Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Theology Behind the Altar-Call
There is a definite theology which drives the practice of the altar-call. Though many may argue today that theology and methodology are separate issues; yet, the truth is, we only practice what it is we believe. Thus how we "do ministry" is determined by our doctrinal convictions. And the method of altar-call evangelism is no different in this respect.
So, for the early Methodists and the evangelist Charles G. Finney, it was essentially their theology of salvation which inspired them to use this novel method of calling people to come forward and be saved. For Finney, it was the heresy of Pelagianism (circa 412 A.D.) which moved him to comfortably embrace the altar-call. For the Methodists, it was their affirmation of the aberrant teaching of Arminianism (circa 1618). However, what is peculiar in both cases, is that it was their belief in man's will being the determining factor in salvation which really formed the core doctrine behind the altar-call.
Thus, whether you're considering Arminianism or Pelagianism, what both of these doctrines share in common is that man's will is sovereign in salvation. Albeit, Pelagianism denies the necessity for God's grace in Christ to save (hence, it is heretical teaching), while Arminianism contends that without God's grace man will not be saved - yet in the end, both the Pelagian and the Arminian reward the will of man with the credit for why he is saved; rather than the sovereign grace of God.
This is the fundamental reason why so many people have attributed their salvation to "walking an aisle", "praying a prayer", or "making a decision for Christ." The sole object and reason for their salvation is centered in the exercise of their will to choose. And should we be surprised that this would be where they give the credit for being saved? If you've grown up all your life in church hearing that, "If you take the first step God will do the rest" - then it is only inevitable that under this teaching you will believe that it was your decision which initiated salvation. In other words, God has provided salvation and made the offer, but without man making his move to saved, God is left helplessly wondering if anyone is going to be accept what He has done. Why? Because the theology behind the altar-call is a man-centered view of salvation. God's will is impotent while man's will is omnipotent. Is this biblical?
No, the truth of Scripture is that man by nature is sinful to the core (Psa.51:5; Jer.17:9; Rom.3:9-18). He cannot save himself nor does he want to be saved (Mk.10:27; Jn.5:40; Rom.3:11; Eph.2:1-3). Left to his own decisions, bound up in his sinful nature, man will run at breakneck speed and bust hell wide open. For there is no natural affection for Christ iin the lost sinner (Jn.3:19-20; Rom.8:5-8). Moreover, when he hears the gospel, his natural understanding reasons that it is foolish and stupid (I Cor.1:18a; 2:14). In this condition, we cannot look to the sinner to "take the first step" for salvation - for no such "step" will ever come!
How then is man to be saved? It can only be by the sovereign mercy and grace of God (Rom.8:30; 9:15-18; Eph.2:8-10). God must take the first step! God must work in the sinner a new life, recreating a new heart, a new nature (Ezk.36:26; Jn.3:3-8; Eph.2:5) which brings about new desires that cry out, "Lord, save me and make me right with you!" God must give the faith to believe on Christ and the repentance to flee from sin (Eph.2:8; II Tim.2:25). In short, salvation, from first to last, is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9; Eph.1:3-14; II Thess.2:13). This is the theology of the Bible: God ALONE saves sinners by His grace and for His glory!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The History behind the Altar-Call
How and why did the altar-call ever become a part of mainstream evangelism? The actual history behind the altar-call began in the late 1700s with the first generation of American Methodists in America. Being concerned not to admit anyone prematurely into church membership, the Methodists began to "count" the number of their converts. The system they came up with for securing this knowledge of true conversions was what they called "the invitation to the altar." The Methodists referred to the "altar" as the end of the building in front of the communion table, which was derived from their roots in the Church of England. Their intial practice of this method was simply bringing individuals to identify themselves publicly to be prayed for and given instruction as new converts to Christ. No one, at first, claimed the altar-call as a means of salvation. However, very soon, and inevitably, "coming to the altar" came to be confused with actual conversion to Christ. Methodist preachers would be heard calling people to "come to the altar and be saved."
It wasn't until the 1820s though, that this innovative practice of American Methodism would become the mainstream of American Evangelicalism. And the introduction of the altar-call to the rest of Protestant America would not come from a Methodist - but a lawyer from New England who was ordained in the Presbyterian church. His name was Charles G. Finney (1792-1875). Finney has been hailed as "America's Greatest Revivalist" and "the premier evangelist of the nineteenth-century." It is beyond dispute that his methods and theology changed the whole course for how evangelicals in America would approach the meaning of revival and the techniques of large-scale evangelism. But what should be in dispute is if following the methods and theology of Charles Finney is conforming to the wisdom and truth of Scripture concerning conversion and evangelism.
You see, for Finney, hijacking the altar-call from the Methodists needed no adjustments for his doctrinal position. Calling people to come forward and giving them immediate assurance of salvation for their public response, was a logical fit for what Finney believed to be a true conversion to Christ. In his theology, all that a sinner needed to be saved was a decision of the will, rather than a regeneration of his nature. In other words, Finney did not believe in the necessity of the new birth (Jn.1:13; 3:1-8) because he did not believe in the reality of the sinner's depraved nature (Jer.17:9; Eph.2:1-3).
Charles Finney was in fact a Pelagian at heart. His entire theology of salvation embodied the fifth-century heresy known as Pelagianism (412 A.D.). Therefore Finney denied the biblical doctrines of original sin, salvation by grace alone, justification by faith alone, and even, the penal substitution of Christ's death. Needless to say, Finney was a bona fide heretic - who dazzled his generation with persuasive arguments that pitted reason over revelation, emotional tactics to manipulate the crowds, and quick conversions - which were documented over a period of several years and proven false by the apostasy of most people who "came to the altar" in his meetings.
Sadly though, "Finneyism" is still alive and well in many churches today. Conversions to Christ are still counted as people answering the altar-call, rather than seeing the evidence of genuine spiritual fruit (Gal.5:22-23). And the determining factor for salvation is still attributed to man's will rather than God's sovereign grace (cf. Rom.8:30). Finney would be proud. But what should matter most for us is this: is God glorified by a method not sanctioned by His Word in which man is given the credit for salvation? We know the answer...but will we obey?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Altar-Call Evangelism: Is it biblical?
"What mean these dispatches from the battle-field? 'Last night, fourteen souls were under conviction, fifteen were justified, and eight received full sanctification.' I am weary of this public bragging, this counting of unhatched chickens, this exhibition of doubtful spoils. Lay aside such numberings of the people, such idle pretense of certifying in half a minute that which will need the testing of a lifetime." This lamentation combined with sage counsel was given over a hundred years ago by Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892). It was communicated in a public lecture to his ministerial students and then published in his classic book, The Soul Winner. Spurgeon's grief was over a style of evangelism that was all the rage in his day because of how quickly so-called results could be counted, secured and then reported publicly as a mighty "gospel" success. We know this kind of evangelism today as "altar-call" evangelism. During Spurgeon's generation this type of evangelism was very novel, but in our day (a hundred plus years later) - its the norm.
But not only is it an accepted practice for churches in the 21st century, it is revered as the only sure and sacred means of aquiring conversions to Christ. Or, as one church-goer put it to me several years ago: "Without the altar-call no one will be saved." In fact, along this same line of thinking, there is even a local pastor I know, who recently said: "Without the altar-call no church will grow in the South Georgia." For me personally, over the past fourteen years, I have greatly questioned the legitimacy and even integrity of altar-call evangelism. Though for many years as an itinerant evangelist I too had faithfully practiced this manner of "getting people saved." However, in 1995, by a series of illuminating discoveries, I gradually abandoned altar-call evangelism for good.
The first great challenge to me over this practice was simply a question of its biblical warrant. Did Christ or the Apostles or the early church as a whole employ this method of calling people to come forward at the end of a worship service, make a decision for Christ by repeating a prayer, and then be given immediate assurance of their salvation? The answer is an emphatic - NO! Nowhere in Scripture is there either a model or sanction for the altar-call. Rather, what we see is an aggressive, clear, faithful proclamation of the gospel with God blessing His Word with conversions (e.g., Acts 2:14-47; 3:11-26; 17:16-34). To say it another way, biblical evangelism believes in the sufficiency of the gospel (Rom.1:16; I Cor.1:18-2:5). This means the gospel is enough for sinners to hear in order to be saved. Furthermore, it is the gospel alone which God has ordained as the means He uses to bring sinners to Himself (Rom.10:14-17; I Cor.3:5-7). Thus the mandate of the Great Commission is to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all people (Mark 16:15; Lk.24:47; cf. Matt.28:19). Nothing more, nothing less. The altar-call however imposes the church to do something more than what God Himself has ordained. In fact, it implies by its very method that the preaching of the gospel falls short as a means of bringing sinners to Christ. In short, the altar-call is nothing more than a man-made addition to the gospel and therefore a denial of its sufficiency.
But what if someone argues that Christ called people to publicly come to Him and believe in Him - would this imply that altar-call evangelism is simply following Christ's example? There are two important points we need to remember in answer to this assumption: first, believing on Christ is the result of being born again with a new nature that hungers and thirsts for Christ unto salvation (see Jn.3:1-8; 6:35; Eph.2:5; Tit.3:5), not with a physical act of going forward and publicly praying a prayer. When Jesus called people to come to Him in the context of salvation, it was not with the idea that they would physical come toward Him. It meant to believe on Him (e.g., Jn.6:35-37) Second, no one can come to Christ (thereby savingly believe on Him) unless they are "drawn" or "granted" this grace by the Father (Jn.6:44,65). Henceforth, true conversions to Christ are the result of God's sovereign power and good pleasure alone, not the methods induced by men (see Acts 2:47; 5:14; II Thess.2:13,14).
But there is a further reason why the altar-call is an unbiblical practice: it creates a false assurance of salvation. This is the most disturbing and dangerous aspect of the altar-call. Tens of thousands of people who have "walked the aisle" and "prayed the prayer" are given immediate assurance that they are saved. And the only evidence proffered for such assurance is the physcial act of walking to the front of a church building and repeating a prayer. What's worse, is that a local church will seal this false assurance through baptism and church membership - and the so-called new convert will be told "never to doubt your salvation again."
Now the problems with this are too numerous to disseminate for what my aim is in this article. Rather, I will offer three major propositions that should be considered carefully as a warning against this practice of giving immediate assurance, and employing the altar-call in general: First, nowhere in Scripture is the assurance of salvation attributed to a physical act. An atheist can "walk an aisle" and "pray the prayer" and still remain an atheist. The power of salvation and the assurance that would accompany it, is not in the sinner coming to the front of a church building and praying a prayer but God alone who saves.
Secondly, the assurance of salvation in Scripture is related to both an objective and subjective spiritual reality. The objective spiritual reality of assurance is Christ and His saving work (see Rom.3:21-4:5). Saving faith is not in what we have done but in Christ alone and what He accomplished to save us. The subjective spiritual reality of assurance is in the fruit of a holy life (see Gal.5:22-23; Heb.12:14). In fact, the entire book of First John is devoted to this biblical aspect of assurance. If you're saved your life will bear out that transformation in desires and conduct that are both righteous and holy. The altar-call produces no such fruit of this kind - only antinominians and legalists.
Finally, the assurance of salvation is given by the Holy Spirit's witness not a preacher who leads you in a prayer. Romans 8:14-16 affirms this truth. Therefore, it is sheer arrogance (though unintentional, I'm sure) for a preacher to confer salvation-assurance on a sinner because they have repeated a prayer. This is nothing more than the Protestant version of Roman Catholic sacramentalism. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the assurance of salvation as He gives us a new heart, reveals to us the truth of Christ in the gospel, and empowers us to live a holy life. The altar-call cannot grant this kind of assurance.
But sadly and tragically, many sinners are led into thinking they are saved because of their response to the altar-call, rather than being truly regenerated by the Holy Spirit and thus drawn to Christ (Jn.3:5; 6:44; Tit.3:5). Is it any wonder then that the greatest problem facing the local evangelical church in America is unregenerate church membership? The altar-call can increase a church-roll but it will never produce a new creation in Jesus Christ (II Cor.5:17-18a).

Sunday, August 09, 2009

What are the benefits of Calvinism?
For the past nine posts I have written, my aim has been to answer the most common questions raised about the theology of Calvinism. I trust that the answers given have been helpful. I at least hope that whatever misconceptions may have been lingering in one's mind over Calvinism, have been taken away by these previous articles. Even if I have not convinced you of the truth of Calvinism, maybe when you think about it, there will not be the typical strawman version which is so common in our day. To say this another way, if you're going to disagree with Calvinism, at least disagree with what it really teaches and not a false idea you have about it.
Now for my closing post in this series, I simply want to give a list of eleven reasons that historic evangelical Calvinism is beneficial to the health and progress of Christians, both as individuals and collectively as the church. I will give no commentary to each of the points, but simply let them stand as sufficent statements to declare why every Christian who wears the label of a Calvinist has no shame in this badge of biblical theology.
1. Calvinism promotes the glory of God above all things and humbles the sinner.
2. Calvinism promotes the sovereignty of God over all things and humbles the sinner.
3. Calvinism upholds the authority, sufficiency, inerrancy, and infallibility of God's Word as what alone should be preached and determine all that we believe about God, man, salvation, the world, sin, etc.
4. Calvinism engenders a passion for personal holiness and godliness.
5. Calvinism spreads a passion for God-centered worship.
6. Calvinism spreads a passion for Christ-exalting evangelism.
7. Calvinism motivates a Christian's life to self-denial, cross-bearing, and Christ-following.
8. Calvinism enlarges the heart to trust and depend on God for all things at all times.
9. Calvinism gives a God-centered view of the world as under His control and all events being worked out according to His sovereign plan.
10. Calvinism creates a greater hunger and thirst to know God and love Him for who He is.
11. Calvinism glories in the grace of God through the work of Christ by the power of the Spirit as the only true reason any sinner is saved.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Calvinism's Most Controversial Doctrine: Part Three
It might be very hard for many Christians to believe that a doctrine like reprobation would have any application at all to them. But we must remember what we are told in II Timothy 3:16 about the Word of God as a whole: "All profitable." So with that affirmation we have to ask ourselves: how does the doctrine of reprobation serve me as a Christian? Why would it be useful for me to know this doctrine? I will answer these questions in three different ways:
1. Reprobation teaches us that we too would have suffered eternal punishment had not God stepped in to save us. May we understand this once and for all: left to ourselves, we are no better than any other sinner. What we all deserve is the hardening of God that I covered in my last post from Romans 9:17-18. And this should be the first great truth that grips us about this doctrine. God could have and He should have passed over me. And due to this fact, every Christian should say with George Whitefield (1714-1770) whenever we see or consider the lost state of many men and women in this world: "There but for the grace of God go I." The doctrine of reprobation therefore, if understood properly, should drive us to such thankfulness to God and utter humility before all people everywhere. Had God not stepped in and saved us, we would all face what we actually deserve - eternal punishment for our sins.
2. Reprobation keeps before us the all-important truth that salvation is entirely of grace and that no works of man contribute to it. First of all, the doctrine of reprobation gives us a graphic and terrible picture of what man will do if left to his own will bound up in his sinful nature. He will not seek God (Rom.3:11). He will not have any saving affection for Jesus Christ.
In fact, what we need to understand very clearly - is that there is no such thing as someone who is knocking on the door of heaven trying to get in, but God is turning them away because He has not chosen to save them. We need to get that picture completely out of our minds. Why? Because there is no such person who exists! Those whom God has chosen not to save He leaves to their own will which is always heading for sin and hell. And what we need to remember is that this is true of everyone in the world - therefore if anyone is saved, it will not be determined by anything man chooses or what man does (Rom.9:16; cf. Jn.15:16; Eph.2:8-9). Salvation is entirely of God's sovereign will and grace! And the doctrine of reprobation keeps this before us, because it reminds us that God chooses to save us based on His mercy and not on our merits. "So, it (that is, God's purpose of election: cf. Rom.9:11) does not depend on human will or exertion but on God, who shows mercy" (Rom.9:16).
3. Reprobation helps us to see the glory of God in His justice. In the same way that the doctrine of election glorifies God in His mercy - reprobation glorifies God in His justice. By this doctrine, we are given a greater and more clearer picture of who God is. He is more than loving, kind, good, and gracious. But God is holy, righteous, and just. Therefore, when He chooses to harden sinners, and thus leave them in their sin to receive the condemnation they deserve for their sin - by this action, God is magnifying the glory of His justice. In fact, it is for this great purpose (magnifying God's justice) that the reprobate will serve for all eternity. The reprobate in hell will show forth the glory and rightness of God's justice against sin.
So, the doctrine of reprobation is very useful and profitable for every Christian. It reminds us of God's sovereign and free grace in saving us. It also reminds us of God's holiness and justice against sin. And it truly humbles us and keeps us from looking down our noses at other sinners. We are no better than anyone else. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom.3:23). It is only God's grace in Jesus Christ that has made any of us to differ. But when we think about reprobation, I believe our ultimate application comes from the wise words of Dr. J.I. Packer, when he wrote:
"The reprobates are faceless so far as Christians are concerned, and it is not for us to try to identify them. Rather, we should live in the light of the certainty that anyone may be saved if he or she will but repent and put faith in Christ. We should view all persons that we meet as possibly being numbered among the elect." Amen.

  © Blogger template 'BrickedWall' by 2008

Jump to TOP