For the first 1500 years of Christianity, the high point of every worship gathering was Eucharist. The sermon served to prepare the hearts of the congregation to receive the body and blood of Christ. In today’s Protestantism, the sermon has replaced Eucharist as the focal point of our worship. And the individualistic altar call has replaced the communal table as the congregation’s standard response to the proclaimed word. I wonder if this change is the reason that the Protestant gospel became more about hell than the heavenly banquet that Eucharist proclaims.
It makes sense that the rhetorical purpose of the preacher’s message would be completely different depending on whether or not there is a table where people can be invited to receive God’s mercy. When the congregation is being prepared to receive the body and blood of Christ, the point of the message is to help congregation members’ see the beauty of Jesus as well as uproot any sinfulness that would cause congregation members to “eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Cor 11:29).
Every time we come to the communion table is the opportunity to get saved all over again, because every time we receive Jesus’ body and blood, we are being filled with eternal life. The default when we invite the congregation to the table is for almost all of the people in the room to come forward. The challenge is to help them to experience the full measure of grace that God offers and live in eternity every week that they come to the table.
On the other hand, if the response to the preacher’s message is an altar call rather than the Lord’s table, then the rhetorical purpose of the message is completely different. It’s not about helping everyone in your congregation who comes forward weekly to have a uniquely holy experience that could otherwise become lackadaisical. It’s about persuading a few people who need to be convinced that they’re not saved to get out of their seats and come forward to be saved. Even if it’s improper to name this, the number of people at the altar each week is the measure of the preacher’s effectiveness.
This makes the most important aspect of the sermon its sense of urgency. Thus the preacher needs to focus not on the beauty of God but the terror of God (e.g. “This week is the week you need to come forward and get saved, because you might die before next Sunday and if you’re not sure where you’re going after you die, that means you’re going to hell”).
The altar call was basically unknown to Christianity before America’s 19th century revivalism. The way that you became a Christian for most of Christian history was not to make a “decision” for Christ after having the hell scared out of you by a preacher but to go through a process of catachesis which would culminate in baptism or confirmation. Making salvation out to be an instantaneous event rather than a process has been the cause of so much neurosis among evangelical Christians like me who have gotten saved multiple times just in case it didn’t catch the time before.
Now I will say that I have witnessed firsthand the opposite problem in which confirmation becomes the rite of passage by which eighth graders “graduate from church.” It’s really embarrassing how few of the kids who I’ve seen confirmed over the past three years are still coming to church. If I were in charge, I would only let kids go through confirmation after they felt God’s convicting grace in their hearts, and there would be a real examination before and after which could actually result in an assessment that someone isn’t yet ready even if their parents scream and howl and change churches.
In any case, I think it’s more faithful to what Jesus actually proclaimed to go around telling people that they’re invited to an amazing heavenly feast that’s already started than to tell people God wants to torture them forever unless they “accept Jesus in their hearts.” There are absolutely things that need to change in us so that we can really be at the feast, all of which starts with the willingness to trust Jesus more than we trust ourselves and to accept the grace of His sacrifice as the foundation for a life of discipleship.
When I was going through severe depression at the end of college, there was no place that I found myself more miserable than at a party where everybody else was having a great time and I had to pretend like I was too. I remember one particular party when I was confronted by the fact that I was surrounded by really interesting, beautiful people whom I had never gotten to know and now I was graduating in a few months, and I thought this must be what hell is like. I’ve continued to think that.
Hell is being at God’s party when you want it to be your party. Hell is the terror of a love that imposes itself on you in naked intimacy when you haven’t given that love your trust. God’s party is not a great place to be if you have not entered under the circumstances that allow you to enjoy it.
There are two important “is” statements that 1 John uses about God: God is both love (4:8) and light (1:5). These are not “in tension” with one another, but constitutive to each other. Love makes no sense without light. And people love darkness instead of light when their deeds are evil (John 3:19). God’s party is light and love, truth and grace (John 1:17).
If we trust Jesus, then we gain access to a place of perfect safety and wholeness, which is another way of saying the holiest of holies. Holiness is infinitely beautiful and comforting to those whose foundation in Christ makes them able to stand themselves within it. It is hate and wrath to those who are condemned by it.
All this is to say there’s nothing flippant or “soft” about a gospel that’s focused on the positive message of God’s amazing feast. The mainstream evangelical gospel basically reduces the feast to a sort of added benefit of salvation. Not only are you not going to hell (which is the most important thing) but you also get to attend a cool party while you’re in the place that’s not hell. Hell is not being at God’s party. I don’t want anyone that I could have invited not to be there on account of my negligence. That’s why I intend to “go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that [my master’s] house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).