The “Altar Call”: James 1:21 and the Circumstances of Worship
I believe we have good biblical grounds for regulating worship by Scripture. True worship recognizes Who God is and gives Him what He wants. We find out Who He is and what He wants in the Bible. God’s Word is sufficient. In so being, Scripture limits what worship is. It is only what God says He wants, which is only in His Word. We know from the Bible that God forbids additions and deletions to the elements He prescribes for worship—since worship is only what He wants. God is God, He wants what He wants, and that’s alone what He will receive. He rejects those elements He does not prescribe.
Worship in and by the church is regulated alone by the Bible. The New Testament reveals elements of worship that God wants from the church: reading the Word, preaching the Word, singing, prayer, baptism and Lord’s Supper, and collection of offerings. You’ll notice that among those six that the altar call or invitation is missing. You won’t find the altar call in the New Testament—it isn’t an element of worship.
Preaching of God’s Word is an element of worship. Regarding preaching, we read the following in James 1:19-21:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.
Is the listening to preaching an element of worship? I believe that it is part of the element of preaching. The preacher and the listeners, the congregation, are worshiping simultaneously. They are all saying “yes” or “amen” to the message of God from His Word. This is an offering to God, an offering of one’s mind, heart, and body to whatever God says, as preached and heard in the preaching. Only a certain hearing of the preaching is to God acceptable, which is, as seen in v. 19, “swift to hear.” In line with that in v. 21 is “receive with meekness the engrafted word.” “Swift to wrath” and “slow to hear” are both unacceptable to God as an offering. God rejects those two. God doesn’t accept any kind of hearing to His preaching than “swift to hear” and “receive with meekness.”
And then we can see in the above text in v. 21 that besides the preaching and the hearing, there is also a response to the preaching. This too is prescribed worship. What is it? It is to “lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness.” A part of the element of preaching is the response to preaching, which is doing what this first part of v. 21 says. This is an actual sacrifice on the part of the hearer. He is sacrificing something: filthiness and naughtiness. Not fulfilling this response is taking away from the Word of God and is not acceptable to God within the perimeters of the element of preaching.
How does someone lay aside filthiness and naughtiness either during preaching or after preaching? How he does this is a circumstance for worship. A church could choose to have him do this sitting there in his seat. A church could suggest to him as an application to get some further instruction and application from someone in another room. A church might apply this Divine instruction by inviting those with the filthiness and naughtiness to come forward and kneel at the front of the auditorium. None of these are the actual element of the worship, but merely the circumstances of the element.
Concerning the circumstances of worship, Brian Schwertley writes:
The circumstances of worship refer not to worship content and ceremony but to those things “common to human actions and societies.” The only way someone can learn a worship ordinance is to study the Bible and see what God commands. But the circumstances of worship are not dependent on the explicit instructions of the Bible; they depend only upon general revelation and common sense (“Christian prudence”).
The Bible does not command for offering plates, hymnbooks, pews, or microphones. Those are all circumstances of the elements of either the collection, singing, or preaching. The “altar call” or invitation could fall within the perimeters of the circumstances of preaching.
Richard Baxter wrote:
What a loathsome and pitiful thing is it, to hear a man bitterly reproach those who differ from him in some circumstances of worship.
I don’t think we should assume that someone who gives an invitation at the end of preaching is disregarding the regulative principle of worship. I don’t believe we should regard someone who practices an invitation as an innovation beyond that which God prescribed. He could be obeying James 1:21 as a circumstance of worship.