Back in June, Mother Dear and I were able to attend a 2-day conference on the Westminster Confession of Faith. As part of the conference, we had the privilege of hearing Mark Dever of Capital Hill Baptist Church speak on the subject of preaching. What a treat! He described a visit he made to an old building of worship, and how he was particularly struck by two things: an ornate altar in the center of the room and the high balconies along the edges of the room. As the rest of the tour started leaving, Mr. Dever hung back and questioned the tour guide, asking him if the balcony was an original part of the structure, and if the altar had been added later. The tour guide looked surprised that he had guessed correctly. Mr. Dever explained that the theologies controlling the high balcony and the altar were diametrically opposed to each other and thus had to have been built by different groups of people.
The balconies in the room were not easily accessible and did not allow for the people in them to readily leave them to physically approach the center of the room. They were built by people (the Puritans? - my memory fails me) who believed that coming to Christ was something that happened as a result of comprehending the preached Word of God. It was a mental assent, an acceptance by faith of what one's ears had heard. Thus the non-centrality and inaccessibility of the balconies were not seen as a detriment to the preaching of the Word and sharing of the gospel.
The ornate altar, though, was built by a different group of people who later had possession of the building. They believed that coming to Christ was largely a physical thing, something that required "doing," so the altar was placed prominently as the "initiator" or "focal point" of the message and conversion. Converts "came to Christ" by approaching the altar.
As I mentioned in the post on my testimony, I was raised largely in Presbyterian churches, though I wasn't raised as a Presbyterian, as I explained in past comments here. As many of you probably know, Presbyterians don't have altar calls. Growing up I always wondered why we didn't, but I didn't really think about it much. One of my closest friends was SBC, and Hannah and I visited her church semi-frequently on Wednesday nights, VBS week, etc, so I witnessed a lot of altar calls growing up, and noticed the difference in our services.
The dear preacher at my friend's church was a sweet, older Christian man with a sincere concern for the unsaved. But I am convinced that some of his methods of evangelizing were more confusing than helpful. I know because I struggled off and on for years with my "assurance of salvation," largely because of his altar call entreaties! I knew I was saved; I knew that I was a sinner with no hope of redeeming myself, and I knew that Christ had freely paid the price for my sins and given me his righteousness that I might inherit eternal life. I understood the gospel and embraced it by faith!
But everytime I would visit my friend's church, I would squirm when the altar call was given. The preacher would begin with "every head bowed, every eye closed," and then ask for the obligatory show of hands for different categories. He always asked for a show of hands for people who had "put their faith in Christ" (as if it was their faith to begin with!) and knew "without a shadow of a doubt" that if they died that night they would go to heaven. More on assurance and doubt in a later post, but suffice it to say that there were times when his description of what it meant to be a Christian did not describe me!
One night I remember him explaining that realizing that Christ had to die for your sins wasn't enough and that you had to accept Him as your "personal savior" to be a Christian. I was confused by the distinctions he was making. My Bible told me believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. I wasn't told to "ask Jesus in my heart," which the pastor said was necessary for salvation. Often when he gave the altar calls and he would ask for believers to raise their hands, he would refer to them as those who had "accepted Jesus into their hearts" and sometimes he defined it more stringently as people who had "come down an aisle" because "Jesus doesn't want any secret followers." I couldn't raise my hand! I saw my need of a Saviour and I trusted in Christ to pay the penalty for my sins, but I had never walked an aisle. Did that mean I was a "lesser" Christian or perhaps not even a "true" Christian? I was told that I needed to take the "step" and reach out to Christ. I thought Jesus was the one who had reached out to me! The pastor again and again spoke of walking the aisle and praying the "sinner's prayer." Any who wanted to accept Christ were told to repeat after him as he spoke the "sinner's prayer" aloud.
I went to the book of Acts during my personal studies, and I saw that sinners were entreated by the apostles to believe on Christ and to repent. I searched for a procedure, for a specific need to walk an aisle or "ask Jesus into my heart" or to pray a certain type of prayer, but I didn't find one. I wasn't searching out of cynicism; I was searching genuinely, confused by my friend's pastor. When I heard altar calls I would pray the "sinner's prayer" silently with the pastor, since I hadn't ever said an "official" one, but I didn't believe that the prayer made me a Christian, so my reasoning was that maybe the fact that I didn't believe it made me a Christian therefore meant I was not a Christian! I was confused. Then the fact that I doubted my salvation made me think that maybe I wasn't a Christian. It took me years before I was freed from all of these plaguing doubts! That's a whole other post in itself. . .
I don't explain all this to mock the use of altar calls, and I certainly don't explain all this to condemn my friend's pastor. As I said, I believe he was a sincere Christ-follower who had a genuine concern for the lost. But he, like other pastors I have heard give altar calls, stressed the action of coming down the aisle as the instigator of coming to Christ. The altar was the focal point. In the Bible, sinners are called to come to Christ, but that coming isn't a physical movement of location! It is an inward turning of the heart, a repentance, and a placing of your hope in Christ, not in yourself. God have mercy on me, a sinner. That says it all.
Here is an excerpt from an excellent article from Grace Online Library:
Everyone acknowledges that Charles Spurgeon emulated well the New Testament practice of evangelism. It would be difficult to find anywhere in the history of the church a man who was more passionate concerning the salvation of the lost and whose preaching brought more into the Kingdom. Yet in his preaching to sinners he refused to direct anyone to an 'altar' or to the front of any building. He directed them only to Christ. 'Go to your God at once, even where you are now!' he would insist. 'Cast yourself on Christ, now, at once, ere you stir an inch!' Spurgeon's practice was according to the Biblical model exactly. He would allow nothing to confuse the direction of the sinner's attention: it must be to Christ, and to Christ alone they are instructed look and go. Nor would they be allowed to entertain any notion that they should go somewhere else first. No! 'Ere you stir an inch! Cast yourself on Christ now!'
Walking the aisle never saved anyone. Christ saves us, by faith. Praying a formulated "sinner's prayer" never saved anyone. Christ saves us, by faith. Some people are saved during altar calls. When Moses struck the rock, water gushed forth; yet God still severely punished him. Outward results do not make a method necessary, correct, or even advisable.
Outward results also do not mean inward heart changes. In "follow-ups" with converts from Billy Graham crusades, only 25% of those who "walk the aisle" and "pray the prayer" will still profess Christ (a year later? - my memory fails me). Remember the General Math II student that wrote that poem for my dad? He attended a local revival, "got saved," and told my dad he was a Christian now because he had prayed the sinner's prayer. Yet his "conversion" lasted for only a few days, and his description of it approximated the winning of a Get Out of Jail Free card from Monopoly. He, like so many, viewed the "sinner's prayer" much as the medieval church viewed indulgences! He followed the prescribed formula for forgiveness of sins, much as others did with regards to indulgences.
Keith Green discusses the "sinner's prayer" and the use of canned versions at revivals: It isn't the wording that's important, it's the state of heart of the one saying it. I believe that a true "sinner's prayer" will gush out of anyone who is truly seeking God and is tired of being enslaved to sin.
I think that many (I hope most!) advocates of the "sinner's prayer" and altar calls would agree with Keith Green that the heart is the real issue, but I'm very afraid that it isn't usually clarified very well. Every time I have been to a service with an altar call (not just with my friend's pastor), the stress is on "praying the prayer" and "asking Jesus into your heart." The simple message to believe on the Lord Jesus is lost in the "how-to" procedures.
I want to close on a note of humility (I hope everyone realizes that this entire post is meant to be communicated in a spirit of humility!), on a somber note - a challenge to myself and others who agree with me on these issues:
There's an old story attributed to Dwight L. Moody, who was once criticized for his methods of evangelism. He responded, 'I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.' Reformed Christians may be right about how to reach new generations, but are we doing it?For further reading, I highly recommend the following articles:
What's Wrong with the Gospel: Part 1
What's Wrong with the Gospel: Part 2 (especially this part!)
The Altar Call: Is it Harmful or Helpful?