A Theology of Calls to Faith

Calls to Faith -- a public invitation to follow Jesus -- is a common method in many ministries to help people decide to follow Jesus. Given its prevalence, it seems good to biblically reflect on this practice. Although they seem effective at producing decisions, some wonder if they are creating the kinds of decisions that produce lasting fruit. For others, the process may feel awkward and emotionally manipulative, and so question whether they should be used at all. And still others still think that those who do not yet follow Jesus would find the practice crude or offensive. It then begs the question: should we use them at all? But if we do use them, are there some biblical guidelines to how we should give Calls to Faith? 

My hope is that we’ll cover some of these questions and objections. Let’s start with a brief history of calls to faith. 

A brief history of Calls to Faith

Many would place Calls to Faith in the same tradition as the Altar Call. The name came from the practice of inviting people to come forward to the front of a sanctuary -- where the altar was -- as a symbol of their decision to follow Jesus with their whole lives. In the 1830’s, Charles Finney used it with great effectiveness, leaving some seats near the front open called “the anxious seat,” for any soul who wanted to come to the Lord’s side:

Preach to him, and at the moment he thinks he is willing to do anything; he thinks he is determined to serve the Lord; but bring him to the test; call on him to do one thing, to make one step that shall identify him with the people of God or cross his pride, and his pride comes up and he refused; his delusion is brought out, and he finds himself a lost sinner still; whereas, if you had not done it, he might have gone away flattering himself that he was a Christian. If you say to him: “There is the anxious seat, come out and avow your determination to be on the Lord's side," and if he is not willing to do a small thing as that, then he is not willing to do anything, and there he is, brought out before his own conscience. It uncovers the delusion of the human heart, and prevents a great many spurious conversions, by showing those who might otherwise imagine themselves willing to do anything for Christ than in fact they are willing to do nothing. (Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835)).

Therefore, for Finney, it was a way to test the decision: to make it mean more, not less. Also, given that Finney was not only a revivalist but an abolitionist, he would often use the Altar Call as a way to sign up new disciples for the antislavery campaign: “On the altar lay sign-up sheets for the abolitionist movement” (David P. Gushee, ed., A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good [St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2012], 112). In his book, The Great Awakening (2008), Jim Wallis put it this way:

They would commit their lives to Christ and then enlist for God’s purposes in the world. That’s the way it always is for revival--faith becomes life-changing, but rather than remaining restricted to personal issues and the inner life alone, it exploded into the world with a powerful force. For Finney, taking a weak or wrong position on social justice was a “hindrance to revival” (19).

Since Finney, leaders such as Dwight L. Moody, Aimee Semple McPherson, Peter Cartwright, Sam Jones, R. A. Torrey, Billy Sunday, Bob Jones, Gipsy Smith, Henrietta Mears, Mordecai Ham, John R. Rice, Anne Lotz, and most notably, Billy Graham, have used the invitational method to invite people to follow Jesus, and it has subsequently been a mainstay in Evangelical ministries. (Fred Zaspel, “The Altar Call: is it helpful or harmful?”). 

Armed with this version of the historical narrative, critics then conclude that Altar Calls are a relatively recent phenomenon, not something with biblical precedent. Then, add the abuses of Altar Calls poorly done, which reek of coercion (“Stand up now, or burn in hell forever!”) or manipulation (“Just give your life to Jesus and he’ll take care of the rest”), fraudulence (“All who are standing are now with God forever!”), or just sheer awkwardness (“Um, ah, nobody? This is my fifth and final call…”) -- they would like to see the practice buried for good.

But what if there were biblical precedent? And what if those were only abuses, and not really how it could be? What if there were clear, biblical guidelines for making a Call to Faith?

For our discussion, allow me to broaden the definition of a Call to Faith beyond an Altar Call or Invitational Method. In InterVarsity, we don’t define responding to a Call to Faith as having to move your body to the front. More important than physically moving your body from seat to altar, is spiritually believing that Christ -- through his death and resurrection -- moved your soul from death to life. One can respond to a Call to Faith in a variety of ways, as long as it calls for some sort of commitment to trust and follow Jesus. And it can happen with any size group: whether one-on-one, in a small group or a larger setting.

And if that is the case, then there is plenty of biblical precedent for calling people to commit their lives to God and His purposes.

A biblical basis for Calls to Faith

Although there are Old Testament examples of private and public invitations to following God, such as Abram’s call in Genesis 12 or Moses’ calls to the Israelites to keep the covenant of Yawheh in Exodus 19 and 24 among others, let’s start with Jesus himself. 

Jesus proclaimed the Gospel, here translated as “good news.” For the purposes of this article, it’s important to note that Jesus expected a response to his Gospel: “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:14-15). Repentance, in this passage, literally means, “Change of mind,” while “believe” is more accurately, “to place your trust in.” In this way, given the Gospel, Jesus’ calls his hearers to change their worldview about how everything works, and trust in the good news that changes everything. 

Repent and believe.

A few verses later, Jesus would make an invitation to his would-be disciples: “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4 & Mark 1:17). It’s a practical real-life illustration of how “repent and believe” would play out for these fishermen. It’s absolutely an invitation to follow Jesus, and it included a missional component -- fishing for people! They would be witnesses, pressing forward his purposes in the world. And these fishermen “left everything” to follow him: to learn how to do the things he did for the reasons he did them.

Another would-be disciple would get the same invitation in Matthew 19 & Mark 10:17-31, “Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” This time, the rich young ruler would walk away from the invitation with a heavy heart. In this example, even though Jesus’ invitation went forth, he neither watered it down nor forced the hearer to respond correctly. He never overrode the young man’s will. He didn’t use coercion or manipulation: he merely stated what it meant to follow him and let him decide. Jesus doesn’t force, because you can’t make someone love you. 

He woos. 

In fact, there will be times when we make our faith public: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33). It seems there would be proper times to stand up publicly and say that you follow the Christ.

Jesus’ disciples would also take this up as the Church was born. In Acts 2, when the people heard Peter’s message, they asked him what they should do. Peter responded: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” And now, taking up the tradition of Jewish leaders who would baptize Gentiles as they became Jewish as a sign of new birth, and in the tradition of John the Baptist, who then baptized Jewish people as a sign of rebirth -- so now Peter uses a symbol to represent what is happening spiritually within the new believers. Jesus himself commanded this particular form in Matthew 28:18-20: isn’t baptism itself a public response to a spiritual conversion? 

Paul also called for response. In Acts 17:22-31, he delivered a powerful evangelistic sermon to an audience that had no biblical literacy. He exegeted their culture, and used an inscription on an Athenian altar -- “to an unknown God” -- as a launching point to talk about the bigger story of Yahweh. Starting with God’s hand in creation, he declared how worship had been bent away from the One “who gives everyone life and breath and everything else,” to images made of gold or stone. He closed the biblical story with Jesus meting out justice, and declared that his right to judge was proved through his resurrection. In all of this, he was clear about how the Athenians should respond: “but now, he commands all people everywhere to repent.” And some became followers and believed.

There are other stories of response to tell from Peter and Paul in the book of Acts, but the last one strikes me as particularly apropos to this conversation from Acts 26:27-29: Paul said, 

“King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” 

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

Paul would not miss the opportunity to let someone respond -- even if they were a king! -- to the Gospel, to offer their entire lives to Jesus. Agrippa got it, and that’s why he shot back the challenge. Paul didn’t back down, and wished that Agrippa would be like him -- to follow the Christ with all his mind, heart, soul and strength.

It seems disingenuous to claim that Altar Calls or the Invitational Method are not biblical, merely because the Scriptures don’t expressedly share that music was playing in the background and people were asked to come to the front. That seems oddly, and quite unfairly, specific. In that logical vein, then you shouldn’t use electric guitars, PA systems, or A/V projectors in worship because they aren’t specifically stated in Scripture. 

But the overall principles of presenting the gospel and calling for some public response has strong biblical precedent, and in fact, it seemed that calling for a response was expected. Any time the word is taught, it was meant to elicit the response of putting that truth into action (Matthew 7:24-27). 

A code of conduct for Calls to Faith

If making Calls to Faith doesn’t just have a Finney-an precedent, but a biblical one, then there should be theological room in our movement for making Calls to Faith. Still, you may have other concerns. Do they really help people follow Jesus over the long-haul? You  may have seen some Calls to Faith go badly awry. 

To allay those fears, let me set out a code of conduct for making a Call to Faith.

1. Pray. Conversion is a move of the Spirit. Let God change the heart. Jesus says this about people who are “born again” in John 3:5-8:

Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. 

In this passage, the word wind and spirit are the same Greek word: you only know the difference by context. So here, Jesus makes a pun, but fully intends to let us know that the Spirit does whatever it pleases. We don’t change a heart. God does. We merely are faithful to be heralds. So pray.

2. Present the Gospel fully and clearly (1 Peter 3:15). Jesus was able to do this in a couple of lines (Mark 1:14-15), but he had centuries of culture and history behind his words. For people who are less biblically literate, the Big Story is a good start. You can find more resources on the Big Story here [point to Big Story portion of the Evangelism Toolkit]. Present forgiveness, Lordship and his mission. At the same time, you cannot present everything that is in the Gospel in one talk. I’ve been helped by Rick Richardson’s comments, where he says there is a difference between the rhetorical and the theological task of the Gospel. If interested, I have further thoughts on this in a short article titled, “Theological & Rhetorical Tasks of the Gospel.

3. Call for total surrender. For some, it is right to invite people to investigate Jesus more, to “come and see” (John 1:39). But if you are inviting people to follow Jesus, call for total surrender (Mark 10:17-31). It’s repent and believe (Mark 1:14-15). Change the way you see the world and trust this new reality. Tell people what’s at stake. Yes, invite people to the goodness of Jesus and His love. But make sure that people know it’s about their entire lives, and it’s not a decision to be made lightly. Don’t water down the call: in fact, make the call hard. We deceive our listeners if they think they can come to Jesus with something less than offering the entirety of their lives.

4. Let people respond: whether one-on-one, in smaller groups, or in larger settings, make the invitation. When the word goes forth, it always calls for response. Make invitations. There is plenty of Scriptural precedent to call for a response at all of these levels (Acts 2:38, 17:30, 26:27-29).

5. Persuade, don’t coerce or manipulate. Don’t threaten. Don’t exploit people’s emotions. Don’t have them make life-changing decisions after a sleepless night. It’s good to explain why music is being played at that moment, or why the house lights are on or not. It’s okay to set up an experience. But don’t coerce or manipulate in a way that takes away people’s ability to choose. Do not override someone’s will. Love never forces; it woos. Not everyone will respond to the call, and yet, you dignify people who are made in God’s image by allowing them to choose to fall in love with Jesus or not (Mark 10:21-22).

6. Encourage accurately. You can’t claim that every person standing will be in heaven (Matthew 7:21-23). You don’t know why they’re standing. You can say that if anyone has stood, trusting what Jesus has done for them and giving over their entire lives to Jesus’ leadership, then they will have a place in heaven – now and in the time to come. See the difference?

7. Follow-up when possible. Follow-up isn’t always possible, but when it is, it is vital. It is the key way that decisions become disciples. In Acts 2:41-47, those who responded to the Gospel were baptized and added to the community of believers. For more on follow-up, see “Follow-Up: Translating Decisions Into Lifestyles” by Ryan Pfeiffer and Bryan Enderle.

8. Measure precisely. Don’t inflate (Ephesians 4:25). Don’t just count hands raised. Trust that God knows what you did, and your reward would be in heaven. Find out their stories when possible. See if it speaks of someone’s turning to God, whether for the first time, or  a returning to God.

9. Do it in love. We are not counting spiritual scalps in pride. We are not seeking control over others. God loved us so much that He sent His son (John 3:16), and we love because he loved us first (1 John 4:19). We, therefore, out of our deep love, desire people to come to know Jesus and start to give their lives to him.

Before I go on, a few disclaimers must be said: First, Calls to Faith aren’t the only way people become Christians. These days, particularly in the Muslim world, it seems that Jesus has been appearing to people in their dreams, and in response, they have given their lives to Jesus – to great cost and danger to their lives. (For more on this, read Dreams and Visions or Killing Christians by Tom Doyle.)

And second, even when done rightly, Calls to Faith don’t guarantee response: the parable of the Sower shows that even when the Word is sown properly, there are different kinds of soil (Matthew 13:1-23). Although this reasoning could easily be used to excuse a poorly-done Call to Faith, we still cannot guarantee that all who decide in one moment will later be fully-devoted followers of Jesus until the day they die. No method can.

But giving people a chance to decide whether or not to follow Jesus is vital. Decisions are important. They don’t always secure our places in the afterlife, but they are significant markers in any journey. Public displays of those decisions are important to us, which is why most of us get married in public. Sure, the love is already there. But the public declaration solidifies the decision, while also asking for accountability from the new family. And these decisions could have impact, not just while we walk the earth, but for eternity.