Dave Brisbin 7.31.22
I was recently asked why we don’t do altar calls at our church. It’s not that we don’t do them, but we don’t do them publicly. As de facto sacraments, altar calls have become every Sunday rituals at many Evangelical churches in the past hundred and fifty years. Named from the practice of calling people to the front/altar of a church to declare their conversion, the ritual has become encapsulated in saying the “sinners prayer,” which includes admission of sin, request for forgiveness, statement of orthodoxy, and intention of repentance.

It’s a beautiful first step of vulnerability and intention, but which over time has culturally become the proof of salvation itself. If the saying of a prayer made of words, no matter how beautiful, could trigger the flow of God’s grace and approval where it was previously withheld, as Marcus Borg said, it would be “salvation by syllables.” Mere superstition—in the way carrying a rabbit’s foot brings good luck.

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Jesus was very clear. He’s not superstitious. Though he carefully kept all the non-rabbinical rituals and practices of first century Judaism, he missed no opportunity to show and teach that obeying laws and practicing rituals can never magically gain God’s favor…we already have that and always will. But by engaging a radically different Way of living life, we come face to face with the truth of God’s pre-existing favor, freeing us from the fear of punishment right herenow. Salvation realized, not earned.

Doesn’t mean we stop doing altar calls, but any sacrament is an outward expression of an inward transformation. The ritual itself is meaningless. A transformed heart is what brings meaning to the ritual, and the ritual conveys that meaning to the community and binds us together in shared experience. We need that. But salvation is less an event and more a process of becoming, punctuated by events like our first admission of willingness to submit to a power greater than ourselves. Both are absolutely necessary. It’s a question of emphasis—which means we all have to decide, individually and communally, how best to keep that balance.

 

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