Jeff Noblit – The Use of Altar Calls

The fourth session of the True Church Conference 2010 was presented by Jeff Noblit concerning Altar Calls.

Altar calls are wrestled with and struggled with. An altar call is a system at the end of preaching of coming forward to receive salvation.

1. Old time religion or new fad?

The roots of the altar call go back to the 1830’s and the revivalist Charles Finney. He may not have been the first but he was the most popular, because of all of his new measures. Before Finney, there was no organized method to call people forward to be saved at the end of the sermon. Whitefield and Edwards did not do so. Spurgeon rejected the idea and warned against it. Nothing can be gotten in a private room or in front that cannot be done in the midst of the assembly.

But if there was no system, what did people do before Finney? If you don’t call people to the front, how can they be saved? Dallimore notes that Whitefield refused to count those who were saved at the end of the service. Whitefield returned months later to see if there was fruit. There were false converts, but there was a lot of lasting fruit of the First Great Awakening. But the Second Great Awakening focused on immediate results and immediate declaration of salvation. No looking for the proof of fruit. And that is the fruit of the Second Great Awakening, the lack of fruit.

Billy Graham has the same system. An immediate altar call and an immediate declaration of salvation. Graham’s invitation used the words “come” and “quickly” often. There was minimal fruit in the churches in the cities after Graham departed. The watchword is immediate pragmatism.

2. Consequences of the Altar Call

The modern invitation system has had serious consequences on the church:

a. perfection (people need a second work of grace)

b. carnal “Christians” (no change in life)

c. redundant baptisms

d. no church discipline (how can you discipline the entire church?)

e. church splits

f. loss of the glory to God

3. What do the scriptures say?

What system does the Bible give for an invitation? Nothing. The Bible has nothing about an organized invitation. Scripture tells us to make disciples.  See 2 Timothy 4:3-5. The work of an evangelist is work. It shouldn’t take only a five minute invitation and three minutes of counseling.

There are invitations in the Bible, but this word “invitation” is far too narrow. We are called to beg, command, urge, preach, reason with men to be saved. We are called to tell men to repent, believe, drink. The Holy Spirit fell on people as they were standing, not those who came forward.

4. Final Considerations

a. The gospel is the invitation. Not something after the gospel is preached.

b. The Spirit gives the invitation. And He is not confined to three verses of a song at the end of a sermon.

c. If a person has heard the word, the seed may grow any time.

d. Don’t go too far into the ditch on the other side of the road. Men still need to be called to repent and be saved. 

e. We must avoid works-salvation in our invitation. Walking to the front cannot make you a Christian.

f. Evangelism does not depend on giving a closing invitation.

g. Shepherd the people into sound practice. Those who believe in grace should have some. See Acts 18:24-27.

h. You cannot pull out all the tares among the wheat. Tares bring humility.

i. Maturity is the proof of doctrine. See 2 Corinthians 3:2


Jewels from Romans #14

Romans 9:6-9

6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,
7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”
8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.
9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return and Sarah shall have a son.”

The topic for today is pragmatism, and specifically the heartache which is caused by pragmatism. In these verses in Romans just quoted, Paul has in mind the difference between the first two children of Abraham – Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael, you may recall, was born out of pragmatism, while Isaac was born out of faith. Notice that, even though both sons were born to one father, Abraham, that the offspring of Abraham would only be named through one of those sons – Isaac. Why would God decree this? Because of the example given to us as shown in Romans 9:8 “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” (ESV) God decreed that the child born of the flesh, that is, because of pragmatism, would never be a child of God.

Unfortunately, many of the so-called evangelical churches today are giving birth to children of the flesh. We have sacrificed the gospel message, a contrite heart, brokenness over sin, and repentance for a “decision to accept Jesus Christ into your heart.” Nowhere in the Bible are the ideas of “salvation” and “decision” ever linked together. This is an invention of pragmatism in order to swell the church membership. Why else would 60% of the membership of the Southern Baptist Church never attend church?

But this post is not about pragmatism in general, it is about the heartache of pragmatism. In order to see the heartache of pragmatism as it relates to Romans 9:6-9, we must turn back to the book of Genesis and read an account from the life of Abraham and Ishmael.

Genesis 21:8-12

8 And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned.
9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. 10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.
11 And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son.
12 And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called.

Notice the reaction of Abraham when both his wife Sarah, and then God Himself, tells Abraham that he must cast out Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham was grieved. The KJV uses the words “very grievous”. The word “grievous” comes from a root word meaning “breaking”. I think we might could say that it broke Abraham’s heart to have to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. Why was it so hard for Abraham to do so? The end of verse 11 tells us it was “because of his son.” Regardless of the circumstances of how he was born, Ishmael was still Abraham’s son.

I think that we see a very similar heartache due to pragmatism in the church today. How many young children become members of the “church” through our typical Vacation Bible School program, only to never be seen again? How many of our youth drop out of “church” on the day they finish school and leave home for college or career? How many couples have joined the “church” on transfer of their letter, only to be found on lake or at the beach or on the ski slopes every Sunday? I am not a pastor, but I can only imagine the heartache a pastor must truly feel over the fact that so few of the church’s “converts” really appear to be converted. That is, unless the pastor glories in numbers rather than seeing people changed by the power of God.

Is there a solution to the problem? Yes, I think there is. I think that the answer to this problem is found in Romans 9:9 “For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” (ESV) Abraham’s troubles started when he lost sight of the promise of God and took matters into his own hands. Similarly, I think that the church’s trouble starts when we fail to wait on the promises of God and take matters into our own hands. We are told in 1 Corinthians 1:21 “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (ESV) We think that relying in faith on the preaching of the gospel message to reach those God intends to join the church doesn’t produce enough converts, or enough baptisms, or enough interest in joining the church. So we turn to the methods of pragmatism. We water down our preaching and teach insipid Sunday School lessons, and then turn to other “fun” things to attract people into the church. But the problem with this is that all of our programs are bringing children of the flesh into the “church” without the power of God ever converting them to become children of God. The church today needs to learn to wait, to be obedient, and to trust fully that God will draw those who are to become members of our local congregation. We don’t need to rent a searchlight, we need to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

By Berean Husband