Are We To Give Altar Calls? From a Reformed Evangelist
This is a response to the Dead Guys blog on the need for altar calls and the "Banner of Truth article entitled ‘Dr Lloyd-Jones on the Altar Call’. It serves, however, as a more general response to questions and concerns about the use of an evangelistic appeal in the context of the local church as well as in larger evangelistic meetings. The Doctor was answering a question in relation to Billy Graham’s ministry.
Firstly, let me declare my undying love for Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones! I have read a great many of his books, listened to very many of his sermons and benefited hugely from his careful, biblically driven preaching. For a couple of years I enjoyed the discipline of reading one of his sermons a day, and thus worked through the superb Romans and Ephesians Series published by Banner of Truth.
One of the great attractions of the Doctor was his personal authority in preaching and, along with that, his outspokenness. He was nervous of many new developments in church life during the 20th century including the giving of testimonies and of having a ‘worship leader’.
Lloyd-Jones’ Three Main Concerns
He had a high view of God’s sovereignty in evangelism and in revival and longed for a genuine turning to God in post-war Britain. Lloyd-Jones had a number of problems with evangelistic appeals (or, altar calls, as they are sometimes called in the USA). One of them (not mentioned in the Banner article) was the apparent lack of emotion amongst those who were responding.
While English ministers, watching hundreds go forward at Billy Graham’s meetings in 1954, enthused that there was ‘no emotion’, Lloyd-Jones felt that was a huge problem. How can a person see that they are undone without Christ, and desperately in need of mercy, or, conversely, having received the inestimable love of God in Christ, and NOT feel any emotion? To MLJ, that made him more, not less, skeptical of the authenticity of these responses.
Secondly, he was concerned about the possibility of pressurizing, or manipulating, people into a kind of false conversion. This is, of course, a legitimate pastoral concern.
His third major concern was of an historical nature. Peter did not ask the people to ‘come forward’ or to respond in some kind of physical manner, which might produce a merely psychological response. And Charles Finney, arch-Arminian, was the first to popularize the method in the 19th Century. Calvinists at the time had problems with him.
Authenticity and the Need for Emotion
First, of course, MLJ is quite right to have a pastoral concern for authenticity. Every eldership team seeking to impact their community with the gospel ought to be concerned for authenticity. This is perhaps more immediately evident in an evangelistically active local church than amongst the PR team of an itinerant evangelistic ministry: because the nature of the various responses can be discovered in the weeks that follow.
Our pastoral concern for authenticity should shape the administration of response options at the close of (or during) any church service, but that concern needn’t exclude calling people to go forward for prayer – either to seek help in finding forgiveness or to become Christians, or to receive prayer for healing.
It is entirely up to the local eldership to determine what the nature of those response options should be on any given occasion and to communicate them appropriately. And many have been genuinely helped through to conversion during an appeal (I was interested listening to apologist James Sire recount his own experience of conversion when he went forward during an evangelistic appeal in his local church).
I would agree that declaring folk who come forward automatically as ‘converts’ is presumptuous. Billy Graham didn’t do this. He designated those who went forward as ‘enquirers’. Personally, I am somewhat hesitant to talk of ‘first-time commitments’ because that can often be interpreted as conversion. The local church leaders will be able to discern a persons’ response as they begin to get to know the person. When I am asked about numbers I am comfortable to speak of the numbers of ‘responses for salvation’ or ‘responses to the gospel appeal’. And I will talk of Christians making some kind of re-commitment separately.
The emotion factor, which MLJ mentions, is a real concern. We must be careful not to drain our presentation of the gospel of all emotion. This is grace breaking in, love bursting through, hope and healing being proclaimed, there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to avoid. I am concerned about merely offering the gospel as a credible religious world- view in light of various evidences but stopping short of a direct exhortation to repent. In Acts 17 Paul doesn’t just stop at quoting local poets – he gets to a fairly pointed call to repentance and faith in Christ!
We should also expect the power of the Spirit to work upon someone to produce regeneration, and that work to be evident in conviction or joy (or both), the outcome of which should be repentance and faith. But again, none of this excludes the evangelistic appeal – and many of us could point to instances where real emotion has been part of a persons’ experience of coming to Christ during an appeal.
You can read the second part of this blog here.
For instances of evangelistic breakthrough from Church History read The Church History Blog http://lexloiz.wordpress.com/ © 2010 Lex Loizides