Last weekend Billy Graham preached at what may be his final crusade, preaching before up to 82,000 people at a time. A headline at Pastors.com proclaimed the crusade a great success, indicating that some 12,000 people made decisions for Christ. In a previous article I expressed concerns with Graham's ecumenism and the fact that Roman Catholic counselors would be present at the event and any people who made decisions and indicated they were from a Catholic background would be directed back to their Catholic churches. Today I'd like to examine the idea of the "decision" that weights so heavily at these crusades.
If you were to do a survey of church history, reading books and documents from the first century all the way to the early nineteenth century, you would find no mention of "decisions for Christ." Similarly one would find no reference to the altar calls which are the culmination of every modern evangelistic crusade. Those elements, which are found in nearly every evangelical church today, were inventions generally attributed to evangelist Charles Finney who lived from 1792 to 1875. He emphasized the need for a decision, usually made by "coming forward" to approach the altar. Becoming a believer became synonymous with making a decision and proving that decision by taking physical action. It is important to note that this system is entirely foreign to the Scriptures.
We might wonder what the emphasis of preachers was in the time before altar calls. What was it that preachers asked of their flock before anyone had considered calling people to make decisions and then make a movement to the front of the church? One finds that preachers emphasized coming to Christ. Charles Spurgeon whose ministry was contemporary with Finney's was converted by just such a call, a call to come to Christ, and later emphasized that same call in his messages. At the conclusion of one message he said "Go to your God at once, even where you now are. Cast yourself on Christ, at once, ere you stir an inch." He made no call to come to the front of the room or to mark a decision on a piece of paper - he emphasized only the importance of casting oneself on Christ.
Clearly decisions for Christ are a late addition to Christian practice. To understand the issues at stake, let's examine what regeneration is, what various traditions teach about regeneration and what the Bible teaches.
Before we begin I would like to indicate that I do not wish to discredit the 12,000 people who made decisions at the Billy Graham crusade or to cast doubt on their conversion, for that is a matter between them and the Lord. I also do not wish to vilify those who practice such forms of crusades. I wish merely to examine the concept of decision and altar calls in light of the Scripture.
We will first define regeneration. J.I. Packer thoroughly defines regeneration as "…the spiritual change wrought in the heart of man by the Holy Spirit in which his/her inherently sinful nature is changed so that he/she can respond to God in Faith, and live in accordance with His Will (Matt. 19:28; John 3:3,5,7; Titus 3:5). It is an inner re-creating of fallen human nature by the gracious sovereign action of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8). This change is ascribed to the Holy Spirit. It originates not with man but with God (John 1:12, 13; 1 John 2:29; 5:1, 4). It extends to the whole nature of man, altering his governing disposition, illuminating his mind, freeing his will, and renewing his nature." Regeneration, said simply, is the Spirit's act whereby He gives to man a new nature which frees his will and gives him a disposition towards God. This definition is wholly Reformed, and thus wholly Biblical.
A survey of Christian doctrine would find three predominant views on when regeneration occurs.
The first is known as baptismal regeneration. The Roman Catholic tradition, as well as that held by Anglican, and Lutheran groups, believe that regeneration occurs at the moment of baptism. When a child is baptized, the Holy Spirit immediately regenerates that person. The Catholic Catechism typifies this view: "Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.” (Pg.354, #1265) This view has been deemed false by the vast majority of Protestants who believe it undermines what the Scriptures plainly teach.
The second view is that the Holy Spirit regenerates a person at a time of His choosing. I suppose we could call it monergistic regeneration to indicate that it depends solely on God. This regeneration does not depend on man or on any desire or decision on his part. The Spirit moves in the person, giving him a new nature and allowing him the capacity to express faith and a desire to know and trust God. This view is closely associated with Calvinism and the Reformed faith and its high view of God's sovereignty.
The third view is the one we are concerned with and it emphasizes a decision, hence the term decisional regeneration. In this view man has been wooed by the Spirit to the point that is now able to have faith in God and he then expresses that faith in a decision to follow the Lord. When he makes this decision he is immediately regenerated. While the decision is internal, it is often expressed in a prayer, a physical action such as raising a hand or walking to an altar or even in something as simple as marking a decision card.
We now need to ask what the dangers are in a decisional form of regeneration, or is it merely a theological nuance that has no bearing on the Christian life?
The answer is clear - there is a significant danger in this theology. Finney departed radically from orthodox doctrine when in Lectures on Revivals of Religion he said "Religion is the work of man." Jay Adams writes "The great theological difference between modern evangelism and biblical evangelism hinges on this basic question whether true religion is the work of God or of man. At best, the doctrine of 'Decisional Regeneration' attributes the new birth partly to man and partly to God." When God and man cooperate in salvation, it becomes important to appeal to human emotion and desires and to secure a human response to what the Bible tells us is God's work. We allow man to play the role of God and decide for his own salvation. Man allows the Spirit to enter his heart through an act of decision rather than believing that the Spirit does a work apart from the will of man. Decisional regeneration, then, suppresses the teaching that God alone is active in salvation, in giving life, and that man is utterly helpless apart from Him.
The risk we take in telling people that they have been saved after they have marked a card or raised their hand, is that we know only that they have made some type of decision. This decision may be sincere and well-intentioned, but it does not necessarily indicate that the Spirit has regenerated the person. Finney's legacy in church history is largely one of failure, of creating masses of people who believed they were Christians, but most of whom showed no evidence. They were assured by their decision which they could always regard as a milestone in their lives, but while they had raised their hand, they had never turned to Christ. Why had they not done this? Because the Spirit had not done any work in them and they were, thus, unregenerate. They had attempted to make themselves believers, a task which can only be done by God. The same problem prevails today. When we tell people that their decision is indicative of their salvation, we may give them false hope. We may give them assurance that is not ours to give. The biblical reality is that God gives salvation to whom He wishes. "For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will." (John 5:21)
What then should be our response? We must encourage people to turn to Christ, to repent of their sins and to beg Him for mercy. We must preach the gospel that they are sinners, but that Christ has come to save sinners just like them. We must not deviate from the Scriptures in order to win more bodies while we give false assurance to souls.
If you would like to study this issue in more depth, I recommend John Murray's short book Redemption Accomplished and Applied as well as Jay Adam's excellent article entitled Decisional Regeneration.