“Pastor, where do altar calls come from?” (Part 2)

the altar callThe name Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) may not be familiar to many Christians. However, you would be very familiar with his practice of evangelism. The name Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844) will be even less familiar, if known at all. If not for Finney’s “fixed determination [and] rigidity of purpose and [the] absolute conviction of the rightness of his way”[1] of evangelism, no one would ask today “where do altar calls come from?” In the nineteenth century, Finney perfected what the Methodist open-air camp meeting preachers began (see my previous blog). In the twentieth century, it became the distinctive mark of the Billy Graham Crusades. In the twenty-first century, no one can imagine a time when an altar call was not the norm in many Baptist churches.

The unconverted Finney was a 29 year old law apprentice with a forceful personality that influenced people away from Christ![2] After his conversion, he became a forceful personality urging men and women “to decide for Christ.”[3] He left behind his ambition for a law career to pursue theological studies and eventual ordination in the Presbyterian Church (1824). Finney worked with Rev. George W. Gale and became a frontier missionary. In the fall of 1825, Finney relocated to Western New York State where he saw a spiritual awakening in the churches that became known as the “Western revival” in 1827.[4]

The following year controversy arose from a body of Presbyterian ministers concerned over the “irregularities and confusion introduced into revivals at the West.”[5] Revivals were never clean and orderly, even in Jonathan Edwards’ day. Asahel Nettleton, an equally powerful and effective Congregational evangelist led the way in cautioning the churches and Finney-imitators regarding Finney’s methods.[6]  Nettleton’s attempt to analyze Finney’s methods and warn about their use represented the concerns that were spreading among orthodox ministers and churches. Finney defended his methods in a sermon called, “Can Two Walk Together Except they be Agreed?” in which he denounced Nettleton and the others as nothing more than worldly men whose hearts were “cold as those of impenitent sinners”![7] Finney defended the “measures” used (as he called them) to convert sinners as inseparable from the preacher and the Spirit. To oppose the measures meant to oppose the man of God and God’s Spirit.

Finney’s results of “decisions for Christ” caused euphoria among his followers. Decisions, not conversions, became the new standard of success and the innovation of the “new measures” received the credit. With the success of his evangelistic meetings, Finney became even more unwilling to consider any criticism, especially from Nettleton. Soon people began to claim that Finney “had converted souls”!

New Measures

What were these “new measures” and from what theological ground did they spring? Finney believed that the whole of human nature was not completely fallen. If God commanded something in Scripture, Finney believed humans were fully capable of obeying the command by engaging their will in a decision. Ground for this view came from Finney’s belief that “[God] had no right to command unless we have power to obey . . . God is tyrannical if He commands that which is impracticable.”[8] Finney completely missed the biblical view of fallen humanity when he wrote that the doctrine of original sin was “a monstrous and blasphemous dogma.” He could not believe “that a holy God [would be] angry with any creature for possessing a nature with which he was sent into being without his knowledge or consent . . . Original or constitutional sinfulness, physical regeneration, and all their kindred and resulting dogmas, [are] alike subversive of the gospel and repulsive to the human intelligence.”[9] The idea that a fallen will was “unable to freely choose [to obey God] was especially repugnant.”

Finney concluded that there is no problem in the human heart any deeper than the will, therefore all that is necessary for conversion is a decision of the will, not the transformation of a nature that is at war with God (Eph 2:1-3). Thus, Finney made his theological home with Pelagius’ (AD 354-420) view of the not-so-nearly-ruined human nature.[10]

If a decision of the will was all that was necessary, then he must create a strategy to excite the will of the sinner to decide for Christ. (Notice that neither repentance nor conversion were in his creative sights). Finney’s new measures were designed specifically for this purpose. By promoting the right methods, revivals were insured; the means of revival were now in the hands of the church. Simply put, when sinners decided to obey Christ, they became Christians and members of the local church immediately. A sinner’s attention needed to be gained in order to make a decision. To gain attention, Finney wrote that “you must have something new.”[11]

In order to create excitement in a service, Finney used protracted meetings with many appeals for sinners to stand or kneel or come to the “anxious seat” or the “mourner’s bench” to make a decision for Christ. These methods made decisions “quick, as they ought to be”[12] and countable.

In American society then as now, numbers mattered. The upside of the altar call was and is that it provides a speedy way of securing knowledge of conversion. If response to the gospel could be made instantly visible, then we know we have successfully evangelized! But therein lies the dilemma: a decision and coming forward to the altar became synonymous with assurance of salvation.

I am a pastor. I ask God to bring sinners to our church every Sunday to hear the good news of what God has done for them in Christ. A conversion to faith in Christ is a greater miracle than creation! It is a new condition that the sinner enters: their eyes are open to the beauty of Christ, they turn away from the darkness of sin and the corruptions of the world and the flesh and the power of Satan, they receive forgiveness of sins and a home in the family of God as they grow in holiness (Acts 26:18). I want to know when a sinner is converted!

But we must look carefully at the nature of a conversion and the evidence of it before we affirm that it has genuinely taken place. Read how Luke describes conversions in the book of Acts. Some are dramatic, like Paul’s (Acts 9). Some are earthshaking, like the Philippian jailer (Acts 16). Some are right in the middle of a pretty good sermon, like Cornelius (Acts 10). Some are because of reading a biblical text and needing a little help in understanding, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8). Some are quiet and hardly noticed, like Lydia’s (Acts 16). All of them have something in common: a change in attitude, and outlook, rooted in a changed heart. Each person responded differently but each exhibited the marks of a new life in Christ in seedlike ways. The Bible calls this a “circumcised heart” (Rom 2:29).

Responding to an altar because someone has been excited by a passionate preacher and protracted pleas, or emotionally moving music (or loud music), or a visually stunning video presentation or promises of a free book also share something in common: man-made efforts to do a good thing for the wrong reasons.

If I thought that the validity of “my ministry” rested on the results I planned, then years ago I’d have been too discouraged to continue. It is not that good and spiritual things have not happened; it’s just that they didn’t happen the way I planned or when I planned. They seemed to happen in spite of my efforts and definitely on God’s time table.

Until Finney’s day, revivals were viewed as the sovereign work of God’s Spirit, not something manufactured and whipped up by human innovation. However, that is not to say that pastors and churches should not band together to pray for revival. We should! We must! We must pray earnestly for the lost around us. We must sow the seed of the gospel promiscuously, patiently, fervently, and lovingly. But we must also submit to God’s sovereign decision at to when, where, who and for how long he would refresh his people and bring in a harvest of sinners during a revival.

The way you know if you are able to do this is to think about your answer to this question: are you willing to pray fervently for revival in your church for twenty years, die and never know that the fruit of your earnest prayers came twelve years after your death?


[1]Michael A. G. Haykin, “Asahel Nettleton, Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) and the Controversy over the ‘New Measures’” (classroom lecture, 80914 – Spiritual Awakenings and Revival, Lecture 20, Summer 2009, photocopy), 2.  Haykin quotes from Keith J. Hardman’s book Charles Grandison Finney, 1792-1875, Revivalist and Reformer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990).

[2]Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust 1994), 229.

[3]A friend sent me a  photocopy of a Time Magazine article about Billy Graham, the “gaunt young man with the Hickey-Freeman clothes and the eagle-sharp manner.” It said of him that his manner “is brigning men and women down from the packed stands and up the length of the baseball field to make ‘decisions for Christ.’ (October 25, 1954).

[4]Murray, Revival, 229.

[5]Murray, Revival, 230.

[6]Bennet Tyler and Andrew Bonar, The Life and Labors of Asahel Nettleton [on-line]; accessed 12 June 2013; available from http://www.reformedreader.org/rbb/nettleton/ahbr.htm. It is estimated that some 30,000 souls were added to the churches of New England under Nettleton’s ministry.

[7]Murray, Revival, 231.

[8]Murray, Revival, 245.

[9]Haykin, “Lecture 20,” 4.  Haykin quotes Finney’s Lectures on Systematic Theology.

[10]Augustine had lots to say about Pelagius’ view! See Augustine’s Confessions.

[11]Murray, Revival, 246. Murray quotes Finney’s work on revival.

[12]Murray, Revival, 246.


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