When I was growing up my family attended Southern Baptist Churches. Many services ended with that hushed atmosphere. The piano would play one of great hymns such as “Just as I am” or “There is Power in the Blood.” We would all bow our heads and listen attentively as the preacher urged, exhorted, pleaded with those who were lost or backslidden to come forward. As a kid, I always hoped someone would go forward quickly so the preacher would stop. If no one went forward he would keep on and on. In my Christian psyche these altar calls hold great power and call me back to different time in my life.
The years went by and eventually I became a pastor at a Baptist church. There I read up on the idea of the altar call, where it came from, and why it was done. After some research, I decided not to do altar calls at my church. There were some who opposed my decision, but I think most were secretly grateful.
Now I am a pastor at a liturgical, reformed, presbyterian church. I don’t do altar calls, at least not how the ministers of my youth did them. But I do call upon men to follow Christ and trust in him as any good preacher should. And I call them to this every week. When? At the Lord’s Supper.
One of the great reasons to have the Lord’s Supper every week is it provides a natural and Biblical (unlike the altar call) way for a minister to exhort his flock to renew their trust in Christ and to remind them of Christ’s gracious redemption for them upon the cross. This past Sunday I saw this very clearly in the way the sermon and the Lord’s Supper tied together.
My sermon ended with an imperative, a command. I was urging my congregation to consider their loyalty to Christ. I called upon them to examine their lives and see if their professed love for Jesus matched their actual love for Jesus. I was telling them that the road for Christians is a hard one that will require daily sacrifice. Were they ready and willing to take that road? Had they counted the costs? I knew there were sheep who had become sluggish in their walk with Christ. They needed the cattle prod and my text provided the opportunity to give it to them. I did not pass it up. Concluding a sermon in this way can be dangerous. It left out Jesus and the cross. It was all imperative. No indicative. Tender consciences can be hurt or weakened when they are not taken to Jesus. But I felt like that was where the text was taking us. The text was a warning about sluggishness and not being prepared. Too often we remove the effectiveness of a text by bringing in what is not there. There was no cross in the text. (I know some will say, “Find one anyway.” But that is a post for another time.) As the sermon ended the flock was left hanging and pondering their walk with Christ.
Five minutes later we came to the Lord’s Table. And though there was no cross in my text there is always a cross at the table. Before we eat and drink together I give the congregation a brief exhortation that ties together the word, the sermon, with the sacrament, the Lord’s Supper. This week I encouraged the flock to look to Christ as their provision for the long journey ahead. I reminded them of the call to discipleship. But then I reminded them that Jesus has provided what we need to fulfill that call. Each week we go out and fight in the Spirit. We lose some battles. We win some battles. But each week we come in here and Jesus feeds us. He nourishes us on his body and blood. We are refreshed. Our sins are forgiven. We are renewed by his gracious provision at Calvary. It was the perfect altar call. Reminding the congregation to look to Christ in faith. I could tell in the eyes of people that this hit home. Their love for Christ and trust in him was renewed.
Not every week requires this type of an exhortation before communion. But when my people need the cross of Christ I don’t have to tack it on to the end of a sermon or bring it into the sermon text when it is not there. I don’t have to hope they remember the cross as they walk out the door after I preach a sermon that is filled with commands. When my people need the cross of Christ I know it is sitting right there every week on the table promising forgiveness, promising grace, promising strength to finish the race.