Why We Don’t Have Altar Calls in Our Church


Read companion article: “Ten Reasons Why We Don’t Have Testimonies in Our Worship”

With the choir singing “Just As I am” softly in the 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.

But evangelicals who visit our churches will immediately notice our lack of this ritual. (Obviously, evangelicals who hate liturgy, will have a blank look when you tell them that they too have a liturgy, a ritual: sing-a-lot, pray-a-little, here comes the sermonette, then at last the altar call.)

What do we have for an “altar call”? It’s the Lord’s Supper after the Word is preached, an invitation for believers to feast on Christ’s body and blood for the nourishment of our souls. An invitation for unbelievers to hear and see for themselves the forgiveness of sins that Christ has given to those who repent of their sins and believe in the gospel of Christ. No altar calls.

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.

Did Jesus ever use an “altar call”? Did the apostles? No, never. So how did the Apostles exhort unbelievers to believe in Christ? Did they invite them to walk down to the anxious bench or to the front? Were they asked to sign a card, or pray the sinner’s prayer? No, the apostles—and faithful ministers after them for 1,800 years—invited all people everywhere to come to Christ. Peter concluded his first sermon on Pentecost Sunday by telling 3,000 people who were “cut to the heart,” “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit… Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:37-41).

No manipulation with endless pressure, sentimental songs, and cajoling from “counselors.” Afterwards, there is no putting out of countless fires of false assurance, false conversion, disillusionment, and a horde of unregenerate “carnal Christians.”

This is why 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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