When modern evangelical churches seek to bring the unregenerate to Christ (and they should do so with passion), they often fall prey to a formula which produces disappointing results. The pattern runs something like this:
- Extending a public altar call
- Praying “the sinner’s prayer”
- Giving immediate verbal assurance that one is in Christ on the basis of the sinner’s sincerity and the accuracy of the wording of the prayer
- Immediate, or near immediate, public announcement that this person is now in Christ
- Public baptism as a symbol of death to sin and life in Christ
This pattern has been passed down and repeated because few are taking the necessary time to examine both its flight from Scriptural precedent and precept and its dismal effect. When asked to give more careful consideration to its content and outcome, however, we are finding that many, thankfully, are rejecting this inept structure in favor of a better, more biblical one. The above list will seem familiar to every soul-loving believer, but the very evangelistic passion we have for our neighbors and unconverted family members should drive us to lay our present methods up against the truth for a well-needed examination. Like the short-of-breath fifty-year-old who has never been to the doctor, it is time for a major check-up. What then is wrong with the above list?
First, there is no biblical precedent or command regarding a public altar call. Whatever might be said for its use, we cannot resort to the Bible for support. Jesus nor Paul, nor any other early Christian leader used it. Did Jesus ask his listeners to come to the front after He preached the Sermon on the Mount? Did Paul say, “Every head bowed, every eye closed” as Luke quietly sang the invitation hymn on the Areopagus? Did Peter have seekers raise their hands as a sign of their interest in Christ at the end of the Pentecostal sermon?
I espouse a verbal call to Christ in a most serious way in evangelistic situations and believe that the spoken invitation to come to Christ is a part of all gospel preaching. We “compel them to come in.” When Moody failed to offer a public altar call on the evening of the Chicago fire, he stated a new resolve: “I learned that night [a lesson] which I have never forgotten; and that is, when I preach, to press Christ upon the people then and there, and try to bring them to a decision on the spot. I would rather have that right hand cut off than to give an audience a week now to decide what to do with Jesus.” I could not agree more with his underlying sentiment, but this does not argue for an altar call. Evangelistic preaching does say, “Repent and trust Christ now.” But there is nothing sacrosanct about getting people to occupy a certain piece of geography at the front of a building. Nor have I kept them from Christ by not having them respond to a public altar call. Rather I am offering them Christ without anything in between. I want nothing between their soul and the reality of Christ’s offer. To put something in between is a practical sacramentalism.
Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) popularized this method through his mourner’s bench. There was a person here or there that used it in an occasional manner prior to him, but he put it on the map. Reacting to Finneyism’s ineptness, theologian Dabney commented:
We have come to coolly accept the fact that forty-five out of fifty will eventually apostatize [fall away].
On the other side of Finney was the veteran evangelist Asahel Nettleton (d. 1844), whose converts stood. For instance, in Ashford, Connecticut there were eighty-two converts, and only three spurious ones. In Rocky Hill, Connecticut, there were eighty-six converts and they all were standing strong after twenty-six years, according to their pastor. Nettleton rigidly refused to offer public altar calls, believing that it prematurely reaped what would turn out to be false converts. C. H. Spurgeon, the Victorian “Prince of Preachers,” thought similarly. The long-term history is consistent on this issue; you may and should examine it.
Attached to the altar call (and to personal evangelism) in this model is the use of “the sinner’s prayer.” What can be said about this? Is it found in the Bible? The sad truth is that it is not found anywhere but in the back of evangelistic booklets. Yes the Scripture says, “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” but this means to evoke or place confidence in the name of Christ. The sinner may express genuine faith through a prayer, but to pray such a prayer is not the essence of the required response to the gospel invitation.
The typical “sinner’s prayer” as evangelicals have come to express it, has three elements: (1) a mere acknowledgment of sin, which is not the same as repentance, (2) a belief in the act of Christ’s death, which is far removed from trust in his person and work, and, (3) an “inviting Christ into the life.” The last phrase hangs on nothing biblical (though John 1: 12 and Rev. 3: 20 are used, out of context, for its basis). It is considered, nonetheless, to be the pivotal and necessary instrument for becoming a true Christian. But God commands us to repentingly believe, not to invite Christ into the life.
Following the above, immediate assurance is given to the one who prayed on the basis of the sincerity of the person and the accuracy of the prayer. But it is the Holy Spirit who gives assurance of life in Christ, not the evangelist (Rom. 8: 16). We are to relate the basis of assurance but leave the actual assuring to the Spirit. This is rarely practiced in modern evangelicalism. We prefer rather to take the place of the Spirit in assuring the pray-er and therefore seal many in deception. It is not the efficacy of a prayer that saves; Christ alone saves. The well-quoted passage on assurance, 1 Jn. 5:13 states: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” “These things…written” are the tests in the rest of the letter which give a basis to determine if we are truly converted.
In many cases the next step is to publicly introduce the one who has prayed the sinner’s prayer and has just been told that he or she is a Christian. I have cringed to find that some leaders turn around after five minutes of “Just as I Am” and announce that the persons coming forward are converted. Sometimes the person has not been known to the pastor until that moment! Regardless, his optimism is often not founded, since extremely high numbers of these never show any competent sign of being converted. I am not intimating that people cannot be saved immediately, but that our early acceptance of the persons coming forward has often led us to “eat our words” about their new life in Christ.
Finally, there is the last stage of public baptism. It is interesting to note that in much of evangelicalism which is Baptistic, the number supposedly “being saved” and those being baptized is vastly different. If a hundred were purportedly converted during some sort of evangelistic effort, then we might not baptize but thirty of them. But out the thirty, as seen among Southern Baptists as an illustration, statistically only ten or eleven of those thirty would show up on a given Sunday morning and only four or five on a Sunday evening (in churches that have services at that time). They do not really love the brethren or the atmosphere of godliness. All of these, however, have prayed the prayer, walked the aisle, been told they are Christians by someone in authority, and were publicly declared to be such.
Would it not be better for a system to be re-instated which comes closer to recognizing only the smaller number of true Christians? Is it love for the lost that will perpetuate practices producing such damning deception in so many—or is it merely love for success? Or should we assume that most leaders have simply gone on with “business as usual” without ever thinking it through at all? I prefer to believe the later is true in most cases. Whatever the motive, however, those deceived on our rolls are still damned.
The more biblical way of “closing with Christ” is to focus on the gospel itself, without props. Whereas the altar call method can be tacked on to just about anything, no matter how absent the gospel, the biblical method demands the hearing of the Word. “How will they believe without a preacher.”(Rom. 10: 14). It is the “by the will of God that they are begotten, through the Word of truth” (Jam. 1:18, emphasis mine). They are “born again…through the living and abiding Word of God” (1 Pet. 1: 23, emphasis mine).
It is interesting to note that the Bible account focuses attention on the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, and his life and work, when presenting the gospel to those who do not believe. There is virtually no explanation of the nature of repentance and faith; merely its mention seems to be enough. Why is that so? It is because of this wonderful reality. When the Word is preached and the Spirit is at work, the sinner is brought to conviction of sin and he cannot love his sin any more. He must repent. And when the Word presents Christ as the only hope and the Spirit is at work in the sinner, he sees no refuge for his soul but Christ. He must believe. Where else could he possibly go?
What about those passages that deal with the nature of repentance and faith in detail? Those passages are there for the presumptuous. The Epistle of First John, James, and many other portions help the professing believer understand the nature of faith to test the quality of the faith he says he has. But on the main, evangelism, after laying out the awfulness of man and his sin, and the consequence and offense against God, focuses its gaze on Christ and His work on behalf of sinners. And the people simply believe. There is no emphasis on anything else. They just believe—no laboring of mechanics or methods or perfectly worded prayers, or walks to the front. They believe because it is all they can do.
The New Tribes Mission has been instrumental in giving us the best of missiological tools in their chronological approach to working with tribal groups. They teach the Bible from its beginning, laying out each story in sequence without revealing what is beyond that point. When they come to Christ, they do not present the gospel in its doctrinal entirety until it comes in the passage. In other words, they leave the person to experience the New Testament as it was experienced by those closest to Christ. In their video depiction of a tribal group in this process, the day to explain Christ’s death comes. To the man, the New Guinea tribe visibly shows its sense of shame and remorse for the crucified Master. Three days are given before the group returns. Then the resurrection is explained. In the midst of the presentation, an older man jumps to his feet and loudly exclaims, “Ee-Taow,” or “I believe.” Others stand with the same exclamation, though this tribal group is normally reserved in their expressions. In time the whole tribe is chanting “Ee-Taow, Ee-Toaw,” and jumping up and down. This went on for an extended period of rejoicing. A tribe was re-born in a day!
Such a response, with varying degrees of emotion, is the nature of believing in the New Testament. It was entirely incidental whether anyone prayed a “sinner’s prayer” or walked to another place to take someone’s hand. The powerful Word had encountered the people through the invincible Holy Spirit. This is New Testament evangelism.
You may not agree with my assessment, but it is my contention that our use of the altar call and the accouterment of a “sinner’s prayer” is a sign of our lack of trust in God. Do we really believe that the Spirit convicts and regenerates, and that His Gospel preached and read is the ordained means He uses? Surely there is nothing unbiblical or non-evangelistic about the man who preaches the gospel forthrightly, prays earnestly, appeals urgently and places his entire trust in God to do what only He can do.
Jim Elliff © 1999; revised 2021