The Altar Call

How well I remember the fundamentalist altar call. The preachers were clear: human beings were sinners separated from the love of God. Jesus died to forgive our sins. All we had to do was repent and believe the gospel. Then, “Every head bowed, every eye closed, nobody looking around.” The old hymn, “Just as I am without one plea…” was begun, and we were asked to put up our hands if we had prayed to accept Jesus into our hearts. Then, in Billy Graham’s memorable phrase we were asked to “get up out of our seats.” and come forward where we met a mature Christian and were led in a sinner’s prayer: a prayer of repentance and faith.

Coming back from hearing confessions last night I thought, “Is confession really so different?” In confession the Catholic ‘gets up out of his seat’ and goes to a public place to confess his sins. There he prays the sinner’s prayer, but we call it ‘an act of contrition.’ At the bottom line the confessional and the altar call are the same transaction between an individual and God: The sinner repents and accepts the forgiveness that Christ won on the cross.

But Catholicism is always ‘More Christianity’ not ‘mere Christianity. While the confessional holds within itself all that is good and honest and true about the altar call, there is more to it than that. First of all, the sinner gets the chance to confess specific sins and receive advice and counsel. This is a great help because, while the sinner may be aware of his sinful condition, he may not be too clear on the nature and depth and specificity of his sin. A good confessor helps him to see himself and to see God’s mercy more clearly.

Secondly, in Catholic confession the penitent is given a suitable penance. The penances are not too hard lest the penitent think that he is somehow earning his salvation. Instead, it is a devotional action that takes the person into a closer relationship with the forgiving Lord. It is also an action of restitution and responsibility. We have done something wrong. We actually want to do something positive to counter the negative action in our own lives.

Thirdly, the Catholic sacrament of confession is repeatable. Some Baptists ‘get saved’ every year at the summer revival meeting, and although it doesn’t click with their theology, the instinct is right. We sin and sin again. What we want to do we do not do and what we do not want to do we do. Confession recognizes the reality of the repetition of sin, and allows for continued repentance and repeated forgiveness…as the gospel says, ‘seventy times seven times’ or in other words–perfect and everlasting forgiveness.

Finally, the Catholic sacrament also offers the same apostolic forgiveness that Jesus passed to his apostles. The logic is simple: 1. Only God forgives sin 2. Jesus, God’s Son exercises divine forgiveness on earth 3. He grants his apostles the same power to forgive sins in his name 4. That power is passed on to the successors of the apostles until the end of time. In the Catholic confessional the penitent confesses his sins to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ (speaking through his Church and in particular through his priest) grants the penitent soul forgiveness.

This dynamic transaction of repentance and faith is at the heart of the tent meeting altar call, and really ought to be at the heart of every Christian’s every breathing moment. Not just at the altar call, and not just when I go to confession, but each breathing moment this is my prayer–”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me a Sinner.”

To live in that open hearted and needy mentality toward God is the heart of the Christian Way, and for this gift I would gladly “get up out of my seat.”

  • David Hall

    Fr Dwight,Thank you for this post. For those willing to listen. I believe much greater understanding would happen between Evangelicals and Catholics if “functional similarities” could have broader exposure.”One faith, one Lord, one baptism” and yet there are so many personal “expressions”. I find that “Catholic” can contain them all, but it is hard for those who can see only their own limited experience.(A lot has happened in my journey since our talks at St Joseph’s last February!)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Dear David,I have had a computer failure and lost lots of stuff. Would you please drop me a personal email so we can catch up?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz

    “Confession recognizes the reality of the repetition of sin, and allows for continued repentance and repeated forgiveness.”I forget this sometimes…nice to be reminded of it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz

    BTW, why is called an ‘altar’ call? There’s no altar in a Baptist church.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The ‘altar call’ is a metaphor. You come forward to put all on the altar for God…to ‘present yourselves as a living sacrifice”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06624317806947588259 Rachel Gray

    I went forward at an altar call at a Christian camp when I was 13, and it changed my life– that was when my relationship with God really began. Now that I’m Catholic it’s interesting to me that when I left that camp I had the strong conviction that I should be baptized. I don’t think anybody even mentioned it at the camp, but I knew I needed to do it to please God, so I signed up for it when I got back to my church. (As you can tell, my church was pretty laissez-faire about baptism. They didn’t even invite kids to be baptized till we got to junior high, which is pretty inconsistent theology since we were considered old enough to understand the Gospel and get saved by age four or so.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01960521706457744649 tara

    Wow, Father, this is the best post ever!This dynamic transaction of repentance and faith is at the heart of the tent meeting altar call, and really ought to be at the heart of every Christian’s every breathing moment. Not just at the altar call, and not just when I go to confession, but each breathing moment this is my prayer–”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me a Sinner.”Wow–what a profound thought! Can I steal the above quote for my blog?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06624317806947588259 Rachel Gray

    Oh, and the altar call I answered was *exactly* as you describe. Same sequence, same hymn, same counselors, same everything. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    tara: help yourself

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04298493682961935337 Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ

    Confession is so absolutely healing..frequent confession is preferable & enables us to keep making a fresh start..i’m sure the altar call is well meaning & God would no doubt shower blessings on anyone turning towards him Protestant as well as Catholic.But for the reasons you give ‘confession’is infinitely preferable…an interesting post…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07007618921884871637 jim thompson

    dwight, i love the “altar call” entry, brother. both are sad when their practice never meets their theory. you’ll probably like the quote i just posted:http://repentforthekingdomofheavenisathand.blogspot.com/2007/08/love-courage-wisdom.htmlgrace and peace…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16829008956478473428 John Seymour

    Fr. Jay also had a post referring to confession today. His was on St. John Vianney, whose feast day is today and who was a great confessor. In your post you refer to the value of a good confessor. My question: where are they? Most of the time I go the only question I get asked is if I pause after listing my sins: “Is that everything?” and usually not even that. Then there was the time when the priest interrupted me mid-confession, assigned me penance and granted absolution. As I left the confessional I wondered if I needed to commit more serious sins to keep his attention, or at least get them out up front. I wasn’t even asked to recite an Act of Contrition.I have had one good confessor, but he is retired, and has cut back significantly with declining health. Most are pretty average, listening to your confession, assigning penance and granting absolution. But I think sometimes confession needs to be more: a little probing to get at the details, to clarify the issue or at least to show their listening.I am sure good confessors are out there, and probably even great ones: modern versions of St. John Vianney. But how do we find them?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    It is always hard to find a saint. That’s because they’re hidden. You know…treasure buried in a field and all that…Seek and ye shall find, and don’t forget to ask God to send you a good confessor.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16829008956478473428 John Seymour

    Ask God to send me . . . .In other words, ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find.A pretty good answer to “How do I find . . . .” (Though I must confess to feeling a little dim at not thinking of it myself.)Thanks.


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