Just as I Am
A wild, speeding bus can blast a soul to hell. So thank God for altar calls and instant salvation!
By John D. Spalding
“With every head bowed, and every eye closed, and nobody lookin’ around,” my pastor began, after reciting the “sinner’s prayer” at the end of another fire-and-brimstone sermon. “If there is anyone here who prayed that prayer with me—if you confessed your sins to God and accepted Jesus into your heart—then I’d like you to slip your hand in the air to show Jesus you meant business.”
I gripped the pew, heart pounding. I’d prayed the prayer. In fact, at age 12, I’d prayed it thousands of times; never before, however, had I professed my faith at church. My pastor always said, “If you do not know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, where you will spend eternity, then you aren’t saved.” But no matter how many times I’d confessed my sins and accepted Jesus, I still was not certain where my soul would go should I, as my pastor put it, “walk out the church this beautiful Sunday morning and get knocked into eternity by a speeding bus.”
So, with a heart full of dread and a head full of images of careening buses and infernal flames, I sheepishly raised a hand. My pastor pointed at me. “I see that hand, young man. Praise Jesus!”
What I feared most was to come next. As the organist launched into the final stanza of that solemn 19th-century standard, “Just As I Am,” my pastor asked those of us who’d raised our hands to come to the altar at the front.
I felt sick to my stomach—forced into doing something I didn’t want to do, and embarrassed people would think I’d been attending this Baptist church since I was nine and still hadn’t sealed the deal. I tried to console myself with a thought I wanted badly to believe: At least I’ll never doubt again.
This, brothers and sisters, is how the power of the altar call works. For almost 200 years, preachers and evangelists have used this method to convict sinners and swell church numbers. It's a process that leads listeners to a near-panic crisis—make no mistake, unless you do something now, you will burn in hell, forever.
Fortunately, the salvation offered is instant—and as easy to obtain as a waffle iron on the QVC channel. You just decide you want it, and it’s the preacher’s job, as God’s salesman, to convince you that you do. He doesn't need you to whip out your credit card and dial the number on the screen (though a call for money may come), he just needs to get you out of the pew and down the aisle. Once you commit to Christ, the rest will follow.
Sound cynical? Then perhaps you’re not familiar with Charles G. Finney (1792-1875), the “father of modern revivalism” and popularizer of the “new measures” of evangelism, including the altar call. Finney was a lawyer-turned-minister who refused formal theological training and fibbed to get his Presbyterian preacher’s license (he vowed adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which he later admitted he’d not read). He insisted the conversion of souls was produced not by the hand of God, but the pressure exerted on listeners. A “revival is not a miracle,” he wrote in his “Lectures on Revivalism.” “It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.”
Finney filled his unsaved listeners with so much anxiety that, when he invited them to come down and occupy the empty “anxious bench” in the front row, they streamed forward (and that was without invoking the yet-to-be-invented apocalyptic bus).
“Preach to him, and at the moment he thinks he is willing to do anything, bring him to the test,” Finney wrote. “Call on him to do one thing…if he is not willing to do a small thing as that, then he is not willing to do anything for Christ.”
Finney was hard-nosed and results-oriented. “His speech was tough, direct, forceful—and inescapably popular,” writes historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom in “A Religious History of the American People.” “Like God, he was no respecter of persons: sinners were sinners. He prayed for them by name; and when occasion required he included in his prayers any persons, lay or clerical, who were notable by their absence or their opposition to his efforts.”
The pressure tactics worked. His New York prayer meetings of 1831 established him as one of the most successful preachers of the Second Great Awakening. Finney so believed in the “new measures” that he was confident he and his fellow evangelists could convert the entire United States within three years, ushering in the millennium.
His methods caught on. Preachers from Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday to Bob Jones and Billy Graham adopted the altar call to tremendous success.
But the success was, and is, rather contrived. Altar calls prey on fears (uncertainty of damnation) and appeal to otherworldly selfishness (certainty of eternal bliss). As a one-time mental transaction with God (sins for salvation), it has little to do with the daily choices that faith could inform. Lest we forget, Jesus never gave an altar call. Nor did the apostles, or many of the later greats, from Martin Luther and John Calvin to John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles H. Spurgeon, who refused to give public invitations of any kind and criticized Moody for doing so.
The letdown after my trip to the altar came quickly. That night I lay in bed paralyzed with the same eternal fears. As years passed I realized that, unless my understanding of faith changed, I would only find peace through self-delusion—convincing myself that I really was saved and that the voice of doubt was merely, as another pastor explained, the devil. Ultimately, I changed my understanding of faith—radically.
Many of Finney’s converts had similar experiences. Hoping to stir up religious excitement, Finney “had a way of producing its opposite: disappointment, disgust, remorse, ennui, and even a sense of betrayal,” writes Ahlstrom. Finney himself came to realize the short-lived nature of his effect, and referred to central New York—where the Second Great Awakening swept through with evangelical fire—as the “burned-over district.”
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Too Close for Comfort.
This essay originally appeared in Geez magazine.
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