Altars & Altar Calls and how they’re Relevant
An altar in the Old Testament was typically a raised platform used for offering sacrifices. It’s not surprising therefore that the Hebrew word for ‘altar’ stems from the root zabach (zaw-BAKH), which means “to slaughter for sacrifice.” The LORD instructed that these structures be made from either earth or rock/rocks, albeit uncut likely to avoid the temptation of pride over craftsmanship or viewing the altar itself as an idol (Exodus 20:24-25, Deuteronomy 27:5-6, Joshua 8:31, Judges 6:20-21 & 13:19).
Disregarding the altar at the Temple that was used for regular sacrifices, such as the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:34 & Hebrews 10:3), as well as individual offerings (Leviticus 4 & Luke 2:24), altars were used in significant moments for worship (Genesis 8:20), receiving a divine commission (Judges 6:12-24), commemoration or memorial (Exodus 17:14–15 & Joshua 22:26–27) and establishing a covenant (Exodus 24:4–8). These somewhat overlap and mark a notable sequence in one’s life (Genesis 12:7). Taken together, they point to a potent encounter with the LORD and the revelation or new directive thereof coupled with the appropriate sacrifice and of course the decision/resolve to comply.
God is omnipresent, of course, but an “altar experience” is when the LORD manifests his presence and it naturally results in reverent awe, some kind of profound change and a fresh directive (2 Chronicles 7:1-3).
With this understanding, there are arguable “altar experiences” in the Old Testament that don’t mention an actual altar, like when Jacob wrestled with God and is renamed Israel (Genesis 32:27-32), Moses’ divine meeting at the burning bush (Exodus 3) and Joshua’s awesome encounter with the Commander of the LORD’s Army (Joshua 5:13-15).
Altars in the New Testament
Since the need to sacrifice animals ceased with the spilling of Christ’s blood (Hebrews 9:23-10:12) we have no need for physical altars in the New Covenant era in the sense of sacrificing animals, which is why you won’t find believers doing this in the New Testament.
Rather, believers are themselves to be “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1) because we “are not [our] own” since we were “bought at a price” via the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). In other words, our whole lives are God’s possession, not just 10% of our financial earnings. Our bodies, our thoughts, our material possessions, our incomes — they’re all God’s already.
Of course people have to grow into this mind-blowing truth and this is where altars have their place in the New Covenant. The altar is invisible, but a personal “altar call” is when we encounter God by the Spirit wherein we receive new revelation and make the decision to comply. Usually a sacrifice is involved whereby we cut something out of our lives and consecrate – set apart – ourselves to serve the Lord in a new capacity. This becomes an important moment in our lives, which we’ll naturally commemorate.
Every believer’s first “altar experience” is when we receive the Lord and partake of spiritual regeneration (Titus 3:5). Once saved, the LORD works with us through the leading of the Spirit (John 16:13), the feeding of the Word (Matthew 4:4) and the service of the fivefold ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).
We’ll continue to have “altar experiences” throughout our spiritual journeys, just as Old Testament saints did, except that believers have the benefit of a vastly superior covenant (Hebrews 8:6). Again, these altar experiences are encounters with God where we receive a potent revelation and make the necessary sacrifices. Such encounters are separate from – and should not be confused with – one’s daily fellowship with the LORD where the believer has (or, at least, can have) a 24/7 rapport with God by the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:17), which you can read about here.
Consider the salvation experience: An individual hears the gospel and is moved by the Spirit to believe and repent. The sacrifice is the old self — the sinful nature — and the person resolves to walk in newness of life reconciled with the Lord while “keeping with repentance” (Matthew & Luke 3:8; 1 John 1:8-9). This is an altar experience, a critical turning point in one’s life. Paul’s powerful conversion on the road to Damascus is a great example (Acts 9:1-22).
Or take a genuine believer who backslides, the Spirit will inevitably move that person to rededicate his/her life to the Lord. This is likewise an altar experience.
Yet all growing believers – that means every one of us – will have altar experiences from time to time during our spiritual growth; this goes with the lifelong process of sanctification.
Altar experiences can involve some type of pruning, like the removal of a piece of flesh that’s hanging on (John 15:1-4), a new directive or a release to serve in greater capacity. These encounters with God are between you and your Creator. They can take place at an assembly gathering, but they can actually occur anywhere, as was the case in the Old Testament examples noted earlier. For instance, when I was 20 I had an altar experience in a woman’s shower while working at a fitness center, which I’ll share momentarily.
Speaking of altar experiences at church services, let’s look at…
An “altar call,” as it is known today, is an invitation to come forward and pray the sinner’s prayer or rededicate one’s life. The altar is the area in front of the assembly. Methodist preachers began practicing this circa 1800 as a method to help determine who had been converted at their gatherings. Charles Finney made altar calls more popular in the 1830s. You can read details here.
Because of this, I’ve heard ministers say that altar calls have only been around for a couple hundred years, which suggests that altar calls didn’t exist in the Church prior to about 1800. Really? Like there was never a call to repentance/consecration at any assembly in the previous 1800 years anywhere on Earth? Why Sure!
Biblical support for altar calls includes Christ’s exhortations to follow him (Mark 1:17 & Luke 5:29) and the importance of boldly confessing Christ before others if we expect the Lord to do the same (Luke 12:8), as well as Paul’s emphasis that “today is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). The first “altar call” took place on the day the Church was birthed on the day of Pentecost after Peter preached to those gathered:
37When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
38Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
40With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Peter passionately preached, urged repentance and the listeners were “cut to the heart” – obviously convicted by the Holy Spirit (John 16:3-11) – and so 3000 people got saved.
Peter was led of the Spirit and the results were natural (and supernatural). It doesn’t mean ministers have to try to manufacture an “altar call” every time they preach. But it does make sense to invite listeners to reconcile to their Creator now and again (Romans 10:9-15) as this is part of the “ministry of reconciliation” and the responsibility of “ambassadors” of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
Yet some ministers choose not to implement a conventional altar call for one reason or another when they teach/preach and that’s perfectly fine. This is especially so at more unconventional meetings. We all have to be led of the Spirit in our particular services.
One criticism of conventional altar calls is that unbelievers might pray the sinner’s prayer simply because they’re caught up in the emotion of the moment or they’re socially pressured to do so; they haven’t really “counted the cost” of being a believer (Luke 14:25-35). In other words, these converts quickly fall away, yet Christ plainly said that a certain percentage of people would respond this way, so it’s not really an issue (Luke 8:13). It’s just the way it is.
There are some interesting linking topics to altar calls that I’d like to address. Let me breach them by sharing my first “altar experience”…
How I Received the LORD
I grew up in a dysfunctional home. My mother had a severe mental illness, but was wholesome and loving, while my father was a good provider and regularly took the family on outings (hikes, skiing, movies, camping and vacations), but he was aloof, brooding and verbally abusive.
Being verbally cursed by my father on a regular basis (e.g. “You’re no good,” “You’re gonna turn to $#!%,” etc.), I gravitated toward the wrong crowd during my teen years and wasted my time & talents on the party lifestyle and delinquency. During those lost years I collected gospel tracts, like those by John T. Chick, and had a handful of Christians share the gospel or their testimony with me. Every now and then I would break out those tracts and read ’em. On a few occasions I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” at the end because I strongly sensed that I needed an inward overhaul. I suppose I was expecting some great epiphany that would suddenly change the course of my life for the positive, but nothing changed inside when I said these prayers.
Between the ages of 15-19 I searched for the truth in what I saw was a really screwed-up world. I looked into hedonism, the occult and science, but was left discontented by the hollow non-answers they offered. Despite my collecting of the tracts and reading them from time to time, I didn’t seriously consider what the Bible had to say on the grounds that I pretty much wrote it off as myth, e.g. Adam & Eve and the “talking snake” and Noah’s Ark. The few times I did seriously try to read the Scriptures — like the Psalms — the passages struck me as incomprehensible.
Four months after my 20th birthday, I was working alone one night as a janitor at a nice health center. It was after midnight and I was cleaning the female shower room. Suddenly something ‘clicked’ inside me while I was in a particular stall and I believed. It was awesome! I rode home that night excited with a newfound sense of peace. The next morning I informed my mother & sister that I was now a Christian. Later that day I went to ‘The Point,’ which was a personal favorite spot on the huge lake behind my parents’ house. It was there that I officially prayed a “sinner’s prayer” from memory in those tracts I collected, although it was definitely expressed from my heart.
The reason I bring up my salvation testimony is because a couple important points crop up: The first one is that this was my initial altar call experience and it didn’t happen at a church assembly. We have to get away from the idea that God and the things of God are only experienced at a building where Christians gather a couple times a week. This is so far from the truth & Scripture that it’s incredible some people actually think this way (more on this in a moment).
The second point has to do with the question of when I was technically “saved.” The three possible answers are: (1) When I first believed in the shower room, (2) when I confessed Christ to others the next morning or (3) when I “officially” prayed the sinner’s prayer at the lake.
The answer is when I first believed. The other two are the automatic fruits of believing.
The Moment of faith is the Point of Salvation
The fact that the moment of genuine faith is the point of personal salvation can be verified by several passages:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.”
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast.
One of the most obvious passages to prove that the point of faith is the point of salvation can be observed when the thief crucified next to Christ obviously believed and the Lord immediately acknowledged his salvation (Luke 23:39-43).
Repentance (Changing your Mind) IS Consecration
Repentance means to change one’s mind in response to the truth – whatever that truth might be – which naturally has an impact on one’s actions. For instance, I heard & read the message of Christ several times throughout my teen years but didn’t really believe it (even though I said the sinner’s prayer on a few occasions) until that one day in the women’s shower room where I changed my mind in response to the truth – I believed – and thus confessed Christ to others and started to commune with my Creator (that is, I began a prayer life).
This reveals that repentance & faith are two sides of the same coin, which explains why they’re the first two doctrines of the six basic doctrines of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1-2). It also explains why Christ and the apostles linked repentance and faith together:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Mark 1:15 (ESV)
“I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”
The moment a person believes in a particular potent truth can be referred to as a revelation or epiphany (a sudden realization) and repentance is the natural response – changing one’s mind with the corresponding actions. This moment of belief/repentance is also a point of decision and consecration.
- Decision has to do with the individual’s God-given power of volition (Deuteronomy 30:19 & Psalm 119:30).
- Consecration has to do with the corresponding setting oneself apart to live according to the revelation/directive in question. The Hebrew word for ‘consecrate’ means to “to set apart,” which we are instructed to do in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1).
In other words, when we have an “altar experience” we’ll perceive a fresh revelation or directive from the Lord, but we have to decide to comply, which includes making the necessary sacrifices. This might be eliminating a piece of flesh (including thought issues) or a particular hindrance, either of these will prevent believers from fulfilling their commission (Hebrews 12:1-2). God is calling you (and me) to throw out these “idols,” which is a part of consecrating yourself. Suddenly your mind and your time are freed-up and you have a fire for God and the things of God that was not there before (or maybe it was there and you lost it due to preoccupation with an “idol”).
Recent Examples from My Own Life
On May 24th and July 17th of 2019 I had a profound double-whammy altar experience involving pruning, revelation & directive. It was a stunning realization where I needed to eliminate certain things from my life forever – both mentally and physically – in order to effectively fulfill God’s call and the corresponding regular assignments.
Several months later, during the December holidays, I was led to take a 40-day fast of certain things for the new year to clear my mind and increase sensitivity to the Spirit. This led to another “altar experience” in mid-January. Just to be clear: Being led to give up some things for 40 days was not the altar experience — that was just “business-as-usual” — but this paved the way for my altar experience a couple of weeks later. Anyway, I decided to comply with the LORD’s instructions (which is always the wisest choice, of course) and made the necessary sacrifices. I’m glad I did because I’ve been so blessed!
Every altar experience will involve compliance and consecration. You have to decide to comply and set yourself apart accordingly to fulfill your particular mission. Compliance always results in blessing – even if it’s “just” inward blessing, like a renewed spiritual fire or intimacy with the Lord – whereas stubborn stiff-neckedness will lead to frustration and ruin.
I should add that these three “altar experiences” didn’t occur in a church facility. Speaking of which, let me close with a relevant story…
I was in a Christian band in the early 90s and at one practice a friend of the soundman visited and brought her serious boyfriend. They were complete strangers to the rest of us. During the halfway break the man shared his story: He was an unbeliever, but recently experienced some creepy things that revealed to him there was a spiritual realm. Long story short: He desperately wanted saved and so we prayed together and he received the Lord. Awesome, right?
The next day he & his girlfriend visited the assembly that most of us attended and he promptly went up to the front during the altar call. None of the band members & Co. were at this particular service because there were four different services every weekend (one on Saturday night and three on Sunday). Shortly later the man’s girlfriend called Carol (who would become my wife a year later) and informed her of her boyfriend’s altar call experience, which was wonderful. Yet she curiously made sure to emphasize that he was actually saved at the altar call at the facility (implying, of course, that he didn’t really receive salvation at the band meeting). When Carol informed the rest of us we just laughed it off and basically said “Whatever.”
What was going on here? This woman couldn’t grasp that her boyfriend believed & was saved at the band meeting, which was his first “altar experience.” In her mind – for whatever reason – to truly be saved a person had to receive the Lord and say the sinner’s prayer at an altar call at an official church service with the proper oversight of authorized clergy. Of course neither of these is true and it’s sad that some people think this way.
It’s one of the reasons this article exists.
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