Altar Calls and other Protestant Traditions

Ah, the ubiquitous Evangelical altar call…

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Preachers from D.L. Moody to Billy Graham have made wide use of the altar call in their ministries, to such a degree, that they have become all but universal in the Evangelical Christian world. Like many, I grew up hearing frequent altar calls at the end of church services in which non-believers were urged to, “Come forward and receive Jesus.”

Ironically, the “old fashioned” altar call was unheard of until the nineteenth century.

Altar calls first came into prominence by the influence of Charles Finney, the pioneer of modern evangelistic methods. Finney believed that only men’s wills, not their natures, must be converted. His modern evangelistic methods set out to make regeneration as easy as possible. “A revival is not a miracle,” Finney wrote. “It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.” In other words, preachers could create a “revival” if they used proven methods, chief of these being the “anxious bench” or “seat of decision.”

“The object of our measures is to gain attention,” Finney said, and for that “you must have something new.” “Preach to him, and at the moment he thinks he is willing to do anything . . . bring him to the test; call on him to do one thing, to make one step that shall identify him with the people of God. . . . If you say to him, “there is the anxious seat, come out and avow your determination to be on the Lord’s side,” and if he is not willing to do a small thing as that, then he is not willing to do anything for Christ.1

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Are Altar Calls Un-Scriptural?

Evangelical pastor and author Rick Warren makes a great point regarding altar calls when he says, “I want to remind you that Jesus never said you had to walk from Point A to Point B in a church to become a believer. In fact they gave no come forward, down the aisle altar calls for the first three hundred years of the church because they didn’t even have church buildings for the first three hundred years of the church, so there obviously weren’t any aisles to walk down. The come forward invitation is a method that’s only about 180 years old. It was invented by Methodist churches in the late 17th century and later picked up and popularized by Charles Finney in the mid-1800s—and the majority of evangelical churches use that form today. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just not necessarily a biblical commandment. It just happens to be a method that was used frequently for the last 200 years.2” 

Rick is right. The altar call is nowhere to be found in Scripture. And, as he said, that doesn’t necessarily make it bad, but we should at least be honest about the fact that it’s a “man made tradition” – something the Catholic Church gets accused of a lot. As it so happens, there are an abundance of Protestant traditions that are nowhere to be found in Scripture.  Here are just a few for your consideration:

1. The Sinner’s Prayer.

2. The Doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, “For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory for now and forever and ever. Amen.”

If you look closely in your bible you will probably see a footnote stating that this phrase is not found in the original or earliest manuscripts. The first known use of the doxology, “for yours is the power and the glory forever”, as a conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer is from the Didache, an ancient Christian manuscript which preceded the New Testament.  Believe it or not, but in all likelihood, this Doxology is an addition that worked it’s way into Protestant versions of the bible from the Catholic liturgy.  🙂

3. Infant Dedications.

4. Sunday School or a separate service for children.

5. Bowing your head and closing your eyes when you pray.

6. Age of accountability.

7. A “personal relationship” with Jesus.

8. The “invisible” church.

9. As long as we agree on the “essentials” we can disagree on the “non-essentials.”

Nowhere in Scripture do we read that parts of Christ’s gospel are “essential” and that other parts are “non-essential.” To the contrary, none of Christ’s Gospel is nonessential, up for spurious opinions, or of a contradictory nature.

10. The 5 Solae of the Reformation, but especially scripture alone, faith alone, and grace alone.

When it comes to some of these examples, we would probably agree with Rick Warren that there is nothing wrong with them per-se; they just don’t come from the bible.  Some of these examples however, are not merely extra-biblical Protestant traditions, but are rather patently un-biblical – i.e. in direct contradiction to what the Scripture teaches.

Here’s another interesting thing about the altar call and the invitation to, “Come forward and receive Jesus.” There is no altar, and you don’t literally receive Jesus. – Tweet This

Where could one go to literally receive Christ at the altar?

To a Catholic Church of course. Every Catholic Church has a altar at the front where the faithful come forward at every Mass in order to actually receive Jesus; “truly, really, and substantially” as the Council of Trent affirms. The altar is necessary since Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice is re-presented to God the Father at every Mass.

In Protestant churches there is no need for an altar because there is no sacrifice which is presented to God. In Catholic Churches we receive Jesus (body, blood, soul, and divinity) through Communion, as He is literally made present in the Eucharist. In Protestant churches Christ is received in some mystical fashion, “into our hearts.”  Which interestingly enough is another concept that is found nowhere in Scripture.

In other words, the only place in which the “altar call” makes any sense is within the Catholic Church. So, in parting, let me extend my own altar call:

Become Catholic! Come to Mass. Come forward to the altar and receive Christ – truly, really and substantially!

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  1. Finney, Charles. Lectures on Revival. 

  2. Warren, Rick. “Communicating to Change Lives – Teaching Notes”. Preaching for Life Change Seminar: International Version. p. 81. 

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