Some Thoughts on Altar Calls

In recent years, the subject of altar calls has been sometimes hotly debated among Southern Baptists. If you don’t know the term, altar calls are a form of public invitation wherein attendees are urged to walk to the front of a worship center or other gathering place to discuss spiritual matters, normally near the conclusion of a worship service. Evangelists such as Billy Graham give altar calls at the conclusion of their evangelistic meetings. In many churches, pastors invite attendees to the front to seek counsel related to conversion, to express a desire to be baptized and/or join the church, and to discuss any number of other spiritual matters. Many churches also invite folks to pray at the front of the worship center, even if they do not discuss these prayers with a pastor or other spiritual counselor.

Altar calls have been common among American evangelicals for about two hundred years. During the Second Great Awakening, frontier Methodists first used this practice in their camp meetings. Some Baptists in the South also adopted the practice, which they almost certainly learned from the Methodists, since these two groups frequently cooperated in camp meetings in the Carolinas and Georgia through the 1810s. In the 1820s and 1830s, Charles Finney popularized the view among Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists in the urban Northeast. Though he was accused of introducing “Methodist” practices among these more Calvinistic churches, altar calls (along with his other “new measures”) became popular among many evangelicals.

Though it is impossible to determine with certainty when altar calls became a part of the weekly liturgy of most Southern Baptist churches, the practice was common after the Civil War and nearly uniform by the early twentieth century. This more or less coincides with the same period that Southern Baptists almost universally embraced “protracted meetings” (revival meetings) as a means to evangelize their communities. Though I can’t prove it, I suspect the two trends are related, since both reflect practices that emerged during the Second Great Awakening.

Back to the present. In my opinion, the debate about altar calls is “much ado about nothing.” I put altar calls in the category of what Augustine calls adiaphora: the “indifferent matters” that various Christians might disagree about without breaking fellowship. Simply put, altar calls are a particular strategy, born out of a particular context, that may or may not work in other contexts. Though open to various abuses (what strategy isn’t?), I don’t believe altar calls are inherently anti-biblical or manipulative. Though helpful in some contexts, altar calls aren’t biblically mandated means of encouraging spiritual decisions. As a mostly itinerant preacher, when I preach, I adapt my practice to the tradition of the church or other context in which I’m preaching. I would estimate that I extend an altar call about 75% of the time.

In taking this approach, I’m deliberately pushing back against two tendencies that I think are extremes and that frequently shoot at each other in this particular debate. On the one hand, I reject the argument that altar calls are (almost) always inappropriate. Some folks who make this argument are Calvinists who believe the practice is out-of-bounds because of its roots in the more Arminian wing of the Second Great Awakening. Other Calvinists reject altar calls because of their particular understanding of the regulative principle of worship; since altar calls aren’t in the Bible, we shouldn’t employ them today. Still others, from a variety of soteriological perspectives, reject altar calls for methodological reasons. Altar calls are seen to be relics of a bygone era of revivalism and cultural Christianity that simply do not work in a more postmodern, urban, post-Christian world.

On the other hand, I reject the view that altar calls are (almost) always necessary for one to be an evangelistic preacher or church. Some folks who make this argument are vocal non-Calvinists who are reacting negatively to the theological critiques that some Calvinists have advanced concerning altar calls. Others are simply pastors and other leaders who have found that altar calls useful in their contexts and seem to have a hard time understanding that the strategy might not work in other contexts. I suspect that still others defend altar calls for experiential reasons; they have expressed their own significant spiritual decisions in part by responding to altar calls.

I suspect that much of the debate isn’t about altar calls per se, but rather is about concerns each extreme has about the other extreme. Therefore, I want to offer some constructive advice to those who are strongly for or strongly against altar calls.

If you are strongly in favor of altar calls, be sure that you don’t require altar calls for individuals to seek spiritual counsel. To say it a different way, make sure that altar calls are but one avenue through which an individual can seek counsel, make spiritual decisions known, etc. Second, when it comes to conversion in particular, make sure that the altar call doesn’t replace baptism as the public profession of faith. This elevates the altar call, which is simply a human strategy, and downplays baptism, which is an ordinance commanded by our Lord. Finally, don’t turn altar calls into a sacrament by implying that one is saved through walking an aisle. I know that no pastor really teaches this, but I also know that many folks seem to hear this. (I did throughout my teenage years.) Pastors need to be extra careful to be as clear as possible that an altar call doesn’t convey any sort of grace, but is simply a way to encourage folks to share what the Lord has already done in their lives or to seek spiritual counsel from pastors or other leaders.

If you are strongly against altar calls, be sure that you are being intentionally evangelistic in your corporate worship gatherings. Press the claims of Christ upon sinners and plead with them to repent and believe—in that very moment. Provide them with avenues to make spiritual decisions known or to seek spiritual counsel. In my church, where we don’t regularly extend altar calls, we always remind folks that elders are standing at each door and are eager to talk and pray with anyone who desires to do so. Much of what happens in other churches during an altar call happens in our church after the service as individuals talk to a pastor about spiritual matters. Second, don’t assume that just because altar calls were popularized by folks with theological convictions that Southern Baptists reject (Methodists; Finney) means that altar calls are, by definition, theologically suspect. There are good and bad forms of altar calls; give your brothers the benefit of the doubt on this unless you have clear evidence that someone is being manipulative.

There is much in the Southern Baptist Convention that is worthy of debate and discussion, provided we are Christ-like and extend brotherly love towards one another. But I don’t think this issue is worthy of too much debate (discussion, perhaps). Let’s extend each other Christian charity in methodological strategies that don’t conflict with biblical teachings, since churches are free to adopt these strategies or dispense with them. This includes the altar call. For readers who want to consider appropriate ways to extend an altar call, check out Danny Akin’s chapter “Giving an Invitation: Soul Winning from the Pulpit” in Engaging Exposition (B&H Academic, 2011).

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The Sword of the Lord…and of John R Rice

John R. Rice was, arguably, the leading voice of Fundamentalism in the 20th century. At its peak in the early 1970’s, his weekly paper, The Sword of the Lord, boasted a circulation of over 130,000. Back in those days, as a young Southern Baptist disturbed by the direction of the Convention, I read the Sword faithfully. Articles such as “Southern Baptists–Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” “Death in the Pot at Furman University,” and “Liberalism at Southern Seminary Exposed” convinced me and others similarly concerned that something had to be done. For the last couple of years Joy Martin, one of Rice’s six daughters, has entrusted the Library at Southeastern with the task of being caretaker over Rice’s papers. As we finish the process of digitizing his letters, sermons, and other personal correspondence, Southeastern will transfer the papers to Southwestern Seminary, where Rice attended. Now Andrew Himes, one of Rice’s grandsons, has written a new biography about his grandfather, and it is not the hagiography one might expect.

Himes, by his own admission, was the black sheep of the Rice family. Though he made a profession of faith at an early age and surrendered to preach under the ministry of Rice, by the time he went to college in the late ’60s he had abandoned his faith. When Himes graduated from the University of Wisconsin he was an atheist and a communist, and he spent the next decade as a union organizer. By his own admission, Himes traded one fundamentalism for another. By the time of Rice’s death in 1980, Himes had realized the futility of Mao’s and Stalin’s utopia, and was at the end of his rope. In many ways Himes’ biography tells the story of how he went “from worshipping his famous grandfather, to hating him, and finally to loving him.”

Through the story of Rice’s life, Himes attempts to tell the wider story of Fundamentalism. In broad surveys he recounts the influences that birthed Fundamentalism–the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings, Reconstruction, the Scopes Monkey Trials–with varying degrees of success. But the best parts of the book are the portions which tell of Rice’s relationships with those who played such a significant role in the formation of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. John R. Rice got his start in evangelism in no small part due to J. Frank Norris. In turn, Rice would play a pivotal role in launching the career of Billy Graham. Rice and Graham’s eventual falling out illustrated the larger break up between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. Himes had a front row seat to many of events which shaped Evangelicalism in general and Baptists in particular. You really want to read his account of having lunch with Jerry Falwell at his grandfather’s funeral (Falwell extolled to Himes, the communist, the Christian virtues of Ronald Reagan).

In many ways The Sword of the Lord is a very sad book. Himes’ regret over the broken relationship between Rice and him comes through often. This is no whitewash: Himes deals with Rice’s failure to deal properly with the race issue during the civil rights movement. But his days as an angry communist ideologue are over. Now approaching retirement age, Himes has come to admire his grandfather’s character and courage. Without endorsing every page, I recommend The Sword of the Lord as an insightful work about a crucial person and his role in modern church history.

Why We Believe Children Who Die Go to Heaven

WHY WE BELIEVE CHILDREN WHO DIE GO TO HEAVEN

By R. Albert Mohler, Jr. and Daniel L. Akin

Few things in life are more tragic and heartbreaking than the death of a baby or small child. For parents, the grief can be overwhelming. For the minister, to stand over a small, white casket and provide comfort and support seems to ask for more than he can deliver.

Many console themselves with the thought that at least the child is now in a better place. Some believe small children who die become angels. They are certain these precious little ones are in heaven with God.

However, it is important for us both to ask and answer some important questions if we can. Do those who die in infancy go to heaven? How do we know? What evidence is there to support such a conclusion? Sentimentalism and emotional hopes and wants are not sufficient for those who live under the authority of the Word of God. We must, if possible, find out what God has said.

It is interesting to discover that the Church has not been of one mind on this issue. In fact, the early and medieval Church was anything but united. Some Church Fathers remained silent on the issue. Ambrose said unbaptized infants were not admitted to heaven, but have immunity from the pains of hell. Augustine basically affirmed the damnation of all unbaptized infants, but taught they would receive the mildest punishment of all. Gregory of Nyssa offered that infants who die immediately mature and are given the opportunity to trust Christ. Calvin affirmed the certain election of some infants to salvation and was open to the possibility that all infants who die are saved. He said, “Christ receives not only those who, moved by holy desire and faith, freely approach unto Him, but those who are not yet of age to know how much they need His grace.” Zwingli, B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge all taught that God saves all who die in infancy. This perspective has basically become the dominant view of the Church in the 20th century.

Yet, a popular evangelical theologian chided Billy Graham when at the Oklahoma City memorial service he said, “Someday there will be a glorious reunion with those who have died and gone to heaven before us, and that includes all those innocent children that are lost. They’re not lost from God because any child that young is automatically in heaven and in God’s arms.” The theologian scolded Dr. Graham for offering what he called “. . . a new gospel: justification by youth alone.”

It is our conviction that there are good reasons biblically and theologically for believing that God saves all who die who do not reach a stage of moral understanding and accountability. It is readily admitted that Scripture does not speak to this issue directly, yet there is evidence that can be gleaned that would lead us to affirm on biblical grounds that God receives into heaven all who have died in infancy. Some evidence is stronger than others, but cumulatively they marshall strong support for infant salvation. We will note six of them.

First, the grace, goodness and mercy of God would support the position that God saves all infants who die. This is the strongest argument and perhaps the decisive one. God is love (1 John 4:8) and desires that all be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). God is love and His concern for children is evident in Matthew 18:14 where Jesus says, “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” People go to hell because they choose in willful rebellion and unbelief to reject God and His grace. Children are incapable of this kind of conscious rejection of God. Where such rebellion and willful disobedience is absent, God is gracious to receive.

Second, when the baby boy who was born to David and Bathsheba died (2 Samuel 12:15-18), David did two significant things: 1) He confessed his confidence that he would see the child again and, 2) he comforted his wife Bathsheba (vs. 23-24). David could have done those two things only if he was confident that his little son was with God. Any other explanation does not do justice to the text.

Third, in James 4:17, the Bible says, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” The Bible is clear that we are all born with a sin nature as a result of being in Adam (Roman 5:12). This is what is called the doctrine of original sin. However, the Scriptures make a distinction between original sin and actual sins. While all are guilty of original sin, moral responsibility and understanding is necessary for our being accountable for actual sins (Deuteronomy 1:30; Isaiah 7:16). It is to the one who knows to do right and does not do it that sin is reckoned. Infants are incapable of such decisions.

Fourth, Jesus affirmed that the kingdom of God belonged to little children (Luke 18:15-17). In the passage he is stating that saving faith is a childlike faith, but He also seems to be affirming the reality of children populating heaven.

Fifth, Scripture affirms that the number of saved souls is very great (Revelation 7:9). Since most of the world has been and is still non-Christian, might it be the untold multitude who have died prematurely or in infancy comprise a majority of those in heaven? Such a possibility ought not to be dismissed too quickly. In this context Charles Spurgeon said, “I rejoice to know that the souls of all infants, as soon as they die, speed their way to paradise. Think what a multitude there is of them.”

Sixth, some in Scripture are said to be chosen or sanctified from the womb (1 Samuel 1:8-2:21; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:15). This certainly affirms the salvation of some infants and repudiates the view that only baptized babies are assured of heaven. Neither Samuel, Jeremiah or John the Baptist was baptized.

After surveying these arguments, it is important for us to remember that anyone who is saved is saved because of the grace of God, the saving work of Jesus Christ and the undeserved and unmerited regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Like all who have ever lived, except for Jesus, infants need to be saved. Only Jesus can take away their sin, and if they are saved it is because of His sovereign grace and abounding mercy. Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). We can confidently say, “Yes, He will.” When it comes to those incapable of volitional, willful acts of sin, we can rest assured God will, indeed, do right. Precious little ones are the objects of His saving mercy and grace.

CONCLUSION

On September 29, 1861, the great Baptist pastor, Charles Spurgeon, preached a message entitled “Infant Salvation.” In that message he chastened some critics who had “. . . wickedly, lyingly, and slanderously said of Calvinists that we believe that some little children perish.” Similar rumblings have been heard in some Baptist circles of late. Spurgeon affirmed that God saved little ones without limitation and without exception. He, then, as was his manner, turned to conclude the message with an evangelistic appeal to parents who might be lost. Listen to his plea:

Many of you are parents who have children in heaven. Is it not a desirable thing that you should go there too? And yet, have I not in these galleries and in this area some, perhaps many, who have no hope hereafter? . . . . Mother, unconverted mother, from the battlements of heaven your child beckons you to Paradise. Father, ungodly, impenitent father, the little eyes that once looked joyously on you, look down upon you now and the lips which had scarcely learned to call you “Father” ere they were sealed by the silence of death, may be heard as with a still, small voice, saying to you this morning, “Father, must we be forever divided by the great gulf which no man can pass?” If you wilt, think of these matters, perhaps the heart will begin to move, and the eyes may begin to flow and then may the Holy Spirit put before thine eyes the cross of the Savior . . . if thou wilt turn thine eye to Him, thou shalt live . . .

Little ones are precious in God’s sight. If they die, they go to heaven. Parents, who have trusted Jesus, who have lost a little one, if they have trusted Jesus, can be confident of a wonderful reunion someday. Are you hopeful of seeing again that little treasure God entrusted to you for such a short time? Jesus has made a way. Come to Him now and someday you will see them again.

[Note: This article and hundreds of other resources are available at http://www.danielakin.com.]

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