The Evangelical Sacrament

The following is from an article by Fred Zaspel on the invitation system. While almost unheard of before the 19th century, the "altar call" has become a fixture in Baptist, Weslayan, Pentecostal, and Nazarene traditions. In fact, many feel as if they have not been to church unless there was an altar call. I know what it is to be told to lengthen the invitation and do a better job "closing the deal." All of this springs from a man-centered approach to evangelism that many of us grew up with. I offer to you this article as something to think about.

A Confusion of the Meaning of Faith
First of all and perhaps most importantly is this matter which we have emphasized already. The emphasis on "coming forward to receive Christ" confuses the meaning of faith.

What does it mean to "come to Christ"? We all know that it is a matter of faith. Luther used terminology such as "closing with Christ," and this terminology is exactly Biblical. We are to "look" to Him, "run to Him for refuge," "receive Him" all these Biblical expressions speak of matters of the soul. They speak of faith. And they allow nothing else. "Come here to receive Christ" is an awful confusion of the object and nature of saving faith. Why should we confuse the issue and ask men to come "here" for Christ? Where do we find Biblical justification for such a thing? God is not concerned whether a man walks down an aisle in a church, and neither should we be concerned with it. The only concern is that they look away to Christ and to no one else. And this is precisely where we must direct their attention. "Come, Ye Sinners," we sing. But to where are they to come?
"Venture on Him, venture wholly!Let no other trust intrude!
None but Jesus, none but Jesus, none but JesusCan do helpless sinners good!"

We want none who hear us preach to go away thinking that if they had done something walk an aisle, go to an inquiry room, whatever then they could have been saved. No, we want nothing to confuse or distract from this: they should have and still must look to Christ, the only savior of sinners. This is too important a matter to erect needless obstacles or distractions. They must be directed not to a geographical location in a building. They must be directed to Christ.

A Confusion of Mediators
The modern altar call further runs the risk of confusing the idea of mediatorship. Who is our only mediator? With whom does the sinner need to do business if he is to be saved? Must he talk to you? To me? No, he must do business with Christ, for He alone is the one who can bring us to God. But instructing a man to "come and talk to a personal worker" may well confuse matters. It again distracts from the One of Whom he should be thinking. The sermon itself is the invitation, and it gives direction to Christ and to no one else.

This is our great argument with Roman Catholicism. We need no priest but Christ! There are no other mediators, living or dead. We must go to God only by way of His Son or we will never reach him. This concern, it seems, was uppermost in Spurgeon's criticism of the practice.

"Let me say, very softly and whisperingly, that there are little things among ourselves which must be carefully looked after, or we shall have a leaven of ritualism and priesthood working in our measures of meal. In our revival services, it might be as well to vary our procedure. Sometimes shut up that enquiry-room. I have my fears about that institution if it be used to permanence, and as an inevitable part of the services. It may be a very wise thing to invite persons who are under concern of soul to come apart from the rest of the congregation, and have conversation with godly people; but if you should ever see a notion is fashioning itself that there is something to be got in the private room which is not to be had at once in the assembly, or that God is more at the penitent form than elsewhere, aim a blow at that notion at once. We must not come back by a rapid march to the old ways of altars and confessionals, and have a Romish trumpery restored in a coarser form. If we make men think that conversation with ourselves or with our helpers is essential to their faith in Christ, we are taking the direct line for priestcraft. In the Gospel, the sinner and the Saviour are to come together, with none between. Speak upon this point very clearly, "You, sinner, sitting where you are, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, shall have eternal life. Do not stop till you pass into an enquiry-room. Do not think it essential to confer with me. Do not suppose that I have the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, or that these godly men and women associated with me can tell you any other Gospel than this. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life."

Spurgeon's words proved prophetic; what he feared has come to pass. Spurgeon himself never adopted the modern method. He only warned against it. For those who desired further help Spurgeon often made himself available on Monday morning; if they were in earnest they could return for further instruction. But his message on Monday was the same as on Sunday: "Look to Christ. You must go to Him." We must be very careful never to confuse this matter.

A Mistrust of the Power of the Holy Spirit and the Preached Word
God has made it plain to us that He saves by means of the Word that is preached. This is the tool in His hand in the saving of sinners. Paul expounds this at some length in 1Corinthians 1. "Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (v.17). "For the message of the cross . . . is the power of God" (v.18). "It pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (v.21). This message which we preach is "the power of God" in saving sinners (vv.23-24); it is the instrument He uses in bringing men and women to Himself.

Accordingly, the apostle Paul said that he was very careful to allow these considerations to shape his ministry. "I came declaring the message of God about Jesus Christ," he said, "confidently relying on the Holy Spirit powerfully to take that message and make it effective, so that men and women would turn in faith to God and God alone" (vv.1-5).

In other words, Paul was confident that God would save by means of preaching. Preaching is the event in which God works, and we all who are saved know this to be true! Well we know how God has often taken the message and mysteriously but so obviously worked within us to call us back to Himself. The Puritans sometimes referred to preaching as "the chief means of grace." So it is. It is the usual way God works to save. More often publicly but also privately, God works through preaching.

Our problem today is that we really don't believe that. It is after the message that we come to "the most important part of the service." At pastor's seminars instructions are given how to use the invitation time to "sneak up" on people and "get them to come forward" and "make a decision." All of this betrays a woeful mistrust of God's appointed means of grace. Not so with the apostle Paul. He was very careful not to allow anyone to believe merely because he said so; he labored in such a way that their faith would be directed only heavenward (1Corinthians 2:3-5).

God has said that He would save via preaching. He in fact has saved through preaching, and He does save through preaching. We needn't doubt that He can and will. And we needn't invent new means to help Him do what He does so well all by Himself. We are obliged to trust Him to work via the means He has promised to bless.

A Misunderstanding of the Role of the Preacher
The modern invitation system further reveals a misunderstanding of the role of the preacher. The preacher's duty is not to "get decisions." His duty is to proclaim the good news and exhort men and women to go to Christ. This is the means which God uses to save. We preach, and God Himself uses the word preached to "get the decision." (What a woefully inadequate term that is! Saving faith is so much more than a "decision." It is running for rescue!) These roles must never be confused.

Charles Spurgeon often warned against the invitation system, even in his public preaching to the lost. It was not uncommon to hear him warn,
"God has not appointed salvation by enquiry-rooms. . . . For the most part, a wounded conscience, like a wounded stag, delights to be alone that it may bleed in secret."
The role of the preacher is to exhort men and women to faith in Christ. That is all. And that is enough. God is well able to do everything else.

A Confusion of Profession of Faith with Saving Faith
Saving faith is not a decision that is made, and it is not a mouthing of a certain formula. Even if the formula is recited in prayer, this is not saving faith. Manipulating a person to say go through certain motions and say certain words does him no good whatever. This is not saving faith.

This is dangerous indeed. Can a man really be saved by saying "yes" to a series of questions? Have we done them any favor by allowing them to think so? This is a misunderstanding of saving faith. It is a confusion of professed faith with true saving faith.

This mistake has resulted in the unprecedented number of false converts which this century of evangelism has produced. Decisions and numbers there are, but the "converts" are notoriously unconverted. This is a direct result of confusing decisions with true faith, and it is a blight on the church. As Lewis Sperry Chafer said,
Careful students of evangelism have noticed that where the necessity of public action as a part of conversion has been most emphasized there has been a corresponding increase in the God-dishonoring record of so-called "backsliding"; and this is natural.
It is also inevitable. And it is shameful. And it is harmful, for we have convinced unconverted people that they are safe. We must not mistake mere professions of faith with true, saving faith. Whether in formal preaching or in private witnessing or in special counseling, our instruction must not be directed to "decisions" but to Christ. We must show our hearers that Christ is the Savior, and we must exhort them to trust Him. This saving look to Christ may well be an event which you witness. But it just as well may be something that occurs later on when the person is alone with God. No matter. We give them the gospel, and we urge them to trust Christ. But there our work ends and God's work begins.

A Creation of False Assurance
Moreover, this modern practice has tended to promote false assurance. We must frankly acknowledge that the modern invitation system has become a kind of third sacrament in the church. We all know so many who "know" they are Christians, because they were baptized as infants or as adults for that matter. The same is true of countless people who have "walked the aisle." They were assured that if they would "come forward" and "make a decision" they could be saved. They came, and there some well-intentioned personal worker convinced them that because they came and answered "yes" to the various questions and then prayed "the sinner's prayer" that now they are saved and no one should ever make them doubt it! Then they left. And they went back to the same old life they had. They made no real public profession of Christ, but because they did as they were instructed they "know" they are safe. This is a needless problem which we have created.

Once more the example of Charles Spurgeon is instructive. In his preaching he would address the sinner, saying, "Go home alone, trusting in Jesus." Then he would enter dialogue with the sinner,
"I would like to go into the enquiry-room." I dare say you would, but we are not willing to pander to popular superstition. We fear that in those rooms men are warmed into fictitious confidence. Very few of the supposed converts of enquiry-rooms turn out well. Go to your God at once, even where you are now. Cast yourself on Christ, now, at once, ere you stir an inch!"

A Wrong Focus
All must admit that the modern invitation system has resulted in a shift of focus. The focus has shifted from the spiritual to the physical, from the internal to the external. The meeting was "wonderful" because so many people "went forward." We know that "God was working" because so many people responded to the altar call. And in all this our attention is drawn away from God and His work in the human heart to a spot at the front of a building. All this when in reality God may not have been working at all; we really have no way of knowing yet. Or He may well have been at great work accomplishing wonderful things in the hearts and lives of many of His people when no one at all responded to the altar call. We just cannot know yet. Which simply points up the fact that this shift in focus is a misleading one.

A False View of Human Ability
One more item of immense importance is the question of human ability. Can a man be saved by walking an aisle, correctly answering a series of questions, and then praying a prescribed prayer? Put more plainly, does it lie within our own power to "decide" for Christ? Can we be the cause of our own conversion? Can walking an aisle contribute anything to conversion?

This question is crucial, for it will determine the direction of our efforts and of our faith. This issue shaped the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Erasmus' treatise On the Freedom of the Will (1524) and Luther's On the Bondage of the Will (1525) stated the differences between the two views of salvation: the Roman Catholic believes that man has ability to participate in his own conversion, and the Protestant believes that man has no such ability at all. For Luther, this was foundational. Is salvation free, or is it somehow achieved?

Luther went to the Scriptures to answer the question. Can we effect our own conversion? No, no, a thousand times no! "It is not of him that wills or of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy" (Romans 9:16). "Of His own will he begot us by the word of truth" (James 1:18). "No man knows the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son wills to reveal Him" (Matthew 11:27). "No man can come to me except the Father draw him (John 6:44). "The carnal mind is enmity against God and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be. So then, they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8:7-8). Man "dead" in sins must be brought to life by God before He can do anything at all that is of spiritual good (Ephesians 2:1-5). These who believe unto salvation first were born of God (John 1:12-13). Salvation comes entirely from God's side; it is given freely at His own will (Romans 9:16; James 1:18). Salvation cannot in any way be caused by anything a man can do. We therefore reject any notion of decisional regeneration as strongly as we reject any notion of baptismal regeneration. Salvation is a work of God alone (Jonah 2:9). What men need is rescue, and that rescue only God can give.

All this brings us to the same conclusions we have already reached. 1) Our whole focus in evangelism must be heavenward. We must wait on God to do the saving, for only He can save. 2) The sinner's whole attention must be the same. He must never be allowed to look to himself his will, his efforts, or whatever. In our evangelism, no man needs to hear that he has the ability to do something to effect his own conversion. No. If he is to be saved there must be no feelings of self-reliance remaining. He must know that he is helpless but that there is a Savior from heaven Who has come and Who is mighty to save. He must be directed to Christ Who alone "reveals the Father" (Matthew 11:27). We must never, never, never do or say anything that will confuse this issue. We must direct the sinner to Christ and to Christ alone. With no feelings of self-help reserved he must run in desperation away from himself to Christ. And with all of his props removed and nowhere to direct his faith but God, he has been well evangelized.

In short, salvation is not gained by walking anywhere or by correctly answering a series of good questions or by praying anyone's prescribed formula prayer. Salvation is given freely by God. We must never leave the sinner with the impression that he can in any way manipulate God into granting salvation. We must leave him with the impression that he is desperate and that he can only run to God for mercy.

There is much more. But these are the most important considera-tions. There are serious dangers in the modern invitation system. It is not a Biblical practice but a relic of nineteenth-century American evangelical tradition. It confuses the nature and object of saving faith. It confuses mere professions of faith with true, saving faith. It fosters false assurance. It distracts thinking away from the workings of God in the inner man. It mistrusts the God-appointed means of preaching and the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word. It mistakes the role of the preacher. And it rests on an unscriptural view of human ability.

We will not get into questioning the motives of all who practice the altar call, and we will not question the genuineness of the faith of many Christians who trace their conversion experience to a church building. We will only say that the practice is of extra-Biblical origin and that it has many dangers. It offers no help at all but only harm. A return to the New Testament practice is surely best. "Till our latest breath," we will talk of the glories of Christ, His ability and willingness to save, His desirability, and His availability. We will urge all men and women who will listen to run to Him and to Him alone, for He is the great Savior of sinners.

Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,Weak and wounded, sick, and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,Full of pity, joined with power!
He is able, He is able, He is able!He is willing; doubt no more!

The "Altar Call". Is it helpful or harmful? by Fred G. Zaspel. Published by Word of Life Baptist Church, Pottsville, PA. Copyright © 1998 All rights reserved.
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