The Heretical Pelagian Origin of the Altar Call

 

With the choir singing “Just As I am” softly in background, the evangelist instructs the crowd,

finneyI want every head bowed, every eye closed, no one looking around. If you’ve never asked Jesus to come into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior, you’re on your way to hell. So slip up that hand. Or make your way to the front. Nobody’s going to see you walk up here or slip up that hand…  I see that hand. Yes, I see that hand… I see someone walking up. Yes, and another one…

This goes on repeatedly for half an hour, even an hour, with all kinds of pleas, urgings, and even threats of damnation by the evangelist. From where did this typical “altar call” come? Most evangelicals would be surprised to learn that there never was such a thing from the time of the apostles until the 1820s.

Beginning in the 1820s, the “Second Great Awakening” started sweeping New York and other New England states. One of its charismatic figures was a former Presbyterian lay pastor named Charles G. Finney, who led revival meetings in New York and Pennsylvania. His innovations in the “anxious bench” and “new measures” became the standard for other evangelists to follow. The “anxious bench” was a specially designated area near the front of the meeting place to which Finney called people to pray or to be counseled about their helpless state. The “new measures,” in addition, included protracted prayers and meetings, the inquirer’s meeting, dramatic sermons, the anxious bench, coarse and irreverent language, and women’s participation.

All of these practices were designed to create an emotional state of hopelessness in the sinner, which would result in conviction, and finally, conversion. These tactics also resulted in fainting, weeping, and other “excitements” among the people.

Before Finney, ministers never used any of these dramatic measures in their meetings and worship services, and this is why he is now known as “the father of modern revivalism.” What prompted Finney to invent such “new measures”? It was his heretical doctrines.

Finney denied almost every basic Christian doctrine that has existed since the New Testament period. These include original sin (“anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma”), Christ’s substitutionary atonement (“does not secure the salvation of any one,” “a demonstration of selflessness), and the grace of God in man’s salvation (“repentance is something which no other being can do for them, neither God nor man”). He taught that Adam did not represent anyone except himself in his sin, and thus there is no transfer of Adam’s sinful nature to his descendants. All human beings are born in the same state of neutrality in which Adam was created, so that man is able and has the will to live a life of obedience by his own “free” will.

As a result, Christ’s life and death are mere moral examples for man to emulate (similar to our WWJD), and moreover, a life of moral perfection is possible just by sheer human will, without any help from God’s grace. To Finney, all these Christian doctrines are “alike subversive of the gospel, and repulsive to the human intelligence.”

pelagiusIn the history of the church, there are no new heresies under the sun. In Finney’s case, whatever false teachings he  taught in the 19th century were already taught in the early church. Finney was doubtless influenced by Pelagius, a 5th century British monk who was condemned by three church councils in the 5th and 6th centuries for his heretical teachings, teachings which were very similar to Finney’s teachings. The great early church theologian Augustine argued against Pelagius’ heresies.

Ultimately, the modern “altar call,” venerated and almost universally practiced by evangelicals since the time of Finney, has its roots that date all the way back to the 5th century Pelagian heresy. And yet, if there was an Evangelical Hall of Fame, Charles G. Finney would take a prominent place there.

Recommended articles about Finney and Pelagius:

“The Pelagian Captivity of the Church” by Dr. R. C. Sproul

“The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney” by Dr. Michael Horton

“Decisional Regeneration” by James E. Adams

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10 thoughts on “The Heretical Pelagian Origin of the Altar Call”

  1. I grew up in a church with the altar call,foaming at the mouth.someone would pray with you saying call JESUS FASTER AND FASTER.AND IF YOU DID’NT  SPEAK IN TONGUE, THEY WOULD SAY  YOU WERE HOLDING ON TO SOME SIN IN YOUR LIFE. YOU WOULD ROLL ON THE FLOOR, WOMEN WOULD HAVE TO COVER  UP THE SEEKER, BECAUSE  HER UNDER WEAR WOULD BE SEEN IF NOT. I ENJOY READING THIS. I KNOW I DON’T READ IN SCRIPTURE ABOUT  COMING TO AN ALTAR
    FOR SALVATION AND I HAVE NOT READ ALL THE BIBLE. I DID GO TO THE ALTAR I CALLED ON JESUS. I KNOW FOR ME A CHANGE TOOK PLACE ,I BELIEVE BECAUSE I WAS DRAWN BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.I BEGIN READING THE WORD YET I WAS STILL LIVING IN SIN. I DO KNOW IT WAS NOTHING I DONE OR THE ALTAR .I DO BELIEVE IT  WAS HIS NAME.I BELIEVE HE DREW ME.

  2. Notice that the word “revival”  means  “…a bringing or coming back into use, attention or being after a decline” (www.yourdictionary.com);  “A restoration to use, acceptance, activity, or vigor after a period…” (www.answers.com); “…to recover, repair or restore..” (www.gospel.com);  “…restoration of force, validity, or effectiveness, renewal” (www.brainyquote.com).
    It seems that the word was misused and got confused with evangelistic meetings.  Revival is pertinent to Christians moved by the Holy Spirit to repentance and contrition resulting to a restored life of obedience to the Word of God – a display of God’s faithfulness and power of forgiveness and love to His children.  In the Phil. revival meetings are open to everybody, especially to non-believers, and are expected to produce converts.  A person is said to be revived when he is already alive and just passed out or temporarily out of breath.  To revive a dead person is impossible.  He needs to be brought to life first, to be “quickened,” breath into with the “breath of  life.”  Revival doesn’t occur when there is nothing there to be revived in the first place.
    As the Psalmist wrote, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.”  (Psalm 51:12).  David suffered from a spiritual low that led to his fall into moral sin, thus his prayer and pleading for restoration from the Lord.  That the  Lord may “revive” or “restore” him spiritually.

  3. Finney or Pelagius may not be popular in the Philippines but their teachings, their disciples or people who carry their teachings abound in our country. They may not know it but they teach or practice Pelagius’ or Finney’s doctrines. Those who do not believe in the original sin or depravity of man, those who practice ‘altar call’ type of evangelism are right heirs of Finney and Pelagius, whether they know it or not.

    1. Unknown to many, Asahel Nettleton was a contemporary of Charles Finney. But unlike Finney he was a faithful minister, evangelist and hymn writer. One article summarizes the work of Nettleton compared with Finney saying:
      “The need for revival today is as great as it has ever been. But it is not just any kind of revival that is needed. The need is for a revival clearly based upon the work of the Holy Spirit rather than on the methods of man. Nettleton’s ministry, when compared with that of Finney, shows that real revival was not always dependent upon certain “laws of revival” popularized by Finney. It came simply upon the faithful and fearless preaching of God’s Word. Nettleton’s ministry testifies to the power of God’s Word in bringing sinners to faith. Most of all, it reminds all that revival, like conversion is truly a work of a sovereign God among His people.” (The article is available at: http://www.ccwtoday.org/article_view.asp?article_id=17)

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