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Feb 01 2010

Altar Call – The History

Altar Calls – Are they biblical?

A number of years ago, I went to a Billy Graham –  I think it’s called a crusade.  It was held at a huge professional ball field that can seat thousands.  It was packed.  In the middle of the field was the stage where Billy Graham preached.  Billy Graham did preach the Gospel.  What really amazed me was at the end of his preaching, he invited all to accept Christ by coming down to the field.  Half the stadium emptied as people made their way down to the field while gospel music was playing.  It was at that point in my walk that I decided to really look at scripture and altar calls.  Not finding anything in scripture, I looked at the history and then just filed it away in my mind.

Altar calls are part of evangelical churches.  It’s almost part of the service to hear an altar call at the end of the service.  People are asked to pray a prayer and come to the front of the church or they are asked to raise their hands if they would like to receive Jesus.  It’s almost like the service is not complete without an altar call.  Yet, that is not found anywhere in scripture nor is it part of the church’s history – at least not for the first 1,800 years of church history.  Altar calls originated with Charles Finney in the 19th century.

Please do not misunderstand.  I am not saying one cannot come to faith if they answer an altar call.  Far be it for me to declare that God cannot save a person at an altar call.  However, He’s been saving people since the inception of the church and for the next 1,800 years without the altar call.  The problem with the altar call is that it can give a false sense of security.  It’s an emotional plea.  The circumstances are right, gospel music is playing.  That is not salvation.  Salvation is for a person to spiritually identify with Christ through faith.  No one is EVER  saved as a result of an altar call.    Salvation is a result of the Gospel.  If a person is not saved as a result of the Gospel, an altar call will not change anything nor the repetition of a prayer.  You’re not going to find that in the Word of God — it’s just not there.

Those thousands I watched flood the field at the Billy Graham Crusade, well it was an emotional event.  I certainly felt emotional but then again, I felt those same emotions when I was a young girl in camp sitting around the campfire singing songs.  Flooding the field in masses does not bring salvation nor an invitation to accept Christ does not bring about salvation.  No apostle extended an invitation to to sinners accept Christ into their hearts.  No one should feel, after hearing the Gospel preached, that they need to do something such as walk an isle or raise their hand or appear before a group of people at the front of the church in order to be saved.  The Gospel is sufficient and the sinner must look to Christ alone.  No other action is needed.

The other day I posted a video on my blog that showed a Muslim man accepting Christ on the air.  If you watch the video, it is obvious that the man was already being pierced by the Gospel.    When God effectively calls a person to Christ, it’s a done deal.  Repeating the sinner’s  prayer (which cannot be found anywhere in scripture)  does not seal the deal.  Instead of answering more of the Muslim’s questions, they had him repeat the sinner’s prayer and felt that they led the man to the Lord after he repeated after them.  God has NEVER worked in that manner and that methodology cannot be found anywhere in the Bible nor in the first 1,800 years of church history.

Saving faith is not a decision we make and especially is not a saving faith if we repeat a formula prayer.  Saving faith is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, alter calls are a form of manipulation (albeit with good intentions) and is dangerous as it can lead a person to believe all is well with their soul when in fact, there is no salvation.  They will look no further for they repeated the sinner prayer.  It is a false conversion.

Again, I am not saying that God will not save someone during an altar call.  But that is not the method that God proscribed in scripture.  It’s a modern invention of man and it sure feels good to see all those people walking up to receive Christ.  But are they really?

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18 comments

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  1. Liz

    I find this to be true as well. I have been to many churchs Assebly Of God and others where this is the norm. As you have shared alot of it has to do with emotion and getting casught up in the moment. But there is no fruit after. Most of the time that is. There maybe some that are sincere. But yes an alter call does not equal salvation.

    How did we get so messed up in what we are taught and what we come to believe as truth? To much flesh and man made wisdom is getting in the way of it. The apostels and discples and of course Jesus if they went to anyone of our modern services they would I am sure be very saddend.

    1. Tishrei

      When I first came to faith, I was home alone. I did not pray a sinner’s prayer nor walk down the isle at a church. After a while, I don’t recall exactly how long whether it was a month or more, I started feeling like I wasn’t saved because I did not do those ‘requirements.’ So I got hold of some sinner prayers and repeated a bunch of them just to secure my salvation. Also, I did the come to the front of the alter at a church just to make sure.

      How silly, huh?

    2. Liz

      that`s not silly but now as you have grown in your faith you just have a different more deeper understanding.

      With me I was with my sister and her husband. they left to take a walk and I think my sister knew I was getting ready to take that step. I think they were praying for me. So by myself and God I confessed I was a sinner and needed to have Him clean up my heart.

      My sister came back and we prayed again but more of a celebration prayer.

      In a post I will share my testimony.

  2. PaulFan

    Interesting post. I understand what you mean by being wary of the “formulaic” altar call experience. If it is not a heartfelt desire for the person to follow Christ, then saying a few words at the altar will not matter. What will matter is true “repentance”, that is, a desire and intention to believe in Jesus Christ and to “take a new path” away from Worldly things. And, I am with Augustine on this when I say that without God’s assistance through regenerating a person’s heart, then it will not be possible for a person to believe and repent.

    God chooses us, we do not choose him. That is my belief.

    1. Tishrei

      Hi, that’s exactly it — it is God’s choice, not ours. He then makes us alive so that we can come to Him. Without Him making that move, we cannot repent and come to Him.

  3. Liz

    Amen I agree it is the Holy spirit that guides us and convicts our hearts to repent.

    1. Liz

      I jst am stunned when you ask some charismatic christians when they came to know the Lord or” were born again” they say they have always been. Or something to that effect.

      they can`t remember the time day or year. For me I know the day time and year. That is a very important thing to know. Just like when we are born physically we know our birth date. it is the same spiritualy or it should be.

      1. Tishrei

        Hi Liz,

        I remember the year, time month but not the day. I remember the even so vividly, it seems like yesterday. I was by myself on my porch drinking a cup of coffee with my feet up on the porch. It was dusk and I was just sitting there thinking about all I had been told for the past year about salvation. I simply asked out loud, kind of a rhetorical question, “is this all true?” At that moment, I believed — that one moment in time, I believed.

  4. Margaret

    Tishrei,

    You have put forth a great truth….. I am one who cannot point to a specific time when I came to faith in Christ….. All I know is that I was very young and think it was because my Grandmother told me Bible stories from a great big leather-bound family Bible with metal clasps on it…. It was a Finnish Bible and had lots of pictures….. Since my Grandmother was going blind, I would tell her what I saw in a picture and she would tell me the story….. And so, I believed….. It was that simple….. I have that Bible today and treasure it, even though I cannot read the Finnish language.

    I have watched crusades on T.V. and felt the “altar call” was a bit contrived….. But, other than that, have not given it much thought….. So, I really appreciate your having looked into this a bit because it confirms what was just my “feeling” about it before…..

    Thank you….. I think it is not a coincidence that you work for a law firm. :) LOL

    Margaret

    1. Tishrei

      This is true — some simply believe from a very young age because it is part of their upbringing. You believed because God enabled you to believe. It’s been a part of your whole life. Others, it is a different process entirely — but while I do not hold that one cannot come to faith during an alter call, I think it can lead some to believe all is right with their soul because they went through a process that man had come up with.

  5. pttyann

    Well every one has their beliefs and that’s how I got saved during and altar call,and while just repeating the words will not save you unless of course you believe in your heart,God does do his work in people’s hearts during these services and altar calls and I’m glad he does,even though it wasn’t done that way in the bible,God can move on a person’s heart anywhere and anytime and I’m so grateful he can.Enjoyed your post Tishrei :D

    1. Tishrei

      Hi Pat,

      I hope I did not mislead you in thinking that I don’t believe God can save a person during an alter call — God is not limited. My point was that throughout church history until recently, there was no such thing as an alter call. Alter calls are not part of the bible either. That being said, the only contention I was making is it’s a dangerous practice ONLY because it leads people to think that all is right with their soul because they did the requirements of saying a sinner’s prayer (no such thing in the bible) and responding to an alter call. And it can be dangerous for us watching thinking — okay, there’s another saved person, let’s move on to the next when in fact, it was an emotional response as opposed to a salvific response.

      I do not disbelieve that God can save during an alter call — He can and does but I don’t think it’s in those huge numbers that we see such as that Graham crusade I attended.

  6. Margaret

    In response to Patty Ann’s experience, yes, your experience certainly was true to your heart and how it was in your life….. That is because God is fully capable of working in every life according to what He knows about our hearts and minds….. The validity of your experience is shown in the beauty of your witness on your web site….. An altar call was never necessary for me because I truly believed as a small child and never changed my mind about what I believed….. God had His gracious hand in that also…..

    In the same breath, there are those who answer an altar call, and yet, never change their life or crack open a Bible….. They are confused about what it really means to accept Christ in their hearts….. Making the altar call did not save them….. But, if some day their eyes are opened as to how their life style is offensive to the love of God, they can repent and honestly accept Christ into their lives and let Him lead their living.

    All things are possible with God…. We just all need to remember what Jesus says in John 4:23-24 — “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit; and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

    Margaret

  7. Margaret

    I just thought of something I could add….. A number of years ago, I wrote a devotional entitled, “Becoming A Christian Kid”….. It is on my web site in the right hand column, near the top of the page….. That gives more details of how God worked in my life to bring me to faith in His eternal word….. It’s there as a testimony of how God can work when He so chooses.

    Margaret

  8. TIGMASTER

    Wow I just woke up and this very sbject was on my mind I just want to thank you for your research it just backed up what I was thinking and also what I have found in my own search for truth. As you said God can work at any time and place and for any cituation, but the alter call has been taken out of context intirely. It was first used to allow people to come down and receive prayer for there daily struggles and to release or confess there sins one to another as desribed in the bible by Jesus. And as usaul man has taken it and and like inbreeding of dogs (sorry to use that anaology) have continue to insert there own ways which also God has warn about.

    True salvation comes with true repentance meaning a turning around from the path on was on or turning from there sin nature or those things which sperate man from God. But you are so right a few words spat out of your mouth and a walk down the isle alone with out true repentance or with out Jesus calling you in spirit will create nothing but a moment jubulee.

    1. Tishrei

      Hi Tigmaster,

      I think there are many that do participate in the alter calls that may *feel* sincere but in the end, they remain just as unsaved. I think really, really preaching the Gospel as opposed to giving the basics and then leading a person in prayer is the way to go. I guess I would rather see the person make the commitment than asking a person if they would “like to receive Jesus in their heart.” It’s us who puts the person on the spot with that question as opposed to God’s drawing a person to Him. I am reminded of the following scripture with regards to the alter calls:

      And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. (Matthew 13:3-8)

  9. Harlequin

    Hey Blog Lady T.,

    I agree with you about the lack of effecacy of the alter call. I was at first surprised the half the people came down to the field for the alter call, given that I doubt many un-believers attend Billy Graham’s crusades, but then I thought about it and it made sense. How many who were already believers just wanted to get close to him or be a part of the mass?

    Anyway, if you look at Acts 2 beginning at the 14th verse and through to the end I think you can find something close to the alter call. I’m not saying this is a perfect fit or that we should all adopt this as part of our worship service; it just seems to me that the elements are present. You have the preaching of the gospel and the invitation to repent.

    Occasionally, our church will do raising of the hand. This is done by asking everyone to close their eyes and pray and if someone wants to accept Jesus they can raise their hand and be acknowledged by the pastor, who will then invite them to a gathering we have after every worship for people who are new to the church so can speak with an elder or pastor. We do the same on occasion for people to raise their hand if they are battling a particular attack. The point is that it’s done in a non-threatening manner that doesn’t inspire anyone to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do and it’s followed by an invitation to find out more information.

    I remember the month and year but not the day. It was a process over a week or so.

  10. Sean

    sorry I dont agree its right there in the bible you just cant see!! Paul is the perfect example of an alter call first off he came to faith by hearing Jesus(Rom 10:17, Acts 9:5) he obeyed and went to Damascus (Acts 5:32,Gal 3:14)where Ananias laid hands on him (Gal 3:5 Rom 10:14,15 )its a matter of listening for his call not making a decision! If people could understand Eph 2:8 theyd understand its summed up in Gal 1:15,16 Grace for Paul was that call Acts 9:5 Rom 10:20 so Paul is the pefect alter call and so is Cornelius for that matter. Both of them heard and obeyed and upon meeting the Child of God( Ananias, Peter) they received the Holy Spirit!!!

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