It would be altogether unwise for one to discount the testimonies of any who claim to have received help at an altar of prayer, especially if they give evidence of having been transformed in heart and life. Nevertheless, there are sufficient reasons to believe that many are being spiritually hindered and deceived in their souls by altar experiences. Some years ago water baptism came under discussion in a Bible class I was teaching. A retired evangelist spoke up, asserting that he had "seen many when baptized, go down dry sinners and come up wet sinners." "Yes," I responded, "and I am quite certain that I have seen many go down as sinners at an altar and come up sinners."
I can personally testify to having those occasions when the Lord powerfully worked in my own heart. I know what it is to be so filled with the love of God as to think myself unable to contain any greater manifestation and blessing. However, such was never my experience at any public altar of prayer. In spite of numerous visits to the altar rail during my early years at camp meetings and evangelistic services, I cannot say that I actually profited by any of them. Rather, it was by a continual and diligent seeking which utilized all the means of grace, making restitutions, and particularly by earnest prayer in secret that I received time and again those answers to my soul's needs.
Having all my life been an observer of modern methods of evangelism, I conclude that there are several pitfalls closely connected with the prevailing altar methods found in the modern holiness movement. Some are as follows:
"Going forward" is thought of as one and the same with God-given heart assurance, or it may be better said that the former has essentially taken the place of the latter. When asked, "Do you know that you are justified?" they typically answer by assuring you that they are because they went to the altar on such and such an occasion. One such lady said she knew she would have to go forward a second time, but had no doubt that by going again, she would be able to testify of being entirely sanctified. Many like this soul may never have heard the New Testament doctrine and assurance or the witness of the Spirit preached and taught. However, chances are good that they have heard many times that "feelings," so called, are of little importance.
So it is that modern evangelism has found "mass production" methods of making professing believers of all who "go forward" to spend a few short minutes in prayer and counseling. At the same time there is a minimizing of any need to experience the Spirit's assurance of one's acceptance with God. There is a minimizing of any need to sense a new and God-given transformation wherein "old things are passed away; behold all things are become new."
Mr. Wesley warned seekers, "Never fancy yourself a believer in Christ till Christ is revealed in you, and till his Spirit witnesses with your spirit that you are a child of God" (Sermon #37, para. 35). He and early Methodists taught that when seekers believe so as to be truly born of the Spirit, they then "have the witness in themselves and an earnest of heaven in their hearts." Being born of God and justified by faith, they have redemption in the blood of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins. They not only enjoy that "peace of God which passeth all understanding," but have a consciousness of the "love of God shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto them."
I once surprised a class of adults with the question: "How did the Church get along without an altar and altar calls for the first eighteen hundred years of its history?" Some were surprised to learn that "the old-fashioned mourner's bench" was not as old fashioned as they had long been led to believe. The historical fact is that while God has repeatedly manifested Himself in great revivals throughout every century since the days of the apostles, the traditional altar as we know it, had no existence until about 1810. According to church historians, it seems to have appeared first in eastern Kentucky with the beginning of the camp meeting movement.
So it was that the great Methodist revival of the 1700s, as well as all other great revivals before it, took place without a single altar call. Mr. Wesley would not have known what an altar call was. However, his ways of calling sinners to repentance and his methods of assisting seekers in their pursuit of spiritual reconciliation did result in multitudes finding both a vital experience of the new birth and holiness of heart. Present methods arising from our "modern altar theology" give too much evidence of having provided a poor replacement. While our generation is apt to judge the final success of a service or series of meetings on the basis of the number that "go forward," early Methodists made their final judgment of the success on the basis of a righteous and lasting change in lives, families, and whole societies.
We are led to conclude, therefore, that while some here and there may be profited by an altar experience, many more are likely to be both disappointed and deceived. In fact, has not this modern tradition of converting the lost too often proven to be an ineffective and unproductive ritual? In contrast, was it not spiritually safer in the days of the Methodist class meetings and bands when seekers were led at their own pace rather than being rushed into a profession? For it is proven that God does not deal with every soul in the same way and at the same pace. In the supportive setting of a class meeting, seekers were patiently helped and nurtured. The testimonies and prayers of fellow class members lent consistent and daily encouragement. The counsel and exhortation of the class leader gave timely guidance and instruction, while an honest accounting of spiritual progress from week to week gave needed incentive for maintaining a watchful and spiritually disciplined way of life. In a word, they Holy Spirit was allowed, with human assistance, to "take each seeker on by the job," without the hurry, distraction, and pressure so often sensed at our present day altar services.