Altar calls, when properly handled, are certainly effective. First of all, they remind the listeners that the gospel demands a response.
As Billy Graham has said, “You cannot give God a definite maybe. It has to be a definite yes or a definite no.” When the altar call is properly handled, lost people are asked to trust Christ as the only way to heaven. The issue is responding to Christ, not to you. The person, therefore, knows that to trust Him is to receive His free offer of eternal life, and to reject Christ is to reject that free offer.
In addition, when a person responds to an altar call, he or she is right there in front of you. Of all the invitation methods, this is the easiest way to get with the person one-on-one. You have not asked them to meet you in another room after the service, which they may not find, nor have you asked them to meet you at another time, allowing them to forget when. Instead, you have said, “Come see me, and come see me now.” With them right before you, you can speak to them one-on-one, either immediately or after they are escorted to a side room.
A third advantage is what an altar call says to other listeners. As a lost person sees another walk forward indicating a need of Christ, he/she is tempted to think, “If that person is unashamed to admit his need, what’s wrong with me?” The one responding encourages others to respond.
That said, there are situations and reasons where giving an altar call is not only wrong, it is dishonoring to God:
1. When it is made a condition of salvation
This first reason is the absolute worst. A television evangelist once proclaimed, “There are two conditions for salvation—one is to come to Christ, the other is to come forward.” He continued to make it clear that, in his opinion, if one does not come forward, he/she cannot come to Christ.
May God have mercy on such a person—he has changed the terms of the gospel. Jesus so simply said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life.” (John 6:47) Not one word was said about walking forward through an altar call. Furthermore, if an altar call were essential to salvation, we would be confronted with two huge problems: For one, it means the thief on the cross, contrary to Christ’s declaration, went to hell. The man did not and could not “go forward”; there on the cross, though, he acknowledged Christ to be the One He said He was. Jesus so lovingly assured him, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
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A second problem comes up in John 12:42, where we are told, “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue.” “Believed in Him” is the Johannine phrase for “salvation” used throughout the Gospel of John. It’s the same phrase used in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Other verses where this same phrase is used include John 3:18, 3:36, 5:24, 6:35, 6:40, and 6:47. Here were Jewish leaders who had sincerely trusted Christ, but they were afraid to confess Him lest they should be excommunicated from the synagogue. Such a verse makes it clear that trusting Christ, “believing in Him,” is a separate issue from confessing Him publicly.
One might ask, “But what about Romans 10:9-10?” There we read, “…that if you confess with your month the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Space will not permit me to develop Paul’s argument throughout Romans, but the context clarifies the issue. The “saved” Paul speaks of here is not salvation from damnation, but salvation from the damages of sin in present-day living. How does one escape these damaging consequences? Paul’s answer is, “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness.” The words “believes unto righteousness” are a translation of the Greek word for “justified” – the same word used in Romans 5:1. There we read, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God.” Paul continues in Romans 9:10, “And with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
The point is powerful. One becomes a Christian by simply trusting Christ, but to experience victory over sin, one must be willing to confess Him publicly. Confession is important not for justification, but instead for living a victorious Christian life. Need help making such a confession? Paul exhorts them to “Call upon the name of the Lord” (Romans 10:13), a phrase that has the idea of worshipping God and invoking His assistance (cf. Acts 9:13-14, 1 Timothy 2:22).
It is therefore not surprising that Paul continues in Romans 10:14-15 by saying, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!'” Note the clear distinction made between a public profession of Christ and believing in His name.
In Scripture, a public confession of Christ is never made a requirement of salvation. It is indeed a requirement for victorious Christian living, as made clear in Romans 10:9-10.