by Rice Broocks
The “altar call” might be one the most misunderstood moments in Christianity. It is the time at the end of most evangelical church services where an invitation is made to ….well, lots of different things.
And that’s where it gets confusing.
What are we asking people to do? “Accept Jesus as your Savior?” or is it “Make Jesus the Lord of your life”? Maybe the challenge is to “invite Jesus into your heart.” Some say, “All you have to do is pray this simple prayer and you will be saved and go to heaven.”
Is it really that easy? People are asked in the altar call moment to rededicate, repent, return, receive, and renounce, by repeating the correct words that signify these things are taking place. Does it merely come down to saying the right words? Don’t get me wrong–words are important.
But there is more to being a Christian than repeating a formula.
I regrettably won’t be able to write an extensive treatise on this critical subject in the short confines of this post. I do think that we can gain greater clarity about what we should be asking people to do, whether at the end of a church service or at a coffee shop in a one-on-one meeting.
First, we are asking people to believe.
Christianity calls us to place our faith (trust) in the reality that God became man in Christ and died on the cross for our sins. We are called to believe that His resurrection from the dead three days later established the truth of His identity as the Son of God.
This is not blind faith. It is based on evidence. In order for people to believe this, they need to hear God’s Word and understand that these events were based in history. Salvation is more, however, than just a correct belief about history; it is about recognizing that Christ is the Savior of humanity and the Lord of creation. After all, having biblical faith means trusting someone greater than you. The more you know about that Person, the greater chance you have to have a solid unshakable confidence in how worthy He is of your trust.
Second, we are asking people to receive.
Receiving Christ means to receive His words as truth. John wrote, “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Christ enters our lives by the presence of the Holy Spirit that changes our hearts and fills them as well.
There is no way we can change our lives in our own power or by our own wisdom or effort. It is when Christ comes to live in us that we are transformed. One of the first promises of scripture I learned was 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old is passed away; behold the new has come.” Salvation is a free gift that has to be received. This involves asking, as well as a profession of your trust in Him.
Third, we are calling people to repentance.
When a person has received Christ into his or her life and has been transformed by His Spirit, there is clearly seen the fruit of repentance from sin and evil. There is no way to continue in sinful behavior and be a true believer in Christ. Repentance means to turn away from sin. We don’t earn our righteousness by any act on our behalf. Christ’s perfect life became the source and grounds of our standing with God.
To repent means to turn from evil and injustice. It is demonstrated by a range of actions, including confession of sin and keeping the commandments of the Lord. Real repentance is not just feeling bad about our sinful lives, but seeking to behave in a proper manner that corresponds to God’s Word.
Fourth, we are calling people to follow Jesus.
This is the part that is most challenging. Two thousand years ago, following Jesus meant to follow Him physically as He traveled and preached. Today, we don’t see Christ physically. Yet we are still to follow Him as we read the Bible and allow His Spirit to inspire us to deeds of purity and holiness. In the end, we must tell people that there is a price to be paid to follow Him. Although the ultimate price was paid by Christ at the cross, there is something that costs us as well.
Jesus told those who wanted to be His disciples that they should “count the cost” of being His follower (Luke 14:28). Following Jesus costs us many things. In short, it not only costs us the wrongs we commit, but the rights we have to our own lives. While it is right to emphasize what Christ accomplished for us through His death on the cross, it is wrong to not tell others there is a price to be paid to be a follower of Christ.
Practically, it costs us everything that will stop us from becoming the people who are called to be like Christ. Following Jesus costs us our pride, lust, anger, greed, hate, and anything else that is anti-Christ. To fail to tell people this from the beginning is to present something that will not produce the righteousness and peace that is promised us.
It also means that the moment known as the alter call should be rethought to be more about communicating the cost of discipleship rather than facilitating a hasty, uniformed decision. We might have fewer decisions we can report in our newsletters and websites, but we might have more disciples who will change the world.
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Rice Broocks (@ricebroocks) is the co-founder of the Every Nation family of churches, which includes more than 1,000 churches in more than 60 countries. He has spent the last 20 years with Every Nation focusing on equipping college students around the world to defend their faith. Author of God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in an Age of Uncertainty, Broocks also serves as the senior minister of Bethel World Outreach Church in Nashville, Tenn. He holds a DMiss from Fuller Theological Seminary.