Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Altar Call and Conversion (3)

Written by Rev. G Procee
Last time we saw that many evangelical and Arminian churches have bought into the practice of issuing an altar call. It is held that man has the ability to be saved by simply accepting Christ as Saviour. This is demonstrated by coming to the front of the church to make a ÒdecisionÓ for the Lord Jesus.

Such preaching denies the doctrine of the total depravity of man and the sovereignty of God. Charles G. Finney, the great advocate of the altar call of nineteenth century America stated that preaching manÕs inability to come to Christ would hinder his conversion.

ManÕs Depravity
Reformed and biblical preaching emphasizes the total depravity of man. Man is more lost than he is aware of. This awareness is no impediment to conversion, as Finney argues, but will in reality drive man out to God for mercy. The sinner will truly realize his urgent need for a new nature and his need to be to be born again by the Spirit of God. Reformed preaching is very well aware that faith in Christ is necessary and that a sinner will find peace with God through faith alone. But Reformed preaching also points to the Author of this faith: the Holy Spirit.

Reformed and biblical preaching never tells people to wait for regeneration. Every sinner, as soon as he hears the call to repentance, has the warrant from God's Word to flee to the Lord Jesus Christ. But God's usual way is that the Spirit leads a person to a painful discovery of sinful self.

Dangers of the Altar Call
Let a sinner try to live according to God's will and he will soon find out that he cannot. GodÕs Spirit must change his life. This is Reformed and biblical teaching. It was such preaching that Finney and other proponents of the altar call rejected. This teaching denies GodÕs prerogative in granting regeneration. The altar-call method puts new life and conversion into the hands of the person who walks up the aisle and makes a decision and who tells himself that he has become a Christian. It is a soul deceiving method.

This is a very serious matter. There is a great danger that when a sinner under conviction of sin asks what he should do for his salvation, pastors and counsellors act on their emotions in dealing with him. A pastor or counsellor may be tempted to lower his views of sin, as if the sinnerÕs condition is not so bad. The counsellor may be tempted to advise such a person that he should fulfil all kinds of religious duties, such as Bible reading, listening to sermons and praying. The advisor may also simply tell the seeker to make a decision for Christ right away and simply trust that Christ's sacrifice is also for him. Such methods will not bring peace to the heart.

There is only one answer to sinnersÕ needs and that is to flee to the cross of Calvary. If a sinner is pointed anywhere else in the universe, I can anticipate the time when his despairing cry from hell will be heard, charging me with having destroyed his soul.

Faith is not just a decision; it is not just accepting Christ.

Saving faith is a practical, influential belief of the scripture
doctrine of redemption. The truth is first received into the
understanding, and then exerts its legitimate influence upon the
heart. And this influence discovers itself, first, in an act of
self-abasement, or giving up every idea of personal merit; and
then in an act of self-consecration, or giving up the whole soul
to God, in humble reliance on the merits of Christ, to be
employed in His service, to be disposed of at His pleasure, and
to be saved by His sovereign mercy" (Lectures to Young People by
Sprague, pp.157, 158)

It is very serious business to talk people into accepting Christ. It is soul-deceiving. Thomas Boston comments in his book, The Four Fold State:

There are many who, when once they have gathered some scraps of
knowledge of religion, and have attained to some information of
life, swell big with conceit of themselves; a sad sign that the
effects of the fall lie so heavy upon them that they have not as
yet come to themselves, Luke 15:17. They have eyes behind, to see
their attainments; but no eyes within, no eyes before, to see
their wants, which would surely humble them: for true knowledge
makes men to see both what once they were, and what they are at
present; and so is humbling, and will not suffer them to be
content with any measure of grace attained; but inclines them to
press forward, "forgetting the things that are behind," Phil.
3:13. But those men are such a spectacle of commiseration, as one
would be who had set his palace on fire; and was glorying in a
cottage which he had built for himself out of the rubbish, though
so very weak, that it could not stand against a storm. (Boston,
Works, Vol. 8, pp.23, 24)

We believe in the total depravity of man and therefore we confess the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in converting sinners. The Lord Jesus is fully sufficient; not only in making salvation possible, but also through the Holy Spirit to save and changes sinner's hearts.

An Example of a Conversion Experience
Those dealing with souls should seek to cast the sinner upon Christ and refer him to the work of the Holy Spirit to apply Christ to the soul. This is beautifully illustrated by an event in the life of Dr. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, a Presbyterian minister in the 1840's in the United States. His biography gives the following example of a young manÕs struggle to come to faith.

Dr. Palmer had a guest in his home during a week of worship services that were to be conducted in his church. The young man didn't have anything else to do, so he attended these services. He became irritated and restless. After attending the services on the Lord's day, Monday came and the young man entered the study of Dr. Palmer. Dr. Palmer relates:

I was writing in my study as he came in and sat beside my desk--
breaking out, after a little, in the petulant remark: `You
preachers are the most contradictory men in the world; you say,
and you unsay, just as it pleases you, without the least
pretension to consistency.' Somehow, I was not surprised at this
outbreak; for though no sign of religious feeling had been
evinced, there was restlessness in his manner which satisfied me
that he was secretly fighting against the truth. I thought it
best to treat the case in an off-hand sort of way, and with
seeing indifference so as to cut him off from all opportunity to
coquette with the Gospel. Without arresting my pen, I simply
answered, `Well, what now?'

`Why, yesterday you said in your sermon that sinners were
perfectly helpless in themselves--utterly unable to repent or
believe and then you turned square round and said that they would
all be damned if they did not.'

`Well my dear E--, there is no use in our quarrelling over this
matter; either you can or you cannot. If you can, all I have to
say is that I hope you will just go and do it.' As I did not
raise my eyes from my writing, which was continued as I spoke, I
had no means of marking the effect of these words, until, after a
moment's silence, with a choking utterance, the reply came back:
`I have been trying my best for three whole days, and
cannot.' ÔAh,' said I, laying down the pen: Ôthat puts a
different face upon it; we will go then and tell the difficulty
straight out to God.'

We knelt together and I prayed as though this was the first time
in human history that this trouble had ever arisen; that here was
a soul in the most desperate extremity, which must believe or
perish, and hopelessly unable of itself, to do it; that,
consequently it was just the case calling for Divine
interposition; and pleading most earnestly for the fulfilment of
the Divine promise. Upon rising I offered not one single word of
comfort or advice. Youth is seldom disingenuous or stubborn, and
the difficulty was recognized as purely practical. So I left my
friend in his powerlessness in the hands of God, as the only
helper. In a short time he came through the struggle, rejoicing
in the hope of eternal life." ( From Biography of Dr. Palmer,
pp.83, 84).

We Do Not Need Altar Calls
The reality is that the carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God; neither indeed can be. The danger is not so much that the sinner will be crushed into despair by the clear apprehension of the truth, but that he will fail to realize it at all. A person may be caught up in the fatal delusion that he is able to repent whenever he wants to and think he has the matters of salvation perfectly in his control. But as soon as he discovers that he must but cannot, he is brought to the awareness of his great need. That drives the sinner out to God for His intervention. It is much to be preferred that instead of superficial cover-ups, decisions or claims of accepting, the sinner is thrown back upon the almighty God and the promised mercy in Christ Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit Who grafts the sinner into Christ.

We do not need altar calls to give comfort and to lead people to deceive themselves with an imagined salvation. Instead, we need the pure preaching of God's Word, accompanied by the prayer for the powerful working of the Holy Spirit. Every LordÕs Day we confess: I believe in the Holy Ghost. He unites sinners to Christ. Glory be to God!

The Spirit is still at work gathering a people to be the bride of Christ. Sinners are still being reconciled to God and grafted into Christ, not by their own volition, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. ÒChrist employs His Spirit to sprinkle us in order to wash us by His own Blood when He leads us to true repentance, when He purifies us from depraved lusts of our flesh, when He imbues us with the precious gift of His own righteousnessÓ (Calvin on Hebrews 9:21).

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