In all likelihood, Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) can be attributed with being the “father” of the altar call. Years before our Lord effectually called me to repentance and salvation, I was once also duped into responding to an altar call which promised elaborate, but false, assurances of salvation. Wonderfully though, the Lord placed severe doubts in my mind at the time, regarding the possible validity of the ritual. What I regarded, back then as being my reliance on simple common sense, led me to distrust the embarrassing proceedings of the altar call I had responded to.
Needless to say, not much changed in my life as a result, in the days, weeks and months subsequent to that day. Great was and is the Grace of our Lord and true Saviour. I also now know that it was not only common sense which led me to doubt the honesty and biblical integrity of the altar call. I never responded to a single one again, praise be to the Lord.
In a three part posting, I will attempt to shed a little light on this unbiblical practice which has become commonplace and even expected in certain evangelical circles. Furthermore, it has had the effect of turning many away from true faith due to its magnificent failure, and has shamefully blighted the true Gospel due to the lie which it so often sells.
Ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1823, Charles Finney did not begin giving public invitations (altar calls) until long after Methodists had made the altar call a regular part of their camp meetings. Finney, however, did more than anyone to establish altar calls as an accepted and popular practice in evangelicalism. Finney regularly called anxious sinners to the front of the congregation to sit on an “anxious bench” or “anxious seat”. There, they would receive prayer and often be preached to directly.
The altar call was also one of Finney’s famous “new measures.” He was convinced that ministers could produce revival by using the right methods, and that the altar call “was necessary to bring [sinners] out from among the mass of the ungodly to a public renunciation of their sinful ways.”
While many embraced Finney’s “new measures,” others were wary of the theology behind them. Finney believed that Christ’s death had made salvation possible for all. Human depravity was “a voluntary attitude of the mind,” not a nature one was born with. Conversion, therefore, depended on the human will being persuaded to repent and trust Christ. According to Finney, the altar call was a very persuasive tool to move the human will.
Biblical ministers rejected Finney’s confidence in human ability and his reliance on the altar call. They believed human beings were born with a sinful nature. Sinners were unable to trust in Christ until God changed their hearts. The error of the altar call is that the call for a public ‘response’ confuses an external act with an inward spiritual change. The altar call effectively institutes a condition of salvation which Christ never appointed. Altar-call evangelism results in false assurance and a high percentage of those who go forward to “receive Christ” soon fall away.
Despite criticism and obvious error, the altar call continues to grow in popularity and acceptance. It has almost become a permanent fixture in popular modern evangelicalism.
And what are the results that we see from this system? Churches full of people who demonstrate no evidence of true conversion, but simply point to “a decision” as proof that they are saved. That’s not where Scripture points us for assurance. Instead, Paul tells us to “Examine ourselves to see whether we be in the faith.” One of the bases of our assurance, according to Paul and John, is whether or not the process of sanctification is taking place in us. “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
If one is truly saved, then GOD WILL change them. But it seems pretty obvious that we have evangelical churches full of unchanged people. But they can point to a “decision” and so believe that true conversion has taken place even in the absence of spiritual fruit.
But we must trust the power of God’s Word to convince, convert, and change lives (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23; Romans 10:17). We must call all men to Christ, but by acknowledging the sovereignty of God in the conversion of His elect, not the manipulations of men and their altar calling.
Parts 2 and 3 of this posting will take a more in depth look at the incorrect application and presumptuous nature of “walking the aisle” to altar calls and why you could be justified in not heeding them.
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