(Note: this is an updated version of an old post)
The "invitation" or "altar call" is a common tradition in many "low church" bodies. Invitations to accept Christ are not new, however, the specific form of invitation known as an "altar call" is a relatively new practice. It started with the evangelist Charles Finney, back in the 1830's. Other evangelists who have popularized the practice include D.L Moody, Billy Sunday, Corrie ten Boom, and Billy Graham.
Arminian churches typically utilize altar calls more frequently than Calvinist churches do. Why is this so? First, Arminians believe in prevenient grace - that God is working in the hearts of non-believers to draw them to Himself. Second, Arminians believe that God desires for everyone to be saved. Thus, every non-believer is a genuine candidate for the saving grace of God. Third, many Arminian and Semi-Arminian denominations are "low church". Low church worship services tend to be more expressive and less formal than those of older and more established denominations. Given these reasons, it should be expected that Arminian leaning denominations would be more likely to utilize the public invitation to accept Christ.
Recently I've read a number of Christian blogs where the altar call tradition has been criticized. The most common arguments are that this is a new practice, that it is not supported by scripture, that it is abused by preachers, and that "decisional regeneration" is not genuine. Let's consider these criticisms.
Should we discontinue the altar call because it is a new practice? Not necessarily. Innovations in worship are often helpful, and should be welcomed if they conform to scripture. Isaiah 43 says to not dwell on the past, because God is doing a new thing. To reject something simply because it is new is legalistic. Church services today should not necessarily be identical to the way they were in 1829. In 1829 no church building had electric lighting or indoor plumbing. You don't hear most Christians complaining about those innovations!
Altar calls are really a new type of liturgy – something instituted as a tradition in some evangelical circles. Other "modern" liturgies include: Sunday school, worship music, and even the pastor's sermon. Liturgies in and of themselves are neutral. They can be used by the Spirit, or they can be empty. It depends on whether or not the liturgy is used in a way that is consistent with what scripture teaches.
Another criticism of the altar call is that the practice is not mentioned in scripture. While altar calls are not specifically mentioned, public invitations to accept Christ were frequently made by many of the disciples, including Peter and Paul. An altar call is a public invitation to accept Christ. It can be used in a manner that strongly affirms scripture. Here are some examples:
Altar calls are used to proclaim the good news of Jesus. In Mark 16:15 Jesus said to "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation."
Altar calls are used to exhort repentance. In Acts 17 Paul makes a public invitation to the Athenians to accept Christ. In Acts 17:30 Paul states that "...(God) commands all people everywhere to repent."
Altar calls are an opportunity for new believers to publicly acknowledge their faith in Christ. Jesus called for his disciples to follow him publicly. Matthew 10:32-33 states that "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven."
An altar is a place where one can openly confess sins. 1 John 1:9 states that "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
Altars calls are used as a time for the laying on of hands, for healing, for anointing, and for the forgiveness of sins. James 5:13-16 states: "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."
Altars are a place where the non-believer can be overwhelmed, convicted of sin, and worship God. 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 states that: "...if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"
Even though altar calls are not specifically mentioned in scripture, invitations are, and altar calls are nothing more than a form of invitation. They can clearly be used in a way that conforms to scripture.
Can evangelists and preachers abuse the practice of altar calls? Certainly they can. Altar calls can be coercive, they can appeal to emotion instead of scripture, they can be overused. But many church practices can be abused - including tithing, exorcism, baptism, confession, and others. Abuse in and of itself is not a legitimate reason to discard a practice. We should instead use altar calls only in ways that affirm scripture.
Does God "save" someone who makes a trip to the altar? He certainly desires to, but justification is dependent first on the grace of God and then on the heart of a person. In Luke 18:9-15 Jesus describes two types of people who went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and one was a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed “thanks that I’m not like this tax collector.” The tax collector prayed “God have mercy on me a sinner.” Jesus said that the tax collector was the one who went home justified. So it is with going to the altar. Some will be justified, some will not be. It depends if the person has the heart of a Pharisee or a tax collector.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Who can deny that God has used men such as Billy Graham to preach the gospel and call men to repentance? The altar call has definitely been used by the Spirit. It has been used by men of God in Godly ways. It has been used in ways that conform to scripture. Many of those who have gone to the altar have become believers, and lives have been changed.