Are Altar Calls Biblical?

The specifics of the modern altar call may not be biblical, but certain general principles are themes of the New Testament: holding meetings, declaring the Gospel in creative ways, showing compassion alongside the Good News, and offering a chance to make a decision.

Contributing Writer
Updated Mar 28, 2024
Are Altar Calls Biblical?

At the end of the sermon, the piano player or other musicians would head back up to the front and begin to play a slower praise song. Then, the pastor would invite repentant souls to come to the altar, which was generally a series of benches where people could kneel. The reasons to come forward included salvations, rededications, or healings. 

The altar call. This tradition has an interesting background, and it has been a staple in most evangelical churches for decades. But is it biblical? 

What is the history of the modern altar call? 

The roots of the altar call trace back to the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the United States and Britain. During this period, preachers such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney spearheaded movements characterized by fervent preaching and a call to personal conversion. 

One of the earliest recorded instances of an altar call occurred during the Great Awakening in the American colonies. George Whitefield, a prominent preacher known for his powerful speaking, would often call upon listeners to come forward and make a public profession of their faith. These gatherings, often held outdoors in open fields, saw individuals stepping forward to the “mourner's bench” or designated area to pray and seek salvation.

The practice gained further traction with Charles Finney, a leading figure in the Second Great Awakening. Finney’s innovative methods of evangelism placed a strong emphasis on human agency and the power of persuasion. He preached emotionally charged sermons, extended revival meetings, and a system of inviting individuals to come forward and publicly commit their lives to Christ. 

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the altar call continued to evolve and adapt within evangelical circles. It became institutionalized within the structure of revival meetings, evangelistic crusades, and eventually regular church services, serving as a visible marker of conversion and commitment. As evangelicalism spread globally, the practice of the altar call became synonymous with the proclamation of the Gospel and the call to discipleship.

The altar call provided a public platform for individuals to publicly declare their faith and receive affirmation from the community of believers. For many, the act of coming forward symbolized a decisive break from the past and a commitment to a new way of life.

Critics have raised concerns about its potential for manipulation, emotionalism, and superficiality. Some have questioned its biblical basis, arguing that it places undue emphasis on a single moment of decision rather than the ongoing process of discipleship.

Nevertheless, for countless believers, the altar call remains a sacred and transformative moment in their spiritual journey. 

What does the Bible say about altars? 

Throughout the Bible, altars hold significant religious and symbolic importance within the context of worship and sacrifice. These sacred structures served as focal points for offerings to God and as places of encounter with the divine.

In the Old Testament, altars are prominently featured in the worship practices of ancient Israel. The book of Genesis records several instances of patriarchs, such as Abraham and Jacob, building altars to offer sacrifices and worship God. For example, after God promised him the land of Canaan, Abraham built an altar in Shechem and another in Bethel (Genesis 12:7-8; 13:18).

However, the regulations concerning altars become more detailed within the context of the Mosaic Law. In Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, God provides specific instructions regarding the construction, location, and use of altars in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple.

In the Tabernacle, which served as a portable sanctuary for the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings, there were two primary altars: the bronze altar of burnt offering and the golden altar of incense. The bronze altar was situated in the courtyard and was used for animal sacrifices, symbolizing atonement for sin and the worshipper's dedication to God. The golden altar of incense, located within the Holy Place, was used for burning fragrant incense, representing the prayers of the people ascending to God (Exodus 30:1-10).

When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, he followed these instructions, constructing a magnificent altar for burnt offerings made of bronze (1 Kings 8:22-64). This altar played a central role in the sacrificial system of worship prescribed by the Law of Moses.

In the New Testament, the concept of altars takes on a different significance as the focus shifts from physical structures to spiritual realities. The primary altar in the New Testament is no longer a physical construction but rather the cross of Christ. Hebrews draws upon imagery from the Old Testament sacrificial system to present Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice, whose blood brings forgiveness and redemption to humanity (Hebrews 9:11-14; 10:10-14).

Furthermore, the apostle Paul speaks of believers presenting themselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, as an act of spiritual worship (Romans 12:1). In this sense, the concept of the altar becomes metaphorical, representing the surrender of one’s life to God and the offering of oneself in service to Him.

While the physical altars of the Temple may no longer be relevant in the New Testament era, the principles they represent – worship, sacrifice, and devotion to God – remain central to Christian faith and practice. We are called to offer our lives as living sacrifices, continually seeking to honor God in all we do, both individually and collectively, as the body of Christ.

What are examples of New Testament Gospel invitations? 

In the New Testament, several examples illustrate group gospel invitations, where Jesus or the apostles called on individuals or crowds to respond to the message of salvation and discipleship. These invitations often served as pivotal moments of decision and commitment within the context of public preaching and ministry.

One notable example is found in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, a comprehensive teaching on the principles of the kingdom of God. At the conclusion of this sermon, Jesus issues a broad invitation to all who are listening, urging them to make a deliberate choice regarding their response to his message.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate, and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

Here, Jesus presents a stark contrast between the path of destruction and the path of life, calling upon his listeners to consider carefully the implications of their choices. While this invitation is directed to the entire crowd gathered to hear Jesus teach, it carries personal significance for each individual, challenging them to make a decision to follow him wholeheartedly.

In the book of Acts, we see numerous instances where the apostles preached the gospel to large gatherings, often resulting in mass conversions and responses to the message. One such example occurs on the day of Pentecost, when Peter delivers a powerful sermon to a crowd in Jerusalem, convicting them of their sins and calling them to repentance and baptism.

“Peter replied, ‘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.’” (Acts 2:38)

This invitation prompts a dramatic response from the crowd, as three thousand people choose to repent and be baptized, symbolizing their acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior (Acts 2:41).

These examples highlight the diverse ways in which group gospel invitations were extended in the New Testament, revealing the powerful nature of the message of salvation and the call to discipleship. Whether delivered by Jesus or the apostles, these invitations challenged individuals and crowds alike to respond to the gospel with faith and obedience, setting the stage for transformative encounters with the living God.

What can we learn from the Bible about Gospel invitations? 

The modern tradition of the altar call is only a couple of centuries old, and the regular church service invitation doesn’t appear in the Bible. At the same time, revivalists like Charles Finney modeled the invitation after narratives like Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost and other large-group Gospel presentations in Acts. Other denominations, like the Charismatics, have included expectations of healing, also seen in the New Testament. 

We encounter trouble when these invitations become emotional or manipulative. In our desire to see people come to see Jesus—and feel the success of our ministry is based on these responses—we are tempted by emotionalism, fear, threat, or manipulation. These things aren’t part of the Gospel. Jesus encountered times when no one responded. Our obedience is in the declaration of the message from a place of love, independent of the response. 

At the same time, the New Testament does give examples of Gospel invitations, and we can learn much from these. 

  1. Urgency and Clarity. The New Testament invitations emphasize the urgency of the message and the need for clarity in communication. Just as John the Baptist urgently called people to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, we today must convey the Gospel message with clarity and conviction, highlighting the need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
  2. Personal Engagement. Jesus and the apostles engaged with individuals and crowds on a personal level, addressing their specific needs and concerns. We should follow their example by building authentic relationships with others, listening to their stories, and sharing the Gospel in ways that resonate with their unique experiences and circumstances.
  3. Inclusivity and Compassion. The Gospel invitations in the New Testament reach out to people from all walks of life with the message of God’s love and grace. We should embody this spirit of inclusivity, welcoming people of diverse backgrounds and cultures into the family of God and demonstrating compassion towards those who are hurting or marginalized.
  4. Boldness and Courage. The apostles exhibited boldness and courage in proclaiming the Gospel, even in the face of opposition and persecution. We are called to emulate their example by boldly sharing our faith with others, regardless of the potential risks or challenges involved, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit to work through them.
  5. Authenticity and Integrity. The New Testament invitations of the Gospel were characterized by authenticity and integrity, reflecting the genuine faith and commitment of those who proclaimed them. We should strive to embody these qualities in our own lives, living out our faith so that others may be drawn to Christ through our witness.
  6. Prayer and Dependence on God. Throughout the New Testament, we see examples of prayer preceding and undergirding the proclamation of the Gospel. Instead of relying upon emotionalism or charisma, we should make sure prayer is at the heart of all we do, recognizing our dependence on God in all things and praying fervently for opportunities. 
  7. A Moment of Decision. Many times, when those in the New Testament preached the Gospel, they did bring the people to a moment of decision. We must remember to be bold enough to make a call to action and make a decision, focused on the person of Christ and led by the Holy Spirit. 
  8. Continual Growth and Discipleship: The New Testament invitations emphasize the importance of continual growth and discipleship in the Christian life. Today, we should not only focus on initial conversions but also on nurturing new believers and helping them grow in their faith, just as the apostles did with those who responded to their message in the early church.

The specifics of the modern altar call may not be biblical, but certain general principles are themes of the New Testament: holding meetings, declaring the Gospel in creative ways, showing compassion alongside the Good News, and offering a chance to make a decision. By studying and applying these lessons from the New Testament examples of Gospel invitations, we can become more effective ambassadors for Christ, faithfully proclaiming the Good News and making disciples for the glory of God.

Photo Credit: Image created using AI technology and subsequently edited and reviewed by our editorial team.

Britt MooneyBritt Mooney lives and tells great stories. As an author of fiction and non -iction, he is passionate about teaching ministries and nonprofits the power of storytelling to inspire and spread truth. Mooney has a podcast called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author of We Were Reborn for This: The Jesus Model for Living Heaven on Earth as well as Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.


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