Altar Calls: The Fundamentalist Sacrament

In his book, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism, Joel Carpenter writes about how fundamentalists looked for signs of God’s visitation and yearning for miracles among them expressed through altar calls or invitations.  Check out what he had to say. 

Fundamentalist preachers regularly gave the invitation for people to step forward and publicly profess Christ as their savior, and many pastors insisted on giving this “altar call” at every service.  Their reason for doing this was that it was their evangelistic duty, but this ritual, performed with the musicians softly playing, the congregation singing or praying, and the leader speaking in an almost liturgical cadence, had become the high and holy moment of the fundamentalist church service, the time when miracles happened.  For many fundamentalists, the experience of walking the aisle was so inspiring that doing it once was not enough.  Surely people might feel encouraged in their faith and be charged with holy joy when others responded to the gospel, but there was nothing like experiencing it personally.  Since conversion happened only once, fundamentalists developed ways for born-again Christians to “come forward” more often.  By broadening their altar call into an invitation or rededicate their lives to God, to surrender themselves to God’s service, or to testify to a “definite call” to a particular field of service, fundamentalists found a way to meet their thirst for holy moments.  “Going forward” became a fundamentalist sacrament. 

- Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again, 77. 

One must not need wonder why contemporary fundamentalists are so antagonistic about their brethren who either do not stress the importance of altar calls or have done away with it altogether.  The sacramental reverence given to those closing moments in a church service were considered to be time where miracles happened.  Furthermore, such movements down an aisle was a confirmation that God was working and the church was growing, such that a person coming down for the fourth time for rededication was more indicative of a renewed “surrender” than a faulty view of justification and sanctification.  One of the inevitable consequences of this sacrament was that pastoral counseling and knowing the spiritual condition of the flock often became suppressed by the pragmatic temptation to permit more and more people to profess faith, be baptized, and join the church without any serious inquiry into the state of their soul or their understanding of the gospel.  Most unfortunate the case, such a sacrament became the gateway for unregenerate church members to seek a better life now predicated on higher morals (moralism) and stricter standards (legalism) rather than new life brought by the Spirit of God.  Thus, through performance failures and feeling a sense of inadequacy, many mourners were advised to seek a false sense of security through “nailing it down,” “surrendering it all” (again), or getting a fresh start through being re-baptized.  These substitutes for salvation have become the statistical justification of “church growth” and the progenitors of modern-day nominalism.  

I suppose that I must make my usual caveat here whenever I address this issue.  I am not against altar calls per se.  I am against the misuse and abuse of them, and it is quite uncommon to find a church where such a sacrament is not elevated to a status of blind acceptance or treated with serious pastoral care.  Many excellent articles and essays have been written in recent years sharing such mutual concern over decisional regeneration and altar calls, but probably one of the more popular pieces available today is Iain Murray’s Invitation System.  As Christians, both individually and corporately, we need to promote a doctrine-centered evangelism which expresses the heart of Christ with the truths of His Word.  The effectual operation of the gospel comes when we do God’s work God’s way, and lest we think otherwise, we can find ourselves adopting a method of evangelism presupposed by a faulty doctrinal understanding of salvation which would produce “90-day Christians” and “Christianized pagans” who know the lingo but do not know the Lord.  Let’s labor together in the fields which are white with a relentless commitment to reach the lost as well as a rigorous devotion to the gospel of which we have been entrusted.  

 

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7 Comments on “Altar Calls: The Fundamentalist Sacrament”


  1. I have never thought of the altar call and the walk down the aisle as “sacraments” but that is exactly what they have become. And if a new pastor doesn’t practice this “holy rite” he is blaspheming and should consider tendering his resignation. I worked in a job once that put me in contact with “winos” as we called them back then who often new the gospel language better than many church members. These men and women slept under bushes and in dumpsters and shelters, good metaphors for the current condition of many church members who have more in common with the winos than they realize. In my “home church” that sent me to college and seminary I witnessed several “Christianized pagans” being rebaptized for the third time, no joke. Great article, Timmy, God Bless.


  2. Timmy,

    When I saw this on P&P I thought, “I wish he’d posted that on SBF.” I’m glad to see that you did! This article, with the crucial issue it addresses, is truly worthy of a double-post.

    Your brother in Christ,
    -Andrew

  3. Sam Hughey Says:

    Been there, done that (twice). Growing up in a Fundamentalist atmosphere, I walked the aisle twice and confessed to be saved both times. Neither time was I questioned concerning what I believed or that my second confession had any more credibility than my first (it didn’t).

    When Jesus Himself made the decision to save me and having spent the first nine years of my life in Christ as a member of an Independant Fundamental Baptist Church, it was common among us to look down upon a pastor who did not have people walking the aisle. I know of some who ceased pastoring because of this.

  4. Joel Says:

    Johnny and Sam: We must have been in the same church!


  5. From the perspective of an Arminian, if someone hears the Gospel invitation, and is convicted of their sin, and comes forward to meet with a prayer counselor, and to ask Christ to come into their heart, then who could be upset with that? Answer (from the Arminian perspective): Those who are doctrinally opposed to “decisional regeneration.” I know of a Calvinist preacher, who was a former Non-Calvinist, and who used to be a powerful preacher of the Gospel (before Calvinism ever came into his life), and he used to be heavily involved in evanglism and outreach in his former Baptist church. But when he became a Calvinist, he confided that he used to put so much effort into evangelism, and now he has learned that all he needs to do is say “special speaker, special speaker” and if they are Elect, they will come and attend. (The Arminian is horified by this)

  6. Tim Says:

    Timmy,

    Nice post. There are many more “Roman” things that have come into the “Protestant” churches. The walk down the aisle is merely the pilgrimage or the Rosary of the Roman Catholic Church. After all, though begun primarily by Finney it was Billy Graham who made it so famous and since he is quoted as preaching the same gospel that the Pope does, then I guess this would stand to reason. Personally I am against altar calls. Where is there such a thing as that in the Scripture at all?? Where is the command to “ask Jesus into your heart”? or “give Jesus your heart”? As an old country preacher use to say, “Jesus doesn’t want your old dirty heart”. Jesus will make His elect’s heart new. His desire is not to have the old one. You have definitely pinned the tail on the Arminian here brother.

  7. Janet Sauve Says:

    I enjoyed reading this. It’s a much truer view of salvation than having people think they’re saved because they raised their hands to be counted at the end of a church service. Supposedly that constitutes confessing with their mouths. I’ve never been impressed. When I started reading this thread on the Reformed Baptist forum, I was about to suggest that readers would like to read Iain Murray on salvation.
    I’m so tired of church routines that supposedly mean people are saved.


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