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Asking people to make a decision to have their sins forgiven, but spending little time calling them to become disciples, is like telling someone half a story, while leaving them to figure out the rest on their own.

Our preoccupation with getting people to make a decision is not only contrary to the biblical call tomake disciples, it also short-circuits the message of the Gospel and short-changes the recipient in the process.

We are so desperate to have people make a decision that we rarely, if ever, tell them about thecosts associated with making that decision. And, the effects of this lopsided emphasis are obvious, with the ultimate indication being a lack of true commitment.

I Didn’t Sign Up for This

As soon as people begin to experience any degree of adversity because of their decision—adversity they were probably never warned about—they begin to second guess their decision and drift away.

Why? Because they were never told the whole story. They were only provided with a very small portion of the story—the part of having their sins forgiven—and were never given the part…

a. about counting the costs;

b. about the Kingdom of God;

c. about devoting one's life completely to Jesus;

d. about the associated risks involved;

e. about the demands the Gospel will call upon all of us to make.

If we only tell people one-half of the story, we will end up with people who only want that half and little more.

They will want the sins forgiven part, the get-out-of-hell part, and the Jesus-will-give-me-the-life-I’ve-always-wanted part, but have less excitement for the real Kingdom of God type stuff that demands total allegiance, dedication and a life-long commitment.

The Altar Call in a Nutshell

Please allow me to paint a picture of what a typical Sunday morning altar call scene looks like—

The pastor preaches a classic get-your-sins-forgiven message, followed up with a call for salvation—with the primary emphasis on personal forgiveness and the escape from hell. Then they tell everyone to bow their heads, close their eyes, (we never want to make people feel uncomfortable or awkward), raise a hand, say a 30-second prayer and BAM—they’re in. After the service ends, they invite them to the side of the platform to speak with a counselor, receive a Bible, Christian literature, and away they go. Good luck!

And that’s about it.

You’re in.

All is done.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

As people who claim to be of the Book, the typical call to action outlined above must be similar to what Jesus used, right? Certainly there must be some degree of biblical precedent from which we derived this style of evangelism?

Not really.

There are many problems with this rather unbiblical approach to making converts, the first being that we were never called to make converts—but disciples.

Furthermore, we need to realize that we’ve never been completely honest with people during the easy-call, raise-a-hand and repeat-after-me ritual we’ve been so conditioned to use during the altar call.

If people begin their Christian journey with the promise that they will never be made to feel uncomfortable in any way, as the close-your-eyes, no-one-look-around, quickly raise your hand approach communicates, the moment they begin to realize this isn’t true, they’ll quickly begin to question their decision, realize they’d been had and walk away feeling like they’ve failed—which isn’t true at all.

Why? Because they never failed—we did.

In our attempt to get as many people as we can to make a decision, we’ve ended up creating a sugar-coated Jesus in order to make Him as palatable as possible.

Similar to when my parents would crush a baby Aspirin in a spoon of strawberry jam so I could swallow it more easily as a kid, we have diluted (thanks Benjamin L. Corey) a Gospel that demands total allegiance, with an easy-to-swallow, half-baked evangelical script that not only doesn’t resemble the call to discipleship Jesus demonstrated in the Gospel accounts, but short-circuits the message entirely.

Follow Me

"Follow me" means there will be costs involved.

"Follow me" isn’t a part-time job that only requires us to work on Sunday mornings for an hour and a half, but a full-time vocation that requires a lifetime commitment in service to others.

"Follow me" means whatever direction I was traveling in before will be the exact opposite direction that I will travel in going forward.

In essence, everything will be different.

So, when we sugar-coat the Gospel and dilute it with our Westernized, easy-to-swallow, no commitment required, self-help message we’ve grown accustomed to offering, sometimes throwing in the reward of heaven and escape from hell for good measure, we shouldn’t be surprised when we end up with churches filled with consumers, who look out for their own interests, rather than disciples, who occupy themselves with service to and for others.

As Martin Luther once said,

A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.

And, if this is true, why do we tell people following Jesus will cost them so little?

Setting the Mood

We set the mood from the very beginning by telling people during the altar call that we promise never to make them feel uncomfortable. How did we ever arrive at such a silly idea?

Tell that to the first disciples—most of whom were decapitated—only because they followed Jesus.

Tell that to Paul who suffered greatly—being beaten, malnourished and ship-wreaked many times—only because he followed Jesus.

Tell that to the thousands of Jesus-followers ever since who have been severely persecuted and often killed—only because they followed Jesus.

When we cheapen, sugar-coat and dilute the call to follow Jesus by offering people an easy ride to heaven, we not only dishonor those who have gone before us, but we dishonor Jesus himself and the Kingdom He gave His life to bring.

Counting Converts and Making Disciples

Asking people to make a commitment to follow Jesus is definitely, without question, an important part of the process. Every journey begins with one step, and this first step is critical.

However, we need to stop this unhealthy and unbiblical preoccupation with counting converts and seek to implement Jesus’ own directive to make disciples. To call people to a lifetime commitment with Jesus and the Kingdom He inaugurated. And, to be honest with everyone from the beginning that this will cost us everything.

In the process, however, we should also tell people that the costs will never outweigh the dividends of a restored relationship with God and the absolute joy of working with God by participating in His Kingdom dream—a dream of a world consumed by love, justice and peace.

This is the message of Jesus.

This is our mandate and commission.

Not to save souls from hell, but to save people for God. To invite them to embrace Jesus and His Kingdom. To dedicate their entire lives to Him and to join with others, at home and around the world, in working toward His Kingdom dream.

And, when you inhabit God’s dream for the world, you can expect various forms of opposition. The counter-cultural dynamic built into the Kingdom of God runs across the grain of the kingdoms of this world and opposition should be anticipated. We should never go looking for it, but it will come.

We Get Out What We Put In

When it comes to our message, we get out of it what we put into it.

If we only want people to make a decision so we can count converts, we’ve already failed. Jesus isn’t something you add to your life—he demands your whole life. A weak invitation to follow Jesus will create weak followers.

Another concern is that people will feel secure in their decision because we’ve told them that all they had to do is “repeat this prayer after me and you’re in,” when we know the call to follow Jesus is far more significant than repeating a 30 second prayer.

The thing is, Jesus never asked anyone to “say this prayer after me.” Jesus never told the crowds to “bow their heads and close their eyes” so no one would be embarrassed.

Jesus never promised anyone a rose garden. In fact, he told us to expect the opposite. We would suffer persecution, imprisonment, torture, even death. And to promise people anything else is to set them up for failure.

Re-capturing Jesus’ Discipleship Message

Maybe we need to re-capture Jesus’ discipleship message if we truly desire people to follow him along the path of discipleship.

Maybe we need to begin creating a gospel culture of discipleship (thanks, Scot McKnight) that sets people up for a lifetime of loving devotion to Christ and his Church, rather than a short-lived, saved-from-our-sins, get-out-of-hell-free-card, system of salvation.

Maybe we all need to re-consider the cost.

Jeff K. Clarke is a blogger and an award-winning writer of articles and book reviews in a variety of faith-based publications. The goal of his blog is to place Jesus at the center of our discussions. From there, all of our questions, ideas and reflections are placed through the filter and lens of a Jesus (Re)Centered.

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Warren Lamb

commented on Feb 12, 2015

One of the better summaries of one of the weakest aspects of Western Christianity. Will be sharing this - count on it!

Robert Dewitt

commented on Feb 12, 2015

I think the distinction needs to be made between salvation (Grace that is free) to sanctification (The cost of cross bearing). Jesus had the same problem when He asked people to move from a decision to become a disciple and follow Him. Jn. 6: 66 From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him." They would not be fully committed to Him, and many just left.

Tracy Mcintyre

commented on Feb 12, 2015

I agree with the general premise. But you list info not included when an altar call is given, a-e above, but when the gospel is preached in the book of Acts I do not see them teaching a-e clearly before calling people to make a decision either. People came to Christ were water baptized and figured all of a-e while on the journey.

Dionne Stratton

commented on Feb 12, 2015

An excellent article! I've said these same things many times, but no one seems to listen.

William Milam

commented on Feb 12, 2015

I don't agree with anything this article says. Any Pastor, worth his salt will make the Altar Call...The Invitation...a time for someone to surrender their life to the Lordship of Christ. Believers are constantly challenged by the winds of temptation and trouble. To fail challenge them to remember...repent...return is a failure. Your description of the altar call is flawed...seriously flawed.

Gary Edwards

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Amen Brother!

Jonathan Mbuna

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Well William, I can't agree more! This article to me has been too harsh and at times at variance with my value system! However I have some points as food for thought!

Jonathan Mbuna

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Well William, I can't agree more! This article to me has been too harsh and at times at variance with my value system! However I have some points as food for thought!

Greg Gilbreath

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Who does this? "The Altar Call in a Nutshell" I have been a Christian for 40 years and I have never heard an alter call like this. I think some contributors on SC are listening to crazy preachers. Find a Bible believing church with a preacher who is called by God for crying out loud.

Jonathan Mbuna

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Robert Dewitt has ably summed up my views. We should differentiate salvation and sanctification. I think the altar call is just that. Right from John's preaching to Jesus and Peter on the day of pentecost, the call was repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. However after the people repented, they had to be taught. That is why Jesus said preach and teach. I think altar call is for immediate response to a preaching. The other issues raised in the article are for teaching and discipleship. We should not confuse the two

Gary Edwards

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Mr. Clarke: I could not disagree with you more. Romans 10:9 states "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved" For you to make it "an important PART of the process", instead of the only part of the process, concerns me greatly. I do agree, that we all should do a better job of Discipleship when someone comes to Christ. However, how can one know the way of the Christian without first knowing Christ? It is a very sad day when we continue to place obstacles in the way of The Free Gift from God The Father.

Joseph Wheeler

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Amen! What a great article. You hit the problem right on the head. Thank you for your articulate thoughts and reminder of our role to make disciples.

Rev. David L. Wade

commented on Feb 12, 2015

I understand what he is trying to present. Some may not agree, but there is a high cost in following Jesus. He has brought some really important things to light for discussion.

Jim Heckman

commented on Feb 12, 2015

The article is a great summation of my thoughts! Since seminary I have said that until we change the ratio of preaching to discipleship classes our churches and, more importantly, our people are going to be in deep trouble. There will be many a "Christian" who wakes up dead in Hell and wonder why.

Gary Greene

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Jesus asked those who wished to be his disciples if they were ready for the rigors of that life (Matt. 8:20,22). The first recorded sermon by Jesus (The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5,6,7) is full of challenges to how one lives his ongoing life. If we follow Jesus's example, we will include the idea of sanctification at the same time as we persuade them to accept salvation.

Gerald Graham

commented on Feb 12, 2015

It seems to me that there has been more and more of an effort to bash one way of doing things over another. I'm tired of it. Alter calls are no more or less perfect than many other ways of doing things. Don't do an "alter call" and people may live the works of their faith without having accepted the terms of the agreement. Besides that isn't the way the Apostles did it. They called, they disciples, they released. Not to mention that's the way Jesus did it too.

Nate Stevens

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Jeff Clark is preaching a dangerous false gospel, but at least he is honest about it. "And, to be honest with everyone from the beginning that this will cost us everything." Paul said to an unbeliever who asked to be saved, "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ." Nothing in this article is reflected in Paul's response. To be a disciple, or to follow Jesus does cost us everything--but that is different from eternal salvation. Jesus Himself said, "I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life." I don't see anything there about being saved (what altar calls are about) requiring one to give up all of their life. Many well-meaning people get the simple purity of the gospel diluted and confused with this works-based salvation message. And it is deadly. If your confidence for eternal salvation is placed in anything other than Christ's work on the cross (I gave up my life, I sacrificed everything etc.) Jesus is going to say, "depart from me I never knew you."

Mike Spencer

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Jesus called those who claimed to want to follow him to count the cost. I don't believe Mr. Clarke is calling for a works-based salvation, but rather, fully apprising people who come saying I will follow you anywhere to the ramifications of such a decision. The fact is, the gospel has been turned into merely an evangelical tool to "get people saved" rather than the food that every Christian should thrive upon. Are you saved? Believing is more than mental ascent. Paul, James and John strongly affirm that actual faith will be evidenced by obedience. Can we really say we are saved without this? Why on earth are we told by Paul to work out our faith with fear and trembling. If you believe, you will follow. This is not to say that justification is by anything but faith, but the evidence of such faith will quickly follow. Having said all this, there are so many pulpits that fail to properly express the gospel, but skip to pietist messages about changing the world and impacting the community and fixing your finances and relationships that it is no wonder that 80 of Americans identify themselves as Christians, but couldn't describe the gospel if you put a gun to their heads.

Nate Stevens

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Thanks for the response Mike. I think its a really thin line to say that works will follow salvation, so salvation must include a promise of works. Sure, works normally follow salvation, but they follow, they do not precede, or coexist and often they are completely lacking for a time. They are not a part of salvation whatsoever. Not the doing of them, or the promise of doing them, or the promise of not doing bad stuff. Salvation isn't something we do--ever. Anything different is a false gospel that detracts from the completed work of the Cross of Christ. Are you promising to not sin? then you are doing something. Are you promising to obey God? Then you are doing something. Confidence in Christ has been replaced with confidence in my promise or commitment. When the Bible is so abundantly clear that salvation is a work of God through Christ alone, I struggle to find a reason to complicate it as the article above does.

Mike Spencer

commented on Feb 13, 2015

I agree with you, Nate. I'm still not sure this article complicates things, I think it is merely cognizant of the way Jesus went about repelling many with his message. Many, many folks have decided that it is too difficult to tell people that they need a savior, rather than just a good buddy who loves them. The gospel is not "Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life", No, it cannot be based on future promises of goodness or works, cuz dead people can't make promises. Salvation is a monergistic work of God alone. It is only after we are brought to life that we even have the desire to be obedient, let alone, actually obey. However, we should be absolutely clear that salvation requires belief, which is not mere mental ascent. What seems to be absent in much of preaching from our ever increasingly "seeker-friendly" local churches is that we are to be constantly seeing that we are still in the faith. This, as well, is a work of God that is evidenced by a change in the way we think, speak, emote and act.

Nate Stevens

commented on Feb 14, 2015

I get the mental assent--even the demons believe and tremble. When we place our confidence in Jesus, He promises to save us and we believe He will. Clouding that belief with obedience and a faithful life and promises and commitments (which nobody perfectly keeps) just scares me. it was to people who were very holy and did a lot of good stuff that Jesus said, "depart from me I never knew you" (Pharisees, Mat 7). The whole New Testament presents the "holy religious people" as the biggest threat to life with God (Pharisees, Judaizers) because they think they can bring something to the bargaining table with God--before and after salvation (Gal 3:1-3). Last thought, Jesus offers more. Eternal salvation is just the first in a whole line of things He offers to save us from (tyranny of sin, fear, isolation, abandonment etc.). We should be presenting the good news of all the salvation Jesus offers. We must die to self to appreciate some of that "salvation" (tyranny of sin) but even so Jesus is saving us. Our pulpits should be full of "the wonderful good news of Jesus". Not "say a prayer and your in" and not "once you pick up your cross and promise to never sin, your in". Neither of those really offers the good news. The whole of it is, "life now and forever."

Stephen Johnson

commented on Feb 12, 2015

These responses are very troubling. One says if you don't do an altar call, you aren't a faithful minister. Altar calls were invented by the late 1800's revival preachers. Even the call to repent in Acts is not followed by an altar call. Just repent. I guess every minister in the first 18 centuries of the church was unfaithful. Another says that the cost of following Jesus is preaching works salvation. Then I guess Jesus preached a works salvation? Remember that when Peter preached, everyone knew what Jesus stood for. Following him was aligning oneself against Rome, against the religious authorities, and with a convicted and executed criminal. And each one there already knew in great detail the call of God to live a separated life (they were faithful Jews, right?). So these responses are nonsense. Of course we have to teach about the costs of dying to oneself (Jesus said it), and suffering for the Gospel (Jesus said it), and obeying Jesus (Jesus said it) when we repent of our sins. Jesus came to make disciples, not converts.

Nate Stevens

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Hi Stephen, The example I cited is Paul talking to the Philippian Gentile Jailer, who knew nothing of Judaism. Following Jesus requires that you give up following your own path--so yes, following Jesus (or being a disciple) costs everything (which really isn't much--just the dead flesh) but eternal salvation remains a free gift--no strings attached. I preach about the costs of following Jesus all the time, but I do not confuse or conflate that with where one spends eternity.

Ronna Cohen

commented on Feb 12, 2015 is a free program for people to connect one on one in discipleship relationships! It's a resource for churches to use to bring definition and structure to their discipleship endeavors. Check it out today!

Mike Ingo

commented on Feb 12, 2015

I understand what you are saying, misleading people is as easy as leading them sometimes; but I don't think Billy Graham got it wrong. Blessings to all.

Mike Spencer

commented on Feb 12, 2015

It seems that the majority of those disagreeing with the author are worried that the author is suggesting something more than belief is necessary to be saved. It does not appear to be that way to me. Rather, I think Mr. Clarke is actually observing that we are in danger of making false converts who think that salvation is that prayer they said when they went down front one Sunday. If we are truly converted, we will become disciples, there will be spiritual fruit in our lives. One of the responders to this article mentioned Billy Graham. If their was a flaw in Billy's methodology, it was in the local churches who were unprepared to do the work of discipleship. This is why Paul trained men to be and make disciples 2 Timothy 2:2

Tony Bland

commented on Feb 12, 2015

The author's argument is the altar call does not tell the whole story. We miss telling them the cost of discipleship. Well that is what Jesus told us to do in Matt 9:14-17 don?t put too much on them right now just get them started. If I was told all that I would have done, will do and stop doing I never would have sign up? and look at what I would have missed

Stephen Lemasters

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Inviting someone to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior is an important step. But it's only the beginning. Discipleship is crucial to bringing them into the understanding and knowledge of who Jesus is; not only that He loves us and wants us to come to Him for that forgiveness but that He has a plan and a purpose for our life and we are to follow Him as the twelve in the beginning were called to do. We outreach, we follow-up, we fellowship, we introduce them to the Word of God, we encourage, we live our lives as examples of Christ. What did Paul say? Follow me as I follow Christ. Once these brothers and sisters are rooted and grounded in Christ, they too can lead others through discipleship. On of Jesus last message to the disciples was the Great Commission in the 28th chapter of Matthew. Yes, inviting the lost to accept Christ is the first step but it's only the beginning.

Mh Constantine

commented on Feb 12, 2015

Not sure if you will find this helpful, but in the developing nation context where I minister sometimes it is good to give people an opportunity to respond to the message at that moment. Will some fall away? Perhaps. But some will bear fruit for the rest of their lives. And, yes, 52 years ago I responded to an altar call in a Baptist church. I simply believed. For the past half century I have had multiple opportunities to learn both the costs and the joys of that initial step. But it was, and is real.

Bryan Thompson

commented on Feb 13, 2015

Very thoughtful and much appreciated.

Jeff Kliewer

commented on Feb 13, 2015

It appears to me that Jeff Clarke is confusing the practical obedience of Romans 12-16 that Christians learn throughout our lives with justification through faith (Romans 3:21-5:21). The righteousness of God is imputed to a person the second a person believes in Jesus Christ. The promise ("so shall your descendants be") came to Abraham in Genesis 15:5. Abraham was counted righteous in the very next verse, simply because he believed God. We are promised imputed righteousness as a gift to us the instant we believe in Jesus ("But now" Romans 3:21). Calling on the name of Jesus for salvation (in a seat, in front of the church, on a street, anywhere) is therefore a good thing (Romans 10:9-10). The Israelites who were snake bitten only had to look at the raised serpent. Likewise, today, in order to be saved, one only need to look to Christ crucified. John 3:16 makes this connection ("for" connects it to John 3:14-15). Believing is illustrated by looking, not by promising, counting, or doing (Spurgeon's conversion story is a helpful example). Abraham couldn't count the stars of God's blessing (Genesis 15:5). Neither can an unsaved man count all the blessings or the costs of following Jesus. But if he believes the promise, which the rich young ruler did not, then he will learn the costs as he lives the new life in Christ (Romans 6-8 will help him through). But, concerning salvation, looking to Jesus simply means trusting in His shed blood. It involves awareness of one's own unrighteousness, awareness of the wrath of God against unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-3:20), and turning away from unrighteousness in order to trust Christ for imputed righteousness. An altar call is a great way to call people to this repentance and faith. On a side note, can anyone help me find biblical precedent for God's "kingdom dream"? Romans 9-11 seems to me to present God as having a Kingdom plan and sovereignly bringing it about. Jeff Clarke's language here, and his article in general, seems to esteem the role of man too highly, thus detracting from the power of the gospel to save.,

Larry Easton

commented on Feb 18, 2015

In Acts 2, we read that "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." The people in the early church didn't require anything other than the belief that Christ died for them and paid the price for their sins, past, present, and future. I agree that we fall short in discipleship today, but scaring people out of trusting Christ is certainly not an answer. Christ does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called. If we faithfully remember not to give speeches or fireside chats from the pulpit, but preach and teach the word of God, His Holy Spirit will empower and enable those who hear and believe.

Joel Rutherford

commented on Feb 18, 2015

This is such an argument against a straw man. If most altar calls were done in the way you describe, then there would be something to write about. ,

Henry Hakcholna

commented on Mar 25, 2019

I gave my life to Jesus during an altar call 28 years ago. THe preacher preached about the love of CHrist, HIs judgement, mercy and grace. He said we must be willing to leave our old nature, carry our cross and follow Christ. Since that time, I started to hunger GOd's word and His presence. I do not see anything wrong with altar calls. What is wrong with altar calls is when the preacher preach about prosperity, comfort, and everything will be alright when you recieve Christ. This gives the would be believer to Accept Christ for the wrong reason.

Kenneth Cutler

commented on Mar 26, 2019

Dr. Clark, I somewhat get your point. However, lets not throw the baby out with the bath water. Every Church or denomination does not extend Altar call the way you have shared. The purpose for the Altar call is to allow for persons to make a decision to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior after they have heard the word of God. It would take all day to include the discipleship piece at that time. That's why Churches have counselors who meet with individuals to share about New Membership training which is where A Church can go deeper in the discussion of following Jesus.

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