I went to a 3rd Day concert last weekend. The performance was completely awesome and I’ll admit I was a bit horse after the show since they played some older stuff that I know pretty well. However, between the opener and the headliner there was another event, an alter-caller.
Editors Note: We want to be very clear that this part was put on by Pulse, the group that organized the concert and was not part of 3rd Day's routine. 3rd Day has a ton of respect for Catholic teaching and theology. We have nothing but great things to say about them.
Don’t get me wrong, alter calls can be very powerful experiences and they do a great job of getting people who aren’t close to Christ to think about him and to desire a relationship with him. In fact I’ve responded to alter calls in the past, more than once, before I really understood my Catholic faith. However, Catholics don’t do alter calls, we don’t have a “sinner’s prayer”, and we don’t say we’re “saved”, at least, not in the sense that other Christian denominations do. I’d like to talk about why.
Please forgive me right off the bat. I’m doing this off the cuff so I won’t have a bunch of Bible verses and such and it may not turn out all that well. We’ll see.
First, my understanding of the alter call theology is this:
- A person responds to an alter call or proceeds directly to step 2 in private
- A person asks Jesus into their heart and generally recites some sort of “sinner’s prayer”
- That person is, from that moment on, “saved”. They have accepted that they’re sinners and they have accepted Jesus’ payment of death for their sins. No further action or work is required to retain this “saved” status.
You know what? Catholics believe in a “saving moment” too. We call it Baptism. When we are baptized we are joined to Christ and, I guess in a sense, “saved”. The difference is we can lose that salvation through our rejection of Christ and we can move away from him through sin. This is where our theologies split.
As with most differences in Catholic & Protestant theology, there’s a lot of background. This one ties into the concept of purgatory, sola scriptura and sola fide, all of which have their own posts (or will soon). We’re going to focus on how this relates to purgatory here.
Protestants believe that when we die we may go to only one of two places, heaven or hell. We all agree there’s no way to get from hell to heaven (or vice versa) so where you go is where you go forever. You’re either saved or your not, done deal, end of story. Once saved, always saved.
Catholics believe there’s a third place a soul can go; purgatory (to purge). With purgatory the concept of being justified (not condemned to hell) but not perfect (worthy of heaven) opens up. In other words, a Catholic isn’t exactly “saved” in the strict sense in that he will go directly to heaven but he’s not “not saved’ in the strict, Protestant sense that he’s destined for hell, either. It’s more a sliding scale than a Yes/No. Sin draws a soul away from Christ, sacraments draw it closer, and purgatory is where imperfect souls go to become perfect so they may go to heaven.
This doesn’t work with the “once saved, always saved” idea. We continue to sin after our “saving moment” so we must continue to heal our souls from the damage of that sin. If we don’t, we won’t necessarily be condemned to hell, but we will have to heal from those sins in another place; purgatory. We won’t be worthy of entering heaven directly without that purification.
Here’s a non-theological thought to ponder: Relationships aren’t simple. Your relationship with your significant other isn’t simple. Your relationship with your pet dog isn’t simple. Would you give your dog a treat one day, kick it the next, and expect it to be happy to see you the third? Why, then, can I tell Christ I accept him one day, sin the next, and expect there to be no repercussions afterward? That’s what the “once saved, always saved” mentality puts forward. Why should my relationship with my dog be more complex than my relationship with my savior?
Catholics don’t reject the alter call mentality out of hand; there’s a lot of truth in it. However, it leaves too many questions unanswered. Questions the Catholic Church answered a long time ago.
Share your thoughts! This was a long post and fairly unprepared so feel free to rip it apart and share what you think on the subject.