Altar Calls In The First 1800 Years Of The Church
One may read thousands of pages of the history of the Christian Church without finding a single reference to the ‘old-fashioned altar call’ before the 19th century. Most Christians are surprised to learn that history before the time of Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) knows nothing of this type of ‘invitation’.
The practice of urging men and women to make a physical movement at the conclusion of a meeting was introduced by Mr. Finney in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Dr. Albert B. Dod, a professor of theology at Princeton Seminary at the time of Mr. Finney’s ministry, pointed out the newness of the practice and showed that this method was without historical precedent.
The preceding words are from James E. Adams’ work entitled
“Decisional Regeneration”. Adam’s historical review continues . . .
In his review of Finney’s Lectures on Revival, Professor Dod stated that one will search the volumes of church history in vain for a single example of this practice before the 1820’s. Instead, history tells us that whenever the gospel was preached men were invited to Christ – not to decide at the end of a sermon whether or not to perform some physical action.
The Apostle Paul, the great evangelist, never heard of an altar call, yet today some consider the altar call to be a necessary mark of an evangelical church. In fact, churches which do not practice it are often accused of having no concern for the lost. Neither Paul nor Peter ever climaxed his preaching with forcing upon his hearers the decision to walk or not to walk.
It is not only with church history, then, but with Scriptural history as well that the altar call is in conflict.
One may ask, ‘How did preachers of the gospel for the previous eighteen hundred years invite men to Christ without the use of the altar call?’
They did so in much the same way as did the apostles and the other witnesses of the early Church. Their messages were filled with invitations for all men everywhere to come to Christ.
Surely it will be admitted that the first sermon of the Christian Church was not climaxed by an altar call. Peter on the Day of Pentecost concluded his sermon with these words ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made that same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ Peter stopped. Then the divinely inspired record tells us ‘Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ ‘ (Acts 236-37). This response was the result of the work of the Spirit of God, not of clever appeals or psychological pressure. That day the apostles witnessed the conversion of three thousand people.
C.H. Spurgeon invited men to come to Christ, not to an altar.
Listen to him invite men to Jesus Christ
‘Before you leave this place breathe an earnest prayer to God, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner. Lord, I need to be saved. Save me. I call upon Thy name….Lord, I am guilty, I deserve Thy wrath. Lord, I cannot save myself. Lord, I would have a new heart and a right spirit, but what can I do? Lord, I can do nothing, come and work in me to do of Thy good pleasure.
Thou alone hast power, I know To save a wretch like me; To whom, or whither should I go If I should run from Thee?
But I now do from my very soul call upon Thy name. Trembling, yet believing, I cast myself wholly upon Thee, O Lord. I trust the blood and righteousness of Thy dear Son…. Lord, save me tonight, for Jesus’ sake.’ ‘ ‘Go home alone trusting in Jesus. ‘I should like to go into the enquiry-room.’ I dare say you would, but we are not willing to pander to popular superstition. We fear that in those rooms men are warmed into a fictitious confidence. Very few of the supposed converts of enquiry-rooms turn out well. Go to your God at once, even where you now are. Cast yourself on Christ, at once, ere you stir an inch!’
Invitations such as Spurgeon gave directing men to Christ and not to aisles are needed today. George Whitefield’s sermons were long invitations to men to come to Christ, not to an altar. The same may be said of the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, of the Reformers and of others in the past who were blessed with a harvest of many souls using Scriptural means of inviting men to Christ. Today the altar call has become the climax and culmination of the entire meeting. Many stanzas of a hymn are usually sung, during which time all kinds of appeals are made to the sinner to walk the aisle, and the clear impression is given to the sinner that his eternal destiny hangs on this movement of his feet.
‘Just As I Am,’ the precious hymn perhaps most frequently sung for the altar call, was written in 1836 by Charlotte Elliott
Just as I am, without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me, And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
The phrase, ‘O Lamb of God, I come, I come,’ has been widely used to encourage people to ‘come’ down the aisle. But it is significant that Miss Elliott wrote the hymn for the infirm and that it first appeared in a hymnal prepared especially for invalids. To Miss Elliott, coming to Christ was not walking an aisle.
Although most who use the altar call realize that coming to Christ is not synonymous with coming to the altar, they do give the impression to sinners that the first step in coming to Christ is walking the aisle. I am purposefully being very careful not to misstate the case. I understand the sincerity of those who practice the altar call, it having been a part of every service from my earliest memory until college. In fact, I grew up in Christian circles unaware that evangelical Christianity existed without the altar call. In many services during this time my mind was centered on the glorious person of Christ and His suffering on the cross only to find the whole focus of the worship service suddenly changed at the conclusion from seeing the glories and sufferings of Christ to walking an aisle. Many others have spoken of the same experience -that the altar call and the clever appeals at the conclusion of meetings, the decision to walk or not to walk and the wondering how many will respond, have distracted them from seeking Christ and from worshipping God in spirit and truth.
Do you remember how the crowds physically followed our Lord Christ until He began to preach some unpopular truths? Then the crowds turned back (John 6:66). Why? Had they not come to Jesus with their feet? Yes, but this is not the coming to Him that is necessary for salvation. Christ said, ‘All that the Father gives me shall come to me; and him that comes to me I will in no wise cast out’ (John 6:37). And again He said, ‘No man can come to me except the Father draw him’ (John 6:44). In neither of these instances was Jesus speaking of the physical movement of the feet.
Men today need to be reminded that coming to Christ is not walking an aisle, but is casting oneself on Christ for life or death. May God cause the Church to return to the Scriptures for its methods of winning men to Christ. May sinners be charged not to come forward in a meeting but to come to the Lord Jesus Christ.
For further reading on “altar calls”, see Jim Ehrhard’s article
“The Dangers of the Invitation System”: