It is not a New Testament doctrine.
When you read the New Testament, there are a number of things that we have today that are not found there. You don’t find Church buildings or baptisteries or altars or steeples, for instance. Yet these are as common in churches and cities as courthouses. In the New Testament, local congregations met initially in the temple and in houses [Acts 2:46 and Acts 5:42]. As the gospel spread, Paul preached most commonly in synagogues [Acts 9:20, 13:5, 14:1, 17:1, 17:10, 19:8]. He also preached publickly [Acts 20:20]. And we see that believers met in house churches in certain places [1 Cor 16:19; Phile 2]. But they didn’t meet in “church buildings.”
Hence, is it ungodly for Christians to build and meet in church buildings? I don’t think so, but you see the problem here. One would answer simply, “No.” Another would answer simply, “Yes.” Another would say, “It’s okay as long as the building and its contents aren’t the object of worship.” Still another would say, “Anything you do with a church building is justified for the sake of the souls who are saved and discipled there.” And on and on the answers go.
So, when it comes to the question of the altar call, we run into the same problem. You don’t see church altars and church altar calls in the New Testament. Thus, you have an array of opinions as to the necessity for and the use of altar calls. Some would say they are a great way for preachers to help sinners come to Christ. Others would say they are unscriptural and, therefore, they won’t use them. Nevertheless they meet in church buildings, and one might remind them that church buildings are unscriptural, too.
In church history, the altar call is a relatively young practice. Apparently, Charles Finney is credited with popularizing the use of the altar call. And many evangelists followed his practice: Dwight L. Moody, Peter Cartwright, Sam Jones, R. A. Torrey, Billy Sunday, Bob Jones, Gipsy Smith, Mordacai Ham, John R. Rice, and Billy Graham to name a few of the more notable ones. Were these men wrong or ungodly for doing something unscriptural and something that Charles Spurgeon fervently opposed? By looking for altar calls in the New Testament, you aren’t going to answer this question.
Scripturally, we see “invitations” in numerous places. “Compel them to come in,” Lk 14:23; “Come now, and let us reason together,” Is 1:18; “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,” Matt 11:28; “The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come,” Rev 22:1, to name a few.
Also, we see public professions and confessions of belief. “Whosever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven,” Matt 10:32; “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus … with the mouth confession is made unto salvation,” Rom 10:9-10; “And all the people saw him walking and praising God,” Acts 3:9; “And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God,” Lk 17:15, are examples.
Obviously then, altar calls, though unscriptural, are a convenient way for people to “come” and “confess before men” at the same time. That’s probably why they are so widely used in evangelistic preaching. And they can be very helpful in bringing a sinner to do something now about what he has just heard [2 Cor 6:1-2; Jas 1:22].
Are they fool proof ways of being sure that a soul is sincerely trusting Jesus Christ? Absolutely not! A persuasive preacher could tug the heart strings of a sinner and get him to the front without getting him to Christ. It’s been done thousands of times before. Without adequate clarification at the invitation it could be easy for a soul to confuse coming to the front with faith in Christ, and a prayer with trust in Christ.
Remember that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit [Tit 3:5] and the drawing to Christ is the work of the Father and the Son [Jn 6:44; 12:32]. Therefore, people don’t need to come to the front to be saved. They can be saved right in their seat by simply trusting Jesus Christ. A preacher who is not interested in immediately “seeing” his results at an altar call could have many souls saved who never make their way to the front. Later, as they testify to what Christ has done for them and tell others about Jesus, they would be confessing him before men. Their baptism would certainly be a public profession, as well.
So, the use of the altar call is really the preference of the preacher. If he chooses not to use it, he should still persuade sinners to receive Jesus Christ in response to his preaching in order that they might be saved [Jn 1:12]. If he chooses to use it, he should be clear that coming to Jesus and coming down to the altar are not the same thing.
Personally, I like to offer an invitation for sinners to receive Jesus but I don’t always give an altar call. If a sinner is under conviction, I like to deal with him right after the service to be sure that he understands the gospel. The preaching is still fresh in his mind and we have adequate time to settle any questions he might have. If he prefers, I will deal with him on the following Monday or Tuesday rather than right after the service. Often this gives more time for the Holy Spirit to deal with him, which is even better.
Hope this helps,
Pastor Bevans Welder