Altar Calls and Sinner's Prayers

tdunham736

Puritan Board Freshman
Hello all!
Being in a dispensational culture, I am surrounded by practices such as altar calls and sinner's prayers. I have a particular conviction on both, however I'm interested in hearing what other folks have to say on the issue.
 

retroGRAD3

Puritan Board Junior
Not sure I see either in the Bible. I see calls for repentance of sin and faith in Christ and then to be baptized. Then, to live a life in faith being guided by the word of God.

It would also depend on what you mean by "altar call" and "sinner's prayer". In the general evangelly world, generally the two things you mentioned are seen as "getting your card punched" and then you are good to go. You can go on and live any sort of way you want to, even forsake God completely, but it's ok because your card is punched and you are going to heaven. There seems to be a complete lack of any call to holy living. It is also where terms like "carnal christian" came from (which is not a thing).

It could be what you had in mind though was NOTHING like what I said above. In which case, I would need more information.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Graduate
Churches should not have “altars” to begin with.

I know a good number have been saved on occasion of (not by) “the sinner’s prayer.” I don’t have a problem with it per se, but the methodology backing it is practically Pelagian. Further, it often promotes trust in “the prayer” and not in the Savior. It did that to me for many, many years.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
It's all hogwash.

There are hundreds of thousands of people that have been told they are a Christian because they said the "magic words" or came forward in a service. And then when their life is all screwed up, and they look for help, the same people tell them to remember your experience when you said the words. You did your part--now it's up to the Lord to do his. Praise God.

Actually, hogwash is too tame of a term. It's more like a hog excrement.

Ed
 

jw

Administrator
The Rev. Thomas Boston composes a "Sinner's Prayer" I can get behind (Works, Vol. 11, pp. 380-381):

“O LORD, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, I confess I am by nature a lost sinner, wholly corrupted, and laid under the curse, in Adam, through the breach of the covenant of works; and have ruined myself more and more by my actual transgressions innumerable. I am convinced, and do acknowledge, that I am utterly unable to help myself in whole or in part, out of this gulf of sin and misery into which I am plunged; and that it is beyond the reach of the whole creation to help me out of it; so that I must inevitably perish for ever, if thine own strong hand do not make help to me.

“But forasmuch as there is a covenant of grace for life and salvation to lost sinners, established between THEE and thine own SON, the Lord Jesus Christ, as second Adam, wherein, upon condition of his fulfilling all righteousness, which is now performed in his having been born perfectly holy, lived altogether righteously, and made perfect satisfaction to justice by his death and sufferings, thou hast promised, that thou wilt be their God, and they shall be thy people, to the making of them holy aud happy for ever; and that this covenant is in Christ the head thereof, offered and exhibited to me in thy gospel; and thou callest me into the fellowship of it in him. Therefore, upon the warrant of, and in obedience to, thy command and call, I, a poor perishing sinner, do take hold of that covenant for life and salvation to me, believing on the name of Christ crucified, the head thereof, offered and exhibited to me as the Great High Priest, who, by the sacrifice of himself, hath made atonement, paid the ransom, and brought in everlasting righteousness for poor sinners. I credit his word of grace to me, and accordingly trust on him, that he with his righteousness will be mine, and that in and through him, God will be my God, and I shall be one of his people, to the making of me holy and happy for ever.

“O my God, I do by thy grace acquiesce in that covenant, as all my salvation, and all my desire. With my whole heart and soul, the Son incarnate is my only Priest, my Surety, my Intercessor, and my Redeemer; and, in him, the FATHER, my FATHER, the HOLY GHOST my SANCTIFIER; GOD in Christ my GOD. I resign myself soul and body to him, to be saved by his blood alone, renouncing all confidence in mine own righteousness, doings, and sufferings. With my whole heart and soul, he is my HEAD and HUSBAND; and I am his only, wholly, and for ever; to live by him, to him, and for him. I take him for my alone Prophet, Oracle, and Guide; give up myself wholly to him, to be taught, guided, and directed in all things, by his Word and Spirit; and renounce mine own wisdom, and the wisdom of this world. He is, with my heart’s consent, my alone King and Lord. And I resign myself wholly, soul and body, unto him, to be rescued by the strength of his mighty hand, from sin, death, the devil, and this present evil world, for to serve him for ever, and to be ruled by the will of his command, as to my duty, and the will of his providence, as to my lot. I am, with my whole heart, content (Lord, thou knowest) to part with, and do renounce every known sin, lust, or idol, and particularly my———, the sin which most easily besets me; together with my own foolish will, and all other lords besides him, without reservation, and without exception, against his cross;—protesting in thy sight, O Lord, that I am, through grace, willing to have discovered unto me, and upon discovery to part with every sin in me that I know not; and that the doubtings and averseness of heart mixed with this my accepting of thy covenant, are what I allow not; and that notwithstanding thereof, I look to be accepted of thee herein, in the Beloved, thine only Son and my Saviour, purging away these, with all my other sins, by his precious blood.

“Let it be recorded in heaven, O Lord, and let———, and whatever is here present, bear witness, that I, though most unworthy, have this day here taken hold of, and come into thy covenant of grace, offered and exhibited to me in thy gospel; and that thou art my God in the tenor of that covenant, and I am one of thy people, from henceforth and for ever.”​
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Doctor
An invitation to repent and believe the gospel is good, and it should be made frequently in our churches. However, the American practice of an "altar call" followed by a "sinner's prayer" is too often a twisted counterfeit of the real thing. The altar call turns into a manipulative moment that depends on the persuasive skill of the preacher and other outward trappings rather than on the inward work of the Spirit. And the sinner's prayer is not so much an inner response of faith as it is an outward action designed to get God to do what you want—in that sense, more like a witchcraft incantation than faith.

The biblical pattern for conversion is that the Spirit acts, calling us both outwardly through the preached word and inwardly in our hearts, and we respond in repentance and faith. It is sensible that such repentance and faith will often be displayed outwardly in a prayer much like the "sinner's prayer," which is not so bad if it is a true response of faith. But some churches too often treat the whole affair backward, as if the unbeliever first has to get a sequence of actions right and then the Spirit will respond. "Come up front, recite the prayer with the right sincerity, and you will be saved." Well, that's the way it works for Harry Potter (get the spell right and you can use the magic), but it is not the right approach to take with the true God who is personal and loving, and will not be used by you.
 

GulfCoast Presbyterian

Puritan Board Junior
I grew up in a dispensational baptist church (and none of what follows should reflect upon our Reformed Baptist brothers and sisters). I have seen altar calls done sincerely, and I have seen them done as Charles Finney level stunts involving extreme emotional manipulation. I have no doubt that some have come to faith during an altar call, but none "because of participation" in an altar call.

Likewise, with the "sinner's prayer." When I was growing up, the "sinner's prayer" was often called the "magic prayer." It was basically a Christian incantation, and we were instructed to "get people to pray the magic prayer and then we will baptize them." This is one of the reasons for my journey to the Reformed faith. I would note that no where in the Scripture is such a prayer used. Likewise, belief is what saves, and not the act of prayer, or otherwise. See e.g. Romans 10:13-14.

The straw that broke the camel's back for me was in a summer "evangelistic crusade" in my hometown, when I was in college. I was asked to be a prayer counselor for one night of the event, so I was up near the front. A young man got paraded up to speak to the churches assembled at the football stadium. It was announced that he had "gotten saved tonight" and young man got up to give a testimony, and talked briefly about no longer listening to heavy metal, and a few things like that. And the crowd was paying rapt attention. So, a bit later I thought I should do my job, and asked him to pray with me, and I could immediately tell something was WAY off.

Me: What happened to you tonight?
Him: I got saved.
Me: Who saved you?
Him: Brother Jamie.
Me: How did Brother Jamie save you?
Him: He told me to pray this prayer?
Me: Did you understand what you were praying?
Him: What do you mean?
Me: What did you get saved from?
Him: Heavy metal, especially Ozzy and Scorpians.
Me: Do you consider yourself to be a sinner?
Him: NO! I am just as good as these people, I just had to be saved from metal. I ain't bad or nothing.
Me: What would happen if you were not saved from metal?
Him: I don't know. Doesn't matter, I'm saved from it now. I prayed the prayer.
Me: Who is Jesus?
Him: You mean the guy in the Bible?
Me: What did Jesus have to do with saving you?
Him: Well, I think was in that prayer.
Me: (Hits CCC default panic mode) Let me tell you about the 4 spiritual laws....

So, I do my presentation. He says he is already saved, he prayed the prayer. I say "wait here, my friend." I find the Chairman of the Board of Deacons (my Dad), and started raising sand, as this poor person has been manipulated, and our church should have no part of such things. Meanwhile, a discussion was ensuing about which Church would "get credit for his baptism." The story eventually ends well with a lot of prayer and lots of discussions with our young metal fan. But needless to say that I am thankful I met a nice Presbyterian college girl, and started reading to see what was up with this Reformed stuff, and off I went away from that sort of circus. And I am to this day NOT a fan of the sinner's prayer.

Thanks for reading through all that. :)
 
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Jack K

Puritan Board Doctor
I get invited to speak and teach at a lot of events for kids and teens. Often, the sponsoring organization is mostly pretty solid and we agree on nearly everything—except that they expect me to issue altar calls, of course. I explain that I don't do that, and that I won't teach at a camp that does. They look at me as if I must be a theological liberal who is not interested in conversions, or some kind of "woke" fellow who will be teaching salvation from social oppression instead of salvation from personal sin. Their concerns are not really bad concerns. It's just that the altar call and sinner's prayer are so engrained in American evangelicalism that they don't even have a category for Bible-camp conversions outside of those trappings.

I have to explain that I am actually very interested in true conversions: I will be praying daily for conversions, as I hope the rest of the staff will do. I will be explicitly calling the kids to repent and have faith—probably in every lesson, though sometimes more subtly than at other times. I will be inviting kids to talk with me further about becoming a Christian. But I won't give them any spells to repeat or emotional moments where they might feel manipulated. My goal is to be used by the Spirit to bring true faith, so that the kids end up trusting Jesus rather than trusting something they have done or something I have talked them into.

Sadly, the response I get when I explain this is mixed. Some camp directors relax and say it sounds so much healthier than what they've been doing. But many others see no way to go forward if they can't count the number of kids who said the sinner's prayer and "got saved" at camp. It's a conversation I had again, just this week, with a camp director who's looking for a speaker for this summer. It won't be me.
 

tdunham736

Puritan Board Freshman
Not sure I see either in the Bible. I see calls for repentance of sin and faith in Christ and then to be baptized. Then, to live a life in faith being guided by the word of God.

It would also depend on what you mean by "altar call" and "sinner's prayer". In the general evangelly world, generally the two things you mentioned are seen as "getting your card punched" and then you are good to go. You can go on and live any sort of way you want to, even forsake God completely, but it's ok because your card is punched and you are going to heaven. There seems to be a complete lack of any call to holy living. It is also where terms like "carnal christian" came from (which is not a thing).

It could be what you had in mind though was NOTHING like what I said above. In which case, I would need more information.
Ah, I apologize. I should have been more clear. Your explanation was exactly what I was wanting though.
 

De Jager

Puritan Board Sophomore
Our regulative principle of worship doesn't really allow services to be hijacked by altar calls. If someone starts to feel the weight of their sin they can talk to the minister or elders after the service. The whole altar call thing reeks of Arminanism, not trusting in God's effectual calling. It's almost like saying "we better get him to say the prayer now, after the service he might change his mind!"
 

jw

Administrator
The bigger problem here is the concept of threshold Christianity, instead of making disciples.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Doctor
Churches should not have “altars” to begin with.

I know a good number have been saved on occasion of (not by) “the sinner’s prayer.” I don’t have a problem with it per se, but the methodology backing it is practically Pelagian. Further, it often promotes trust in “the prayer” and not in the Savior. It did that to me for many, many years.
In fairness, it seems most churches that do altar calls these days don't have an actual altar. The steps to the podium or the front pew are the destination. But yes, it's usually more about trust in the prayer or the decision to come forward than it is about trust in Jesus.
 

alexanderjames

Puritan Board Freshman
There are differing degrees of how bad it can get. I’m convinced it’s often a form of unbelief, or just ignorance.

Preach the Gospel. Call sinners to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Be faith filled, pray and be faithful to God.

Man seeks out many inventions but it is the Lord’s will that stands.
 

Wonderkins

Puritan Board Freshman
This was my world growing up. I was led in the sinners prayer when I was 7 or 8. The Sunday school teacher took each kid individually and walked us through it.

In 2006 or 2007 my wife was in an alter call. A husband and wife were "working" on her. After a while my wife fell. She later said the husband pushed her down and the wife caught her. He then stepped on my wife's elbow. To this day she has nerve occasional nerve issues from it.

So you can imagine we are against every bit of that. There are so many more experiences from back then. But thank the Lord we're not pentecostal anymore.

* fun fact...if you ever watched that show from the late 90s called When Animals Attack, one of the famous videos was of a guy that drenched himself in deer urine and walked up to a buck. The buck proceeded to kick the tar out of the guy, while the wife stood back and filmed it. That was the husband and wife team that pushed my wife down.

If anyone wants a laugh, this is the video. It's the first clip.
 

Stephen L Smith

Administrator
Staff member
Being in a dispensational culture, I am surrounded by practices such as altar calls and sinner's prayers.
I also grew up in this environment. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was one of the leading Reformed pastors who addressed this and helped me clarify a Biblical Understanding. Here are two helpful webpages on Dr Lloyd-Jones clarifying the issue:
and

For a fuller treatment see Packer's Book 'Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God'.
 

Josh Williamson

Puritan Board Freshman
I guess it all depends on how one defines the terms. For instance, if someone trusts in the fact they responded to an 'altar call' or said the 'sinners prayer as the means of their salvation, then I would have big issues. However, if it was done in the way that Ian Paisley (a good Reformed man) did them then I would have less of an issue. Paisley would call people to respond, and when they did, he would say, "We will pray the Lord saves you." If someone was led in a sinner's prayer, he would stress to them that if they prayed it without a genuine desire to repent, then God's wrath will increase upon them.

I don't like the term "altar call" as churches don't have altars, but I wouldn't have an issue with a call for people to respond to the call of repentance and faith. I also wouldn't have a problem leading someone in prayer, especially since many people today don't know how to pray (when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray He gave them a model prayer, I think the same principle can be applied today). But, I would stress that Jesus is the one who saves, not our response or prayer.
 

Romans922

Puritan Board Professor
Churches should not have “altars” to begin with.

I know a good number have been saved on occasion of (not by) “the sinner’s prayer.” I don’t have a problem with it per se, but the methodology backing it is practically Pelagian. Further, it often promotes trust in “the prayer” and not in the Savior. It did that to me for many, many years.
For me, how would a dispensational church have an altar anyway, wasn’t that many dispensations ago?
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Graduate
For me, how would a dispensational church have an altar anyway, wasn’t that many dispensations ago?
Having come out of Classic Dispensationalism myself, I’ve wondered that for years. That, and why it is that most Classic Dispensational preaching (as I experienced it growing up) is from the Old Testament.
 

Stephen L Smith

Administrator
Staff member
Have you seen Spurgeon's Arminian prayer:

"Lord, I thank thee I am not like those poor presumptuous Calvinists. Lord, I was born with a glorious free-will; I was born with power by which I can turn to thee of myself; I have improved my grace. If everybody had done the same with their grace that I have, they might all have been saved. Lord, I know thou dost not make us willing if we are not willing ourselves. Thou givest grace to everybody; some do not improve it, but I do. There are many that will go to hell as much bought with the blood of Christ as I was; they had as much of the Holy Ghost given to them; they had as good a chance, and were as much blessed as I am. It was not thy grace that made us to differ; I know it did a great deal, still I turned the point; I made use of what was given me, and others did not—that is the difference between me and them."



;)
 

Morgan

Puritan Board Freshman
I was saved in an Arminian church and grew up in the same type - altar calls, singing Just As I Am until someone comes forward to says the sinners prayer. America is full of people proclaiming to be Christian based on repeating words someone told them to say. I was one of those for over three decades.

I got involved in the prison ministry right after I was redeemed. Prison/jail ministries are repleat with these two. I was quickly convicted of how unbiblical these two were as a young Christian.

There is one Sunday I won't forget, I was preaching at that prison that day. One innate came up and said so and so wants to be saved. I said fine, I'll talk with him after the service. Well after the service was over he came up and I started going over scripture. While I was doing that he kept looking at his watch so I asked him if he was late for something. He said the dining hall was closing in a few minutes. That told me he had no concern about anything I has stated so I ended our discussion. A fellow church member asked me what happened and I told him. He went over to the guy, had him say a prayer and then said he was saved. That was one of the final straws in leaving that church.

Inmates would get "religious" around court dates and when they were getting out, knowing they'd be tempted to get back into the sin thar got them incarcerated. This guy was getting out and wanted to "get saved" before he got out.

I could tell you many stories, including confronting the Arminian Pastor in the church where I was redermed about these issues. I look back at that Arminian church and see how many people who said the sinners prayer are not even in church now.
 
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