Question: In God’s sovereignty, he chooses to quicken us in his mercy, but why do some preachers have a 15-20 minute altar call after each sermon? They preach we are dead in sin, but then turn around and make emotional plea to people to save themselves.
Answer: This is an excellent question – one I’ve often asked myself. The concept of the altar call was popularized with the revivalist preaching of Charles Grandison Finney, an American evangelistic preacher of the 19th century.
As you’re probably aware, the altar call is an emotional tactic employed to create a moment of crisis in a person to the point where they ‘walk the aisle’ to the altar and profess their faith in Jesus Christ. Personally, I think the concept of an altar call is unbiblical. There is no biblical passage that even hints that at the end of a sermon the pastor should initiate an altar call while playing 39 stanzas of “Just as I Am.”
The emotional aspect of the altar call tends to invalidate its use. Not that a conversion can’t be emotional, but the tactics used during the altar call are geared to move people to make an emotional choice. As a pastor I once knew was fond of saying, “Emotions make a great caboose, but make a lousy engine.” Emotions have their place in the Christian conversion experience, but more often than not when we’re led by our emotions, we tend to make poor decisions. Emotions must be guided by our intellect, not the other way around.
Many of these so-called conversions that come as a result of the altar call remind me of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Matthew. In that parable, we learn of the seed that fell among the stony ground: “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away” (Matthew 13:5-6). Later in the chapter, Jesus likens this type of soil to one “who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matthew 13:20-21). History has revealed that the evangelistic efforts of Finney and others from America’s Second Great Awakening bore little in the way of lasting fruit as far as changed lives, increase in piety and true conversions (even though church membership grew and the number of denominations exploded).
Finney’s method in revivalist preaching betrayed an implicit adherence to Synergistic view of salvation (God and man working together with man making salvation actual). For him, a revival was not a miracle but a change of mindset that was ultimately a matter for the individual's free will.
Finney, even though he was originally a Presbyterian, rejected the “Old School” Calvinism of his upbringing, so he would not necessarily have a strong view of God’s sovereignty. Yet there are preachers today who acknowledge God’s sovereignty, yet still maintain a revivalist mentality when it comes to evangelism. The only thing I can say in regards to your question is that people who acknowledge God’s sovereignty in salvation during the sermon, but still engage in the altar call are being grossly inconsistent in their theology. That’s the most charitable thing I can say. God’s sovereignty leaves no room for human autonomy.
The rebel sinner cannot (and will not) save himself. The Holy Spirit must regenerate the one dead in sin prior to them coming to faith and repentance in Jesus Christ. The primary means the Holy Spirit uses in conversion is the “foolishness of preaching.” That means it’s the preacher’s job to proclaim the gospel throughout all of scripture and command the rebel sinner to repent and believe the gospel for his salvation. The preacher who thinks he can make an emotional plea to an unregenerate heart is not settled in his theology; plain and simple.