Throughout the years, the traditional altar call has been a special time at the end of a church service for people to respond to the gospel by stepping out of the pew and going forward to bow at the altar and ‘receive Jesus as one’s Savior’. People who come from this tradition may even wonder exactly how a person gets ‘saved’ if there isn’t an ‘altar call’.
This past Easter Sunday morning, an older gentleman came up to me after the early service and specifically complimented how Christ and gospel-centered the sermon was and then lamented that it was too bad there wasn’t an altar call so someone could get saved. I can understand how someone might feel this way if all they have seen is this particular approach. Week after week, service after service, everyone is instructed to bow their heads and close their eyes, and then people are asked to respond to the gospel with a traditional salvific hymn playing in the background. Congregants are told just one last verse and then the ‘altar will be closed’ seemingly suggesting that the preacher has the power to close God’s offer of salvation if someone doesn’t respond right now. Let me go on the record as saying all of this is done with the very best of intentions—we want people to get saved! But is it biblical? Is it effective? Does it work?
Most give the evangelist Charles Finney credit for creating and executing the altar call in such a masterful way that people would respond, often in droves to the altar to ‘receive Christ’. With the appropriate words and music, the conditions can be set for humans to respond. Even the most hardened soul can be broken if the sermon and altar call are executed flawlessly. I once had a professor in seminary who said he had never met a person he couldn’t lead to the Lord. Is that what the Bible teaches? Is that what Jesus did? Did He create the perfect conditions and then invite someone to pray to receive Him as their Lord and Savior? Do we get any sense from the book of Acts that any kind of an altar call was used by the Apostles? Is it the evangelist who does the work of salvation or the Holy Spirit?
Who ‘gets them saved’?
The Bible is very clear: it is the Holy Spirit who regenerates an unsaved heart (see John 3). Nicodemus was told he had to have a spiritual birth and that spiritual birth was a work of the Holy Spirit who works in a mysterious way among those whom God has ordained to salvation (Acts 13:48). It is the Spirit, not the music, Who takes the Word of God and creates faith to believe the gospel in the heart of the new convert (Romans 10:17). This traditionalism can become so ingrained in our thinking that we may even subscribe to unbiblical ideas. In my first or second year as a pastor, I had a faithful woman who repeatedly complimented me on how gospel-centered the sermon was and then repeatedly challenged me to realize that we were not playing the right songs during the altar call to get people to respond. The more she handed me notes, the more I realized she had an unbiblical understanding of how God saves people.
Salvation is a work of the Lord from beginning to end.
The Holy Spirit does use words spoken by an evangelist. The apostles clearly challenged people to respond to the truth they were hearing, but the response was repentance toward God (Acts 17), faith in Christ and the gospel (Acts 16), and obedience to water baptism (Acts 2). Sinners were never invited to walk an aisle, bow the knee, or say words so all could know they were saved.
According to their Facebook posting this week, the largest church in Fayetteville reported that 486 people were saved at their Easter service, but the truth is no one apart from the person saved knows if even one person got saved at that Easter Sunday service. Read Matthew 7:21-24—these are some of the toughest words ever spoken by Jesus. Time will tell if anyone got saved on Easter Sunday anywhere in Fayetteville. Saved and unsaved sinners need to be challenged to respond in obedience to the gospel throughout a church service. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, a person can be born again in the middle of the sermon by believing the Gospel.
It is time we recognize that salvation is the work of the Lord (Jonah 2:9).