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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