Without so much as an altar call

Perhaps you’ve been there. You’re at a church, or maybe an evangelistic stadium event. The preacher has just proclaimed the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. The preacher calls for some kind of tangible response to the message. You’re invited to get up out of your seat, to come forward, to stand or kneel before the altar or stage, to pray a Jesus prayer, to receive the gift of salvation and eternal life.

Do you go? (I imagine some of you introverts saying, “I’d rather die.”)

The tradition of altar calls goes back to the revivalist movements of 18th and 19th century America. But today, the practice is controversial. Revivalist preachers of old had a flair for over-the-top melodrama. Accordingly, some today argue that altar calls are an unnecessary bit of theater, lacking good biblical or theological support. As a preacher myself, I’ve occasionally been quizzed by a well-meaning brother or sister as to why I didn’t offer one. The attitude seemed to be, “That was a great sermon. So why didn’t you finish the job?”

I get it. But I think it’s worth noting that Acts 10 tells of an evangelistic message in which an altar call was completely unnecessary.

Peter, you’ll remember, had been preaching to the Gentiles who had gathered at the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. He hadn’t even finished his sermon when something completely unexpected happened:

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. They heard them speaking in other languages and praising God. (Acts 10:44-46, CEB)

This is the moment that some call the “Gentile Pentecost.” In the original miracle, described in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit fell on a gathering of Jewish believers who all began speaking in other languages. Obviously, the description here is strongly reminiscent of that event (though Luke does not actually use the word “other” in what the CEB renders as “other languages” — it’s possible that he’s describing the gift of speaking in tongues).

If the Pentecost event launched a church of believing Jews in Jerusalem, this event could be said to have launched a church of believing Gentiles in the lands beyond, or what Jesus figuratively called “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It may even be that we’re meant to understand the people gathered in Cornelius’ home to be the first Gentile house church.

Peter didn’t issue an altar call. He didn’t ask people to respond in some tangible way to the gospel. Heck, he didn’t even get to finish his sermon. Instead, the Holy Spirit fell at God’s pleasure.

Just like that.

That’s not to say there was no “response” from Cornelius and his compatriots. As I’ve suggested before, it’s not hard to imagine how Cornelius would have responded in his heart to Peter’s words. A Gentile. A Roman. A centurion, for pity’s sake. As much as he might want to, how could he possibly have cracked the inner circle of those who could fully worship Israel’s God? How could he leap the wall dividing the Gentiles from the Jews?

Then God spoke through Peter: I myself have broken down the wall. I see you, Cornelius. I’ve seen your devotion and your character. You are welcome in my house.

If such is true about Cornelius, I also imagine it to be true of those he invited to his home that day. They were people of like mind and heart. They heard the message with both joy and gratitude. 

And suddenly, without their having to say a word, the Holy Spirit fell upon them.

The “circumcised believers” from Joppa were shocked. The Spirit of God had fallen…on Gentiles? Part of their surprise was that God embraced these Gentiles without their having to be circumcised first (as was required of Gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism). They had to wrestle with one paradigm change after another.

The barrier between Jews and Gentiles had been breached by God. The ritual of circumcision had been completely bypassed. Small wonder, then, that Peter took the next logical step: “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” (Acts 10:47). 

It was a rhetorical question. He wasn’t putting the matter up for a vote. Looking at the slack-jawed astonishment of his companions, he brought home the full import of the moment: “If God says these Gentiles are in, they’re in. No one can stand in the way. So go find some water and baptize them already.”

I am not Jewish. It’s hard for me to identify with the astonishment of Peter’s companions. In fact, along with many believers today, I have the opposite problem: it’s hard for me to remember the Jewish origins and context of the gospel I take for granted. It’s hard for me to remember that there was a time in which believers were astonished that the good news would be for non-Jews like myself.

But as I will suggest, we might do well to cultivate astonishment at the surprising grace of God ourselves.