Not that long ago, I would have refused to join any church that did not give an invitation during some point in every service, for people to respond to the gospel by going forward or raising their hands to publicly receive Christ as their Savior. I considered the use of an evangelistic invitation (or “altar call” as it is often called) to be a mandatory mark of any true gospel church. I still remember being shocked to learn that many evangelical churches refuse to offer an invitation, despite being strongly evangelical and gospel centered. I could not imagine why any true Bible believing church would not do it, and concluded for years that such churches must be either “liberal” or steeped so deeply in tradition that they had come to place evangelism lower than it belongs on their list of priorities.
A crisis of faith later forced me to re-examine everything I had been taught in churches all my life. Determined to believe only the Bible and nothing else; and to practice only what the Bible commands and nothing else, I put aside any belief and doctrine – no matter how precious – that I couldn’t find in the Bible. But it meant more than just being able to quote a chapter and verse here and there to “prove” a doctrine. I needed desperately to know what the Bible teaches as a whole, and what my duty to God really is according to His word – all of it – not just scattered verses to be quoted in support of some dogma.
This fresh look at the Bible led me, for the most part, almost right back to where I started. But there are exceptions that I certainly did not anticipate. One of the most poignant for me is a surprising sense of indignation at altar calls, since for so long I considered them a vital characteristic of any true church! I was frankly surprised and even frightened by my own new disdain toward altar calls. Yet I remained determined to be true only to the Bible and not bound by the traditions of men – and altar calls fit into the latter category! Still, I needed to discover why altar calls, once so precious to me, now became such a stumbling block. Had I backslidden? Had I lost my salvation? How could I be offended by something as wholesome as a gospel invitation?
A Truer Version of God
I had thrown out a lot of baggage that I couldn’t find in the Bible. But one of the things I had gained from it was a new sense of who God really is. I no longer could see Him, to put it as Michael Horton does in his wonderful book, Putting Amazing Back into Grace, as “a frustrated deity who paces heaven’s floors wringing his hands and hoping that people on earth will ‘let him have his way.’” No, He is Lord! He is the sovereign Ruler of the universe who stands in no need of human love and companionship nor derives any glory from them. Rather it is His own eternal glory that is manifested in, by, to, and upon them (Job 22:2-3). Altar calls all too frequently depict the Lord Jesus as somehow “needy” or lonely, standing outside “the door of your heart” longing to be allowed in. But this is a reversal of the true picture! We are the needy, lonely ones standing outside and longing to be let in! And the human heart is not some warm, cozy place that the Holy One should desire to dwell there, either. The Bible says the human heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).” Even laying aside the Bible’s clear teaching about God’s sovereignty in election, that image of Christ “knocking at the door of your heart” is patently offensive all by itself, since it reverses the positions of sinner and Savior! Adding the further amazing truth of divine election, the picture becomes even more absurd. Where is the sense of the sinner’s impending doom before the righteous Judge? Why are sinners expected to feel sorry for “poor Jesus,” knocking at the door of their hearts, when they are the ones in grave peril?
Grace and Works for Salvation?
Another aspect of every gospel invitation is an open, public declaration of one’s faith. Even in those “every head bowed and every eye closed; no one looking around… yes, I see that hand” scenarios, an open declaration of faith is urged:
“Jesus said, ‘everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33),’ ” the evangelist warns. “The bible says that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10:9-10).”
But there is a major theological problem with how the evangelist has interpreted these verses. He has just added a new requirement to salvation which Christ did not appoint! Here is how:
The whole of Scripture makes it quite plain that salvation is and has always been by faith alone. Rebirth, repentance, saving faith, and conversion are all the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s heart, resulting in confession and action.
Confessing Christ before men is certainly a mark of the true Christian. One who has truly been born from above cannot help but share his or her faith. It is a defining characteristic of a Christian. But it is not a prerequisite action required of an unregenerate person as in order to become a Christian. Indeed, it is not even possible for a non-Christian to make any saving profession of faith at all (1 Cor. 12:3). Only a truly reborn Christian can say, “Jesus is Lord” by the Spirit.
And if salvation is the result of a “saving decision” born in the heart and will of the hearer in his seat, why then, are they told, “Come forward to receive Christ”?! Going forward is not a necessary requirement unto salvation prescribed by Scripture. Yet it is added to Scripture by well-meaning preachers as though it was the commandment of God. Public confession and actions which reflect the work of Christ already in the believers’ heart are definitely marks of that person’s having been converted. But they are not commanded in Scripture as in order to obtain conversion!
But that’s not the worst of it.
Suppose someone goes forward because he was told that doing so meant that he had accepted Christ and had been accepted by Him. Yet in his heart he remains unconverted. Having obeyed the outward action, he may suppose that he is now saved. Walking down the aisle or not walking down it makes no difference to a person who has been truly born from Above. But to a person who was not awakened and given life and faith to believe the gospel, going forward may cause him to believe he is saved. By tying salvation to an outward act instead of God-breathed saving faith, the preacher adds a new prerequisite to the gospel. It is often impossible for a new convert – genuinely reborn or not – to tell the difference between carnal hope and saving faith. The new birth is from Above, not from within. Regardless of what a person who goes forward in the church service feels like, only time and obedience will distinguish between true conversion and human religion. Adding this extrabiblical requirement to the invitation is nothing less than a perversion of the Gospel of salvation by faith alone, through grace alone, and in Christ alone. Compelled to remain true to the Bible alone, I have been forced to abandon my former love for the altar call – and I have been further motivated to preach the gospel as Christ did, with nothing added.