Every Sunday my childhood pastor would invite people to come forward, make a decision, repent, seek forgiveness, while the congregation sang a few rounds of Just as I Am. Many evangelical churches do the same thing.
The Bible calls sinners to repentance and faith in Christ, but does not mention altar calls. Famous evangelists like Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley never gave an altar call. By 1805 some American pastors urged sinners to come to the altar – a fenced-in area where they preached – to seek salvation. This was a visible way to measure people’s response to the message.
A Presbyterian pastor Charles Finney made the altar call popular. He believed that sin was “a voluntary attitude of the mind,” not a nature one was born with, so people must be persuaded to repent and trust Christ. Finney, believed preachers could produce revival using the right methods, and the altar call was an effective method to change people’s minds.
Other pastors disagreed. They believed people were born with a sinful nature and couldn’t trust in Christ until God changed their hearts. Iain Murray, a church historian, says that some preachers opposed the altar call because it “confused an outward act with an inward spiritual change,” and gave people false assurance of their salvation.
The altar call is here to stay, but so are the questions. Should churches use altar calls, even though they are not mentioned in the Bible? Do they confuse an outward act with an inward change? Do they give professing Christians false assurance? One way to answer these questions is to look at the long term results.