Is there biblical/theological support for an “invitation/altar call?” Although the two are considered interchangeable, “altar call” has a theological nuance that we will interpret at the conclusion. The invitation will be evaluated as a part of, and not an addition to, a message or sermon. While an invitation can involve a number of responses to a message other than a decision for salvation, an invitation as a call to salvation in Christ will be the focus of our analysis. Our purpose is not to evaluate particular approaches or wording of an invitation. Neither is it to insist that the type of invitation that many who will read this will have experienced is the only acceptable invitation. That is simply not the case. Although we cannot be exhaustive in this study, our purpose is to speak to whether an “invitation/altar call” has theological support as a part of a sermon or message.
One of the greatest theologians of our time, the late Carl. F. H. Henry, both begins and grounds his theological volumes, God, Revelation and Authority, in God, more particularly, “God who speaks . . . .” God, as Father, from the beginning of the book of Genesis and forward, speaks. First, we can say He has a message. It is important to note that as He speaks to men like Moses, God commands them to speak, to speak His message. There are repeated examples like Num. 15:1, 2. In those biblical texts, God gives men a “message” to “proclaim.” David received and told the message of the Lord in the Psalms. The Lord spoke a message to the Prophets, which they proclaimed, often at great personal cost. Jesus both fulfilled and explained the Old Testament message as He “. . . was proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom.” It is clear, if not self-evident, that the Bible commands the proclamation of God’s message. (Luke 4:17-21) While it might appear obvious, we should ask if the Bible presents a call for a “response” that could be identified as an invitation and is a part of the message proclaimed. Jesus did call for a “response” with words such as “Repent and believe” (Mark 1:15); “Follow me” (Matt. 4:17, 19, 23); “Believe” (John 11:26; 12:36); “Come unto me” (Matt. 11:28), among others. Jesus both called and sent His disciples to proclaim a message, a message that in Jesus Christ alone there is salvation, there is redemption. (John 14:6) The proclamation of that message calls for a response, “Do you believe?” Surely, we can and should invite people to respond to that message of truth as a conclusion and part of the proclamation of our message. Jesus called people in both public and private settings. Jesus’ disciple, Peter the Apostle, did the same thing at Pentecost when he concluded his message “Repent and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) An invitation can be a part of extending a call to respond.
Second, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, reveals the message of God to people, convicts of sin and draws them to Christ. (John 16:7-15) It would be fair to say that as the Holy Spirit reveals this message, it is a persuasive message. Jesus sends His followers into the world to proclaim the message that the Holy Spirit is revealing to them so they will believe in Jesus. (John 17:18-21) Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel was also persuasive. (Acts 17:2-4; 18:13; 19:8; 26:27-29) God calls people to repent and believe through the Holy Spirit and the proclaimed message, both in public and house to house. (Acts 20:21) The Holy Spirit and the Spirit directed messenger work together. While we do not know in whom or the extent to which the Holy Spirit is at work in each individual person, a message without a call to response appears incomplete when there is an opportunity to extend it. We realize that circumstances may exist that prohibit the messenger from extending an invitation, particularly in public, where there are legal prohibitions. This does not invalidate the use of an invitation as a calling to salvation; it simply requires wisdom in when and how it might be extended.
Third, the use of “altar” with call needs to be clarified. The table or “altar” at the front of some sanctuaries does not have any saving significance. The provision for our salvation was accomplished at the “cross.” People can actually repent and believe at the front of the church or worship service, but their salvation has nothing to do with the place and everything to do with “repentance and faith.” We must explain that “walking the aisle” or “going to the altar” does not save anyone. Neither should it give anyone false assurance of their salvation. Using the term “altar call” may not be helpful in every church or public service today.
There is an understanding of “altar” that is consistent with a Baptist understanding of salvation and church membership. If an altar is a place where someone symbolically gives one’s life to Christ, then it can be meaningful. It is the believer’s sacrifice and not Christ’s that is related to the “altar.” For Southern Baptists in general, people are often “invited” to “come forward” to indicate a public profession or confession of their faith in Christ. This can also be accomplished by baptism, which is more important, but a public acknowledgement before the congregation has become a part of our understanding of becoming a church member.
We began our theological perspective with God, God in three persons. Each one speaks, calls messengers to speak God’s message and to call people to believe in Him. While the manner and wording of a public invitation can differ in a variety of contexts, there is theological support for it as a means of extending a call to respond to God’s message proclaimed.
Mark McClellan is dean of the Joe L. Ingram School of Christian Service at Oklahoma Baptist University.