Riddlebarger On The Reformed Altar Call

In those independent Bible churches in which I was raised, most Sunday mornings the minister preached from a well-worn Bible, told a few stories to illustrate his point, and then reminded us that we must believe in Jesus to go to heaven. But every service ended the same way–with an altar call. Those who heard the message and were convicted of their sins were invited to come forward and speak with the minister, who would ask those brave enough to repeat the sinner’s prayer and thereby be assured of God’s favor toward them.

Sometimes prominent or long-time church members would go forward, which was always a bit of a shock, because you wondered what they did the week before which required such a public act of contrition. On those rare (but joyful) occasions, someone for whom the church had been praying, was ready to accept Jesus as their “personal Savior.” They would get up out of their pew, walk the aisle, and be received with great joy, especially when the person was known to be an unbeliever or a “backslider.”

There was something truly wonderful about this. Heaven rejoices when a sinner repents (Luke 15:7). It was comforting to be assured of Christ’s favor and to know that even in those times when we struggle with some particular sin, or when doubt chips away at our faith, we could be reassured of God’s favor in some tangible way. Yet, there was also something very troubling about this practice. There was always a qualification. The minister would tell the congregation that if we were truly sincere– “if you really mean it”– only then would God’s promises about the forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven truly apply to us. But I wasn’t always sure “I really meant it.” No doubt others felt the same way.

Even though I’ve been a Reformed minister for over thirty years, the irony of the altar-call occasionally comes to mind. In the churches of my youth, the altar call was every bit as central to worship as was the sermon. While baptism was required for church membership, and “holy communion” was celebrated on special occasions, the altar call filled the most important role in worship next to the sermon. The act of “going forward” offered struggling sinners a way to make sure that the promises the minister discussed in his sermon actually applied to his hearers–but with that one qualification, “if we really meant it.”

The irony is that the altar call functioned in many ways like the sacraments do in the Reformed tradition. But the Reformed understanding of the sacraments is firmly rooted in the teaching of the New Testament, while the altar call (as described above) is nowhere to be found. The sacraments are a source of assurance, not the cause of doubt. God knows our weakness and our need to be reassured of our standing with him. Because he is kind and gracious toward his people, he promises that we are his in the gospel, and then confirms his favor toward us through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yes, God invites newly believing sinners to come to him–not to an altar, but to a font, where the water of baptism is applied to believers and their children. He also calls his people to the Lord’s table, where bread and wine are given to struggling sinners to remind us of his favor and to strengthen our weak faith. Read more»

Kim Riddlebarger | “I Really Mean It” | The Riddleblog | October 16, 2021

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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5 comments

  1. The participation in the Lord’s Supper involves a very subjective element exactly in line with the call to repent and believe in Jesus. The apostle said to everyone partaking of it to “examine himself.”

    • Pastor,

      Amen but that call to examine one’s self does not turn every individual into a consistory or session of one.

      The URCNA form says:

      The Call to Self-Examination

      The true examination of ourselves consists of three parts:
      First, let everyone carefully consider their sins and ungodliness, that they may hate their sins and humble themselves before God, considering that the wrath of God against sin is so great that He, rather than leaving it unpunished, has punished it in his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, with the bitter and shameful death of the cross.

      Second, let everyone examine their heart to see whether they also believe the sure promise of God that all their sins are forgiven only because of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and that the complete righteousness of Christ is imputed and freely given to them as their own—indeed, so completely as if they had personally satisfied for all their sins and fulfilled all righteousness.

      Third, let everyone carefully examine their own conscience to see if they are fully determined to show true thankfulness to God in every area of life and to walk sincerely before His face, and whether they, with full sincerity, strive to lay aside all enmity, hatred, and envy, and earnestly resolve from this day forward to live with their neighbor in true love and unity.

      All those, then, who are of this mind, God will certainly receive in grace and count as worthy partakers of the Table of His Son, Jesus Christ. On the contrary, those who do not sincerely believe this testimony in their hearts eat and drink judgment upon themselves. According to the command of Christ and the apostle Paul, those who know themselves to be engaging in the following sins, without repentance, have no part in the kingdom of Christ and should therefore abstain from coming to the Table of the Lord: idolaters; those who call upon deceased saints, angels, or any other creature; those who revere images; those who engage in witchcraft, fortune-telling, occult practices, or other forms of superstition; all those who despise God, His word, and His holy sacraments; all blasphemers; those who seek to cause discord, factions, and dissension in the church or in the state; all perjurers; all who are disobedient to their parents and those in lawful authority; all murderers, contentious people, and those who live in hatred and envy against their neighbors; all adulterers, fornicators, drunkards, thieves, the greedy, robbers, gamblers, covetous people, and all who lead offensive lives. All those who continue in such sins shall abstain from the Lord’s Supper, so that they feel the weight of God’s judgment and condemnation.

      But this warning is not intended to discourage those believers with contrite hearts, as if no one might come to the Lord’s Supper unless they are without sin. We do not come to this Supper to testify about our own perfection and righteousness, but, on the contrary, we come seeking life in Jesus Christ apart from ourselves. We come confessing our misery, admitting that we have many shortcomings and do not have perfect faith. We also confess that we do not serve God with sufficient zeal, but that we must struggle daily with the weakness of our faith and struggle against the evil lusts of our flesh. However, the grace of the Holy Spirit makes us sorry for our shortcomings, gives us the desire to live according to God’s commandments, and helps us to fight against unbelief. Therefore, we can rest assured that no sin or weakness that still remains in us against our will can prevent us from being received by God’s grace and from being made worthy partakers of this heavenly food and drink.

  2. I’m actually offended by altar calls now, I think because of the way they were always used to add a new requirement to salvation that Christ did not include, that of “public confession before the world.” Citing Matt. 10:32-33 out of context, the evangelist would insist that if we failed to confess Christ before men, then Christ would not confess us before the Father.

    While open confession of Christ before the world is surely a mark of any true Christian, Christ did not require open confession of Him before the world as in order to become a Christian.

    And if salvation is the result of a “saving decision” born in the heart and will of the hearer in his seat, why then, are they told, “Come forward to receive Christ”?! Going forward is not a necessary requirement unto salvation prescribed by Scripture. Yet it is added to Scripture by well-meaning preachers as though it was the commandment of God. Public confession and actions which reflect the work of Christ already in the believers’ heart are definitely marks of that person’s having been converted. But they are not commanded in Scripture as in order to obtain conversion.

  3. Funny. I’m re-listening to the Heidelcast (insert-cowbell-here) series on Covenant Theology and Infant Baptism and this article just fits right in.
    It’s hard to express just how incredibly valuable it is to hear God say “I will be your God and you will be my people.” and that he “Really Means It” through the Supper and baptism.
    The altar call offers a temporary sensational moment of victory or acceptance or relief. The Gospel, in both the Word and Sacrament isn’t some kind of experiential event, but a constant and trustworthy reiteration of God’s “I Really Mean It” !

  4. Monsma and VanDellen in their commentary on the Church order stated this very clearly. Discernment in participation in communion falls not only on the individual, but also on the consistory. The table at a Reformed church is for those who hold to the Reformed faith. Likewise for the Baptist, Methodist etc. Those whose views are different from the church where they are should not be permitted to attend communion, until they line up with the position of that church. Unfortunately, the Modern trend has blurred these lines and communion appears to be much more open than what happened historically. It is my hope and prayer that this trend is reversed, although, humanly speaking, I have my misgivings.

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