Monday, September 15, 2014

The Dangers of the Altar Call/Sinners Prayer

Dangerous?  What do you mean?
I am going to speak to a subject that may cause some to raise an eyebrow, cock their head to the side, or just be plain offended.  Let me be clear.  My goal is not to insult well meaning ministers, evangelists, or believers doing evangelism and using the altar call.  Most of them are just doing what our church culture has told us is the "formula" for attaining "professions of faith".  It has been the norm for a long time and the majority don't even question it.  However, there are many in ministry today who are calling these methods into question.  I for one agree with their concerns and desire to share these concerns with all whom I can reach within my sphere of influence.

I am aware that a major international evangelist has just come through town.  I began this post before he came and not simply because he was coming, though it was a consideration.  And I am not finishing it after his coming only because he came.  This issue has been around a long time. Some may perceive that this is an attack on the efforts of that ministry to win souls for Christ.  I want to be sure everyone understands that this is not my goal.  Mass evangelism has been around a long time and is not all together bad.  However, it is not without it's issues.

We place so much stock in altar calls and professions of faith via the "sinners prayer" that, often times, we don't even question whether a profession was legitimate or not.  There is an idea that you can pray a prayer, sign a card, raise a hand, stand up or walk to the front and you are good.  You have just gotten out of the line for hell and into the line for heaven and nothing else is required of you.  No matter what else you do or how you live your life, you don't have to worry about hell anymore.  Even if that is not the intended message, that is often what is conveyed and understood.

THIS IS A LIE!  It is not biblical and we must get away from it.

Again, let me clear, I am not against a passionate plea for people to place their trust in Jesus and serve Him as Lord.  What concerns me and many others is the formulaic way in which people are led to believe conversion happens and the lack of explanation as to why it is necessary and what life afterward should look like.  For example, we are condemned sinners in need of a Savior.  Not necessarily to make life better in the hear and now, but to save us from an eternal life of destruction.  And, that if profession is evidence of a true conversion, then that conversion will be evidenced by repentant obedience to God's word.

So hang with me as we explore a little history regarding the origin and dangers of the altar call.  We will also explore what actually constitutes a true conversion experience and how you can be assured of your salvation.  Here is a hint.  It's not because you prayed a prayer and I told you, "your going to heaven now".  Alright, here we go.

Where did it start?
Charles Finney(August 29, 1792 – August 16, 1875), has been considered by many to be the father of modern Revivalism.  Though his understandings of biblical doctrine are considered heresy by many, still his methods of holding altar calls at the end of his revivals are a mainstay in much of today's church services.  Without going into much detail here, his general philosophy of revival was one of numbers.  He numbered conversions based on public profession and based the immediate concept of success for these revivals on these numbers.  Future assessments of those supposed converts however, would show a significant lack of fruit, thus calling into question the validity of his methods.  Unfortunately, the method continues today.

A Typical Altar Call
All around the world, from small country churches to large grandiose crusades, altar calls are given and professions of faith are made.  These victims of easy believe-ism are told that once they pray a formulaic prayer and publicly profess an "acceptance" of Christ into their hearts perhaps by walking to the altar and maybe filling out a card, that they are going to heaven. Is it possible that some are saved by this method.  Certainly, however, statistics show that the number of professions do not correlate with the number of dedicated Christians that are serving in churches around the world today. That inconsistency suggests a problem with the method and sometimes, the message that is being utilized to gain professions today.  

Great Pastors/Evangelist that did it differently.  
George Whitfield was a great evangelist(December 27 [O.S. December 16] 1714 – September 30, 1770) of the 18th century.  No evangelist in the history of the church has a greater reputation for preaching with passion and he always called his hearers to belief and repentance.  However, he was not impressed by numbers.  When asked about his excitement regarding the numbers of converts at his meetings, his response was, "let's give it six months and see if there is any fruit of repentance in their life".  

Another great 18th century pastor/theologian named Jonathan Edwards had similar thoughts on the matter.  He is known for his sermon "Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God".  He was a well rounded preacher but he could certainly preach about a sinners hell and their need to be delivered. He did not do it for numbers.  He preached the truth and people responded.  Both Whitfield and Edwards were involved in the Great Awakenings of that era.  These were great revivals in which it was preached not that people some how played a role in their salvation but that they were utterly lost, dead in their sins and transgressions, and in need of a Savior to bring them to life.  

Charles Spurgeon,(June 19, 834 – January 31, 1892) a famous pastor of the 19th century in England known as the "Prince of Preachers", had similar convictions regarding the need to be clear on what constituted true conversion.  They all preached first the "law", in order to make the need for salvation apparent.  They then preached salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and that repentance was a necessary evidence of true conversion.

The Apostle Paul understood the need to utilize the law as a necessary means for salvation as well. His letter to the Romans Ch. 1-8, are continually balancing law and grace, making known the importance of the law to make us aware of our sin and our need for grace.  In Galatians 3:24(KJV) Paul calls the law a "schoolmaster" leading us to our need for Christ for justification. 

All of these men would agree that "false converts" can just as easily happen with proper teaching and a proper altar call as with the improper.  They are however, far less likely.  And, if they happen it is not because these converts were mislead by inaccurate understandings of why they need salvation and how they are to obtain it.  

So what's the issue?
So what's the difference?  What's the big deal?  Should we NOT be excited for professions of faith. Don't get me wrong.  I am not against being excited about professions of faith.  Nor, as I said, am I necessarily against an altar call.  I want to be careful not to paint with too broad a brush in any scenario.  I certainly believe that God brings some true conversions out of these examples of evangelism both small and big.  I also do realize that all big name crusaders and little church pastors do not do it the same way.  Even if they do it in the cliche' ways that I have mentioned, I do not doubt for a second, their desire to see converts to Christianity.  Nevertheless, there are a couple of considerations that must be made because these a fore mentioned methods are often so misleading, not only to those offering salvation, but also to those "accepting" salvation.  The considerations are these: One, What brings about salvation?  Two, What is the evidence?   How can we know that a profession of faith is legitimate?  How can I know that I am saved?  We will speak to that.  

What are the answers to these considerations?  In the interest of not loosing you on this topic via the post being too lengthy I will strive to do this in three parts, this being the first.  I will try to answer each question effectively in two separate post, covering these general but integral concerns regarding the call to Christ and the perceived response.

To be clear as I stated at the beginning, a major international evangelist has just come through town.  I began this post before he came and not simply because he was coming, though it was a consideration.  And I am not finishing it after his coming only because he came.  This issue has been around a long time.  Some may perceive that this is an attack on the efforts of that ministry to win souls for Christ.  I want to be sure everyone understands that this is not my goal.  Mass evangelism has been around a long time and is not all together bad.  What we must guard against is three-fold.  

1.)We must not allow it to become a numbers game, which it often does, or assume that everyone who makes a profession of faith at this event is legitimate.  We are called to share the gospel, not aim for conversion stats.  Unfortunately, these stats are what success is often based on verses being satisfied that the gospel was presented adequately and trusting God to do the work.  

Videos that have been shown in preparation for this recent evangelistic event and at the event itself, stated the large numbers of "decision cards" that were collected.  Upwards of 72 million supposed converts over 30 plus years of ministry in Africa.  I pray that it is true but as I said before; a signed card does not a conversion make nor does it suggest that a balanced message was presented.  

Statistics suggest that, even with the well-rounded message preached for years by the Rev. Billy Graham, the legitimacy of the number of conversions suggested by decision cards is in question. He has said it is more likely that somewhere in the vicinity of ten-percent of professed conversions were legitimate.  According to certain surveys and polls, the number of people that actually have a biblical understanding of what it means to be a Christian is very low.  More on that another time.

2.)We need not walk around questioning everyone's salvation.  So the question would be then, "Why am I stating all these warnings and creating all this doubt regarding the legitimacy of professing Christians?"  The reason is this, we must all be willing to lovingly challenge the faith of those who say they are Christians but are not bearing fruit. This is true no matter how they say they came to Christ.  

If we are mature Christians, we must be looking for new converts that came out of such evangelistic events or are fruit of us sharing the gospel with them directly  We must be passionate for disciple-making and that often involves ensuring a proper understanding of conversion and what is expected us by God after it occurs.  It also involves being willing to point out areas of disobedience and call them to repentance.  If they are unwilling to repent, then comes the time that we must challenge their profession of faith and their conversion utilizing the means of church-discipline that are evidenced in scripture.

3.)We must not look to mass-evangelism as our primary means of gaining new converts or creating disciples.  That is the responsibility of every single true-convert in the local church.  The majority of people will not be saved through evangelistic crusades.  They will be led to Jesus through the ministry and discipleship of individual believers who are sharing the gospel and modeling Christian discipleship to new converts.

I pray you will stick with me and at least consider these thoughts.  They are not new and they certainly do not originate with me.  However, I believe they are sound thought processes based on the bibles' teachings.  These thoughts may just affect how you understand the altar call, true and false conversions, and assurance of salvation.  These are huge to understand when you consider how churches do the altar call, what they suggest about a persons salvation, and how you encourage others regarding these topics.

See ya soon,


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