As I was walking on campus, I was stopped by a student who wanted to know if she could ask me a question.
“Sure, shoot,” I said.
With a searching tone, she asked, “Why don’t you offer an altar call every week?”
This student is likable, bright, committed to her faith. I know she has the best intentions. I also know she comes from a Christian tradition that suggests that salvation is an individual choice—a choice to decide for oneself. But, I confess, her question dug me like an elbow in the ribs. Basically, she was concerned that I was neglecting part of my pastoral charge, and she wanted to know why.
I paused and took a deep breath, trying to assess how best to answer. Behind her question was a deeper theological concern, at least from my Reformed perspective. Her question betrayed a theological assumption: that we all have natural reason, an autonomous will, and are unfettered by sin. And that, when given the simple choice between Christ and eternal life and death and eternal damnation, the self has the capacity to respond to God’s love and be saved. Thus, in her theological imagination, an altar call for repentance is a necessary part of the worship rhythm. At the end of the worship service, what matters most is for each individual to make a heartfelt personal choice to be saved.
Her question betrays a popular commitment to a gospel proclamation that is often understood in terms of a “defining” moment in one’s life. It suggests there is something in the act of God’s salvation that is in our control, under our terms. It suggests that salvation is dependent upon our choice.
The deficiency here is in the conditional and sequential understanding of salvation as dependent on our human repentance and faith. The theological commitment evident in this position is a belief that God saves me because I repent, that salvation is not accomplished until I take action to embrace the gospel. That is, God has provided nearly everything for our salvation, but God’s work remains ineffective until we contribute the last part of the transaction by “making a personal decision” symbolized by coming forward to the altar.
The student’s question reflects less the biblical gospel of God’s elective and covenantal redemption and more a faith shaped by the modern assumption of autonomous individuals who, on their own behalf, make a contractual agreement with God as the basis of a saving relationship. From our Reformed perspective, this is a quiet form of “works righteousness” alien to the sovereign love and grace of God in Jesus Christ at work through the Holy Spirit.
“Why don’t we have an altar call every week?” Her question hung in the air like bait. I wasn’t sure how to get into all of this on the sidewalk. And so, rather than explaining the inherent theological trouble, rather than pointing out that she is arguably semi-Pelagian (students look at me funny when I talk that way), I responded by simply saying, “We do have an altar call. Every week.”
She looked confused. “When?”
“Every week I invite Hope to come to the Lord’s Table.”
She tilted her head sideways and furrowed her eyebrows into a question mark. I could tell she didn’t get the connection. I went on to explain that the invitation to the sacrament is a kind of altar call.
“Hmm . . . I hadn’t thought of it like that,” she said.
Every week on Hope College’s campus, our Sunday evening service, The Gathering, culminates with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Every week we pray together The Great Thanksgiving. Every week we lift up our hearts “because it is holy and right to do so.” Every week we proclaim the mystery of the faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!” Every week we gather together at the table and “remember the perfect sacrifice offered once on the cross by our Lord Jesus Christ for the sin of the whole world.” Every week we bid the Holy Spirit to bless this bread and this cup “so that we may grow up into Christ Jesus our Lord.” And every week I offer an invitation to the gathered community to respond to God’s love in Jesus Christ by coming forward to what I like to call “the Table of Hope.”
And when I give the invitation, something amazing happens. More than a thousand students get out of their pews: the hip, the hurting, the poor, the rich, the smart students mixed in with the ones who struggle to get by, the athletes, the geeks, the singles along with the engaged; the depressed, the goth, the preppy, the pre-med—all come forward to “the Table of Hope.”
This is the best part of my week. No matter what happens, I want to be here for this moment, to look into the eyes of a young generation and say, “This is Christ’s body, given for you. . . .”
This invitation to the Table is what my campus needs more than anything else. It sets us free from the dangerous assumption that salvation is something we have to go and get, rather than something that is given. Before we even arrive, the Table of Hope has been set for us.
Celebrating weekly communion is a physical response to God’s free choice to love us. In the church, the word for this love is “grace.” The Table reminds us that we are always and ever responding to God’s initiation and invitation, not the other way around. We are never—ever—making the decisive decision. The decision has already been decisively made by the Father through and in Jesus Christ alone. The Table of Hope is where we celebrate the decisive moment of salvation.
It is at the Table where Hope College learns how to live out its name. Celebrating communion is an act of hope because at the Table we have a foretaste of the reality to come. It is an act of hope because each week we are invited to find our place at the Table as we tell the family story. We also commune with God’s body, visible and invisible—a body that is made up of “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
Celebrating communion trains Hope College to act in hope because this is where we live into our identity—remembering not only who we are, but communing with the One whose we are. It is an act of hope because, more than anything else we do, Holy Communion embodies the Spirit’s power to unify a diverse community into the body of Christ.
So every week I invite students to the Table of Hope. God has saved us. As Jesus cried out on the cross, salvation is finished! (John 19:30). Here, at the Lord’s Table, we remember this truth, even as we commune with the triune Truth who sets us free to reimagine life as an active response of gratitude to a grace that never lets us go.
First published in “Reformed Worship: Resources for Planning and Leading Worship”, June, 2008: https://www.reformedworship.org/article/june-2008/altar-call-hope