Let’s Talk About Altar Calls

As the pastor finished his message, low music began to play and he said, “With every head bowed and every eye closed.” The invitation was about to begin.

When we all began to pray—or listen to his prayer—my mind was wandering aimlessly like Kevin Malone in the maze Dwight created on The Office. Unfortunately, I can confirm that my mind wasn’t thinking about the sermon. It wasn’t thinking about the prayer. It was thinking about . . . nothing really. My mind wasn’t there.

The prayer went on and I decided to commit the unpardonable sin of a sinner’s prayer and peak to see who responded. As I did, I noticed my friend got up to walk the aisle. I thought to myself, “Why don’t I go up there, too?”

Along with about 15 others, I proceeded to do a salvation dance to praise God for saving us. Except salvation didn’t take place that evening—at least not for me.

Days after, my life was back to normal. Strange, the minimum amount of sincerity I had that night didn’t make a difference. It’s almost as if my heart wasn’t “in it”—my heart wasn’t made new. And yet, I was counted as someone who made a decision for Christ and they could tally my name down.

I had a similar experience about a month later. Same half-hearted decision, same result. No change. No transformation. No salvation. But by golly, I could’ve been counted as a salvation that night because I prayed a prayer.

Two altar calls, two false conversions.

Church (specifically churches in the SBC), we need to talk about this. Altar calls have become such a tradition within SBC life that it is taboo to have a different perspective on it.

Sinner’s Prayer, Walk an Aisle, Sign a Card

Is there anything inherently (biblically) wrong with praying the sinner’s prayer, walking an aisle, or signing a card for salvation? Of course not. Those acts in themselves aren’t wrong at all. But what we have made them to be is very wrong.

Instead of relying on the Holy Spirit to perform the miraculous act of regeneration in a sinner’s heart, we resort to manufactured invitations to lead people to pray a prayer or something akin to it and automatically count them as saved when, in reality, many times no salvation occurred.

Please understand, I believe most pastors who advocate for these invitations have God-centered motives. They genuinely want to see people come to repentance and faith in Christ (Mark 1:15). They preach the gospel during these invitations. However, good motives don’t always lead to biblical outcomes. The issue? Pragmatism. It’s fair to say we’ve placed far too much emphasis on an end-of-service altar call than we do on simply leaving room in the sermon for the Holy Spirit to do his regenerating work.

So let’s ask the question. Do these actions—sinner’s prayer, walking an aisle, signing a card—save you? No, of course they don’t. Jesus only saves by His grace. It’s not “by the sinner’s prayer you’ve been saved” but “by grace you’ve been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).

I don’t wish to be overly negative in this post. My position still remains the same. These acts, in my mind, are biblically permissible but they become unbiblical when we allow it to replace the regenerating work of the Spirit.

Perhaps I should be even more specific. If somebody responds to an invitation by walking forward, kneeling at the altar, and praying the sinner’s prayer, I believe that person was saved before he or she stood up.

“If we lead someone in a sinner’s prayer and at the end of it they are saved, they were already saved before the prayer began,” said Dane Ortlund. “That prayer would never be sincerely prayed to begin with if they were not already born again.”

We begin to call unsaved people saved simply because they prayed a prayer. That does a massive disservice to the gospel. If we truly believe what Scripture says about people’s condition before coming to Christ, then biblically speaking no person prays that prayer unless God has already saved them.

Don’t Fall off the Other Side

With that being said, we have to walk a fine line. We don’t ever—ever, ever, ever!—discourage a profession of faith. But we don’t want to automatically pronounce someone saved simply because they did a specific act of response.

So what do we do?

We disciple them. We don’t leave them behind. We don’t look at them as a number to boast about but make sure we’re doing our due diligence of making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Can a sinner’s prayer be genuine? Can the Holy Spirit be behind someone signing a card? Absolutely. But those acts by themselves don’t save us.

It’s important to not look down on pastors who advocate for these types of invitations. It is certainly a conviction issue. It is good to give people a chance to respond in some form or fashion after sermon. At the very least, it shows you they were attentive to your sermon.

Friends, this is not a hill to die on, but it is a hill we may fight on if it tries to replace the Holy Spirit. And it has. We cannot replace the Spirit’s work by our crafty invitations. If the Spirit wants to save a person, He will. Preach the gospel. Invite them to taste of salvation. But don’t put your trust in someone praying a prayer.

Author’s note: Right here I would like to tell you how I do an invitation. I have not been asked to do one many times, but when I do one, it’s the following. I will find a specific point of my sermon that has gospel implications and begin to talk more on that. As I do so, I will invite people to come forward after the service if they have any questions, concerns or if they would like to pray about their salvation.

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