Better than an altar call in which someone makes a one-time decision and then puts their trust in that decision for the rest of their life is the simple proclamation of the gospel and subsequent exhortation to all to believe and live by the gospel. We’ve become convinced in evangelicalism that noone can be saved without praying a prayer. This is simply not true. Our assurance of salvation does not root in the subjective moment we recall as signaling our repentance. Repentance is a work of the Holy Spirit. He converts us in a blink at some point in our hearing of the gospel. He doesn’t work only when we feel it. He regenerates, and we respond. But the timing of our response does not always correlate exactly with His regeneration. Sometimes we struggle to see our salvation. Sometimes depression hides its light from us. Sometimes sins obscure the marvelous work within us. Sometimes we just plain don’t know we’ve become a Christian because we’re not yet in a church that can affirm our walk with Christ and offer us assurance based on our lifestyle. To think, then, that we are saved at the first second we feel we are saved is unhelpful.
Better, I think, to lead people to conviction on a regular basis. Better to teach them to rest in Christ’s work. It is better for Christians to follow the old Puritan syllogism–I am saved if I believe in Christ and obey Him; I do believe in Him, and I do obey Him; Therefore, I am saved–than to follow their intuition. I remember questioning the day I made a profession. Well, I thought later, did I really mean it? What about the outstanding sins in my life at that point? Maybe I wasn’t sincere enough! Maybe I’m not a Christian! Oh, what a terrible state to be in. We evangelicals need to teach people not to trust in a prayer or a walk down an aisle but in Christ! We need to help people root their assurance in their belief and the proof of their belief–their fruit as a Christian. The mark that someone is a Christian is not that they prayed a prayer twelve years ago and had a powerful experience. The mark that someone is a Christian is that they love Jesus Christ, His church, and His Word, and they follow Him in holiness and love. There are countless people out there living like the darkness who think they found they light because they saw it one night. There are lots of evangelicals who are so very, very confused because they witnessed such one-time professions and now think that people are saved who live in gross sin and wickedness. This is deplorable, and at its root lies an “altar-call” and “cheap-grace” mentality.
If you know someone who prayed to receive Christ years ago, and who seemed earnest at the time, but who has since showed no love whatsoever for God, His church, and His Word, do not think them to be a Christian. Many followed Jesus out of excitement and interest. Many claimed to be His. Many became very emotional about Him and professed love of Him. But many of this stripe fell away. Look at John 6. Jesus makes the audacious claim to be the “bread of life” and many fall away. They simply stop following him. What is the lesson here? That many in this world will at one time come forward, pray earnestly, and scribble their name on a card. They will pledge with great emotion to live for Jesus. They will sing, and throw their hands in the air, and go on youth group or college ministry trips. But sadly, terribly, they will one day stop, just as the crowds stopped following Jesus. By the time He got to Calvary, there was almost noone left.
So it is in our day. Many find Jesus and Christianity attractive for a season. But the luster fades, and the world and its pleasures call, and many fall away. How important, then, that we not tell such fair-weather followers that they are saved! We need to faithfully preach the gospel to all, but to preach the biblical truth that works follow from true faith. No exceptions. So, as much as you and I want to believe that uncle Larry and cousin Julie and best-friend-forever Tyler is a Christian because they prayed at one time, we must conform our emotions to Scriptural truth. There is no other option. Let the altar call die, and the gospel ring forth.