Altar calls, when properly handled, are certainly effective. First of all, they remind the listeners that the gospel demands a response.
As Billy Graham has said, "You cannot give God a definite maybe. It has to be a definite yes or a definite no." When the altar call is properly handled, lost people are asked to trust Christ as the only way to heaven. The issue is responding to Christ, not to you. The person, therefore, knows that to trust Him is to receive His free offer of eternal life, and to reject Christ is to reject that free offer.
In addition, when a person responds to an altar call, he or she is right there in front of you. Of all the invitation methods, this is the easiest way to get with the person one-on-one. You have not asked them to meet you in another room after the service, which they may not find, nor have you asked them to meet you at another time, allowing them to forget when. Instead, you have said, "Come see me, and come see me now." With them right before you, you can speak to them one-on-one, either immediately or after they are escorted to a side room.
A third advantage is what an altar call says to other listeners. As a lost person sees another walk forward indicating a need of Christ, he/she is tempted to think, "If that person is unashamed to admit his need, what's wrong with me?" The one responding encourages others to respond.
That said, there are situations and reasons where giving an altar call is not only wrong, it is dishonoring to God:
When it is made a condition of salvation
This first reason is the absolute worst. A television evangelist once proclaimed, "There are two conditions for salvation—one is to come to Christ, the other is to come forward." He continued to make it clear that, in his opinion, if one does not come forward, he/she cannot come to Christ.
May God have mercy on such a person—he has changed the terms of the gospel. Jesus so simply said, "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life." (John 6:47) Not one word was said about walking forward through an altar call. Furthermore, if an altar call were essential to salvation, we would be confronted with two huge problems: For one, it means the thief on the cross, contrary to Christ's declaration, went to hell. The man did not and could not "go forward"; there on the cross, though, he acknowledged Christ to be the One He said He was. Jesus so lovingly assured him, "Today you will be with Me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
A second problem comes up in John 12:42, where we are told, "Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue." "Believed in Him" is the Johannine phrase for "salvation" used throughout the Gospel of John. It's the same phrase used in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." Other verses where this same phrase is used include John 3:18, 3:36, 5:24, 6:35, 6:40, and 6:47. Here were Jewish leaders who had sincerely trusted Christ, but they were afraid to confess Him lest they should be excommunicated from the synagogue. Such a verse makes it clear that trusting Christ, "believing in Him," is a separate issue from confessing Him publicly.
One might ask, "But what about Romans 10:9-10?" There we read, "…that if you confess with your month the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation." Space will not permit me to develop Paul's argument throughout Romans, but the context clarifies the issue. The "saved" Paul speaks of here is not salvation from damnation, but salvation from the damages of sin in present-day living. How does one escape these damaging consequences? Paul's answer is, "For with the heart one believes unto righteousness." The words "believes unto righteousness" are a translation of the Greek word for "justified" – the same word used in Romans 5:1. There we read, "Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God." Paul continues in Romans 9:10, "And with the mouth confession is made unto salvation."
The point is powerful. One becomes a Christian by simply trusting Christ, but to experience victory over sin, one must be willing to confess Him publicly. Confession is important not for justification, but instead for living a victorious Christian life. Need help making such a confession? Paul exhorts them to "Call upon the name of the Lord" (Romans 10:13), a phrase that has the idea of worshipping God and invoking His assistance (cf. Acts 9:13-14, 1 Timothy 2:22).
It is therefore not surprising that Paul continues in Romans 10:14-15 by saying, "How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!'" Note the clear distinction made between a public profession of Christ and believing in His name.
In Scripture, a public confession of Christ is never made a requirement of salvation. It is indeed a requirement for victorious Christian living, as made clear in Romans 10:9-10.
When it becomes a basis for dishonesty and manipulation
For example, a preacher exhorts his audience by stating, "We will sing two more verses of ‘Just as I Am' (or another invitational hymn)." In reality, though, five more stanzas are sung. Or a preacher says, "If today, you want to trust Christ, just raise your hand. That's all I am going to ask you to do." Then those who raise their hands are exhorted, "Now I am going to ask you to step out into the aisle and come forward. I'll be waiting here for you." Wait a minute, didn't the preacher say a raised hand was all he was going to ask for? The altar call given in the above ways becomes an occasion for dishonesty and manipulation.
James 5:12 exhorts us, "But let your ‘yes' be ‘yes,' and your ‘no,' ‘no,' lest you fall into judgment." That is, say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don't let something as potentially effective as an altar call become a place where the truth is not spoken. If you've stated, "We'll sing one more stanza," only sing one. If you are going to ask one thing of the people, don't ask two.
When it is presented as the only way
The altar call is one way of finding out who is interested in trusting Christ; it is by no means the only way, however. A church that does not use variety in the way it invites people to express their desire for Christ is a church too deeply steeped in tradition.
As an evangelist, I've spoken in more than 1,000 outreach events over the last 36 years. I've used altar calls, but I've also used a host of other methods. A communication card with a check in the right-hand corner if a person has trusted Christ has been a highly effective method. I've also asked interested people to meet me and other leaders in an adjoining room as soon as the service is dismissed. I've invited people to trust Christ in their seats, and then come forward after the service for information on how to grow. What encourages a variety of methods? The fact that the altar call is not a biblical issue. Whether or not people trust Christ alone for salvation is the issue, but how we determine who those people are is not.
The altar call does not have its roots in Scripture but instead in church practice. Prior to the nineteenth century, it was never heard of. The altar call was started by Charles Finney and popularized under D.L. Moody. In fact, when it was first used, it was highly criticized. It was viewed as man-made and manipulative. Since then, though, it has become most common and widely used, largely due to the well-known and respected Billy Graham crusades. But since it's not a biblical issue, we are free to use whatever methods we deem ethical and effective in encouraging the lost to respond to the gospel.
When it is used for self-promotion
All preachers like to see results from their preaching, but our calling is to be faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2). Only God can make us fruitful. That's why, as we preach an evangelistic message, we want every lost person to come to Christ. Who does and who does not is in God's hands. Our job is to bring Christ to the lost—only God can bring the lost to Christ.
I've often said, "The acid test of an evangelistic speaker is not what happens when a multitude responds; it is what happens when nobody responds."
If one gives an altar call, it dare not be done to flaunt the effectiveness of our own preaching and impress people or other preachers. If self-esteem and self-glory enter the picture, God has been dishonored. Methods used properly are used with right motives.
There is a place for a properly given altar call, but we must maintain a correct understanding of how, when, and where to use one. Altar calls properly handled don't confuse the gospel, are not the basis for dishonesty and manipulation, are not viewed as the "only way," and are not used for self-promotion. Instead, altar calls properly done say in a warm and caring way to non-Christians, "If you'd like to come to Christ, we'd love the opportunity to talk to you about that right now." Let's honor God by presenting the gospel clearly. Let's also honor Him in the way we give an altar call.