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My wife, Anne, cannot remember a time when she has not known and trusted in Jesus. She was raised by missionary parents in a rural village in western Africa. She was baptized as an Anglican in infancy, and over the course of her childhood, the faith of her parents, the faith with which they raised her, became her own. If you were to invite Anne to give her testimony to your congregation, people might leave disappointed. She would not regale her listeners with lurid details of her dissolute pre-conversion life, since she never experienced a lurid, dissolute life — and there was, for her, no single moment of conversion.
Despite its staidness, Anne’s story has always evoked regretful envy for me. I am a convert. I remember with shame-inducing clarity the particularly egregious sins of my past that — though I know them to have been pardoned — still haunt my conscience. I remember the moment of my conversion; the sure, quick-dawning, consoling but mysterious knowledge that Jesus had heard my plea for mercy, removed my guilt, and received me as His own. The dark dreams and heavy, unrelenting guilt I had borne and with which I had lived as long as I could remember suddenly and unmistakably gave way to a lightness and peace I had never known possible. I have never been the same since.
No one was there at my conversion. I was alone in my apartment. I had heard a sermon by Dr. R. C. Sproul, listening to my car’s radio on the way to class a few days before. I do not remember exactly what he said, and in the years since, I have not been able to identify any one recording; but as I listened, the desperate condition of my soul was forced to the forefront of my consciousness — from which I had previously succeeded in banishing it — and my sins, being laid bare, became unbearable. But then came the news that God became man in Jesus to redeem and heal me; that Jesus took even my vilest sins to Himself and to His cross and bore the penalty for them there; and that God, on the third day, raised Jesus from the dead. And then the invitation: if I would turn from myself and trust in Jesus and His work, He would set me free from condemnation, forgive me, and grant to me a new kind of life that would culminate with my own resurrection and would never end. It was all so familiar sounding and yet strangely new and sweet. That message worked its way into my soul until, several days later, I fell down on my knees in my bedroom and asked Jesus to save me and forgive me and make me His own. And so He did.
Conversion and Faith. This has been, perhaps, too autobiographical a way to open up a discussion of conversions and, in particular, the use of the altar call in producing them or, at least, creating the conditions for them to take place. But, being a convert, conversion is something with which I have personal experience. What is meant by the term, “conversion”? Reduced to the most basic elements, a conversion takes place when a person who has never believed in Jesus turns to Him and believes and trusts Him. Classically, genuine faith, and thus genuine conversion, includes three aspects: knowledge, agreement, and trust.1 One must first know what the Bible reveals about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for sinners and, second, agree that what has been revealed is true. Knowledge and agreement, however, while necessary and good, are by themselves, insufficient. Satan and his demons possess both and, as James says, they tremble (James 2:19). It is, as many commentators point out, one thing to be persuaded that a chair is sufficient to carry your weight, it is another to sit down and rest. That resting is what the Scriptures mean by trust or belief. Trust is the hinge and foundation of conversion. The genuine convert forsakes all reliance upon his own efforts or deservings, seeing that they are vain, and casts himself into the arms of Christ, entrusting his whole being to Jesus and His saving work. Underlying this trust in Jesus is a deep awareness of the desperate, irreparable condition of the convert’s own soul. The true convert does not come to Jesus seeking to supercharge an already basically well-adjusted existence. The convert comes as a beggar, impoverished and needy, like the prodigal son returning to his father or the tax collector beating his breast in the temple, believing that only the Lord can save him (Luke 15:11–23; 18:9–14).
The Altar Call(s). That those who do not believe might be converted to genuine faith has been the constant prayer of the church since the apostolic era. Every preacher hopes that God might use his preaching to bring this about. Within the context of this hope, the practice of the altar call has arisen. Most readers will be familiar with the altar call, but perhaps not all. So I will sketch out two of the most common methods. The first, popularized by Billy Graham, has antecedents stretching back to the 19th century and Charles Finney’s “anxious bench” (about which I will have more to say below). Billy Graham would typically preach a fiery sermon in which he spent a good deal of time calling his listeners to measure their own lives by the requirements of God’s law. Then, as his warnings of God’s judgment and hell reached their crescendo, he would tell of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and of the offer of salvation and forgiveness to all who believe. The first time I listened to a Billy Graham sermon after my conversion, I recognized much the same message I had heard from Dr. Sproul. But the crowning moment of Dr. Graham’s sermon was his invitation to come forward. The walk from your seat to the front of the stage (the figurative altar) was presented as the outward, visible sign of your inward decision to commit your life to Jesus Christ.2 Thousands of smaller local churches still use this method of the altar call in their regular Sunday lineup.
A second method — perhaps more popular — still requires an active response on the part of the hearer but a less public display. The preacher proclaims the law and gospel, and after his sermon, presumably, he asks the entire congregation to bow their heads and close their eyes. Then he asks those who are willing to repent and turn to Jesus to raise their hands. Then the preacher leads them, usually still seated, in some version of the “sinner’s prayer.”3 The preacher sees those who raise their hands and, presumably, at some point the rest of the congregation will know, but for the immediate moment the act is between the preacher, those with raised hands, and God.
Committing your life to Christ, in both forms of the altar call, involves some kind of more or less public act. In one sense, there is nothing new about this. When Peter preached to the crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost day, calling them to account for their part in Jesus’ crucifixion, persuading them from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ and that God had raised Him from the dead, 3000 people were “cut to the heart.” They asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:37–38).4 Peter held out baptism as the outward visible sign of their being inwardly cleansed and forgiven. This was in keeping with Jesus’ commission to Peter and to the whole church, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18–19).
A False Necessity. While Baptism is the means by which Jesus promises to wash and regenerate the faithful and, thus, calling converts to be baptized is a vital, indeed, required part of the church’s task, there is no promise or requirement attached to the altar call. The question arises, then, whether the practice might add something unnecessarily burdensome or distracting. What happens, for example, to the person who is cut to the heart, brought to repentance and genuine faith by the gospel proclamation, but who is too shy to get up out of her seat and come forward? What of the person who believes the gospel but is too introverted to raise his hand? I assume that most preachers who employ the altar call would agree that the person who believes but does not come forward is just as truly converted as the one who does. But if so, why add the call to the altar? One might argue that coming forward or the raising the hand allows the church to identify the convert and begin the work of discipleship, but one could just as easily say, “If you have received Christ today, please come and let us know after the service so that we might help you with the next steps.”
The altar call, even when used by faithful preachers like Billy Graham, presents a false dilemma and an added burden. The real crisis with which the unconverted sinner must be confronted is the holiness of God and the Lord’s coming judgment set against the wretched condition of his own heart and life (Romans 3:10–20). The one great resolution to that crisis is faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21–22). The dilemma is not whether or not to stand up and walk forward or to raise the hand. Adding the altar call to the call to faith in Christ, or, worse, presenting a positive response to the altar call as if it were equivalent to faith in Christ, conflates what is required with what is extraneous. The person who does not respond by raising her hand or coming forward may well wonder whether faith alone is sufficient.
Indeed, notice the “if/then” in the following altar call. “If you’ve realized that you found yourself in that place of shame and humiliation,” says Pastor Paris Ragan, speaking to a packed Family Worship Church in Baton Rouge, “but you’re ready…to trade your shame for His living waters. And if that’s you tonight, I want you to raise your hand all over this place if you want to accept Jesus.”5
What must you do if you wish to receive Jesus Christ according to Pastor Ragan? Raise your hand. Moments later, Mr. Ragan calls those who have raised their hands to “make your way down to these altars,” meaning the front of the stage. I have no doubt that Mr. Ragan believes that sinners are justified by faith and not by making their way to the altars, but where does his altar call leave the person who is truly convicted and whose heart is crying out to Jesus for mercy, but who does not raise her hand or come forward? Might such a person feel herself lost?
Transactional Guarantee? Adding an altar call to the proclamation of the gospel also presents another problem. Some who have not been convicted of their sins and/or who do not trust in Christ, may raise their hands or come forward, placing their confidence in the act itself as a kind of transactional guarantee of salvation. And since the call is often accompanied by emotionally charged music, theatrics, and repeated invitations designed to put pressure on the wavering person to come forward, the decision to do so may well be of a species similar to the decision to purchase some heretofore unnecessary product after a skillful sales pitch.
The Anxious Bench. These very problems (and others) have long been noted,6 along with the root practice from which the altar call arose, the anxious bench.7 During the first half of the 19th century, Charles Finney developed what came to be known as the “new methods.” Finney believed and taught that revival was not, as had been previously believed, a purely divine occurrence that God brought about according to His secret will whensoever He chose, using the regular means of law and gospel. Conversions could be brought about reliably and consistently by preachers employing methods designed to bring people to crises of decision. With regard to the condition of the human mind and will, Finney rejected many mainstays of orthodox Protestantism. Original sin did not, he taught, leave the human person in a state of powerlessness. A sinner could choose to turn his or her life around, apart from regenerative grace, and become righteous. Sinners were not justified before God by faith alone because of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, but by becoming truly good men and women by a free choice of the will. Jesus did not come to offer Himself as a vicarious sacrifice for the forgiveness of sinners, but to provide an example of purity and godliness that every sinner can choose to follow and thereby gain eternal life.8
The problem, for Finney, lay with bringing a person to the point of decision. How do you persuade people to do and be good? The key lies in the heart or, rather, the emotions. Sinners must be brought into such a state of fear and trembling sorrow over the dissolute condition of their lives that they personally resolve to change. That resolution, if fueled by sufficient passion, would lead the sinner to transform his or her life.9 The anxious bench was put forward as one of the best means toward that end because it provided an outward, public act to galvanize the inner commitment. The anxious bench was a pew or a bench set down just in front of or near the pulpit. As the preacher preached, those who felt themselves moved by anxiety over the state of their souls were invited to come forward and sit on the bench. The preacher would then direct his exhortations toward them, urging them to leave sin behind and embrace a new life of personal holiness. The anxious bench, like the altar call, was festooned with emotion-laden preaching and music intended to whip the hearers into a passionate fervor, which drove many forward, believing that their salvation depended upon it. Contemporary John William Nevins writes,
Sinners are exhorted to come to the anxious bench, as for their life, by the same considerations precisely that should have force to bring them to Christ, and that could have no force at all in this case, if it were not confounded more or less to their perception with the other idea. The burden of all is presented in the beautiful, but much prostituted, hymn, usually sung on such occasions, Come, humble sinner. The whole of this is made to bear, with all the weight the preacher can put into it, on the question of coming to the anxious seat. Every effort is employed to shut up the conscience of the sinner to this issue; to make him feel that he must come or run the hazard of losing his soul.10
Even in the hands of orthodox preachers, as Nevins points out, the anxious bench fueled many false conversions and led to great burdens of unnecessary pressure on those who felt true conviction but no desire to put themselves on display.11 The altar call, born of Finney’s anxious bench, replicates its burdens and places them upon the shoulders of modern men and women.
Faith through the Word of Christ. The means by which God promises to bring sinners to Himself is not by the call to sit on a bench, raise the hand, or walk down an aisle but by the preaching of the gospel. “Faith,” writes the Apostle Paul, “comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). That is, God brings about true hearing and faith by the good news about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to save sinners. James also identifies God, not human emotion or decision, as the author of salvation, “Of his own will [God] brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). Preaching Christ begins with the preaching of the law by which God lays bare and exposes the sinful heart and brings to the conscience the need for forgiveness and salvation. To such a conscience and heart laid bare, Christ is then offered in the gospel as the Savior and balm. While, no doubt, Jesus has rescued many sinners who have come forward or raised their hands, the altar call imposes a false necessity and a potentially self-deceiving act between the sinner and his or her only hope, which is faith in Jesus Christ alone.
The Reverend Matthew M. Kennedy is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.
- Guy Richard, “What Faith Is and Is Not,” Renew Your Mind, May 25, 2013, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/what-faith-and-not.
- For a good example, see “Surrender to Christ (Must Watch) — Dr. Billy Graham,” Prayer Mansion, YouTube video, 4:18, March 6, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYL2ZuLwVXQ.
- Crosswalk Staff, “The Sinner’s Prayer — 4 Examples for Salvation,” Crosswalk, August 6, 2020, https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/prayer/the-sinners-prayer-4-examples.html.
- All Scripture quotations taken from the ESV.
- Paris Ragan, “Salvation Altar Call — FWC Family Camp Paris Ragan,” SonLife Broadcasting Network, YouTube video, 8:16, July 21, 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPzbN3LRQuk.
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Dr. Lloyd-Jones on the Altar Call,” Banner of Truth, June 21, 2003, https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2003/dr-lloyd-jones-on-the-altar-call/.
- Thomas Kidd, “A Brief History of the Altar Call,” The Gospel Coalition, July 24, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/a-brief-history-of-the-altar-call/.
- Michael Horton, “The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney,” Monergism, 2021 https://www.monergism.com/disturbing-legacy-charles-finney.
- Horton, “The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney.”
- John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (1845; Chambersburg, PA: Weekly Messenger), 52–53, Kindle edition.
- Nevin, The Anxious Bench, 53–61.