At the end of almost every pentecostal, charismatic, or evangelical church service, there is the ubiquitous call for sinners to “give their lives to God”. Generally, there is a fever pitch of pleading mixed in with a healthy dose of threats of eternal hellfire and damnation – all to the tune of a Hammond organ that is being plucked to within one inch of it’s life.
Unfortunately, alter calls have become synonymous with “salvation” – particularly because they are seen as the surrender of one’s life to Christ. Some even argue that you are not “really saved” unless you “got up off the mourners bench to walk down to the alter in front of everybody” – implying that the will of God can only be accomplished in a room full of people.
Thus my interest in a recent article from Gotquestions.org (reprinted entirely below – emphasis in bold):
What does the Bible say about altar calls? Are altar calls biblical?
The practice of altar calls—calling people forward after an evangelistic sermon to make a public confession of faith in Christ—has gained prominence in the 20th century primarily through “crusades” such as those of Billy Graham. Also known as the “invitation system,” altar calls are regularly practiced as part of some church services, especially in many Baptist denominations and other evangelical churches where altar calls are an integral part of the services.
While altar calls as practiced today are not found in the Bible, their advocates cite several biblical examples as support for using them. First, Christ called each of His disciples publicly, telling them “follow Me” (Matthew 4:19, 9:9) and expecting them to respond immediately, which they did. Jesus was demanding an outward identification with Himself on the part of those who would be His disciples. Of course, the problem of Judas, who also responded publicly by leaving his life behind and following Jesus, is that the “call” Judas responded to was not synonymous with salvation.
Proponents of the altar call also cite Matthew 10:32 as proof that a new believer must acknowledge Christ “before men” in order for Him to reciprocate. Calling people to the front of an arena or church is certainly acknowledging before men that a decision has been made. The question is whether that decision is genuinely motivated by a sincere repentance and faith or whether it is an emotional response to external stimuli such as swelling music, heartfelt pleas from the pulpit, or a desire to “go along with the crowd.” Romans 10:9makes it clear that genuine salvation comes only from heartfelt belief, which will then result in a verbal confession of that faith.
Just like the sinner’s prayer, altar calls can be an outward expression of genuine repentance and faith in Christ. The danger is in looking to the prayer or the response as evidence of salvation (Matthew 7:22). True salvation results in a life of continual sanctification as the Holy Spirit within the true believer produces more and more of His fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) as evidence of the reality of saving faith.
So there you have it - alter calls are not “unbiblical”, but they generally appear to be overhyped conclusions to religious stage shows. The important point to remember is that alter calls DO NOT replace the fruit of repentence in the life of the believer.