Alter Calls, the GCR, and The Word of God

When I first began preaching (nearly 11 years ago) I would always give an alter call after every sermon.  But as I’ve studied the Bible more and more, and learned more and more I’ve set this practice aside, and in the last 5 years or so I ceased to issue alter calls altogether.  Several people have asked me why and so I will attempt to answer that question as best I can here.

First and foremost; I don’t see the “invitation system” in the Bible.

Some will say, “Oh yes it is, Jesus said, ‘Come unto Me…’” but that’s a gross misinterpretation of those passages.  Jesus wasn’t calling for a one-time physical movement on the part of those He was addressing.  He was calling them to repentance and faith and for a lifestyle of following Him.  Others will argue from Matthew 10:32 which says, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven.”  But what was Jesus teaching here?  Was He saying that by a one-time act of confession we become Christians?  Or was He teaching that because ONE IS A CHRISTIAN  he or she will confess Jesus, not only through words but through a lifestyle of faithful obedience?  It’s obviously the second option.

I think when we examine the Bible we find the exact opposite of the “invitation system.”  In-fact, it’s not the preachers who are asking, “Won’t you receive Him today?”  It’s the listeners who are asking questions.  In Acts 2:37 Peter had just finished his Pentecost sermon and he gives no invitation to his listeners, but rather it’s the listeners who have been convicted by the Spirit of the God through the preaching of the Word that ask, “What shall we do?”  And of course Peter says, “Repent and be baptized.”  We find a similar event in Acts chapter 8 where Philip expounds the Word to the Ethiopian Eunuch.  Philip never asks the Eunuch to make a decision for Christ, but rather, we are told that after Philip preached and taught, the Eunuch himself raises the subject of baptism.  Acts 10:44 is another example.  Peter preached to the household of Cornelius.  He gave no invitation or alter call, in-fact Peter wasn’t even finished preaching when the Holy Spirit came upon his listeners and saved them through the preaching of the Word.  In Acts chapter 13 Paul preaches in Antioch and once he’s finished with his sermon, we read of no call for a response on the part of Paul’s listeners, but we do read this: “And as they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath.  And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.”  What we’re seeing here is that through the preaching of the Word, these folks were converted, so that Paul had no need of any kind of invitation.  He merely urged them to “continue in the grace of God.”

We could look at Acts 16 where Paul was preaching to Lydia, and in verse 14 the text says, “The Lord opened her heart…” again no alter call, no invitation, no call to make a decision – just God, through the preaching of His Word, causing her to believe.  Later on in the same chapter we see the conversion of the Philippian jailer.  Again it’s not Paul or Silas who asks that he make a decision, it’s the jailer who says, “What must I do to be saved?”  And the answer?  “BELIEVE!” 

Secondly; the invitation system doesn’t mesh with Biblical Theology (specifically with the sovereignty of God in salvation).

The invitation system is based on the assumption that salvation is merely a matter of one’s own personal decision.  If one takes seriously the doctrine of total depravity, then one must reject the invitation as incompatible with the Biblical truth of passages such as Romans 3:10-11; Romans 9:15-17; 1st Corinthians 2:14; 2nd Corinthians 4:3-4 and others.  The sinful nature of man will not allow him to “choose” God unless God first does a work of grace and imputes a new nature.  So it doesn’t matter how many verses one sings of “Just As I Am” either God is going to regenerate a person, or He will not.  The point being that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.  The preaching of the Word is that which is instrumental in conversion, and conversion is subject to the sovereignty of God, not the ability of man to make others feel guilty (See Acts 13:48).

Thirdly; the alter call has produced little in the way of results. 

Even Billy Graham himself has denied that coming forward equals salvation.  He has said, “There’s nothing about the mechanics of coming forward that saves anybody’s soul.  Coming forward is an open acknowledgment and a testimony of an inward experience that you have had with Christ.”  Biblically speaking that “open acknowledgment and testimony of an inward experience that you have had with Christ” was done through baptism.  Baptism was the public profession of ones faith.  Baptism wasn’t what saved a person, but it was a public proclamation of a saved person, who was telling all who witnessed it, that he or she was united to Christ in His death, burial and resurrection.  Billy Graham however, does not pastor a church of his own, he is an evangelist.  His alter calls were to get people to come forward so that they might get connected to a local church and progress in their walk with Christ.  But when the local churches implement the same system what are the results?  Churches full of people who demonstrate no evidence of true conversion.  Church members (people on church rolls but who rarely attend) who demonstrate no evidence of true conversion but will point you to a “decision” they made on a certain date in history.  Paul wrote in 2nd Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.  Test yourselves.  Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?  Unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”  John wrote his entire first epistle for that purpose.  One of the bases of our assurance, according to Paul and John, is whether or not the process of sanctification is taking place in us.  Thus the evidence of salvation is not that a person came forward during an alter call, but in a changed life.  Yet we have church members who swear up and down that they are heaven bound, while they continue to live like hell.

The Southern Baptist Convention is a great example of this.  We have some 14 – 16 million members on Southern Baptist Church rolls (a number arrived at largely on the basis of alter calls), but we can’t find about 8 million of them.  Of the 7 or 8 million that we do know where they are, only about 3 and a half million attend church on a regular basis.

Now let’s widen the lenses a bit.  If we only have about 3 and ½ million Southern Baptists who attend church on a regular basis then it’s probably a safe bet that we have even less than that who are faithfully sharing the Gospel (i.e. doing the Great Commission).  The GCRTF says that we need to plant more churches and restructure the CP.  They say we need to restructure NAMB, and allow the IMB access to people groups in the US.  One must ask, “are we planting more churches that use the alter call system?”  Is all this restructuring just busy work? 

The fact of the matter is this.  All of the ideas given by the GCRTF won’t amount to didly-squat if the Gospel isn’t preached, and people are led to a false conversion. 

False Christians, more often than not, make false converts.  They can’t proclaim the Gospel because they’ve never heard it, or they’ve wrongly believed in something that they thought was the Gospel but wasn’t.  They press others for a decision, and once that decision is made then all is thought to be well and the cycle perpetuates itself. 

Until Christians actually move out of their comfort zones and begin to proclaim the Good News of Chirst, the Great Commission will remain unfulfilled.  No matter what the SBC does or declares.

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