What if a Presbyterian minister gave a good, old-fashioned altar call?
by Joseph Franks
Throughout my Christian life, I have worshiped in the midst of churches who gave altar calls or invitations. As a matter of fact, I once walked an aisle and prayed with a spiritual counselor on the evening when the Heavenly Father and I were reconciled through the cross-work of Jesus Christ and the soul-work of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, when I am in a worship service and see someone coming down the aisle with tears in their eyes to find Jesus, tears find their way running down my face.
Now, as the pastor of Palmetto Hills Presbyterian Church, it is not my regular weekly practice to ask individuals to look up, raise their hands, walk forward, and bend their knee on the platform stairs while the congregation sings numerous verses of “Just As I Am.” But quite often following a sermon, I ask people to consider their condition, call upon Christ, and be saved. Around 10:40 on every Lord’s Day morning, it is not rare for me to leave a period of silence where touched individuals can meditate, pray, and respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Regularly, I call upon people to choose Christ, call on the name of the Lord, and be saved. It is my weekly pre-worship prayer that people would “turn their eyes upon Jesus; look full in his wonderful face,” and find “the things of earth growing strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”
Therefore, I suppose I am a Reformed pastor who does not feel a conflict between God’s sovereign decree and man’s duty to decide, and I believe I am in good company. For example, consider the altar call or invitation of God given by Jeremiah:
If you return, O Israel, declares the Lord, to me you should return. If you remove your detestable things from my presence, and do not waver, and if you swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory.” For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds. (Jeremiah 4:1-5)
According to the inspired minister, God’s people were to choose God. As they returned to the land, they were to return to him. Troubled souls were to remove from their lives that which was evil and detestable, and with their lips they were to make a firm, unwavering commitment to follow their God. Before God and men, they were to swear allegiance to their Savior and Lord. Yes, God would have to do a supernatural work in their soul, but it was their duty to break their own hard ground and sow proper seed. And using sacred symbolism, God’s people were to reform themselves as they circumcised their own hearts in an effort to avoid being sinners in the hand of an angry God.
Perhaps in Jeremiah’s day, there would be some who objected to his sermon and methodology. Some well-meaning critics may have concluded, “You can’t tell people to choose God; everybody knows that God chooses people.” Others may have reasoned his language to be too emotional and his altar call too man-centered. Some may have even come to the conclusion that Jeremiah was an Arminian who denied the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace and gave too much credit to sinful man. “After all,” they might say, “how can a man circumcise his own heart?”
However, they would be wrong. For Jeremiah understood two parallel truths: God is completely sovereign in the salvation of man; and man has the God declared responsibility to choose Christ, pick up his cross, and follow him.
Therefore Reformed friends, take it easy on our Christian brothers who call people to Christ after their prefered traditional manner. Cut them some slack and quit throwing the “Regulative Principle” in their face. Joshua called people to “choose this day whom they would serve.” Jeremiah called people to “circumcise themselves.” John the Baptist called people out into the wilderness to be baptized afresh. And Jesus commanded people to publicly and boldly proclaim their faith before men. Sure, any religious rite, ritual or traditional can become emotionally based, man-centered, and manipulative, but this does not necessary mean all are wrong in their practice because some are wrong. God has done some very good work through altar calls and invitations given by his ministers in his evangelical church.
And now a word to my Non-Reformed friends. Come on, take it easy on your Christian brothers who call people to Christ after their traditional manner. I am fairly sure Jeremiah did not have a wooden pulpit and an altar/platform with steps. I am fairly sure he did not ask individuals to raise their hands or throw a stick in the fire. And I am absolutely sure they did not sing, “All to Jesus I Surrender” fourteen times. Jeremiah was not influenced by Charles Finney, and therefore he was comfortable calling people to repent according to his own cultural manner. So my fundamentalist and broadly evangelical friends, please do not consider your Christian brothers to be worldly compromisers who care not about calling people to Christ simply because they issue forth God’s call in a different manner than you and your tradition prefer.
And finally, let us all be ready this Sunday to respond to God’s call. Throughout the world, Christ’s ministers will be communicating God’s Word, and the Holy Spirit will be alive and active. Lord willing, something will be said which leads to conviction and a call to action. So be ready to respond. When the stirring comes, call upon Christ and be saved. Repent afresh of your transgressions. Circumcise your hearts. Yes, Sunday will be one more day in which you can worship Christ by being further reformed and resolved to follow Christ. So be ready to respond to God’s altar call or invitation in whatever form it may come. And do not sit in your pew with the idea, “When God wants me to respond he will change me.” Friends, God will be calling. God will be urging. God will be inviting you to respond and commanding you to repent. This Sunday, when the Gospel gun in loaded and fired, let us all find someway to respond properly to the gracious message of our Savior and Lord.