Saturday, February 7, 2009

Jesus Hermeneutic: Is It a Call to Altar our Sermons?

As we work through the objections to a Jesus Hermeneutic, we'll take a look at altar calls. To preach Jesus weekly means that you will be preaching the gospel weekly. Now, can we simply say we are preaching the gospel as long as we offer an altar call? More than once, the question has come to me like this:

I give an altar call every week, yet you seem to be saying something different. How is preaching Christ and the gospel every week different than giving an altar call?

I find this question ironic for two reasons:

1) While the inquiring pastor may offer altar calls, I actually do not. In fact, I don't care for altar calls.

I had actually become convinced that altar calls were doing more damage than good awhile ago. But then, after reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones' words in Preaching & Preachers, I wrote a nine part series (relax, posts are brief) examining the topic with "the doctor's" aid. (Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

It is amazing how many ears hear, "Preach the gospel weekly," and somewhere between their ears and their brains it translates itself to "offer a gospel invitation at the end of your sermon." They immediately think we are referring to the same thing, and most of the time they assume this means I offer an altar call. As they seek an area of commonality, they actually expose greater difference.

2) This very question is probably the greatest reason I don't like altar calls.

Now, if you responded to the gospel message in the midst of an altar call, relax. I am not by any means stating that God cannot call people to faith and repentance through an altar call. Quoting from "Post 9":

Altar calls diminish the need for clear gospel preaching.

At first, this seems counterintuative. Messages that are followed with altar calls are typically considered quite evangelistic. However, many times, the sermon itself is not evangelistic, but simply the altar call is.

I remember listening live to the "pastor" of America's largest "church." As he waxed on about Christians having better fuel economy, surrounding ourselves with more positive people and overcoming obstacles, he completely neglected any mentions of Christ, the cross, sin or grace. His "sermon" did not deal with man's depravity, God's righteousness or the great exchange. No mention was made of heaven or hell or even life beyond the grave. Not only did the message lack biblical accuracy, but it's complete avoidance of the gospel prevented even a remote assessment of it being evangelistic.

However, then came his altar call. As he called people to stand and act, he then laid out certain terms (yes, he called for action before he even explained toward what). Within the altar call, he then spoke of sin, Christ, the cross...he even uttered the word "repentance." Suddenly, he's got a group of people standing and responding to a message that seems to include elements of the gospel.

But would Paul simply rejoice that the gospel was preached? Shouldn't we just celebrate that elements of the gospel were present?

Well, techinically, the gospel was not preached. The gospel was given a brief moment. The gospel was quickly presented. The details of the gospel were shared, but it was not preached. In essence, an altar call can often allow us to mop up the damage from a message that was not centered on the cross. However, because people were challenged to trust Jesus, most would never think to examine the message. Consider some of the problems if the gospel is not made clear until an altar call:
    1. Again, the sermon and altar call become two separate entities. The "action" does not even derive from the sermon.
    2. The gospel is given very short treatment. It is not developed over the course of the message, but handled quickly at the end.
    3. The challenge becomes only immediate and introductory.
    4. The gospel challenge appears to be severed from the text which was preached.
    5. Any action/challenge given during the sermon is separated from the gospel. To call people to action outside of understanding the gospel is legalism.

My experience has been that messages with altar calls typically to do not call upon the sinner to repent until during the altar call. Proper preaching requires that the call be rooted in the gospel. This call should come the whole time as the preacher is working through the text.
I'd like to add a sixth point as well.
    6. Altar calls tend to make the believer think the gospel message is only beneficial for the unsaved and that this is the point where they can relax. If the altar call extends beyond justification only, and hits into areas of sanctification in a believer's life, the altar call tends to leave the listener believing the power is in their own will. Not to mention, it probably calls the listener to completely violate Ecclesiastes 5:1-6.

I am not talking about giving Jesus a commercial spotlight at the end of your sermon. To preach Christ is not even to hand out "7 steps for a happy marriage" and make "trust Jesus as Savior" one of the seven steps. No, Jesus must be given preeminence. He is not one of 7 action points. In reality, He is the point of marriage!

A pastor who preaches with a Jesus Hermeneutic will not merely get around to talking about Jesus and the gospel. He will understand that proper exegesis requires that he sees this text pointing to redemption which can only be found in Christ. I am not speaking of odd typology or an allegorical approach. We preach what the text says, but we keep in mind that the Law was not intended as a list of rules, but a schoolmaster. This helps us realize that no passage is being read or preached properly unless it is being done while facing the cross.

I'm not talking about altar calls at all. In fact, the pastor who preaches with a Jesus Hermeneutic will not need altar calls, for he will have called people to submit to Christ throughout His sermon!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

no, please don't alter or altar your sermons. after sunday morning, i realized afresh how much i prefer the method of teaching you employ.

even in leviticus ;)

and thanks for your counsel to todd about our situation here. the books are being shipped as i type :)