THE ALTAR CALL – A DECEPTION? Many people may find this statement shocking, even heretical, but the problem is not the altar call itself, but what pastors, ministers, and evangelists say at the altar call. I have experienced and observed many, many altar calls growing up in church, and they all usually end up with the person conducting the altar call saying after the “sinner’s prayer,” “Now that you’ve prayed ‘the sinner’s prayer,’ you are now saved.” And there’s the problem.
SALVATION IS AN EXODUS JOURNEY – NOT AN EVENT!
This concept that we are saved simply be making a decision for Christ is NOT taught anywhere in the New Testament. Jesus does not teach “accept Me,” but “follow Me.” And following involves A LIFE-LONG PROCESS, not an instantaneous event. For example, i John 8, Jesus taught Jews who believed in Him,
IF YOU CONTINUE IN MY WORD, THEN ARE YOU MY DISCIPLES INDEED; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:31-32; Emphasis Mine)
Notice that Jesus didn’t tell these “believing Jews,” “Hey, good going, guys. You believed, so now you are all set to go to heaven.” No, He doesn’t. He tells them, “if you CONTINUE in My word,…” Jesus places the emphasis on whether we are CONTINUING WITH HIM, NOT on whether or not we begin.
Salvation is NOT AN EVENT, but it is an Exodus, a life-long journey that we experience with God and Jesus Christ. It is not some microwavable deed that we do in a few minutes at the altar that guarantees us anything, except that we’ve begun the journey. But if we don’t continue the journey, then we can lose what we’ve attained by starting it.
THERE’S MORE TO REPENTANCE THAN SAYING, “I’M SORRY.”
There’s many people who would argue that what I just said is not true, but then, they would be arguing with the Bible, because it says otherwise. Many people today think that “to repent” means to tell God they are sorry for their sins, but that’s only partially true. It also involves “turning away from sin.” If there’s no turning away from sin, then you may have been sorry for what you’ve done, and you may have even felt guilty for doing it, but you have not repented UNTIL you have turned away from the sins you have committed and started walking in OBEDIENCE to God.
REPENTANCE IS A TWO-WAY STREET
Repentance is NOT an event, it’s a life-long journey, and we are deceiving people if we teach anything else. For example, a key passage in teaching us about TRUE REPENTANCE is Ezekiel 18.
But if the wicked man turns [or repents] from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. All his transgressions which he has committed will NOT be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live. (Ezekiel 18: 21-22)
As we can see here, we must do more than say, “I’m sorry.” We must turn away from our sins and walk in obedience to God and ALL HIS WORD, from Genesis to Revelation, and not just a few verses in the New Testament. But if we turn away from our sins and begin walking in obedience to God, then our transgressions will NOT be remembered. Obviously, this is more than what can happen at one particular altar call.
But there’s another aspect of repentance that most people don’t know or understand, because in all the years I’ve grown up in church, I have NEVER, EVER heard even one minister teach it.
But when a RIGHTEOUS (or SAVED) man turns away from his righteousness [his obedience to God], COMMITS INIQUITY [sin] and does according to ALL THE ABOMINATIONS THAT A WICKED MAN DOES? ALL HIS RIGHTEOUS DEEDS which he has done WILL NOT BE REMEMBERED for his treachery which he has committed and his sin which he has committed; FOR THEM HE WILL DIE. (Ezekiel 18: 24; Emphasis Mine)
REPENTANCE happens NOT when you say “I’m sorry,” but at the point you change your behavior. Saying “I’m sorry” is the FIRST STEP, but it is NOT the whole thing. Therefore, if you’ve been living your life in obedience to God, but then change your obedient lifestyle for a SINFUL LIFESTYLE, doing the same things that other sinners do, then by changing your lifestyle from obedient to disobedient, you have REPENTED of following after God and, therefore, all of your previous RIGHTEOUSNESS (“RIGHT STANDING WITH GOD”) will be FORGOTTEN and, therefore, YOU WILL DIE IN YOUR SINS.
THE CROSS DID NOT CHANGE THE STANDARDS OR WAYS OF GOD
Now some may say, “Well, that’s Old Testament.” But the implication from this is that due to the crucifixion that God has changed, which is NOT the case. God does NOT change (Malachi 3:6), nor has His standards or way of doing things changed in any way. For example, in Matthew 3, we can see this in the ministry of John the Baptist. For example, the Scriptures teach us,
But when he [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore BRING FORTH FRUIT IN KEEPING WITH REPENTANCE;…” (Matthew 3:7-8; Emphasis Mine)
Did you know that REPENTANCE, if it is REAL, will produce “fruit”? And what is that “fruit”? A changed life and a lifestyle of obedience to God.
Not only does John the Baptist teach this, but so does the Apostle Paul. In Corinthians 6:9, Paul writes, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous [those living in disobedience to God] shall NOT inherit the kingdom of God.” He then gives examples of various sins in I Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-20; and Ephesians 5:5 that if people are doing these things, they shall NOT inherit the Kingdom of God (i.e., heaven). Obviously, if these people are still committing these sins, then they have NOT REPENTED, and just as Ezekiel 18 teaches, they shall die in their sins and NOT INHERIT THE KINGDOM OF GOD.
In fact, in I Corinthians 6:11, Paul writes,
And such WERE some of you; but you were WASHED, but you were SANCTIFIED, but you were JUSTIFIED in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, AND in the Spirit of our God.
Notice that it takes being WASHED, SANCTIFIED, and JUSTIFIED, both in the name of Jesus Christ AND in the Holy Spirit to accomplish TRUE REPENTANCE. We see this again in Galatians 5:21. After giving his sample list of sins (Galatians 5:19-21a), he says,
and things like these [so this is not the complete list], of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that THOSE WHO [CONTINUE TO] PRACTICE SUCH THINGS SHALL NOT INHERIT THE KINGDOM OF GOD. (Galatians 5:21; Emphasis Mine)
Although the words “continue to” in brackets are not explicitly stated, the verb “practice” is a present participle tense verb, which means it indicates “repeated” or “continuous” action, which is why I included it in the text. Obviously, again, if they are continuing to commit these sins, they have NOT REPENTED.
And finally, in Ephesians 5:5-6, Paul again makes the same point:
For this you KNOW WITH CERTAINTY, that NO IMMORAL OR IMPURE PERSON of covetous man, who is an idolater, HAS AN INHERITANCE IN THE KINGDOM OF CHRIST AND GOD.
In this passage, Paul does not say, “There’s a chance you might not make it in if you are living in sin,” but instead, that this was something we can “KNOW WITH CERTAINTY.” If someone has NOT brought forth the “fruit of repentance,” a changed life, then they have NOT truly repented, indicating again, that TRUE BIBLICAL REPENTANCE is A PROCESS, and not something that can happen in a few minutes at the altar. An alter call, again, is the FIRST STEP, but it’s not all there is to REPENTANCE.
WHAT ABOUT JAMES 2:10?
Anytime someone mentions that to truly repent, we need to live our lives in obedience to God’s commandments, there’s always someone who brings up James 2:10,
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
Christians will quote this verse to dissuade people from trying to be obedient to God, because it’s a lost cause. They argue, even if you could obey 99% of it, but you mess up on one commandment, then you’ve blown it. However, is this what James is actually saying?
James himself lived his life in accordance to the teachings of God’s commandments his entire life. At no point, did he ever give up his belief that the Law was necessary for his relationship with God. For example, Eusebius (260/265-340 A.D.), one of the early church historians, recorded in his ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY, not only how James died, but also a written description of him from a previous historian who lived close to the time period of the Apostles, by the name of Hegesippus (110 – 180 A.D.). He writes,
James, the brother of the Lord, who, as there were many of this name, was surnamed the Just by all, from the days of our Lord until now, received the government of the church with the apostles. This apostle was consecrated from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor fermented liquors, and abstained from animal food. A razor never came upon his head, he never anointed with oil, and never used a [public] bath. (Book 2, Chapter 23, 4-5).
From this we can see that James was raised a NAZARITE (see Numbers 6) from conception, much like Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. But James took his devotion and commitment to the extreme. Hegesippus goes on to say,
He alone was allowed to enter the sanctuary [the Temple]. He never wore woolen, but linen garments. He was in the habit of entering the temple alone and was often found upon his bended knees, and interceding for the forgiveness of the people; so that his knees became as hard as camel’s. And indeed, on account of his great piety, he was called the Just, and Oblias (or Zaddick and Ozleam) which signifies justice and protection of the people; as the prophets declare concerning him. (Book 2, Chapter 23, 6-7).
James was an extreme Orthodox Jew who made sure to keep even the smallest detail, or as the expression goes, he “crossed his t’s and dotted his i’s.” So why would such an observant Orthodox Jew try to dissuade people from the law, when he, himself, obeyed it so zealously? The meaning that Christians give to James 2:10 violates not only the text, but also the person and beliefs of James, who wrote the epistle.
So to see James’ true intent in making this statement, let’s put it back into its original context.
If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law [God’s commandments given at Mt. Sinai], according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Leviticus 19:18; qtd. by Jesus (Matthew 5:43; 19:19; 22:39; Mk. 12:31, 33), by Paul, Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14)], you are doing well. But IF YOU SHOW PARTIALITY, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. (James 2:8-10; Emphasis Mine)
If we place this back into context, James makes this statement about keeping the whole law, yet stumbling in one point, NOT TO DISSUADE OBEDIENCE TO THE LAW, as Christians often use it, but to ENCOURAGE FURTHER OBEDIENCE TO THE LAW, which is how Christians DO NOT USE IT. In other words, this statement does not mean what Christians often says that it means. We do NOT need to keep the whole law, but only those parts of the law that deal with us personally.
For example, Jesus did not keep those commands dealing with menstruation, because He was not a woman. Nor do we have any record of Him going into the Temple, cutting up the sacrifices, and offering them on the alter; therefore, none of those laws He performed either. And yet, Jesus lived His life without sin; therefore, the traditional Christian interpretation of James 2:10 is shown to be faulty by Jesus’ own sinless life. So, therefore, we can live in obedience to God without having to keep all 613 commandments handed down by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But this realization has escaped the Christian mind for over 1, 900 years.
There is more to repentance than what we are often taught in the church. It is not as simple as going forward to the altar and saying “the sinner’s prayer.” This is where our journey begins, but to say after saying the prayer that “we are saved,” and that there’s nothing more we need to do to be saved and to go to heaven is NOT BIBLICALLY TRUE. We need to change what we are doing during the altar call. We need to tell people that this is only the first step; it is not the whole journey. We then need to tell them what more they need to do on this Exodus journey called “salvation.”