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I believe I was saved when I was 7 years old. An 80-year-old preacher came to a church meeting in Bangalore, he spoke plainly and clearly about God’s holiness, and how my sin earned God’s punishment in hell. He spoke a lot about it. I don’t remember the details of what he said, but I do remember being terrified of going there. I also believed that I deserved to go to such a place. But then this wonderful man of God began to talk about Jesus, the eternal Son of God who was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life and took the punishment of my sin upon Himself. The preacher said, “If anyone wants to turn from their sin and believe in Jesus raise your hand.” I think I raised both my hands! That’s how much I wanted the salvation that only Jesus could bring, even though I was only a 7-year-old.
I’ve often thought about whether that’s the day I got saved. I’ve come to believe that I believed the gospel not because I made a public declaration of faith that day, but because I truly believed. However, a lot of people recount their own conversion experiences with a visible raising of hands or walking down an aisle, or some other visible public declaration. I want to be clear—I don’t think that altar calls and things like it are categorically wrong. It is not a sin to do so. People must decide to repent and believe in order to be saved. I also believe that public professions of faith are necessary, like baptism. However, it’s easy to see that altar calls and things like them can cause confusion as to what conversion truly is. For the rest of this article, I want to talk about what happens to a person when he/she is truly converted, a brief history of the altar call, and my concerns with this as an evangelistic practice.
Conversion happens to a whole person- mind, emotions and will
When a person truly is converted by God, we should evaluate whether their response encompasses their mind, emotions and will.
The full content of the gospel must be presented clearly and understood by the mind. The Scripture must direct our minds and humble them. Some people reject it as foolishness (1 Cor 2). Others think that if they simply understand the ‘facts’ about the gospel and agree to it then they are saved. But this is incomplete at best. The ‘facts’ about the gospel do indeed inform, but also humble the mind. The mind understands the gospel truths, wholeheartedly agrees with them, and is humbled by them.
Emotions are a part of every person, and when a person is converted, so are his or her emotions. A person without any emotions is called a sociopath, and there is no such thing as a ‘Christian sociopath’. A true Christian will have brokenness over sin (Psalm 51), joy, peace, hope and other Spirit-produced emotions (Galatians 5). But emotions are always to be led by truth.
There is an unbiblical way to appeal to the will. Some people give a challenge to others to ‘try’ Jesus— “I challenge you, try Jesus for 1 week! I guarantee you will not be disappointed”. Treating Jesus and the gospel like a brand of toothpaste by using a sales pitch like this is unbiblical and dishonouring to Christ. Another unbiblical way is to pressure someone to say the sinner's prayer as if there’s some magical power in the recitation of words put together.
But there is a biblical way to appeal to the will. Joshua says “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh 24:15). “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters'' (Is 55:1). “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened” (Mt 11:28). “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). We are to plead, command, invite and beg! It is uncomfortable for us when we put people on the spot, yet we must not neglect to call for a response. There is to be a tone of urgency and persuasion in our voice. The sermons of great evangelists like Bunyan, Whitefield, Edwards and Spurgeon were all marked by direct questions and pleas put to unbelievers. So was their personal witnessing.
Will Metzger puts it well: “Sinners are commanded to come now. Not appealing to natural desires but inviting, persuading and commanding allegiance to a new leader.”
History of the altar call
The altar call gained popularity in the 1830s with the preaching of Charles G. Finney. Finney rejected Calvinistic teaching that human nature was irreparably depraved; he believed only men's wills, not their natures, needed to be converted. His "new measures," then, set out to make regeneration as easy as possible. "A revival is not a miracle," Finney wrote. "It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means." In other words, preachers might create revival if they used proven methods, chief of these being the "anxious bench". Finney invited the unconverted to come to this bench at the front of the room to pray and to be prayed for, often resulting in an emotional breakthrough for the person. "The object of our measures is to gain attention," Finney said, and for that "you must have something new."
Concerns with Altar Calls
Jonathan Leeman rightly observes, “The altar call relies on the powers of emotion, rhetorical persuasion, and social pressure to induce people to make a hasty and premature decision. And producing professions is not the same thing as making disciples”.
Wrong Desire for instant results
I’ll be honest, we all would like to see lots of conversions. We also would like to see conversions happening now. But the work of regeneration is the act of God the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2). In the parable of the seed in Mark 4:26-29, the farmer sows the seed and goes to sleep. But the next day the seed has sprouted, and he doesn’t know how it happened. And at the right time, he harvests it. It’s the job of the evangelist to sow the gospel seed and leave the results to God (Mk 4:26-29). If God produces a response then we can see it, recognize it and reap the harvest. But altar calls imply that human means can produce a response that only God can. And if human means are sufficient to produce such a response then logically we could get a response from people every time if we wanted. But such a desire for instant results is unbiblical and the practice of altar calls implicitly supports such thinking.
The altar call relies on the powers of emotion
A lot of ‘conversions’ have people who get really emotionally excited, and because they had an emotional experience, they believe they were converted. Prior to the altar call people’s emotions are swayed by particular music played in a particular lighting, and it produces a ‘decision’ for Christ. The altar call relies on this, and that’s why we should be suspicious of such things because it seems manipulative. Just to clarify, I would expect genuine emotions to be produced by God in a regenerated heart as they hear the truth of the gospel, but not because of external factors. This is another problem with the altar call.
The altar call relies on social pressure
The altar call only takes place in the context of a large evangelistic meeting, as it thrives in such a setting. Just imagine you are an unbeliever who was born in a Christian family and grew up going to church. You’re there with a bunch of your friends from church (maybe youth group) and then the altar call is given, and you see many of your friends start to walk down the aisle. There is a significant social pressure to join them in this ‘experience’, in this case from your peer group. Mack Stiles, in his book Evangelism, spoke of how his friend persuaded him to walk down the aisle with him even though he initially had no intention of doing so. Genuine conversion is brought about by the Holy Spirit but the regenerated person has a freed will to respond in genuine faith and repentance. The point is that a truly converted person is not pressured to make a decision. The altar call adds unnecessary and unhelpful social pressure on people to make ‘decisions’, and that’s a third concern with the altar call.
When George Whitfield was asked how many of his hearers had converted, he refused to speculate. "There are so many stony-ground hearers which receive the word with joy," Whitefield said, "that I have determined to suspend my judgment till I know the tree by its fruits." Revivals were the sole work of the Holy Spirit, and the test of time either confirmed or disproved these conversions. We Christians who are living in India will face more than enough trials and tribulations for the genuine conversions that will result from the preaching of the gospel. Why do we need unnecessary trouble from fake conversions? We don’t need things like altar calls or anything else that pressures or manipulates people into decisions that aren’t actual conversions. Let us be faithful to evangelize and trust that God will bring about real change in a person’s mind, emotion and will.