Altar Calls, Invitations, and a Whole Lot of Confusion

 
Dr. Trey Talley, Lead Pastor and Elder
Author of The Missing Gospel of Modern Christianity
 
 
So, have you ever wondered what is at the front of the church that is not at the back or side of the church for salvation? Truthfully, there is no square footage of a church that someone must go to be saved. God could save a person no matter if they walked to the back, side, front, or even remain seated. Yet, countless pastors and evangelist promote the front as the place to come to be saved as if it is a means of salvation. What does walking forward have to do with one believing the gospel of God? Does physical movement somehow aid in salvation? Is there some connection between being saved by Christ and walking forward while music is playing at the end of church service?
 
It is not just pastors and evangelists who use this terminology. Many professing Christians describe their salvation with such an action as “going to the front,” or “walking the aisle” as well. Such Christians often speak of their physical response of “going forward” as if such activity is an essential element of their salvation. For example, it would not be uncommon to hear a testimony like this, “I remember when I was twelve years old at Vacation Bible School. The pastor told all the kids to come forward to receive Christ at Vacation Bible School, and I did. That was the day that I was saved.” Though a person using this style of testimony is most likely attempting to share his or her salvation experience genuinely, he or she has failed to emphasize anything about the gospel. If this testimony is analyzed by the words shared, it would be easy for someone to assume that walking forward at church equals salvation.
 
This is a common mistake of Christians living in a “come to the front” era. In supposedly, telling others about our testimony, we often put the emphasis on the walk forward, instead of the message of the gospel. To an unbeliever, it would be easy for them to assume that “going forward” is what a person does to be saved. We must continually remind ourselves that both the words we use to define the gospel and the words we use to describe the proper response to the gospel are essential.
 
IS THE “COME TO THE FRONT” METHOD USED IN THE BIBLE?
 
While the altar call may be a widespread practice today, there is no scriptural support for such a practice. A quick search of the sermons of Christ and the Apostles shows that the whole “come to the front method” was never used. This methodology is entirely foreign to the Word of God. Many evangelistic sermons are recorded for us in the book of Acts, yet not once is there a call at the end to come to the front. The people are never told to come to the front for salvation; instead, they are told to believe unto salvation.
 
In his book, The Invitation System, Iain Murray presents the following points to consider regarding the high-pressure methodology of the “Invitation” as used in the modern church:
  1. The invitation system, because it represents an outward response as connected with ‘receiving Christ,’ institutes a condition of salvation which Christ never appointed.
  2. Because the call to come forward is given as though it were a divine command, those who respond are given reason to believe that they are doing something commendable before God, while those who do not are falsely supposed to be disobeying Him.
  3. By treating two distinct issues, ‘come to Christ’ and ‘come to the front’ as though they were one, the tendency of the invitation to mislead the unconverted in regard to their duty. The real issue is as stated in John 6:20 ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on him who he hath sent.’[1]
 
That being the case, does the “come to the front method” of evangelism add a non-biblical step into salvation? It is difficult to see how the modern emphasis on coming forward would not be seen as contributing in some degree to a person’s salvation. In fact, I have commonly heard preachers and evangelists say things like, “If there are 100 steps to your salvation, Jesus will take 99, but you must take the first one.”, or “Come now, Jesus is waiting here for you, all you have to do is come Him.” It is easy to see how such words could lead to the belief that walking forward is contributing to one’s salvation. Could such an invitation be seen as adding to the gospel? Could it even be adding human effort (works) as an essential component of the gospel? Some might not believe that “going forward” is that much work, but if it is contributing in any way even just one percent, how can that not be a mixture of God’s grace and human effort?
 
“OH NO, I WALKED FORWARD! AM I SAVED?”
 
No one is saved because he or she went forward during an invitation, but some are saved despite their going forward during an invitation. It is possible that some who “come to the front” have genuinely heard the gospel and believed in the gospel for their salvation. Perhaps they understand that walking to the front is not adding to their salvation or required for salvation at all. And maybe they have just followed the speaker’s appeal to walk forward now that they are saved. If their faith is in the Jesus Christ of Scripture, then they are saved no matter if they walked forward, backward, or just stayed seated.
 
However, it is also possible that a person could not have heard the gospel, not believed in the gospel, and still walked forward under the compulsion of the speaker, peer pressure of friends, or an entirely wrong view of what is needed for salvation. Clearly, such a person is not saved; instead, they have just gone for a walk and gotten a bit of exercise. The point is, that genuine salvation and “coming to the front” are not synonymous. It is entirely possible for a person to have one without the other.
 
As you reflect on your salvation, perhaps you too made a trip down the aisle. However, this does not mean that you are or are not saved. We should never look to a “come forward” event in our lives as proof of our salvation. It is good for professing Christians to, as the Apostle Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves (2 Cor. 13:5).” Paul was not calling on the Corinthians to reflect on a time when they walked forward as a test of their salvation, but he is calling on them to make sure that they believe in Jesus Christ and what He has done to provide salvation.
 
SHOULD WE STILL INVITE PEOPLE TO COME TO THE FRONT?
 
It is possible that invitations, as done by many, should be abandoned altogether for the reasons cited above. However, if church leaders choose to continue to have an invitation, the words they speak during such a time must be carefully selected. The speaker should in no way lead the hearer to think that the act of going forward is an element of their salvation or that walking to the front has been commanded by God. An example of acceptable usage of an altar call might be one in which, following the gospel presentation, the speaker calls upon people to believe in the gospel for salvation. At which time he could address those people in this way:
 
Today, if God has revealed your sinfulness to you and has given you a desire to repent, and if you have believed in Jesus Christ for your salvation, then we would love to know about it. As a church, we desire to rejoice with you in your salvation and to talk with you more about what this means in your life. If today you were saved by the grace of God, feel free to come to the front as the music plays. However, you are more than welcome to visit with one of our leaders after church or call the church office to schedule a time to talk, but please let us know about your salvation and how we can help you to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
 
Such an example serves to demonstrate that a request to come forward can be given without being viewed as a contribution to salvation. The coming forward is not commanded as a requirement for salvation, but it is merely an invitation for a new believer to inform the pastor and the church of their salvation. Does the person have to come to the front? By no means, and in fact, other options were given as to how the person lets the pastor, and the church know of his or her salvation.
 
Summary: There is no biblical support that a person needs to come forward to be saved. Many preachers and evangelists act as if coming to the front is a biblical command; however, Jesus nor His Apostles ever used such a practice. With such great emphasis placed on the visual act of going forward, many people tend to confuse their physical activity with the spiritual action of salvation. We, as Christians, should keep this in mind when we evangelize or share our testimonies with others. Even if we did walk an aisle, or go to the front, during an invitation, we must be careful that we do not make such an action a part of the gospel that we are proclaiming to others. The gospel’s call is not to walk forward but to repent, believe, and walk in obedience to Christ.
 
 
 
 

[1] Iain Hamish Murray, The Invitation System (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), 26.


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