Altar Call

As a high school senior, I completed a college application to the only school on my list, the only school I would ever visit with hopes of attending, and, in the end, the only college that ever received an application from me: Moody Bible Institute (MBI). Its purpose is to prepare students for Christian ministry. On the application, I came to a question asking when I had become a born-again Christian. As usual, I answered that I believed in Christ as a young child when praying with my dad before sleeping for the night.

One morning after being granted acceptance and beginning my first year of study at MBI, a morning chapel service concluded in a rare way. The speaker gave what is known as an “altar call.” In case you are not from a church or location that practices altar calls, it is when the pastor makes an invitation for anyone to come forward after the service who wants to learn more or make a decision for the Lord.  Seemingly, this practice is becoming unfashionable lately, presumably because being called forward is embarrassing. Truly, salvation is simple (grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone). Yet, I do not know where the Bible ever teaches that coming to Christ and walking with Christ is easy or that calling for a public decision for Christ is misguided.

I came to know Christ as a child. I am incredibly grateful for this; I had the opportunity to form habits that honor Him from a young age and gain a familiarity with both His Word and the disciplines of the Christian faith. Years after college, however, a friend described to me that coming to know Christ as a child also requires "packing and unpacking your suitcase."  The suitcase houses everything we believe. But at certain points in life, the contents have to be removed, examined, re-understood, and packed again. The same truths of the Christian faith grow in us and come to occupy different parts of our hearts and lives as time progresses. The truth continues to change us after conversion—and that is good, but not always easy.

Back to MBI, the chapel speaker that morning, who happened to be the President of the school, Dr. Michael Easley, said something like, “If, this morning, you do not have the assurance of knowing you belong to God for all eternity, I invite you to come forward. I don’t presume that there would not be someone even in this room who has yet to make that commitment to Christ.” He had also said that he kept a list in the back of his Bible of the names of everyone he knew who had fallen away from the faith. It served as a reminder for him of the costs of not remaining committed to Christ daily. Dr. Easley did not know, but God did, that my suitcase had been yanked open, the contents spilling out.

Questioning My Salvation

Being at Bible college provided exposure to new ways of thinking about theology. One day in particular, I threw one of John Calvin’s works across my dorm room in, oh, mild disagreement. Calvin had raised the question in me: if God’s complete sovereignty in my salvation was unbiblical, as I then preferred to believe, how could I know that my salvation was true? How could I know that my name would not find its way to a document like the one at the back of Dr. Easely’s Bible? I was the only person, as far as I know, to respond to the altar call that morning.

This question of the genuineness of my salvation had been the focus of silent, pleading prayers for many weeks. I did not always use words as much as I laid into God with the force of my emotion while certain verses of Scripture like, “examine yourself to make sure you are in the faith,” churned in me (2 Cor. 13:5). How do I know if I am really His and that there is not some further experience of Christian belief and faith that I do not even know how to have?

I remembered some advice from years past—whose source I have long forgotten—that you should always have, at the very least, one other committed Christian who knows the worst about you. So, I rightly forced myself to tell other people. “Dear Lianna, you are a Christian,” they might have said in various, compassionate forms. But I was not at all sure. They pointed to Christian fruit in my life.  But I could always think of a reason I did something they considered “good” for myself and not for God. How did I know that the faith I had was truly saving faith?  It surely did not feel like faith worthy of a great, all-powerful, all-knowing, holy, and majestic God who was (and is) far beyond my understanding. How could I be assured that I knew Him and that, in the end, I would persevere? How did I know that I had adequately confessed my sin? The wrong motives that seeped through everything I did were weighing on me.

At the front of the sizeable Torrey-Gray Auditorium where chapel was held, I was hoping that Dr. Easely would sit with me to dialog there. I hoped our conversation would solve my problem with resounding words to fill that whole room—to resound through my whole soul—so that I could fold the questions slopping out of my suitcase neatly back inside.

He recommended I instead speak to a professor, Dr. O’Neal. Acting on this recommendation was far from easy for me. I am private to the extent that I prefer to only speak about personal, unresolved matters with those closest to me, if that. Yet, I was not only compelled to respond to an altar call given by the President of a Bible school that only a few months ago I had believed was suited to me, but also to make an appointment with a professor with whom I had never previously had any personal conversations. The burden in my heart over my unresolved questions of faith and sin overcame my natural impulse to remain private. This was evidence of the Holy Spirit at work with a power far stronger than preferences—a power to change preferences.

Asking the Wrong Question

Not many days later, I sat in this professor’s office and heard him say something to the effect of, “So, I know you came forward at the end of a chapel recently. What do you want to talk about today?”

“Well, I guess I really do not know if I am a Christian,” I said, my heart sinking at the audible admission. I wanted him to reply with an answer informing me I could remove the weight—that  if I had already felt a certain way or had gone through a certain experience, then I was “in,” or “okay.”

He looked straight at me, “Let me ask, do you believe that Christ is strong enough to save you?”

“I think so,” I answered honestly while also honestly believing that this was beside the point. I re-phrased for his benefit, “But how do I know if I have really believed well enough in Him?”

“You are asking the wrong question,” he said.

He went on to encourage me that if I thought Christ strong enough to save, to then join with the man in Mark 9:14-29 concerning the rest of what weighed on me by praying, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

There were other words spoken, but those lines of his were what I left carrying. I thought that the first part of the meeting was less than helpful. But I knew that I could pray, “I believe, help my unbelief.” I did. The first part of the meeting held a new perspective that I did not understand; I had some deciphering to do.  As I prayed and as what he said settled within, I came to understand that what he said was truth.  My salvation, including my faith, is entirely a gift: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

Christ's Power Over My Salvation

I was awakened to focus on Jesus Christ and understand the professor’s message that my regeneration and justification rely totally upon Him and not my human choice. Christ, not my faith, was strong enough to lift the weight of this burden. I realized with gratitude that no one could have said anything better to me in my crisis of doubt than this professor.

So, this is what has been stowed in my suitcase from then on: the extent to which I believe my salvation depends upon me equals the degree to which I will doubt my salvation. Even when I still pray today, “I believe, help my unbelief,” I know that God through Christ will preserve me until the end.

My husband once wrote for a character in a story of faith, probably for an English class assignment, “My earliest memory is of holding my parents’ hands and swinging back and forth with them on either side, ignorantly thinking that my grip was keeping me suspended.” My grip on my “suitcase” of beliefs, or on Christ, is not what keeps me in the faith. Christ is strong enough—Christ and Christ’s grip on me alone (Ps. 145:20; Ps. 37:28).

“We can no more ‘persevere’ without God preserving us, than we can breathe when God ceases to give us breath; we are ‘kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’ (1 Pet. 1:5).” –A.W. Pink

Sunlight and rain pouring over mountains, representing the strength of God to save us.