I have had my fair share of altar calls. I have walked down many an aisle to the tune of an emotional appeal. These days preachers get converts after appealing for almost anything. Do you want a better house? A happy marriage? Do you think life is hard and your kids don’t finish their porridge? Here is what you can do they say: Just say this prayer and let Jesus into your heart. He will come in and make things alright. He is seriously knocking at that door and he really wants to come in. Wait a minute you say. There is no preaching about sin, no preaching about righteousness no repentance? Yup, sadly that is the state of evangelicalism. We have mega churches and therefore can accommodate more converts but … to what?
A while ago, William Franklin “Billy” Graham (one of the most recognisable Evangelical faces of the 20th Century) was said as of 1993 to have made more than 2.5 million people “step forward at his crusades to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour“. No, I do not doubt the genuineness of some evangelists (and neither do I doubt that there have resulted some genuine conversions in some of these crusades) but I would like to take a moment and look at the methods and the means.
You see, “accepting Christ” and “making a decision” for Christ are clichés sprinkled all over church notice boards , marketing statistics spread sheets and missions reports. These ambiguous yet glossy sounding expressions should always be run and tested by the Word of God to see if they align with what the bible teaches. Our modern day gospel has moulted and produced yet astronomically illustrious results highlighting numerous “decisions made for Christ”. But how many of our converts are really genuine?
Jesus told Nicodemus about the most vital ingredient of a genuine conversion. Actually it’s the only ingredient that matters in the salvation of a sinner. He spoke of a work that only God can do by His Spirit during that tête-à-tête. Only God (the Holy Spirit) can regenerate a sinner:
“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:7-8
How then can we number new converts at the end of a mere sermon? How can a mere decision to say a sinner’s prayer do the impossible? Who can know the heart of man and declare him converted?
Well, looking back through early church history we do not see people saying “sinners prayers” but instead we read that “the Lord added to their numbers day by day those who were saved.” (Acts 2:47)
Listen to this:
A very large, or a major denomination of the United States which has 11,500 churches throughout the US – in 1991, their first year of what they called “the decade of harvest,” they got 294,000 decisions for Christ. They found that only 14,000 remained in fellowship. That is, they couldn’t account for 279,000 of their decisions for Jesus. And this is normal modern evangelical statistics when it comes to crusades and local churches. -True and false Conversion, Ray Comfort
So what went wrong? Where did things go astray? Where did we get our current methods and means from. Hold onto your seats as I introduce you to the topic of “decisional regeneration”. Where man takes charge of his own conversion and literally pulls himself by his own boot straps. It’s a sad story of the sovereignty of man and the dis regard for God.
Meet Mr Charles G. Finney (1792-1875). He was a preacher like no other. Modern day evangelism has been shaped by a great portion of his influence. Talk about decisions he knew how to help people make decisions. He introduced the most glorious of crutches to help see results-“The altar call”. The practice of urging men and women to make a physical movement at the conclusion of a meeting was introduced by Mr. Finney in the second decade of the nineteenth century. And hence the old adage “decision to walk” or “not to walk”.
This is not an attack on “the altar call.” No, not at all. For I am humble enough know that God is not limited and can even use a talking donkey or a brazen serpent to get a message a cross.
Dr. Albert B. Dod, a professor of theology at Princeton Seminary at the time of Mr. Finney’s ministry, pointed out the newness of the practice and showed that this method was without historical precedent. In his review of Finney’s Lectures on Revival, Professor Dod stated that one will search the volumes of church history in vain for a single example of this practice before the 1820′s. Instead, history tells us that whenever the gospel was preached men were invited to Christ – not to decide at the end of a sermon whether or not to perform some physical action.
James E. Adams said that the apostles taught that God saves His elect through the foolishness of preaching. All new methods devised by man can only fall far short of this ordained means of converting the sinner. The Church must forsake its carnal inventions and once again be guided by the teaching of Scripture if it is to expect God to bless its efforts and multiply its harvest. The Scriptural means of evangelizing is to “preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:23-24).
It is hard for us to understand why someone can hear the Gospel and not feel the least bit effected by it one time, and when it is presented at another time, it strikes conviction and is either accepted or knowingly rejected. At the times when there was no effect at all, we should realize that it is because it is not God’s will and timing for this person.To pressure for a “decision” at this point is nothing less than man’s manipulation and is not to be confused with God’s conviction. We run the risk of destroying the respondents hopes if they are declared “saved” when all they do is respond by just mechanically reciting a “sinners prayer.” -Jeff Paton
The whole ‘Accept Christ’ attitude is likely to be wrong, it makes Him stand hat-in-hand awaiting our verdict on Him, instead of our kneeling with troubled hearts awaiting His verdict on us. It may even permit us to accept Christ by an impulse of mind or emotions, painlessly, at no loss to our ego and no inconvenience to our usual way of life.” – A.W Tozer
It is said that A.W. Tozer, while on his way home from work at a tire company overheard a street preacher say: “If you don’t know how to be saved… just call on God.” Upon returning home, he climbed into the attic and heeded the preacher’s advice and did just that. Five years after his conversion, and without formal theological training, Tozer accepted an offer to pastor his first church. This began 44 years of ministry, associated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
A couple of years ago, when I was in Primary school we had a lovely God fearing head teacher. And every Tuesday morning, we faithfully said communal prayers. The assembly meetings always ended with invitations to accept Christ into your heart as a young person so that your name would be written in heaven. And sure every week we “accepted baby Jesus into our hearts.” We sincerely repeated the words asking Him to come into our hearts week in and week out but lived like the devil for the rest of the week. There was no fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives, no sign of regeneration and we blissfully carried on with our lives…in our sins. The lovely head mistress I guess never got tired of hearing us announce every week,“I got saved today…again!”
It was later in life that I realised what salvation is all about. Its not about acknowledging that your are a sinner. Its not even about accepting Christ in your heart. It’s not even about saying a “sinners prayer” or filling a Decisions card. An acknowledgement of our sinful state is important, but it is different from Repentance. You dont hear much about Repentance these days or even the cross and why Jesus died. On him God placed your sin as he faced the Cup of God’s wrath; in exchange God imputes on you Jesus’ righteousness or goodness. The good news in all this is by grace your fine was then paid. One cannot come to Christ in hopes of His precious gift of life with the intent of remaining an enemy of God while refusing to let go of their sin. Only the Spirit of God can create a new man in Christ. God in His grace gives men new hearts. Who can rightfully declare that a person is saved? A preacher or some man? Or the Holy Spirit? When a person is born-again they will know it! The Holy Spirit will dwell within them and be a witness to their hearts that they are a child of God. Salvation is by Repentance and Faith in Jesus Christ.
While we can give people hope that they can be saved by faith, it is an error to declare them saved apart from the witness of the Spirit, and the evidence of a changed life. When God regenerates a soul, the person is changed. If one continues on unchanged while declaring that they are “saved,” they are deluded and deceived. -Jeff Paton
Charles Finney, the grandfather of “the altar call” and “decisional evangelism” sadly noted at the end of his days of ministry:
I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith . . . . [But] falling short of urging them up to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state.
B.B Warfield one of Finney’s contemporaries confirmed the catastrophic and embarrassing impasse when he lamented:
During ten years, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, were annually reported to be converted on all hands; but now it is admitted, that real converts are comparatively few. It is declared, even by [Finney] himself, that “the great body of them are a disgrace to religion.”