The altar call is basically being used as what baptism was in the New Testament— the public acknowledgement of the receiving of Christ. Yet it is now the source af yet another controversy in the modern Church. Just how valid is it, and where did it come from?
The altar call has come under assault on several fronts. Calvinist groups (particularly what are known as "Lordship salvationists") are now questioning the conversion of many in the Southern Baptist Convention and the rest of evangelicalism, because apparently, they say, people are trusting in coming down to an altar and praying a "sinner's prayer", but are not producing the "fruits" of regeneration, and thus appear to be "tares" made comfortable on the road to Hell. Also the Church of Christ and other Campbellistic groups, who would stand outside Billy Graham crusades handing out literature asking "where in scripture is there an altar call?". Knowing their position on baptismal regeneration, I began saying to myself, "what do they want; for Graham and others to set up a baptismal pool and baptize everyone on the spot instead?" Of course, the Campbellites would believe that only baptism by one of their ministers would be valid. Maybe then they should have such rallies and just baptize everyone into their church. But I'm sure they wouldn't want that. Every group wants to make sure that the people claiming to accept Christ really understand what they are doing, and that they are sound, and start to learn the Bible. (according to the group's particular interpretation of it, of course) Most churches have membership classes, and baptism has become associated with the act of joining an organized church fellowship. Since most do not want just anyone to join their church, nobody just baptizes anyone who comes without knowing them. Originally, the church was not a corporate "organization", and people were baptized directly into Christ, and then it was up to them to find a local fellowship of Christians to become a part of. Now, it is all "organization" oriented, drawn according to doctrines and practices, many of them outright false (cults, liberals/modernists etc), and even among the "orthodox", various denominations or circles such as Calvinism, Arminianism, separatistic fundamentalism, or charismaticism believe they are truer to the Gospel than others; so they can't just baptize someone into Christ and then tell them just to go fellowship somewhere. (This is precisely what Billy Graham is often criticized for). So Baptism remains associated with local church (or at least denomination) membership.
So something else now had to take the place of baptism at the evangelistic rally. Just calling them up to the altar without the water is just as public, but also allows for the ministers to pray with the person, perhaps talk to them, give them literature or New Testaments, get their name and schedule future meetings. This then will hopefully lead to baptism, membership and growth in Christ. Of course, like baptism, going down to the altar itself does not save, but should mark or accompany the acceptance of Christ, and if not, once the ministers explain it to him more in depth, hopefully then he would accept Christ. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, so people are wrong if they just pronounce someone saved simply for coming down to the altar.
This also helps discuss the passage those of a Campbellistic bent use, about how "baptism doth now save" (1 Pet.3:21). It's baptism "by one spirit into one body" (becoming a Christian or member of Christ's body, upon faith in Christ)(1 Cor. 12:13) that saves, and water baptism was the outward symbol of this transaction (a person's conscience is cleared when he receives forgiveness for his sins, which are symbolically "buried" in the water, and than the "new man" rises out of it, as in a resurrection. As is even pointed out in the passage, it's this, not the "washing of the filth of the flesh"). Peter is showing how this was a "figure" or antitype of Noah. He wasn't saved by being in the water, because everyone who perished was in the water (moreso than he, in fact!), but by the faith that led him to obey God and build the ark.
But now unfortunately, many have come up with this new symbol, and this is what is causing all of this confusion.
It should also be added, that since baptism was the symbol of one's confession of Christ, as Chrst said "he who confesses me before men shall I confess before My father in Heaven, but he who denies me before men, him will I deny before My father in Heaven." (Matt.10:32,33). Since water baptism had become the primary symbol of one's initial confession, that is why it seems to be tied in with salvation so much. Why would anyone refuse it, unless they were denying Christ? But still, it was the belief that saved, and the outward confession (including baptism) that was to be the sign of it, not the other way around. The same would go for confessing Christ even unto death when tortured or threatened into recanting. If a person denies him then, the Bible would say he was not really saved (he didn't have saving faith), but we would never say that one must be tortured or threatened by a sword and die for Christ in order to be saved.
All of this is not necessarily justifying altar calls as the new "baptism", but just showing why it has taken its place. The NT may not have authorized this change, but if you want to go back to it, then just go and baptize any new converts you make into Christ without initiating them into your church first. But don't anyone say "no, you have to join our church, and we have to initiate you and make sure you understand and believe all our doctrines and practices first before you can be baptized" and then say they will not be saved till they get to that last step.
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