The Heretical Pelagian Origin of the Altar Call

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With the choir singing “Just As I am” softly in background, the evangelist instructs the crowd,

finneyI want every head bowed, every eye closed, no one looking around. If you’ve never asked Jesus to come into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior, you’re on your way to hell. So slip up that hand. Or make your way to the front. Nobody’s going to see you walk up here or slip up that hand…  I see that hand. Yes, I see that hand… I see someone walking up. Yes, and another one…

This goes on repeatedly for half an hour, even an hour, with all kinds of pleas, urgings, and even threats of damnation by the evangelist. From where did this typical “altar call” come? Most evangelicals would be surprised to learn that there never was such a thing from the time of the apostles until the 1820s.

Beginning in the 1820s, the “Second Great Awakening” started sweeping New York and other New England states. One of its charismatic figures was a former Presbyterian lay pastor named Charles G. Finney, who led revival meetings in New York and Pennsylvania. His innovations in the “anxious bench” and “new measures” became the standard for other evangelists to follow. The “anxious bench” was a specially designated area near the front of the meeting place to which Finney called people to pray or to be counseled about their helpless state. The “new measures,” in addition, included protracted prayers and meetings, the inquirer’s meeting, dramatic sermons, the anxious bench, coarse and irreverent language, and women’s participation.

All of these practices were designed to create an emotional state of hopelessness in the sinner, which would result in conviction, and finally, conversion. These tactics also resulted in fainting, weeping, and other “excitements” among the people.

Before Finney, ministers never used any of these dramatic measures in their meetings and worship services, and this is why he is now known as “the father of modern revivalism.” What prompted Finney to invent such “new measures”? It was his heretical doctrines.

Finney denied almost every basic Christian doctrine that has existed since the New Testament period. These include original sin (“anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma”), Christ’s substitutionary atonement (“does not secure the salvation of any one,” “a demonstration of selflessness), and the grace of God in man’s salvation (“repentance is something which no other being can do for them, neither God nor man”). He taught that Adam did not represent anyone except himself in his sin, and thus there is no transfer of Adam’s sinful nature to his descendants. All human beings are born in the same state of neutrality in which Adam was created, so that man is able and has the will to live a life of obedience by his own “free” will.

As a result, Christ’s life and death are mere moral examples for man to emulate (similar to our WWJD), and moreover, a life of moral perfection is possible just by sheer human will, without any help from God’s grace. To Finney, all these Christian doctrines are “alike subversive of the gospel, and repulsive to the human intelligence.”

pelagiusIn the history of the church, there are no new heresies under the sun. In Finney’s case, whatever false teachings he  taught in the 19th century were already taught in the early church. Finney was doubtless influenced by Pelagius, a 5th century British monk who was condemned by three church councils in the 5th and 6th centuries for his heretical teachings, teachings which were very similar to Finney’s teachings. The great early church theologian Augustine argued against Pelagius’ heresies.

Ultimately, the modern “altar call,” venerated and almost universally practiced by evangelicals since the time of Finney, has its roots that date all the way back to the 5th century Pelagian heresy. And yet, if there was an Evangelical Hall of Fame, Charles G. Finney would take a prominent place there.

Recommended articles about Finney and Pelagius:

“The Pelagian Captivity of the Church” by Dr. R. C. Sproul

“The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney” by Dr. Michael Horton

“Decisional Regeneration” by James E. Adams

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