Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Altar Call and Conversion (1)

Written by Rev. G. Procee
Many churches are accustomed to having an altar call at the end of their worship services. The idea is that when a minister or evangelist preaches a message, the hearers are subsequently called to salvation. This call is to actually come forward and stand at the front of the church to confess oneÕs sins and accept Christ as Saviour. It is said that this is how a person is saved.

Many so-called revival meetings are conducted in this manner. Pentecostals and other evangelicals, but even churches that call themselves Reformed have adopted this custom. In present-day evangelical churches it is the most common way to presumably lead souls to conversion. How are we to view this custom?

What is an Altar Call?
For an answer to this question we must go back in church history to Kentucky, US, around the year 1800. A mighty revival is in full swing. Tens of thousands are gathered for communion services. People are camped in tents and ox-drawn wagons. Thousands are converted. Presbyterians, Baptists and even Methodists work together. God is doing a mighty work of conversion. It is a genuine and extraordinary work. People cannot fit into a church or meeting place, so worship services are conducted in the open air.

As often happens in revivals, they are accompanied with much feeling and emotionalism. There are people who are shouting, twitching, jerking, and laughing. Some fall down, convicted by their sin. The Methodists by and large appreciated these outbursts of emotionalism, while the Presbyterians never did. For instance, in 1801 a church gathering became so disorderly due to emotionalism that Rev. Rice, a grey-haired Presbyterian minister, ascended the pulpit and in the most solemn manner began to repeat the words of Scripture: ÒHoly, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty!Ó An instantaneous hush fell on the gathering and the emotional outbursts ceased. The Presbyterians discouraged physical outbursts of emotionalism, while on the contrary, the Methodists promoted these sentiments.

As a result of this 1800 Kentucky revival, the Methodists in years to come preferred large camp and tent meetings, especially because it provided an atmosphere that utilized mass hysteria and singing. They claimed that the use of mass psychology would result in quick conversions and thus the people were spurred to religious emotionalism. Consequently, Calvinism was discarded as too passive and a hindrance to evangelism.

In addition, the Methodists started to record the number of their converts. This was something the earlier Methodists and even Wesley had never done. These newer Methodists started to count how many conversions had taken place. But the problem was, how to do this? In a more or less disorderly and emotional gathering it is not easy to assess how many of the hearers are actually converted to Christ.

One method used was to station certain people in the assemblies to count how many people they saw falling down because of so-called conviction of sin. But the Methodists were realistic enough to recognize that not all the people who fell down were true converts. They desired a more realistic count of those who were actually converted. Another method of counting conversions was needed. This they found in "the invitation to the altarÓ or the altar call.

The Origin of the Altar Call
In his book, Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray writes that the origin of this term is obscure. The altar call as such was unknown in England. The term originates with the custom of the Anglican Church to refer to the front of the church as the altar. In reality there is no altar, neither are any sacrifices offered there. But in the pre-Reformation days this was the place where the mass would be offered and where the altar was placed. This terminology, however, remained in use after the Reformation and the Anglicans still called the front of the church where the communion table is, the altar.

Before the end of the eighteenth century there were already churches calling people to come to the front of the church, to the altar. The initial purpose was that they would come forward to express their conviction of sin and their desire to receive forgiveness. The ministers would then pray for them and look to God for their conversion. These people would receive further instruction. This method, however, was not considered to be the moment of conversion.

The Meaning of the Altar Call Changed
Soon the idea of coming forward to the altar came to be identified with conversion. The ministers would preach with the same urgency the necessity of conversion as well as the necessity of coming to the altar. This meant the same thing to the hearers. To them, the alternative for not coming forward was to perish forever in their sins. The result of this type of preaching was that under emotional pressure hundreds came forward and claimed conversion and regeneration. But instead of believing, for many feelings became the standard. Moreover, the numbers seemed to justify the means.

Charles Finney and the Altar Call
It was Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) who promoted and introduced this originally Methodist idea of altar call in many churches. He lived in western New York State and initially studied to be a lawyer. When he was converted in October 1821, he immediately began to preach as an evangelist as well as commencing theological studies. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1824. His style of preaching was very emotional and he pressed the hearers to make a decision, what he referred to as conversion. At times, he would even mention names of people in prayer whom he wanted to decide for Christ.

Finney rejected the doctrine of total depravity and believed that man is not governed by his nature, but by his will. There is no such thing as a holy nature or a fallen nature, Finney claimed. The will is determinative for man's actions. For conversion to occur, man therefore, needs a change of will and not a change of nature.

Finney argued that man has the ability to turn to God; otherwise God would not have demanded this of man. "When God commands us to do a thing it is the highest possible evidence that we can do it. He has no right to command unless we have power to obey" (quoted by Murray, p.245). Finney dared to say that God would be tyrannical if He commanded something man cannot practice. He refuted the idea that the Spirit's influences were necessary to enable the unconverted to obey the call of their Maker.

He did not deny the work of the Holy Spirit completely, but His work consists of bringing the truth clearly before the minds of the hearers by means of strong, emotional and appealing sermons and then the hearers have to make a decision. The Holy Spirit brings these truths to their minds and regeneration can be accomplished by arguing and working on the human will. Regeneration thus becomes a mere willingness to obey Christ.

Finney criticized Reformed teaching as false theology that clogs and obscures the truth. Preaching is to bring people to submission and the basic tool to obtain this is by following the sermon with an altar call. In this way quick conversions can be obtained. If people do not submit, the Holy Spirit will forsake them and their state will be almost hopeless, he said.

Finney said that it used to be held that revivals were miraculous and brought about by divine intervention, but he claimed that we now realize that revivals can be organized. Man can bring about revivals. God has been telling the church this for 1800 years but the church never listened properly, Finney claimed. If this had been practised, the entire United States would have already been converted. God has placed His Spirit at the disposal of Christians, said Finney. Do your duty and you will see the triumph of the Gospel. In this setting all that was needed for conversion to take place was a resolution signified by standing up, kneeling or coming forward.

The Widespread Influence of Finney
Finney's ideas found a ready entrance into the minds of many people and churches. The new ideas seemed to be validated by their apparent success. There seemed to be so many conversions that a biblical warrant for these practices was not necessary. The method simply worked. The only validating reason was to look at the numbers of converts. Biblical principles were not the decisive factor, only sheer numbers.

The fact is that these new methods were accepted because far more publicity was given to the alleged successes than to the harm that this method did to churches and to individuals. The next time we hope to evaluate the practice of the altar call in the light of Scripture.

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