As far as we can see from our little perch here in DC, the invitation/altar call method is still in use today. It's not nearly as prominent as it used to be, say, at the height of the Billy Graham Crusades. Some have quit calling people to walk the aisle and make a public decision for Christ because they think their theology implies that inviting people to respond to Christ is unnecessary. Others have quit calling people to come down front because they think everyone within earshot is already saved.
Still, there are many churches out there that sing the last stanza of Have Thine Own Way just one more time as they wait for the convicted sinner to step out of the pew and into a new relationship with Christ. But even though it is still somewhat popular, we think that the invitation system has done more harm than good among many evangelical churches. We do not implement an altar call in any service here at Capitol Hill Baptist, and we would discourage other churches from doing so as well. Yet we don’t refrain because we’re hyper-Calvinists or Universalists. So why disparage a time-honored tradition?
1. The altar call too easily confuses the physical act of "coming forward" (walking an aisle) with the spiritual act of "coming to Christ" (repentance and belief). People are urged to come forward as if that coming forward is the critical element in being converted. But what’s required for salvation isn’t walking an aisle. It’s repentance from sin and belief in Jesus Christ (Mark 1:15). Initial repentance and belief – conversion – can happen anywhere, in the pew or in the pub.
2. This confusion deceives people about their spiritual state. It encourages people to think that they have responded savingly to the gospel in their hearts just because they've come forward externally and prayed a prayer at an altar. But this isn't necessarily true. It simply isn't the case that just because someone is coming forward after the sermon, they are responding to the gospel in repentance and belief. Hebrews 6 warns that there are those who have not just come forward, but who have “once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” who, notwithstanding these seemingly convincing proofs, do not enjoy “things that accompany salvation” (Heb 6:4-5, 9; for a historical treatment, see Iain Murray's Evangelicalism Divided [Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2000]). In other words, there is a type of true spiritual experience of the Holy Spirit, a real hearing of the word, and even an observation of the power of God, that is nevertheless not saving. Is this not also the point of the parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20)? External, emotional, and even temporary spiritual movement do not necessarily imply internal conversion.
3. This confusion often obscures the requirements of repentance and belief. This is often how people are deceived into thinking they are Christians when in fact they are not. Thousands of sermons have been preached that have failed to present repentance and belief (Mark 1:15) as the non-negotiable way of responding to the gospel savingly. Then people are told to come forward to "accept Jesus" (language found nowhere in the Bible), and are encouraged on that basis to feel assured of their salvation and even encouraged to join the membership of the local church, never being told that they must repent of their sins and believe in the gospel if they would be forgiven. And even if repentance and belief were preached in the sermon, often people coming forward are not notified that they – individually – must repent of their sins and put their trust in Jesus Christ – and must bear good and lasting fruit that confirms the genuineness of their initial profession (Matt 7:15-27; John 15:8, 16). They are simply encouraged to come forward and "make a decision for Christ" or "accept Jesus into your heart". These people are thus kindly but damningly deceived into thinking that they are saved because they came forward, prayed a prayer, and were received into the membership of a local church on the spot. No repentance, no belief, no confirming godliness – which adds up to no salvation.
4. This confusion encourages people to base their assurance on a one-time event. The aisle walked or prayer prayed becomes a false stone of remembrance they look back on to assure themselves despite their lack of growth or blatantly sinful lifestyle. Yet the Bible tells us to base our assurance not on a prayer prayed or an aisle walked in the increasingly distant past. It tells us to look at our present and increasing love for others (1John 4:8, 20), the present and increasing holiness of our lifestyles (Matt 7:15-27; Heb 12:14; 1John 3:7-8), and the present and increasing orthodoxy of our doctrine (Gal 1:6-9; 2Tim 4:3; 1John 4:2-3; 15).
5. This confusion brings false converts with false assurance into the church’s membership. This is terrible individually because the person thinks he is saved but is not. And it is terrible corporately because these false believers are welcomed as members, compromising the purity of the local church membership rolls and continuing to sin in ways that compromise the purity of the corporate witness of the local church in the community. The church is God's evangelism program (John 13:34-35). Welcoming unconverted members by the use of confusing evangelism methods is to give the camp over to the enemy, making evangelism that much harder.
6. The altar call makes conversion look like a work of man, when in fact it is a work of God. Repentance and belief are gracious gifts that God bestows supernaturally, not meritorious works that men perform by walking an aisle or praying a prayer (Acts 11:18; Eph 2:8-9; 2Peter 1:1).
7. The altar call confuses people regarding sacred space. It makes the front of the church look like the only place to really "do business" with God. But a biblical theology of sacred space disallows such notions. The inside of a church building is no more sacred than any other place now that Jesus has risen and sent His Spirit into our hearts. Whereas God's presence used to be representatively localized in the tabernacle or temple in the Old Covenant, the new covenant brings God's presence into every believer's heart. Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, not our church buildings (1Cor 3:16-17; 6:18-20; see esp. 2Cor 6:16).
8. The altar call confuses “coming forward” with baptism. It mistakes "coming forward" as the initial public profession of faith God requires. According to the Bible, baptism is the initial way in which we identify ourselves publicly with the people of God (Matt 28:18-20; Rom 6:1-6).
9. The altar call distracts Christians from the main point of the service. The main weekly gathering of the church is intended for the edification of believers (1Cor 14:3, 4, 5, 6, 12, 17, 26). But the effect of the altar call is often to encourage Christians to apply the message to unbelievers, not themselves. Instead of examining their own hearts, the altar call often leaves Christians examining the hearts of others – and coming out feeling better than they should about their own.
But does our reticence to extend altar calls imply that our evangelistic zeal has run dry? No. We should always be inviting unbelievers to a relationship with Christ, whether on Sunday morning at church or on Saturday afternoon in the neighborhood. Let’s not limit our evangelistic invitations to Sundays at noon! But we must be careful how we invite them so that both our message and the required response are clear.
When inviting people to a relationship with Christ in the context of a church gathering, we must first be careful to present the gospel clearly – God, man, Christ, response. God is our holy Creator and righteous Judge. All people have sinned against him, both in Adam as our corporate representative, and in our own lives individually. That sin deserves eternal death – separation from God in Hell. But God sent Jesus Christ to die the death we deserved for our sin and reconcile us to Him. And He requires that we repent of our sins – turn away from them – and believe in Jesus Christ’s divine righteousness and substitutionary sacrifice. When we do – and only then – God credits us with Christ’s righteousness, and begins to bring our character into conformity with His holiness.
Once we’ve presented the gospel clearly, we need to make sure that no other response can be confused with the proper response of true, persevering repentance and belief. To do so, we may need to discontinue calling people to the altar, or even stop praying a sinner’s prayer with people since we never find Paul or Peter or Jesus doing so, or commanding us to do so. If our church situation is such that the pastor is unable to discontinue such practices without wreaking havoc on the unity of the church, then the least that should be done is for the pastor to explain publicly that coming forward and praying a prayer should not be confused with a saving response to the Gospel. Repentance and belief is the only saving response – whether or not an aisle is walked or a prayer is prayed.
Next, it would be wise to conduct individual membership interviews in which potential members, new converts or old, are asked to give a brief explanation of the gospel and the proper response to it, along with some confirming evidences of that repentance in a godly lifestyle over a period of time. This practice, while potentially intimidating, is worth it, because it will ensure that potential members have understood the gospel biblically, responded to it savingly, and evidenced their sincerity in a converted lifestyle. This carefulness will protect people from spiritual self-deception, preserve the purity of the local church’s membership, and will protect the purity of the local church’s witness in the community by refusing membership to those who have no gospel power to forsake their sin.