Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

The Altar Call and Conversion (2)

Written by Rev. G. Procee
Last time we saw that an altar call is an invitation given after a sermon to come forward to express oneÕs desire to be committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. This altar call is considered to be the identical with conversion and being saved. Many evangelical and Arminian churches have bought into this practice of issuing an altar call.

The practice originated with Methodist preachers during the early 19th century. Initially, it was nothing else than a call to come forward to express oneÕs conviction of sin and need of forgiveness. The minister would pray for those who came forward and look to God bring them to conversion. Soon, however, the notion of coming to the front of the church and conversion were seen as the same thing.

The altar call was heavily promoted and popularized by Charles G. Finney. He reasoned that by emotional preaching one could ÒtalkÓ a person into becoming genuinely converted, and the altar was the evidence. FinneyÕs method seemed to work well and much publicity was given to his evangelistic method. Instead of Biblical principles, the apparent number of converts was proof that the method worked. But there were critics who realized the unbiblical emphasis of Finney and his altar call.

Criticism of Finney
Asahel Nettleton, an outstanding Presbyterian minister of the early 1800's referred to the results of this new evangelism method as the illusion of a new era. A number of ministers of Congregational Churches wrote a Pastoral Letter to their people, commenting on this new idea of evangelism: "The strength of a church does not consist in its numbers, but in its graces... We fear that the desire of counting numbers is too much indulged, even by good people." They had other criticisms too. They did not only object to the continual referring to numbers of converts as a validation of these new evangelistic methods, but they also objected to the emotional appeals that were made. The hearers were worked into a form of emotionalism that was foreign to Scripture. The concern of these Congregational ministers can be seen in the headings of their Pastoral Letter: ÒSuffering the feelings to control the judgment. Censuring as unconverted, or as cold, stupid, and dead, those who are in good standing in the visible church; Praying for persons by name, in an abusive manner; Denouncing as enemies of revival those who do not approve of everything that is done; Taking the success of any measures, as an evidence that those measures are right, and approved of God" (Revival & Revivalism, Iain H. Murray, p. 234).

These ministers understood what was at stake: the honour of God, the authority of Scripture and the salvation of souls. People were considered saved as long as they had responded to an emotional plea. The truth was that although Finney had been ordained in the Presbyterian Church, he had in reality departed from its Reformed principles and confessions.

Finney Critical of Calvinism
Finney and his men criticized biblical Calvinistic preaching. The Reformed teaching that the preacher calls sinners to faith while also teaching that faith is beyond their power was ridiculed. Reformed and Presbyterian ministers had always preached that man ought to repent and believe the Gospel. They had always insisted that according to Scripture, it only their sin which prevents them and makes them unable to do so.

FinneyÕs teaching had immense practical consequences. He and his followers Òbelieved that if Calvinism's doctrine of man's sinful nature, and consequent inability, was removed from the evangelist's message, then faith and regeneration would be seen to be simple. An immediate response to the message would thus be made far more likely... The plan was to make regeneration so easy that men may not be discouraged from attempting it. And to that theory, the altar call and other methods of securing public response were added... [This] would place men in the way of repentance and faithÓ (Revival and Revivalism, p.365). What the physical act of kneeling or coming to the front had to do with regeneration was a question that remained unanswered.

The system of the altar call led to very shallow preaching. The total depravity of man was denied; the truth concerning the enmity of the soul against God was rejected; the sovereignty of God was not taught. The impact of Finney was and still is enormous. At the end of the 19th century Reformed preaching had nearly died out in the United States. The impact is still keenly felt in present day church life.

Today Pentecostals, many Evangelicals, and even some Reformed churches have adopted this theology and style of preaching. Modern church growth movements thrive on this Arminian theology. It is to be feared that this theology also affects us, not so much in our preaching and official doctrine, but on a grass roots level. There is an influence of ÒdecisionismÓ amongst us. There is a notion that coming to faith is a quick and even a rather easy decision. Some may also feel that we can talk someone into faith.

Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit is the Author of faith and it pleases the Holy Spirit to make use of the preaching and reading of His Word to awaken faith. It is the preacherÕs responsibility to preach the truth in strict conformity to Scripture and to leave the final outcome to GodÕs grace.

Arguments Against the Altar Call
There are various arguments that can be brought in against the altar call: Iain Murray lists them on pages 366-368 in his book, Revival and Revivalism.

1.The call for a public response, such as kneeling or coming to the front confuses an outward act with an inward spiritual change. This confusion is inevitable because becoming a Christian and coming forward are so closely related that they become identical. The hearer is given the impression that answering the appeal to come forward is so important that salvation depends on this decision.

2. This procedure has inevitable, serious consequences. Those who do come forward but do not experience a saving change are liable to go back into the world, hardened, or they will continue to go to church thinking that they are saved. This practice leads to "the rapid multiplication of superficial, ignorant and untrained professors of religion" (Samuel Miller in Revival and Revivalism, p.366).

3. Those who are most likely to make a rash and immediate public response are usually emotional, impulsive and self-confident people. Spiritual power is not necessary, but only physical power and an emotional frame.

4. All will agree that many who come forward never are truly converted. It is said that at least this method works for some, the truly converted, while the others just fall back to where they were before. Finney argued that because it works for some, we must honour this method, and as for the others, it doesn't hurt them. The Southern Presbyterian, Robert Dabney, was not so sure. ÒThe lapsed who were once held up before public view as converts are not where they were before; they are likely to be more careless and more indifferent. Furthermore, in their lapse the reputation of the gospel has been brought down in the eyes of the world. On the other hand, those who were saved did not owe their conversion to their public response. They were people in whom God was working, and whose consciences had become tender, so that, hearing that coming to the front was their duty, they responded. Whatever they were told, their conversion was not the result of that action. It was the work of the Holy Spirit and of gospel truthÓ (p.367).

5. Altar-call evangelism not only confuses regeneration and faith, but it also confuses the biblical doctrine of assurance. When people are told that all that is needed to be saved is an act of the will, deciding for Christ, and that this willingness is proved by a public act, assurance of salvation is seen as an automatic consequence. The result of all this is, that multitudes of people, who are told that being saved is identified with performing a physical act, are deceived by resting on a false assurance.

Reformed Preaching
Reformed preaching calls sinners to repentance; not by accepting Christ by means of an altar call. We need the lively preaching of God's Word, according to 1 Corinthians 1:21: ÒÉIt pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.Ó This faith is worked by GodÕs Spirit, according to Ephesians 2:8: ÒFor by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of GodÓ; Philippians 1: 29: ÒFor unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.Ó

Why is it that in a congregation in which all hear the same Word preached, some respond and others do not? There are only two possible answers to this. Either a sinner is not dead in sins and trespasses and he turns to God by virtue of his own willingness or he simply refuses to turn to God, or there is the work of the Holy Spirit in addition to the outward hearing of God's Word. In the latter case, the Holy Spirit removes the natural enmity against God's Word and causes a person to believe. The Holy Spirit regenerates and leads to believing the Gospel. This is the Reformed view, whereas the Arminians confuse and rank regeneration and faith together and consider them a work of man's own free will.

Reformed preaching realizes that man is more lost than he is aware of. The first objective in biblical Reformed preaching is to bring men to despair of themselves. To tell men the worst about themselves does not hinder conversion. On the contrary, the real impediment to conversion is the absence of conviction of sin. A sinner must be told that sin does not consist of only wrong actions, but that it is a principle within that governs his whole life. His basic need is to receive a new nature. The sinner does not just need forgiveness, but he needs a new nature. He must be delivered from the controlling power of sin and be born again by the Spirit of God.

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