Quite often, I do something that is, to me, a very familiar part of my “job” as a pastor – I give an invitation or altar call at the end of a service. I invite people to get up out of their seats and walk forward to the front of the church as a sign of their commitment of faith. Typically, when people respond, we offer them prayer, encouragement, counseling if needed, opportunities to learn more about the Bible and the Christian faith, and ways to get connected to other Christians. In other words, discipleship and fellowship. To be honest, I have been part of churches that do this for so many years, that I haven’t really considered those who are from different traditions – or no tradition – and puzzled by all this. But now, I’ve received some letters and questions from honest, sincere people who are asking what the Scriptural basis is for an altar call, and why we even think it’s necessary.
First, I want to make it clear that I do not believe that a public invitation is the only way to be saved – but I do believe that it is one way, and that there are genuine conversions taking place.
When one becomes a Christian, there is a definite call to count the cost of being a disciple, and that requires a commitment, as the two Scriptures below emphasize:
And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. —Joshua 24:15
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it; lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” —Jesus, Luke 14:28.
Walking forward at an altar call is not what saves a person. Salvation is a work of God, through the work of Jesus upon the Cross:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. —Ephesians 2:8-9.
But Jesus spent His entire three-year ministry asking people to come to Him and believe in Him and trust in Him. There are a multitude of “invitations” in the Scriptures from the Old and New Testaments. The word “Come” is a favorite of the Lord God in His Holy book. In the face of the terrible judgment of the flood, the Lord commanded Noah to build an Ark, and when it was built He said to Noah: Come, Noah, come, you and your family into the Ark of safety, come.
The great law giver Moses, standing in the midst of the camp surrounded by people wallowing in idolatry and an orgy of sin, said, "Whoever is on the Lord's side; come to me" (Exodus 32:26).
This is the Gospel message woven into the Old Testament: "Come now, and let us reason together," says the LORD, "Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18). Or, in Isaiah 55:1 we read, "Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Come was the constant word of invitation on the lips of our Lord!
Passing the sea, He saw the first disciples fishing and He said, “Come, follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.” Later He said, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” To the rich young ruler with the love of the world in his heart, Jesus said, “Get rid of it, give it away, and come, follow Me.” And the Lord said to Zacchaeus, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house."
And, to those who are weary and heavy laden, our Lord says,
"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light " -Matt. 11:28-30
In the great parable of His Gospel message, Jesus taught,
"Then the master said to the servant, 'Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled’” —Luke 14:23
The word compel means to “invite urgently, urge strongly” in Greek. The English word compel means “To force, drive, or constrain...To make necessary.”
This is the great climactic purpose of every worship service, every Gospel sermon and every true message of the Lord: “Come, you who have never been saved, come to Jesus. And you, who have already come, come closer, draw near, come still closer.”
One of the definitions of commit, found in Webster’s Dictionary is “To give over to another’s care or use: ENTRUST... to place officially in confinement or custody.” This then is really what Jesus is asking us to do. He is asking us to commit our hearts and our whole lives to Him.
Is there anything in the Bible specifically about a public confession? Romans 10:9-10 says:
That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
My prayer is that our wonderful Savior will fill our hearts with the same love and passion for the lost He carried in His heart when He left heaven to come and die upon the cross for our sins, was buried, and rose from the dead that we might live with Him forever!
May the Lord bless you in His amazing grace,