We carry the descriptive name “evangelical” because we believe that people are accepted by God through believing the evangel, the “good news” that Jesus died upon the cross for believing sinners. Sinners who repent of their sin and look to the crucified Christ, who took the wrath of God in their stead, are forgiven and counted righteous by God: “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [God the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV).
An unfortunate invention, however, was devised around the turn of the nineteenth century. What we term the “altar call” or the “invitation” was begun by revivalistic preachers and popularized by the evangelist Charles Grandison Finney.
Finney is looked upon by many Baptists, as well as others, as a wonderful role model for evangelistic preaching. Throngs of people listened to Finney’s sermons and responded to his calls to come forward to the “anxious seat.” There they professed Christ and were counted as converts and received into the membership of local churches.
Many of us, though, see Finney as more of a problem to be avoided than a pattern to be followed. Finney put great emphasis upon making a physical move at the end of the preaching service in order to follow Christ, to respond to the invitation to turn to Christ. Unfortunately, as revealed by Iain Murray in his Revival and Revivalism, most of those who so “followed” Christ were revealed to be superficial believers who later stopped following Christ. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19, ESV).
Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), pastor of the famed Westminster Chapel in London, looked upon Finney’s impact with grave concern. An altar call puts psychological pressure upon people to make a decision. Dr. Lloyd-Jones commented, “The Puritans in particular were afraid of what they would call ‘a temporary faith’ or ‘a false profession.’ There was a great Puritan, Thomas Shepard, who published a famous series of sermons on The Ten Virgins. The great point of that book was to deal with this problem of a false profession. The foolish virgins thought they were all right. This is a very great danger.”
Most evangelicals today believe that an invitation at the end of a preaching service must be extended in order to “draw the net,” to bring the unconverted to Christ. Great emphasis is placed on getting people to respond to the invitation, to come forward to confess Christ. Hearers are instructed to close their eyes so that no one, except the preacher, sees their response. They may be asked something like this: “Do you know that if you died today you would go to heaven? Please raise your hand.” “If you were not able to raise your hand, you may very well go to hell for all eternity. If you don’t want that to happen, why don’t you come forward to receive Christ?”
Dr. Lloyd-Jones, though, saw that such practices actually reveal a lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. He explained, “I can sum it up by putting it like this: I feel that this pressure which is put upon people to come forward in decision ultimately is due to a lack of faith in the work and operation of the Holy Spirit. We are to preach the Word, and if we do it properly, there will be a call to a decision that comes in the message, and then we leave it to the Spirit to act upon people. And of course He does. Some may come immediately at the close of the service to see the minister. I think there should always be an indication that the minister will be glad to see anybody who wants to put questions to him or wants further help. But that is a very different thing from putting pressure upon people to come forward. I feel it is wrong to put pressure directly on the will. The order in Scripture seems to be this—the truth is presented to the mind, which moves the heart, and that in turn moves the will.”