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We Have An Altar

Experiences at the altar are vital to the future of the Church.

This is the time of year when many in Pentecostal/charismatic churches celebrate camp meetings and youth camps. In these special gatherings there is family-style fellowship, dynamic music, and anointed preaching. There is, however, one central transforming experience from these meetings that cannot be replaced: the life-changing experience with God at the altar. The promise that “we have an altar” not only describes our heritage, but if embraced, will determine our horizon for the future.

There is biblical background (especially in Old Testament examples) for seeking a new walk with God at the altar. Many memorable and significant spiritual experiences in Scripture happened at an altar of worship and sacrifice. Noah marked his new covenant with God by sacrificing at an altar (Genesis 8.20). Abraham’s spiritual journey was signified by his altar experiences. In every life situation, Abraham built an altar and lived out an altar experience that carried him through life’s changes and challenges (Genesis 12.8; 13.1-4; 22.9).

Abraham’s example carried into the next generations in the altar experiences of his son and grandson. The same God who had appeared to Abraham also appeared to his son, Isaac, at Beersheba and also gave him wonderful promises. The result was, “Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 26.25). The spiritual vitality and life success in the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were based in their experiences at the family altar.

The founders of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) recognized the central importance of the altar experience in the home and made a statement on the family altar one of their earliest measures. From the 1906 Church of God General Assembly, here is their resolution on “family worship”:

“Family worship was considered and the Assembly recommended and urged that the families of all the churches engage in this very sacred and important service at least once a day, and at a time most convenient to the household, and that the parents should see that every child is taught as early as possible to reverence God and his parents, by listening quietly and attentively to the reading of God’s Word and getting down on his knees during the prayer. The pastor and deacons of each church were advised to use their influence and make special effort to encourage every family in the church to engage in this devotional exercise every day” (Minutes of the 71st General Assembly of the Church of God 2006, p. 83).

The hunger for revival and personal experience with God that drove the early pioneers of the Church of God was also central to other holiness and Pentecostal groups at the outset of the twentieth century. A singular spiritual quest drew early Pentecostals to altars of prayer and revival. What God gave them there propelled them to the far-flung corners of the world with a spiritual passion to evangelize the lost. There is a special and unique “altar DNA” that underscores the unprecedented international growth of the global Pentecostal Movement. Much of this is captured in my collection of essays from outstanding Pentecostal figures from around the world, issued especially for the recent Centennial observance of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles (Azusa Street and Beyond: 100 Years of Commentary on the Global Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement — details at www.AzusaStreetandBeyond.com).

If we are to have a future as a Movement, the altar will need to continue to be central to our worship, experience, and daily living. It must remain fundamental and basic to everything we are and do. This is the central focus of Pastor Daniel Tomberlin’s outstanding book, Encountering God at the Altar. Tomberlin shows the indispensability of the Pentecostal altar experience and argues for its centrality in our personal lives, families, and corporate worship experience:

“Pentecostalism is a Spirit-movement; therefore, Pentecostals favor worship in which the Spirit moves. For Pentecostals, worship means experiencing the Holy Spirit in the fellowship of the church. While anointed singing and preaching are highly valued, they are not the goals of worship; they are a means to the desired end — an encounter with God at the altar. It is in the altar that souls are ‘gloriously saved,’ converts are sanctified, the sick are healed, and seekers are baptized in the Holy Spirit. Whether these altar calls are noisy and dynamic, or somber and tearful, those who witness and participate in this spiritual worship walk away from the altar deeply moved and inwardly transformed. Pentecostal worship is not simply enthusiasm, neither is it entertainment – it is evangelistic encounter with God’s holy presence” (Center for Pentecostal Leadership and Care. Cleveland, Tennessee 2006, p. 13).

What Happens at the Altar?

At the altar we experience: (1) Confession; (2) Change; (3) Consecration/Closeness to God; (4) Communion of the saints; (5) Commissioning into the world.

1. Confession (and forgiveness of our sins)

In the altar, we confess with our mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead and we are saved (Romans 10:9). There, according to Scripture, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8,9). In the altar, “we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

2. Change (transformation)

In an altar of prayer, we are changed and experience the transforming power of God that results in Paul’s declaration, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

A true altar experience with God brings about a noticeable and visible change in our behavior and lifestyle, a change expressed in one of Bill and Gloria Gaither’s most popular gospel songs, Thanks To Calvary:

Today, I went down to the place where I used to go
Today, I saw the same old crowd I knew before
And when they asked me what had happened,
I tried to tell them,
Thanks to Calvary, I don’t come here anymore.
Thanks to Calvary, I am not the man I used to be
Thanks to Calvary things are different than before.
And as the tears ran down my face I tried to tell them,
Thanks to Calvary, I don’t come here anymore.

3. Consecration and Closeness to God

At the altar we are brought near to God, expressed in the truth of James 4:7,8, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.” The Psalmist yearned for closeness (intimacy, friendship) with God in the sanctuary and wanted, “…a place near your altar” (Psalm 84:3).

Here is God’s promise to us as we consecrate ourselves at the altar: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19–22).

4. Communion of the Saints

The word together is mentioned more than 400 times in Scripture and it is evident throughout the Bible how important the community of faith is to our spiritual life. At the altar, we have that community, a family that surrounds us and includes us in the communion of the saints. There, we understand that we are not alone and that we support one another in our desire for holy living.

Notice how the Scripture expresses this value of community and the communion of the saints: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching” Hebrews 10:23–25.

5. Commissioning into the World

In the altar we understand that we are sent by God on mission in His world and there we find His direction for purpose-driven, missional living. It was in the altar that Isaiah was commissioned to prophetic ministry (Isaiah 6:1–8), Ananias was directed to find Saul (Acts 9:10–19), and Peter was called to open up the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10:9ff). There, in the altar of prayer at Antioch, the Holy Spirit commissioned the first cross-cultural missionary team (Acts 13:1ff).

Recently the evangelical world commemorated the 50-year observance of the death of famed missionary Jim Elliot and the other young brave missionaries martyred in the jungle in Ecuador. Recounting that event and that committed missionary, one of Elliot’s closest friends from college days stated, “I was there when Jim Elliot died.” A bystander who heard that remark protested, reminding him that every one of those present that fateful day were killed and surely he also would have been included, had he actually “been there.”

“No,” Eliot’s friend continued, “you don’t understand. Jim Elliot didn’t die in the jungle in Ecuador. Jim Elliot died in an altar of prayer. I was his roommate at Wheaton College and I remember the student revival where Jim ‘died’ to self and found new life in Christ’s commission to missionary service.”

May we never forget, and never fail to impart to the next generation, that “we have an altar” — that special place and experience with God where we experience Confession (and forgiveness) of our sins, transformational Change, a special Consecration/closeness to God, the Communion of the saints, and our purpose for living in His Commission into the world.