1. Altar Call Madness
- …sit down and estimate the cost (Luke 14:28)
- …sit down and consider (Luke 14:31)
- Jesus said “sit down,” not dance around.
- Jesus said, “sit down,” not take a count.
- Jesus said, “sit down,” not get emotionally charged up.
- Jesus said “sit down,” not “come on down.”
- Jesus said, “sit down,” not “write it down.”
Altar call madness has replaced the gospel call of Christ. Jesus declared that we must “count the cost” and “estimate” what it means to become a “disciple.” Indeed, Jesus didn’t make Christians, He made disciples. But even the word disciple has taken on a new meaning since the invention of the modern day altar call. Because of altar call madness, the word disciple is used to sell study guides void of the offense of the cross.
Jesus did not tell people to just ask God into their heart, come on down, and get counted. He told the people to count the cost, not be counted. The modern altar call mixes all the elements of insanity. It provides a quick number count, contains emotionalism, and makes the gospel call easy, cheap, and showy. The musicians keep playing the songs over and over again until they obtain the desired result. Scripture does not contain a single reference to someone just “asking Jesus into their hearts.” Instead something much more serious, narrow, and life changing happens.
Very little teaching left in the church causes anyone to “sit down” and think about what it means to be a Christian. Very few sermons leave individuals stunned at what it means to call oneself a Christian. Instead of sitting down in deep thought and contemplation, sermons motivate audiences to come to Christ by stirring up their emotions. The best way to illustrate the insanity of altar call madness is to describe how people became Christians in the days of Jesus, which I will do in the following composite. For a deeper discussion you may wish to obtain a copy of the book, Even The Demons Believe.
2. A Composite Of Salvation
Composites of Scripture can be a very dangerous thing, since they often remove the liberty of the Holy Spirit. Composites always fall short and cannot possibly convey the mind of God. Certainly I do not want to reduce this teaching down to steps, but for the sake of demonstrating this point, I will do so. With this caution in mind, this composite describes the event for an average person (if there is such a thing as an average person) to come to the Lord. Every scripture will be taken into consideration, though you, no doubt, will be able to add more of your own.
We will call the main character of our composite Joe Sinner. We prayed a long time for Joe Sinner to come to the Lord. Long before we came on the scene God used others to prepare his heart. Now at the crucial moment, someone comes along in the spirit of John the Baptist. If Joe Sinner will not accept this baptism of repentance, he will not accept the baptism of Jesus, which comes with fire later. You see, some folks, especially the religious ones, do not like the manner in which Jesus comes to them or the way in which He says certain things. Since they want their dignity and religiosity protected, they will not respond to the sternness of John.
Therefore those who will not respond to John will never accept Jesus. This explains why the Pharisees could not accept Jesus,
- But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John. (Luke 7:30)
Because of John the Baptist, Joe Sinner begins to see many things he must stop doing in order for Jesus to get to Him. The valleys must be filled in, the mountains leveled, and the crooked roads in his life straightened out. In other words, he must begin to reject some things that get in the way of God reaching him. For example, he might choose to go to church on Wednesday night instead of working late at the office. Joe will rearrange his life so that Jesus can get to him. He might even climb a tree like Zacchaeus to see Jesus coming by.
Certainly, even this repentance comes from God, but let each man respond fully to the first weak impulses of the call of God in his life.
We must stop what we are doing, go out to a John the Baptist who calls in the desert, and contemplate life. We need to see the meaninglessness of life and how quickly we must change. True salvation requires taking time for God and examining our lives. Joe Sinner must ask himself, “What can I do to respond to God?” This is no simple thing. It is a baptism or immersion in the things of God. This call brings a baptism of repentance and not a casual examination of religion or a study on the character of God. This repentance looks at the specific faults in a man’s life. This will be Joe Sinner’s first acknowledgment that he needs help. Although he does not realize just how much help he needs, it is nevertheless the starting place.
3. Repentance Call
Joe Sinner goes out to hear a preacher, and look at what greets him. He doesn’t receive a nice warm “hello” and handshake from John and his congregation. He isn’t given a nice visitor tag and made to feel welcome. No, John calls Joe, who already feels his need for God (otherwise he would not be in the desert) some kind of snake, a poisonous viper!
- John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” (Luke 3:7–12)
Again notice how John acts. He calls the church visitors “vipers” and has one message that he repeats over and over again: “fruit.” In fact, as Joe Sinner comes walking down the aisle to receive salvation, John stops him dead in his tracts and asks him, “Who warned you?” In other words, John says, “What makes you think you are ready for God’s mercy?” Such a reaction to sinners coming forward is totally unheard of today, yet considered normal in the days of Jesus and John the Baptist.
Joe might at first think this sounds awfully legalistic and harsh. In fact he wonders why John never mentions love and mercy. He probably thinks this Baptist fellow goes a bit overboard with all that preaching on obedience and everything. Indeed John seems to put off, by being rude, the people wanting to come forward. John also seeks to destroy every religious pretense they have by saying, “Do not begin to say to yourself, ‘We have Abraham.’”
Joe cannot figure out why John treats everyone so hard. He no doubt mumbles to himself that these people at least try to do the best they can. They support John’s ministry and Joe can’t figure out why the Baptist treats them so badly. He may even question if John understands the grace and mercy of God. I know from experience that if you don’t kiss the babies and bend over backward thanking folks for coming to church, they become offended. Of course that does not bother me. For if they cannot stand not to have a little bit of attention paid to them, then what will they do when God comes to crucify them?
God uses servants of God to point out every failure and excuse a person has for not getting ready for Jesus. How many in the Church today stop the Spirit of God right at this point? Yet Jesus did this gently with the woman at the well when He pointed out all her sins, and John, in God’s way, did the same thing.
4. Get Ready For Jesus
This is just the beginning stage for a person to consider the meaning of Salvation so they can allow Jesus to purify him or her later. At times Jesus sends us out to get things ready for Him, but the message always calls for repentance and bearing fruit. It is always, “Get ready and make some changes now because Jesus is coming by.”
- After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. (Luke 10:1)
They went out and preached that people should repent. (Mark 6:12)
Notice, that the crowd ask John the same question that the crowd asked Peter on the day of Pentecost: “What should we do then?” It is the starting question God poses through John the Baptist and the finishing question just before salvation at Pentecost. The Powerful Delusion never drives a person to cry “What must I do?”
5. At This Point
God only gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey Him. Little wonder that God uses the John the Baptists of this world to get men ready for the baptism of fire that comes through Jesus. For if they cannot handle John’s easy preaching, they will never accept the purification that comes with the Holy Spirit.
At this point Joe Sinner begins to take steps to order his life; he constantly thinks of ways to prepare himself for Jesus. He even deals with the first mountain peaks of pride and the valleys of self-pity in his life. He looks for ways to straighten out the crooked roads in his life. As he acts upon these things, though weak as they might be, Jesus jumps in on the scene. While we usually have people accept the Lord as Savior right then and there, Jesus first has them walk with Him.
Although humbled at first, Joe Sinner, like the disciples, begins to walk with Jesus toward the cross. As he travels with Jesus, the discussions get deeper and the conviction becomes greater. The realization of Jesus becomes clearer because he learns about the character of Jesus. If Joe Sinner is a pagan, he is taught the basics of Christianity. If he had been a religious person, his beliefs are shattered. He studies and listens to sermons a lot at this stage. Joe might even see a miracle or two and experiences God working in his life to bless him. He may experience answered prayer for the first time.
Our Joe, however, has not yet arrived at a salvation point. With some people it may take a year or so to fully receive Christ. With others, like the thief on the cross, salvation comes only in a matter of hours. God knows the heart and you must listen to Him to know what to do with each person. Usually at this point “many” things must be taught and great amounts of “compassion” shown to Joe Sinner, all through the direction of the Holy Spirit.
- When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. (Mark 6:34)
6. Elementary Teachings
Don’t be surprised at all if many individuals agree with and like what they hear. At this point many join the Church and membership swells. Thus the “large crowd” comes into play and many become interested in the grace, power, and mercy of God. Multitudes of preachers like to keep their congregations (and their numbers and livelihood) at this stage. Such men always preach the same basic elementary things over and over. Many times you can recognize such preachers by the fact that they always preach a salvation message. Such churches practice altar call madness and allow people to come forward time and time again.
Of course it isn’t only the preachers’ fault; the people also love it that way. They can hear a tough sermon about righteousness without really being crucified. They can appear white and clean while still not hating their own lives. The people and the preachers both love this whitewash. After all, whitewash is cheap, easy to apply, and gives a quick appearance of holiness. Unfortunately, it will not stand the test of God and in the end the people will complain in vain against such preachers.
- Because they lead my people astray, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, “Where is the whitewash you covered it with?” Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “In my wrath I will unleash a violent wind, and in my anger hailstones and torrents of rain will fall with destructive fury. I will tear down the wall you have covered with whitewash and will level it to the ground so that its foundation will be laid bare. When it falls, you will be destroyed in it; and you will know that I am the Lord. So I will spend my wrath against the wall and against those who covered it with whitewash. I will say to you, ‘The wall is gone and so are those who whitewashed it, those prophets of Israel who prophesied to Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for her when there was no peace,’” declares the Sovereign Lord. (Ezekiel 13:10–16)
Therefore, we must confront large crowds with the narrowness of the road and what it really means to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. We show them the narrow gate that they must first pass through. In fact, it is so narrow that after many turned away Jesus asked the apostles if they wanted to leave too.
7. Watch Your Life
I cannot emphasize enough that during this time the crowds watch the lives of those who claim to be Christians. They watch to see if our words match our lives. They watch to see the meaning we give to the words we preach. In other words, our lives give definition to the scriptures we proclaim. Sadly, words can take on a different meaning than what Jesus intended because of the lives of those sharing the gospel. By our lives, we can twist what Jesus really meant. So many proclaim a different gospel by the lack of spirituality in their lives.
As the people saw John’s life, they had to admit that their lives lacked something. Likewise, when Joe Sinner sees our lives, he should admit the same. When our lives match the message Jesus brought, then we can speak with the power of the Holy Spirit. I observed this inconsistency between the gospel and the lives of the people in the church where I was baptized. I listened to what they preached, and it was straight from the Bible; however, a conflict began to emerge. They did not define Holy Spirit in the way the Bible did. Their lives did not match up, and this sent me into a tailspin. Be careful that your life matches Jesus’ words. Make sure you can say with Paul that your life agrees with what you teach.
- For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:17)
8. Hard Teaching
What comes next is the real shocker to Joe Sinner. Just when Joe thinks he has heard and seen almost everything and feels proud that he is getting this doctrinal stuff down, the Holy Spirit finally reveals the seriousness of what it means to give up all for Christ. Then Joe says with so many, “Are only a few going to be saved?” In fact Joe fully agrees with those he heard say, “This is a hard teaching; who can accept it?”
We have become so used to words not meaning anything that at first we just agree with Jesus and try to mimic what He teaches. The Powerful Delusion fools us into thinking we don’t really have to obey. Joe Sinner quotes Scripture and talks of humility, and basically has some good doctrine. Yet his own words deceive him because he has not come to despair of self. Being taken in by our own words happens to all who follow Jesus. Unfortunately, most of us remain unwilling to be humbled out of the deception. Joe Sinner has been taken in by his words, and the Word has not yet been formed in him; he only agrees with it.
No man has the new life in him just because he agrees with doctrine. Creating a new life is the work of the cross, and until that happens, the Word is not made complete. Joe finally sees that he has lied to himself. Because he agreed with God on sin, he thought that meant he was dead to it. Joe told God, “Yes, I need to give all to you and to repent.” However, at this stage those words come back and hit him across the face like a two-by-four. It is the kindness of God striking him.
- Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it. (Psalm 141:5)
Like the two thieves on the cross, Joe makes a decision for or against the cross. He can be like the first thief who insulted the cross or be like the other who said he deserved the cross in his life. The one who admitted he deserved the cross died on that cross and entered paradise while the other went to hell. Both wanted salvation, but one wanted salvation without the cross. The Powerful Delusion offers this kind of false salvation, promised salvation apart from a crucified life.
When God begins to work the cross in your life, do you tell others that you deserve what God is working? Or do you hope to find someone who will tell you that this cross stuff is not important, that it is a false gospel? Watch yourself carefully at this point because the voices against the cross become loud and united.
9. The Proper Time
Long before getting to the cross, Joe will probably find many turning around at this point and ceasing to follow Jesus. Joe should let them go. Jesus did not beg them to come back and neither should we. Now Joe might feel in his spirit that Jesus renounces the individuals and towns where he had preached the gospel. They had been taught and shown kindness, yet they refused to repent. Just like Jesus, we may have to renounce “most” of whom we preached the gospel to because they refuse to hate their own lives.
- Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. (Matthew 11:20)
Now the cost of discipleship, or losing one’s life, is declared clearly for all to consider. Here Joe must choose between being a religious traveler with Jesus or becoming a disciple.
As we said before, many turn back when they clearly understand what it will cost them. They go off to find their own churches and preachers who tell them what they want to hear, for many still love self even while doing ministry work. Those who do remain, come close to understanding what the crucified life is all about. The cross gets closer and closer into view, and they willingly surrender just a little more self at each stage.
Indeed Joe Sinner comes mighty close to his first communion with the Lord. Jesus leads him to the table where He can discuss the depth of sinful self and what it really means to be a servant of all. Here Jesus talks about His love, the self that must be crucified, and glorifying God. Sure, He has been talking about this all along, but now Joe really understands the identity of Christ. Here we can begin to talk about some real deep-seated faith that believes “at last!”
- “You believe at last!” Jesus answered. (John 16:31)
Followers at this stage will need this belief because the cross will now do its mighty work, and shatter self. Let us really listen to Jesus at this point because, like Joe, we will have to walk the road to Emmaus soon enough—the road of despairing of self and wondering where Jesus is.
10. Ready For Baptism
They watched Jesus wrestle with sin and discovered they needed to have the same attitude before going to the cross themselves. They counted the cost and listened intently to what Jesus expected, and they still saw it as good news. So few say, “You have the words of eternal life.” For the disciples, this teaching was a treasure hidden in a field, and although a man must sell all to have the field, it is no cost to him.
- Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68–69)
Things usually (though don’t hold me to it) move with great speed at this point. Like the rushing wind of Pentecost, the cross, Jesus crucified, and self come sharply and quickly into focus. In other words, Jesus can simply look at us, and it causes us to weep bitterly over our sin. In the past it would have taken a lot of words and many sermons to convince us of sin in our lives. Now all Jesus has to do is look “straight” at us. In days past it would have taken mountains of evidence to convince us of the depth of sin. Now all it takes is the simple crowing of a “rooster.” I can always tell how much the cross has been able to do its work in a man’s life by how easily he is convicted of sin and how deeply he repents with a “godly sorrow.”
We have spiritual maturity when God can just look at us and we know His will and what displeases Him. When it doesn’t take a donkey, a light on a road, or a rebuking prophet from God to get through to us, we have become mature in the Lord. If He frowns, we sense and know exactly what to change. If He smiles, we know to rejoice and praise Him. If we do not grow to this point, remember that we put ourselves in danger of being “cursed” and “not acquainted” with righteousness.
- The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:61–62)
Joe is now tenderhearted and broken, and ready for the Holy Spirit. He is ready for baptism; ready to die to self; ready for God. Joe has counted the cost and willing to hate as Jesus commands and to come after Him. Joe wants to become a disciple and to stop merely traveling with Jesus.
Joe now prepares for water baptism because he feels “cut to the heart” and has understood “many other words” of preaching. Joe again asks, “What shall [I] do?” The hesitation is gone and the religious excuses have disappeared. He simply listens to what God says to “do” is in order to be saved. At this point Joe Sinner becomes Joe Saint.
- “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:36–41)
If the message is fully preached, everything comes together at water baptism; the love, mercy, blood, cross, and Spirit of Jesus all meet together in agreement. In every case in the Book of Acts, water baptism is the first “do” God has in mind. Of course we are not going to “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” If someone cannot be water baptized, like the thief on the cross, God will receive him or her. But let no one stand before God guilty of preaching a partial gospel.
We do not have time here for a discussion of water baptism. Rather, let us bring together what part of the gospel we have been looking at: the death to self. For this is exactly what water baptism represents—going into the grave with Jesus and coming out of the Paulb with a new life. As the scripture below reveals, those immersed in water enter the Paulb with Jesus and come out of the water with a new self. Here the crucifixion to self happens, and we die to sin.
- By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. (Romans 6:2–7)
11. The Three Agree
Water baptism is what Peter says “saves” us; however, it does not take away from the blood of Jesus. The Spirit gives life to the water and the blood. For Jesus did not come with just water. He came also with blood and He came by the Spirit.
- …sudden flow of blood and water. (John 19:34)
Scripture says that three things are in agreement. When we leave one of those things out of gospel calls, then things really get messed up. 1 John says this is what it means to believe that “Jesus is the Son of God.” To believe means to accept that Jesus came with “water,” “blood,” and “Spirit.” We should not leave out water from our gospel calls any more than we would leave out the blood of Jesus. These three agree with each other, and they all give us power to overcome the world.
- Who overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And the Spirit testifies to this, because the Spirit is Truth. For three testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. (1 John 5:5–8)
The “blood” is the cost of what it means to follow Jesus. Our life, is in the blood, and it must be poured out unto God so that we might have His blood in us—the blood of His Son.
Although we cannot really separate these three, many churches try to anyway. Some do not like the water, so they leave it out of the message. Others do not like the cost, so they leave out the blood. Still others will not accept the Spirit. Those without the water become legalists and outline-oriented. They enjoy no refreshment or Sabbath rest. Without the water we cannot experience rebirth or new life. Those without the blood become idolaters who like to play in the name of the Lord. Churches with this approach are very entertaining to attend and full of prosperity and happiness. The pastor knows how to joke, preach, and tell story after story, claiming blessings and promising a salvation that will not be delivered. These groups often like to claim the Spirit without the blood. Therefore, self remains alive while they claim the Spirit leads them. These messages have no cost, no sacrifice, no tears, and thus no life in them.
Those who leave out the Spirit are left to their own wisdom as to what is right and wrong in the Lord. They become pure legalists who see themselves as doing God’s will. They become their own gods, deciding good from evil. They serve God from their own power and initiative and with rules, guidelines, meetings, fellowship, prayer sessions, and things to do.
Let us ask God to oen our hearts and minds to the “full message” of salvation. For only when all three are present, as God intends, is the good news preached.
- “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.” (Acts 5:20)
As we travel “along the road,” sharing with others the “good news about Jesus,” let us get around to the cost of having self crucified. Let us share with them the good news of what it means to die to self. Then they will stop the “chariot” and say, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”
Then Philip began with that very passage of scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water and Philip baptized him.
- When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:35–39)
Get “down into the water” with your brother or sister, crucifying and burying the self that must leave his or her life. When you both come “up out of the water,” the Spirit of God will send you both on your way rejoicing. Praising God for another brother or sister willing to let God crucify self. Rejoicing that you each have a fellow church member who loves God enough to hate for Jesus.
- “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
This is the beginning of the work of the cross. This is the “obedience that comes from faith” that makes room for God’s power to change a man by the way of a crucified life. Any other way to salvation leads to insanity.
9. Altar Call Madness
- Even The Demons Believe, by Timothy Williams
- Luke 19:4
- John 6:44
- John 4:39
- Luke 3:16
- 1 Chronicles 21:1
- Luke 13:23
- John 6:60
- Luke 23:41
- Mark 15:31
- Luke 24:13
- Matthew 13:44
- 2 Corinthians 7:10–11
- Hebrews 5:1–6:8
- Acts 5:20
- 1 Peter 3:21
- Leviticus 17:11
- Romans 1:5