What, if any, biblical foundation exists for presenting an "altar call" or a "sinner's prayer"?
The “altar call” and “sinner’s prayer” are commonly associated with modern, evangelical Christianity. These rituals are generally considered to be products of the “Great Awakening” movements of the 18th-19th century in Britain and the United States. They were created as part of the camp meeting and revival tent ministries of that time. These practices were the inventions of men like Charles Finney, Alexander Campbell among others, who propagated new and unorthodox ideas concerning the meaning of Christ’s atonement and how men may be saved.
For example, Finny rejected the biblical doctrines of salvation by grace alone and original sin. He was a proponent of the false doctrine of perfectionism, which holds that Christians are not only saved from the penalty of sin but also from the experiencing of sin. He taught that men have free moral agency in all matters including the Gospel, and therefore salvation was the result of a free will choice to follow God and not the result of divine regeneration.
Given his erroneous theology, Finney believed he could obtain more converts by means of subtle intimidation and emotional manipulation. Since by his estimation the only thing standing in the way of salvation was human will, he saw nothing wrong in relying on such “persuasion” to recruit conversions, while never expressing any concern over whether the confessions he coerced were genuine.
He is particularly well-known for his “revival meetings,” where he whipped crowds into an emotional frenzy by his preaching and through various rituals designed to pressure doubters into agreeing with the Gospel. The altar call and sinner’s prayer were two such rituals Finney relied upon to gain a response. Another was the “anxious seat,” a place where those who were wavering could sit and receive prayer. In reality, these techniques were all opportunities for intimidation and peer pressure, which served to turned undecideds into false confessors (and perhaps some true believers as well).
Though Finney may have had the best of intentions, he preached a false Gospel (casting into doubt his own faith), and at the very least, he practiced an unbiblical form of evangelism.
The Bible teaches that belief in the Gospel is never the fruit of coercion nor a bending of the human will. As Paul says, it is a work of the Holy Spirit in the heart:
1Cor. 12:3 Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
Rom. 8:14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
Rom. 8:15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”
Rom. 8:16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God,
Only the Lord can change a heart by His Spirit, and although the Lord purposes to deliver His Gospel through the agency of men, the power to receive it and believe in it remains with God alone. The self-evident truth of the message is manifested by the work of the Spirit.
As Paul says of his own preaching:
1Cor. 1:22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom;
1Cor. 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness,
1Cor. 1:24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
In fact, Paul made it clear that he would not stoop to tricks and rhetorical flourish as a substitute for the power of God in the message of salvation:
1Cor. 2:1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.
1Cor. 2:2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
If the greatest evangelist in the history of the church was content to rely solely on the power of God by His word for his results, why should we do any less?
The altar call and sinner’s prayer are the modern-day descendants of Finney's anxious seat. Even in the best of cases, they are misused relics of poor theology, and in the worst cases, they are instruments of public pressure and intimidation.
Churches that rely heavily on these techniques may grow their flock numerically, but they should question the sincerity of these “confessions” and give thought to the long-term consequences of potentially welcoming deceived unbelievers into the congregation of God. This does not mean these techniques are automatically nor universally wrong, but we should consider the implications of relying upon contrived and easily abused techniques rather than upon the Spirit.
In their place, we recommend churches teach the word of God – including preaching the Gospel clearly, boldly and routinely – yet without relying on mechanical and ritualistic demands for listeners to respond in certain ways or to say certain prayers. If hearts are moved by the Gospel, they will respond without regard to a specific prescription other than the Bible's demands: confess with the mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in the heart that God raised Him from the dead.