The Altar Call?

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tacthumbRobert Vasholz, commenting on the burnt offering as revealed in Leviticus 6, writes, “The place of the altar in worship cannot be overly emphasized. Without an altar, a covenant relationship with God’s people cannot be established and maintained.” This was not only true under the old covenant but it is equally true under the new covenant.

The writer of Hebrews, in comparing the believing Jews of his day with those who rejected Christ, writes, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (13:10). He makes clear what (or who) this altar is when he adds, “For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate” (vv. 11-12). In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ is the Altar. It is Jesus Christ who is the place and the provision for the sole acceptable atoning sacrifice before God. It is for this reason that the place of the altar in worship cannot be overly emphasised. You cannot overemphasise Jesus!

Unfortunately tradition often speaks louder than the text. And therefore, for many, in both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, the concept of an altar, though in some way still connected to Christ, actually obscures Christ.

For example in the Roman Catholic the idea of the altar is associated with the Mass. In this tradition, in what has been well labelled as “priestcraft,” the priest is infused with mystical authority and ability to turn the cup of wine into the blood of Christ and the bread into His body. In this action Jesus Christ is said to be “recrucified” for sinners and then offered afresh to communicants. (Of course, the writer to the Hebrews disputes this—see 9:28 for just one argument-ending example). Therefore for the Roman Catholic the altar is still a place where a sacrifice is in need of being offered.

Though Protestants have for centuries voiced a loud dissent to this view, still, for many (especially in both the fundamentalist and Pentecostal/charismatic branches), the altar is likewise viewed as a place rather than a Person. For such the altar is at the front of the platform upon which the pulpit stands. In this tradition the implication is that it is at this specified place where people get right with God. You are perhaps familiar with the phrase “the altar call.”

This event occurs after the Word is preached and people are asked to make a decision with reference to what has just been preached. The congregation is invited to come to the front to kneel and pray, and often they are assured that someone will be available to counsel them when they come forward.

Before expressing my concern about this practice let me first say that many people over the past 180 years (since this practice began in evangelical churches) have been gloriously saved in such churches. Many people have come forward and been helped by another believer who has counselled them. Many others have found that praying up front has been meaningful. Further, many faithful and godly pastors and churches have utilised this practice, and for them to cease would be a violation of their conscience. I understand all that. In fact for the first seven years of my pastoral ministry I would regularly issue an altar call. I did so in my first year as pastor-teacher of BBC.

However, I came to the conclusion that this was not required by Scripture, and that, in many ways, it was counterproductive, because it was sending a wrong message. It was not necessary and, in fact, it could be dangerous. For that reason I stopped this practice. And, as history has proven, God has still saved people and believers continued to grow in Christ!

Let me explain in more detail the reasons why we at BBC do not issue the traditional altar call.

First, Scripture does not call for it. Christ has fulfilled the symbolism foreshadowed in the altar of sacrifice and therefore the place of the altar has been replaced by the Person of Christ. He is not only up front but is also at every seat in the auditorium. Though there are plenty of examples in the New Testament of preachers inviting and commanding people to believe on Christ, there is no text which substantiates the modern altar call.

Second, this practice is often counterproductive, since the person who responds often goes away feeling that going up front has sealed the deal and that no further effort is necessary in running the race with Christ. Further, in many cases, those who respond are often self-aware that others are watching and waiting—sometimes impatiently because they want the service to end—and so the respondent makes haste and nothing of value is achieved. Waiting on the Lord should not be rushed.

Third, the practice of the altar call quite naturally (though, I am sure, in most cases inadvertently) sends the wrong message that one can only get help at the “altar” rather than where they are. Consider this scenario (which I have personally witnessed on numerous occasions): The preacher finishes his message and adds words this effect, “Now we have come to the most important part of the service.” Whenever I encounter this I have to wonder what the pastor has been doing throughout his sermon. Was the proclamation of God’s Word not the most important part of the service? Such statements send the subtle message that the final moments of a preacher’s appeal are more important than God’s appeal through His Word. As one seasoned preacher said to me many years ago, “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation; not what you do after you preach it.” In other words, the Holy Spirit saves people through His Word, but the altar call tends to obscure the efficacy of Scripture. Acts 10:44-47 records a wonderful antidote to the practice of the modern altar call. While Peter was proclaiming the gospel the Holy Spirit interrupted him and saved those in Cornelius’ household before Peter concluded his message! You see, Peter preached Jesus Christ as the altar and no altar call was needed.

Finally, this practice can be dangerous; in some cases eternally so.

It can be dangerous for the preacher. Pride is a horrible thing and can manifest itself anytime and in anyplace—including in the pulpit. The preacher who issues the altar call can be tempted (in the words of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones) to “test the message” by how people respond to the sermon, evidenced by their coming forward. If the hearers respond in this way then he feels good about his ministry. If the response is poor (or non-existent) he can be demoralised. And both of these tend toward pride. This eventually can lead to destruction. Far better for the preacher to labour at faithful preparation and proclamation and to leave the results with God waiting until heaven to see how he did (1 Corinthians 3:9-15; 2 Corinthians 5:9-11).

But the most dangerous possibility is that of false assurance on the part of those who have made an external response to the gospel and who are resting satisfied that they are saved simply because they went forward in a meeting. There are countless such individuals throughout the world who are heading to hell yet who think they are going to heaven because they responded positively to an altar call. Sadly they went to a Christian place, but they have yet to lay hold of the Person of Christ.

There is certainly much more that can be said on this subject, but I trust that this will help you to understand the need for BBC to focus on God’s appointed Altar of His Son and not on the altar of tradition.

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