Where do we get Altar Calls?

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.  Image

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.

About Corey Sharpe

Where do we get our beliefs? Three theological perspectives have significantly shaped my Christian identity: Evangelicalism, the early Methodist tradition and liberation theology. From my coming to faith in a Baptist church and throughout my education in a Baptist school and college, I was nurtured by convictions that emphasized a spiritual rebirth, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the centrality of the Bible. Even when I disagree with certain aspects of evangelicalism, it has deeply influenced my sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. My seminary studies spawned my interest in early Methodism, particularly its approach to spiritual formation. Its leaders were convinced that only a foundation of doctrine and discipline would lead to a meaningful transformation of the heart and mind. In other words, having the mind of Christ enables me to be more like Christ. Life in a suburban culture obscures the increasing gap between the poor and rich, as well as the Bible’s close identification with the poor. My doctoral work in socio-cultural context exposed me to liberation theology, which helps me see redemptive history as a history of oppressed groups, written from the perspective of the powerless, about a God who is actively involved with the poor in their struggles. I am now the pastor at Huntingtown United Methodist Church in Calvert County, Maryland. Together my wife and I are raising 4 young theologians.
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5 Responses to Where do we get Altar Calls?

  1. cdhoagpurple says:

    By their fruits ye shall know them.

  2. Sharon Worthington says:

    Altar calls are good for the soul! When we as UM do a baptism we do it in front of a congregation of people and our denomination encourages that. Alter calls are the same in principle to me. They are a celebration and they are an outward sign to all that a person wants to commit their life to a relationship with Christ. Laying yourself at the alter is a blessing and cleansing if you are sincere. I would always pray that anyone in our church who felt that calling would always be comfortable to go before us to the alter and commit themselves.

  3. Coale says:

    The line “confuse an outward act with an inward change” is confusing to me.
    If done correctly with an honest and open heart. It’s the inward change that takes place first that causes the outward act. It’s an outward response to an inward commitment. Just as Billy Graham said to millions, “Christ called everyone publicly”. Going forward does not save you,(that would be works). As just stated, that decision was made before the first step forward was taken. To me, it’s like when you get married, whether in a court house or church, there has to be a moment in time when you said, “Yes” to Christ and often it is done in front of witnesses. Doesn’t mean you aren’t married or saved without them. But you are making a public confession to others you have received Christ as Lord and Savior.

    • Janice says:

      We have had pastors that had altar calls but no one goes forward. Why? Making a public confession in front of others that you have received Christ is a good thing. Maybe people aren’t comfortable. If one person makes the move to the altar maybe others would follow.

  4. Ann Denbow Simmons says:

    Good morning everyone:

    The Bible does not speak or call us to rededicate our lives it calls us and advices us to repent. Repentance means to agree with God that we have sinned and that we will make a commitment to make a noticeable change in our behavior, attitude, and life and to come into an agreement with God. A desire to change is not repentance. Without this repentance rather a person makes an alter call and/or seeks forgiveness for their sins they have not made the change which the Bible seeks from each of us as Christians. Repentance is always an active response to God’s Word. Therefore, repentance is not words of resolve but actually and action of a changing life and trusting and obeying God.

    II Corinthians 7:10 “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
    Have a blessed day!
    Ann Simmons

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