In recent years, many Calvinists have severely critiqued the altar call, claiming that it is an Arminian innovation designed to manipulate people into making a faith commitment. While many an altar call may indeed be characterized as manipulative and fleshly, there is such a thing as a Spiritual altar call, and it is an appropriate part of Christian worship, arising not out of a misguided Arminianism, but out of biblical urgencies.
The altar call is a natural progression of the sermon. Whether the sermon is evangelistic or meant to challenge believers, the sermon is designed to move individuals toward change in their lives. There should be at least a little movement toward Christ-likeness in every listening-believer’s life, and if the Spirit is calling individuals to make a significant decision, there should be an opportunity for people to make their decisions public. The altar call, then, is an opportunity for people to give public testimony, and this is right and good.
The altar call provides a unique Spiritual context which is not available at other times. To be sure, a person can be saved anywhere and at any time. However, the altar call has as its context the preached word and the praying congregation. These two elements, contemporary as they are with the altar call, are means by which the Spirit moves in the lives of people.
When the word has been preached, it is incumbent upon the congregation to pray mightily for the Spirit’s convicting power. This is often the missing ingredient in the altar call. We might have pensive music and other mood setting elements in play, but this is nothing, for the one thing which is relevant is the Spirit’s drawing. Thus, the congregation needs to be taught and urged to pray with all their strength for the salvation of those in attendance, or for their fellow believers who are being called to make decisions.
Again, I emphasize that it is not mood-setting elements that make a difference. The real difference is when the congregation is gathered in the Spirit, and the power of the Lord Jesus is present. This is the ideal behind the altar call, with God’s people fervently praying with great expectation. If this element is lacking, I’d suggest getting rid of the altar call.
It is altogether insufficient for the minister to stand in front with the musicians quietly playing, and with the congregation reverently standing with heads bowed and eyes closed. No, every believing Christian must be called to pray with hearts heavily burdened for the lost. We must learn to pray as if it matters, for prayer really does matter. The model in Jonah 3:7-9 is instructive.
Arminians do believe that each one of our individual friends and loved ones can be saved, and that none is excluded from the offer of salvation on the basis of some unbiblical decree. Indeed, we believe that God is pleased for us to pray for the conversion of our individual friends and loved ones, and that he is eager to answer our prayers by sending his Spirit to convict them and to draw them to faith. No doubt, Calvinists often pray for their friends and loved ones, even though their theology tells them that some eternal decree may very well have excluded their loved ones from any hope of salvation. Arminians have no such deterrents to prayer.
Because we Arminians believe in a “whosoever will” gospel, we should be all the more urgent in our praying for those in the altar call.
James M. Leonard