There are some – perhaps many – in the Christian world today who do not think the practice of the altar call is either biblical or wise. There are also many pastors or preachers who may agree with the idea of the altar call, yet never actually make such an invitation.
I believe the altar call is both biblical and important, and I believe that a majority of pastors and preachers should give their listeners a clear invitation for faith more than they do. I hope to make several brief posts here on calvarychapel.com looking at the theme from several angles.
A good place to begin is to be clear with what we mean by the term “altar call.” I don’t know that there is a universal definition, so here’s one: An altar call is a deliberate invitation to profess faith in Jesus Christ as one’s Savior and Lord; it is a call to decide for Jesus given by a preacher or teacher.
We commonly call this an “altar call” because of the practice of asking those who make such a decision to come forward to what is sometimes called the “altar” of a church meeting room, an area between the front seats and the speaker’s platform. This area is called an altar because in a spiritual sense it is a place of surrender and sacrifice, just as a literal altar was for Old Testament sacrifices.
However (at least in my thinking), the call to decision doesn’t necessarily have to call people to a particular part of the room. It might be good and appropriate to do it in one case, and not in another. The important aspect of the altar call is the pointed call to decide, and to express that decision in some way.
At its core, the question of the altar call comes to this: Is it proper for the preacher to call his listeners to decide regarding Jesus Christ? From a New Testament perspective, the answer is an overwhelming yes – it is proper to call for decision.
Jesus called men to decide. In the longest example of Jesus’ own preaching (the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7), Jesus ended with a dramatic call to decide: will you build your house on the sand, or on the rock? (Matthew 7:21-27). When Jesus said, “He who is not with Me is against Me” (Matthew 12:30), He spoke to the need of men and women to decide regarding who He is and what He did for fallen humanity.
Peter called men to decide. In his famous sermon on Pentecost, we read “and with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation'” (Acts 2:40). Some mistakenly think that Peter gave no invitation in his preaching on Pentecost because those who listened asked Peter and the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) It’s a wonderful thing that the people posed this question, and it was evidence of a great move of the Holy Spirit. Yet that doesn’t mean that Peter did not also seek to persuade and call for decision, as Acts 2:40 tells us.
Paul called men to decide. There are many examples from Paul’s preaching work, but one that stands out is his preaching to King Agrippa in Acts 26:27, when Paul said to him: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you do believe.” Paul directly called upon Agrippa to not only decide for Jesus, but to do so with an open response. Paul’s preaching work could be called persuasion (Acts 17:4; 18:4; 19:8; 19:26; and 28:23-24), and he described it that way himself in 2 Corinthians 5:11.
There is much more to say about the idea of calling people to decision, and I hope to say some of it in coming posts. For now, we can be confident in a simple principle: The New Testament pattern shows us that it is good, honorable, and necessary to call people to decision for Jesus Christ in our work as Bible teachers and preachers.
I hope to keep an eye on the comments and to interact as I’m able – but if a comment or question will be directly addressed in an upcoming post, I’ll let you know in my response.