The altar call is an appeal by the preacher inviting attendees to come forward as a way of acknowledging their decision to follow Christ. Many consider Charles Finney (1792-1875) to be the founder of the altar call even though early Methodist used a similar approach known as the “mourner’s bench.”
Anytime we (every believer is a minister) give an honest appeal for a person to turn to God, it’s a good thing. But in our zeal to see the lost saved we run the risk of offering false assurance. This is a clear and present danger in the church today. Many come forward after a sermon, but do they change? Often, it’s the, “I’ll give Jesus a try” attitude, rather than a broken heart desperately seeking a Savior—the denominational gospel versus the true gospel.
The success rate of genuine conversions at crusades hovers between 5% to 15%. Some may argue, “But seeds are planted.” Yes, seed are planted, but are they seeds of salvation or seeds of false assurance? I’m not challenging this type of ministry…I’m challenging the “overall” approach to altar calls.
Genuine faith produces genuine fruit; yet, many times, we assure people of salvation minus the fruit. As long as a hand was raised or a prayer was said, we’re good with God. But the Scriptures actually say something different. True repentance involves turning from sin and turning to God—it’s a condition of the heart that produces fruit.
In Acts 3:19, we read that new believers didn’t simply pray and “try Jesus,” they saw their need for a Savior: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out…” The condition of our heart (not a prayer, a raised hand, or a step forward) secures our salvation. Do we recognize sin and repent, or do we willingly continue on the same pre-salvation course?
Unfortunately, it’s not until after a genuine conversion experience that many realize that they were never saved. Oh, they had religion but not true Gospel salvation; they said a prayer but the heart never changed. Titus 1:16 “They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.”
Numerous times when I’ve witnessed to people about their need for a Savior, I’ve heard, “Oh, I did that already. I’m good.” My question is, “Did what?” True repentance produces genuine fruit—a transformed life, a love for God and His Word, sincere humility, selfless love, true repentance, and so on.
Granted, it’s not about perfection, but direction. Is the direction of your heart toward God, or toward the world?
Criminally, there are those who have desensitized this generation to the Gospel by offering false assurance. I offer an example because it is a very common occurrence. A man raised his hand in response to the message. After the service, I asked if he wanted to be baptized. He said, “I’m not ready for that. I don’t want to get that serious.” I later found that he continued in a very destructive lifestyle and told others, “I’m not ready to give up my lifestyle.” So much for raised hands, altar calls and the “Sinner’s Prayer,” because it takes time for a lost person to grasp being lost, God’s free gift, eternal security, etc.
Clearly, there was no change in this man’s heart. Raising his hand was a superficial response and a form of self-preservation (I don’t want to go to hell). In these cases, such are motivated by what they are willing to take (heaven) rather than what they’re willing to give up (sin). Sheer emotionalism and half-hearted considerations will send the lost straight into hell and we will have to give an account at the Judgment Seat for our failures to properly present the gospel.
We all sin and fall short, but genuine conversion results in a broken and contrite heart (genuine fruit). “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” (Galatians 5:22-24)
In counseling people who lack the fruit of conversion, I do not refer back to a prayer they said, but to repentance…did it occur? Prayer without repentance is like a car without an engine. It might look nice but it’s not going anywhere.
Change is a lifelong process with many setbacks; sinners sin, but there should be some indication that a person is being transformed by the gospel in which they profess to believe.
When the Gospel is presented, we must explain the depth of genuine repentance in light of dying to self, understanding and turning from sin, confessing Christ as Savior and Lord and eternal security. Our job is not to soften the Gospel and report exaggerated numbers of conversions to impress people, our job is to lovingly and boldly preach the truth of the Scriptures in its totality.