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. 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.
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