Wednesday, October 15, 2008

We Have An Altar

Hebrews 13:10:

"We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. (ESV)"

I have been thinking about altars these last few days. Betty and I are volunteers in an altar prayer ministry at our church. The altar of our church consists of the platform steps at the front of the room in which our services are held. At the end of each service, people are invited to come there to meet with our pastors for prayer or just to talk. Some remain seated and pray during those times while others depart quietly. Our worship leader sings in a Spirit led way. I don't mention this to make a judgment about "altar calls" or to promote one method over another. I mention it and what follows to relate something that has happened in my life and how the "altar call" affected me.

I grew up in a church that had altar calls. This took place during what we called the "invitation time." I responded to one of those altar calls and it had a long lasting impact on my life. Through the years I associated my response to the altar call as the moment I received God's gift of salvation - Jesus Christ. I have described that moment and my understanding of it in the posts of August 26 and September 2, 2008. For me, and perhaps others, this moment of going to the front during the invitation came to represent the moment I got saved. I had heard the verse in Matthew 10:32-33 where Jesus says, "So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven." In my mind that was linked inseparably to my response of faith. Over the years my focus has been on that moment. That has led to great struggle in my life. Responding to the altar call became the point for measuring the validity of my salvation. As time past, I would think, "Why did I go to the front?" Was it to please my parents? Did I just respond to the call of man in a man made moment or was it a response to the call of God and the exercise of faith that He had given me? I can't begin to tell you how this has troubled me. On October 8, 2008, God did something in my life that I will never forget. He helped me separate this altar event from the moment I responded to His call. I have come to see that the two responses were totally separate. That meant I could have had a 1000 reasons for going to the front of the church that Sunday in August 1946 and it would have had nothing to do with my salvation. I probably did go because of my parents and to put their minds at ease. I did go because I wanted to acknowledge Jesus and I wanted to follow Him in baptism. I wanted to acknowledge Him before men. My problem was that all of this got blended into one moment. I now realize more clearly than I ever have that what really mattered had already happened in my heart. That is what gave meaning to my public acknowledgment of Christ and His gift of salvation. It gave meaning to my response to the altar call rather than the altar call giving meaning or validity to my salvation. To be able to roll the clock back beyond the altar call response and see, for the first time, that God had already done something in my heart, has been one of the most liberating moments of my life. I don't know why it took so long to see this and, as a result, get rid of self imposed baggage that God never intended for me to carry. But then, part my "Amen Journey" was to experience something I mentioned earlier - to arrive at the place where I started and know it for the first time and find that every discovery is a sort of homecoming; and because every homecoming is a discovery, I could experience delight and surprise in every instant of it. (A Dog Named Rex - A Journey of Discovery, August 28, 2008).

I said at the outset that these comments were not meant to be critical of altar calls. As I have said, I am not judging methods or promoting methods. I am just talking about what happened to me. Based on my own experience, I believe great care should be exercised in using altar calls and in helping people understand what is involved. Great care should be exercised to protect a person's response of faith. Coming forward in response to an altar call can be so associated with the act of faith that confusion can result. A person can be led to think that a public act is part of the salvation process. Public decisions are not reliable as means of verifying conversion. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is. The real cause of conversion - the work of the Holy Spirit - can be overshadowed. That work will happen whether there is an altar call or not. Overemphasis of the public response can eclipse that truth. Failing to emphasize the distinctiveness of the two events can lead to confusion. Having said that, I do believe there is a place for altar calls. It is appropriate to invite people to a place and time to pray, a place to deal with spiritual battles, burdens, questions, a place to deal with broken hearts, a place to talk with a pastor and seek help about the state of one's soul and a place to call upon the Lord. Even the playing of music or singing has its place. It is still a time of worship. I am thankful for having had the opportunity to respond to an altar call. I regret that this initial experience produced such confusion in my life. I am thankful that God has now removed that confusion. I am thankful that our church as well as others provide such a quiet place to kneel and speak to God. I am thankful for altar ministers who are there for those who come seeking help and direction. I am thankful that there is a commitment to avoid the possibility of confusion when it comes to the most important moment of all - the moment of salvation. But most of all, I am thankful that we have an altar call from God that goes beyond a call to a physical altar. It is a call to a greater altar.

Hebrews 13:10 says, "We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat." The context for this statement is important. The writer had just said, "It is good for our hearts to be strengthened (nourished) by grace - to be immersed in a sea of grace." Elsewhere the Bible says that this will not happen to the soul that is unbowed before God. Humility attracts the tremendous weight of grace. The source of that life giving, strengthening grace comes from the altar - the cross from which we are nourished and sustained by nothing less than the life of Christ. One writer says that "Christ must become our constant meal - our food, our drink, our life. " God's altar call continues in terms of our response to the truth, "We have an altar..."

Hebrews 13:13-16: "Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God."

The response of those who have received God's gift of grace: First, we must make much of Christ in our life. We must seek and see His glory. Second, we must give ourselves in the service of Christ and others. I have struggled for many years because I was unable to disentangle God's effectual call from the altar call of man. Now because of God's work in my life in giving me a clearer vision at this point, I choose this as my response:

Psalm 43:4 "Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God."

“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

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