The Lost Practice of Praying Through to Salvation

And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40 ESV).

If modern preachers would get rid of self, in other words, hide themselves in the blood of Christ, and come before the world, and preach nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified to save men from all sin, there would be less church-joining and card-signing and many would doubtless see their sinful state, count the cost and pray through to salvation and finally reach heaven as a result. But so long as modern revival methods are carried on, Satan need have no fear of losing many of the souls that are traveling the broad road to destruction. “He that winneth souls is wise.” (Duke Davis, Flashlights From Mountain and Plain, THE PENTECOSTAL UNION, 1911, P.129)

Reading this quote from over 100 years ago stirs in my heart a burning desire to see people once again respond to the Gospel, pray through, and honestly get right with God. What is the use of counting how many people attend a church if the majority of them are unsaved? In 1911, it was fairly common for churches to post statistics in the newspaper to boast about the results of their ministry. However, the wording used was entirely different than in modern times. When someone made a response to the Gospel, they referred to the person as “hopefully converted.” Over the years that phrase fell on hard times and was finally replaced with the phrase “got saved.”

Historical Smoky Mountain Baptist Church. Interior of the historical Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

As late as the 1970s and 1980s there were still preachers who called people to an old fashioned altar to “pray through to salvation.” Since this practice has been largely abandoned, it’s necessary for me to explain what “praying through to Salvation” means. Understand that preachers who believed in “praying through” generally followed their evangelistic messages with a call to come forward and pray at an altar bench. The expectation was that the person renounces their sinful life, ask Christ to forgive them of their sins, place their faith and trust in His shed blood, and submit utterly to God’s authority. There would often be a person praying with them and counseling with them along these lines.

In the 1800s and 1900s, the American Tract Society published manuals to train altar workers. One such book was entitled, “Solemn Inquiries: And Counsel to Careless Sinners.” These books are too strong for modern Christian sensibilities. If they were published today, they would be ignored or condemned. Nevertheless, there was a sense that people needed to get right with God — for real. None of this fake stuff. They would scoff at the modern-day “sinners’ prayer, start to church, and do your best” approach. They believed that people needed to seek the Lord until they touched God and were changed by the power of His Spirit.

In 2012 I wrote a book entitled Televangelicalism: “How We Lost the Gospel and How to Get it Back.” The audio version is free on Youtube. It explains how we arrived at a generation who don’t believe in praying through or honestly getting right with God. When people don’t pray through or do something similar they typically won’t follow the Lord in water baptism or seek the Lord to receive the Holy Spirit. They usually end up praying a prayer that gives them a sense of completion. “I did it”… “I prayed the prayer and I’m saved.” Praying the prayer is not necessarily the same thing as praying through to salvation.

When I came to Christ, I came via an old fashioned altar. The sinners’ prayer had not yet taken hold and was generally reserved for people on their death bed. For that, I am eternally grateful. In fact, until I was 30 years old, I regarded the prayer as a “death bed prayer and confession.” I used it with people who were dying. Everyone else, I understood, was expected to pray through to salvation. To be completely forthright, I came to the altar many times until I realized that the Holy Spirit was dealing with me to agree with God’s word and completely surrender my life to Christ. The old timers used to speak of “selling out to God.”

Leonard Ravenhill once lamented that he has seen altar calls started and completed in less time than it took to drive his car through an automatic car wash. There is something seriously wrong with that. I submit that if we would stop being lazy and in such a hurry about getting an altar call over with, pray individually with people responding to the Gospel, and give God the necessary time to do the work in the hearts of anxious sinners, we would see a dramatic change in the spirituality of our churches.

How can a person change who does not pray through to salvation? They don’t have to be at a church; they could do it almost anywhere. Sinners need to pray until they touch God and know inwardly that God has forgiven their sin. Would to God that He would give us preachers who aren’t in a hurry to run people through the ropes so that He has time to change the person into a new creature. Meditate on this passage regarding Peter’s approach to seeing folks saved; And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40 ESV).

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