It was a miserable night for this young woman, but before morning all was well. She received Christ as Saviour and peace came.28

    Such occurrences while ministering in the power of God’s Word were not uncommon. In letters to his friend. Philander Parmele, Nettleton described many similar conversions. After a meeting in New Haven, Nettleton wrote:

    One young man seized my hand exclaiming “I am a sinner. I am a sinner. What shall I do?” They [people at the meeting] left the house and went home sighing, & sobbing in every direction. I came home & found a number around the door of Mr. Williams’ house, in the most awful distress, Some were standing, some sitting on the ground, & some on the door steps exclaiming “What shall I do?” I shall die. I shall die. “I Can’t live.” This alarmed the neighbors who called to witness the awful scene. With much ado I got them into the house, about eight or ten in number. The fact was, the young man aforementioned, who left the meeting house in such distress, was walking in company with them, when all at once he found relief and exclaimed, “I have found the Saviour.” He was now very joyful. He sat clothed and in his right mind: and they were afraid. My first business now was to warn them against a false hope. Prayed with them and enjoined it particularly on them not to go home together, but to go alone, & be alone, for the business must be settled between God and their souls. Maria (a young woman living in this family) was one of the number. She retired to her chamber, sighing and sobbing, and crying for mercy, and exclaiming ‘I shall die, I shall die.” She came down and went out doors, and returned in the same awful distress to her chamber. And suddenly all was still and hushed to silence. I sat still below and said nothing. I soon heard the sound of her footsteps descending the chamber stairs. She opened the door and with a joyful countenance exclaimed O, Sir, I have found the Saviour. I continued to warn her of the danger of a false hope. She exclaimed “I love Christ. I do love him. O how sweet.” In the morning, early, she called to see one of her anxious mates, who was so distressed the night before; and Lo: Barsheba exclaimed “I have found the Saviour.” That was a happy meeting. The young man aforementioned resided in the same family (this was John Towner’s house). On Saturday evening about midnight another, equally distressed, found relief. Within a few days 8 or 10 are rejoicing in hope. What will be the end. I know not. Do pray for us, and your friend, A. Nettleton.” 29

    Such was often the nature of conversion in the days before the invitation system when the Word was boldly preached and left to do its work in souls. Many modern examples of conversions could also be given, such as that of C. S. Lewis, who, after being confronted with the truth, struggled with it until one day he was strangely converted riding in his sidecar.

    The real question is: How powerful is the Word of God? Can it change men from sinners into saints without an extension of an altar call? Will it convict and convert (as God promises),or will we need to add something that helps men “settle it”? You will never be able to do without the invitation system until you are thoroughly convinced of the power of God’s Word.

    2) We must urgently appeal to all men to come to Christ now

    After reading this far, one may be tempted to avoid giving any appeal for people to come to Christ. Please do not misunderstand: we are under divine command to call “all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Erroll Hulse reminds us: “The preacher is free to exhort and command, to plead and implore, to reason and invite. He is an ambassador who speaks on behalf of the great King and whose purpose is to bring about reconciliation.”30

    Allow me to note a few particulars about this responsibility.

    First, our invitation must be universal. It matters not (for the purposes of this article) whether you view the atonement as limited or unlimited or whether you accept the doctrine of election or not: the scope of our appeal must be universal. Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest evangelistic preachers, was a thorough-going Calvinist. Yet he understood that our appeal must be universal.

    In one of his sermons, Spurgeon reminded his congregation about the doctrine of God’s electing some from the foundation of the world. But he noted that our task is to “preach the gospel to every creature,” not to find the elect. Spurgeon said that if God had painted a yellow stripe down the back of each of the elect, he would run up and down the streets of London, lifting up shirttails, and preaching the gospel to the elect. But, Spurgeon reminds us, God has not done so. Instead He has commanded us to “preach the gospel to every creature.” We must urgently appeal to everyone to come to Christ.

    Second, our invitation must be urgent. When preaching or counseling about salvation, we must never give men the idea that repenting is something they can put off. Some who have dropped the invitation system because of its dangers have also dropped the urgent call to believe. We must say to men, “You must repent and believe the gospel.” Should they say, “But I cannot,” we must say, “But you must. God has commanded all men everywhere to repent. Your failure to do so only shows the wicked state of your heart. If you saw your sin as God sees it, you would flee to Him as the only salvation for your soul.”

    John Kennedy, a nineteenth-century British minister, provides some additional instruction concerning counseling inquirers. Notice that he puts the focus of counseling inquirers on the object of their faith:

    Faith [by those using the invitation system] is represented as something to be done, in order to [gain] salvation; and pains are taken to show that it is an easy thing. Better far than this would it be to see it, that those with whom they deal are truly convinced of sin, and to labour to set forth Christ before them, in his glorious completeness as a Saviour. To explain faith to them, that they may do it, is to set them still to work, though setting an easier task before them. I know well the tendency there is, at a certain stage of anxious inquiry, to ask, “What is faith, that I may do it?” It is a legalist’s work to satisfy that craving; but this is what is done in the “inquiry-room.” “Who is He, that I may believe in Him?” was the question asked by one who approached the dawning of a day of salvation. Explanations of what faith is are but trifling with souls. How different is the Scripture way! The great aim there is to “set forth” the object, not to explain the act, of faith. Let there be conviction, illumination and renewal, and faith becomes the instinctive response of the quickened soul to the presentation by God of His Christ; and, without these, no explanation of faith can be helpful to any one. The labour to explain it is too often the legal spirit. It were wiser to take pains in removing ignorance and error regarding God, and sin, and Christ. Help them know these, if you would not build them up with “untempered mortar” in a false peace. If you would be wise, as well as kind, work in that direction, rather than hurrying them to belief.31

    We must be patient to allow the Holy Spirit to work conviction in the heart. That may happen in a few moments, a few hours, days, or even years. But we must remain imperative in our appeal. Our message and our urgency must not change – people must repent and believe today.

    Finally, our invitation must call them to Christ. The focus of all the evangelistic appeals in Scripture is the same. Jesus said, “Come to Me … and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Our appeal must be to come to Christ, not to follow any prescribed method that might cause some to equate their “coming” as coming to Him.”

    In Christ,
    Scott

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