Home > Brandenburg, Worship > The “Altar Call”: James 1:21 and the Circumstances of Worship

The “Altar Call”: James 1:21 and the Circumstances of Worship

January 31, 2011

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.

  1. Dennis
    February 1, 2011 at 5:51 am

    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.

    I would agree that we can’t make those concluding remarks. I would suggest that it has been my experience the other way around. Because I don’t have an invitation, I am not “allowing people to respond.” i just read a pastor in an article on church planting about the necessity of having an invitation. He said, “liberal churches don’t have invitations, and they don’t have them because they don’t expect results!” needless to say i was surprised to find out that I was now liberal who doesn’t expect the Word of God to be quick and powerful.
    I think it is a good thing to have a “time to reflect” at the end of a service, but growing up the invitation tended to be for the same people with the same problems, or everyone is going forward and you are left standing thinging, “did i miss a sin in my life? Is my heart really softened to the Lord because I should be going forward too?” In many situations it makes people think that “walking the isle and making a decision (emphasis on decision)” is how I make things right. I would much rather remind and instruct my people to search the Scriptures and see if this thing is true as Bereans and study it and live it. Of course this is only really possible as one preaches expositionaly. A steady diet of topical messages leaves the people with no context in which to properly study what is being said by the author, but rather leads to “well the pastor said/interpreted it that way so it must be true.”
    Well, this is why we don’t have one, plus they are fairly recent in being introduced to the church. Thanks for the post.

  2. Dennis
    February 1, 2011 at 5:54 am

    To clarify, the first sentence would be better worded, i agree that we can’t come to those conclusions regarding those who have invitations.

  3. February 1, 2011 at 6:46 am

    I think this is a very balanced post. We should neither ignore giving an opportunity to respond, nor should we elevate it to an ‘essential’. The language of the invitation, if you will, indicates which way the wind is blowing on that. If an altar-centric response is viewed as more sincere and meaningful, then Bob’s your uncle. And that’s where the confusion often comes in- when the walk down the aisle and kneeling at the altar is given an extra measure of significance.

    I was once asked why I don’t go forward more often on my own, and my answer is that when I read my Bible and get on my knees every morning to restore or ensure a right relationship with God, for what reason would I need to go forward? Should I go through the motions so that others will think I’m spiritual? Angels forfend.

    If the purpose of the invitation is to give time to reflect and respond, then getting out the hymnbooks to sing is very distracting. If we must have music as part of the altar call, why not play an instrumental piece so that what is being considered is the message itself, and not the business of finding the song and focusing on singing it (while everyone around you zips up their Bible cases and puts on their coats).

    If people are supposed to be meditating on the message, why does the preacher ask questions and re-preach his sermon? Just askin’.

    And another thing (I’m on a roll now!:D ) – I’ve been an ‘altar worker’ for most of my life, and nothing bugs me more than to try to deal with someone’s questions while hunched uncomfortably on a step in front of the church in a dress, trying to talk over the music while still not being too loud, and rushing through explanations while “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior” is being sung for the umpteenth time and is nearly being drowned out by the people shifting their feet in the pews. It would be much more sensible, IMO, to have a comfortable area, somewhat removed from the service, in which a person who needs some time can be dealt with without being rushed or distracted or getting cramps in one’s calves. Can I file a workers comp claim for Altar Patella Syndrome?

    And there I’ve descended shamelessly into pragmatism. Must be a mom thing. Or it could be this awful head cold. That’s my excuse and I’m stickin’ to it.

  4. February 1, 2011 at 10:32 pm


    I don’t believe Scripture requires an altar call. The Bible says nothing about an altar call—at best it is a circumstance for one element of worship.


    Some funny stuff.

    I do think that our traditions can be the enemy of biblical obedience, including altar call techniques that easily could stem from the insecurity of a preacher. The sight of multitudes kneeling at the front after a sermon can be heady stuff. Afterwards, the thoughts—“God really worked,” “Must have been a powerful sermon”—neither of which might be any more true if no one ‘came forward.’

  5. February 2, 2011 at 7:44 am

    Brother Kent,

    This a very well-written and balanced approach to this issue. I have personally struggled with the way I do “altar calls” over the years. I do believe it is “circumstance” of worship. To me that means that as long as I don’t violate Scriptural mandates or principles, whether I have an altar call or how I do it is between God and me.

    I have seen the absolute worst examples of emotional manipulation and grandstanding in my 52 years as a “PK” and almost 30 years in the ministry. I do, however, believe that preaching should be brought to a “point” of decision. How people decide is between them and God.

    I usually don’t have an “altar call” on Sunday evenings. I believe my dad would have thought me “liberal” for this.

    Keep on writing….

  6. Dennis
    February 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    I wasn’t saying you did, sorry if I confused. Was just stating why we don’t at our church.

  7. Christopher
    February 4, 2011 at 6:32 am

    “You won’t find the altar call in the New Testament—it isn’t an element of worship.”

    This statement is true and false.

    FALSE: The New Testament does give alter calls
    A little Semantics here! The altar call is an invitation. It is an invitation to “come” do business with God.

    The Bible is full of invitations. In Revelation 22:17 And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.
    The Spirit of God and the Church gives invitations

    Paul gave invitation: 2 Corinthians 5:11 Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…

    The Old Testament Gave Invitations: Isaiah 55:1-3 Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price….Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live…

    Wisdom Gives invitations: Proverbs 1:20-23 also Proverbs 8:1-5 Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice? She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors. Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man. O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart. Also Proverbs 9:4-6

    True: in Worship we are worshiping God which is done when you are right with God.

    Maybe we should be more concerned with giving an alter call then a call to Worship?


  8. February 4, 2011 at 11:34 am


    Did you read the whole article?

    The statement you quoted is only true. Based on what you wrote about “invitations,” the altar call is still a circumstance for worship, not an element.

  9. Christopher
    February 4, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    “the altar call is still a circumstance for worship, not an element. Agreed! “You’ll notice that among those six that the altar call or invitation is missing. So is a building but I will still use one every time preach.


  10. Dennis
    February 4, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    I would say that when i preach I am faithful to every verse you sighted but i don’t have an altar call. You can call someone to repent and believe, etc without calling them to get out of their seat walk down an isle and kneel at the front. I won’t repeat my previous post, but simply say that “altar calls” are not what those verses have in mind. Can they be a means of giving opportunity to think through a sermon? Sure. But i think there are better ways and it has been my experience that altar calls have been more problematic then helpful

  11. February 4, 2011 at 10:04 pm


    You say that you agreed with me, and then you write a sentence that says you don’t understand what I wrote. The six were elements of worship in the NT. The invitation is not an element, but a circumstance, just like a building is a circumstance.

  12. jw
    May 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    I’m behind you guys but let me add the day of Pentecost in Act 2.
    “40And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

    Is that Biblical pattern for the “altar call”? or not?

  13. February 16, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    I have an altar call for most services, but usually, it is just standing together to sing a hymn and inviting people to the front to talk about salvation, baptism, church membership, etc. I reject the temptation to push every sermon into an “altar call sermon” because most passages aren’t “altar call” kind of passages. But there are some when I think an altar call is really appropriate.

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