I hope those who have followed the past two posts have thought about this simple, yet vague question—altar or throne? It is easy to oversimplify and generalize some truth, making it trivial. Yet, I have found simple questions useful in stirring up thought. My basic philosophy of learning is that unless a person (myself included!) struggles to think something through—that is, process it—they won't fully understand it or internalize it.
Let me review a couple main points. The presentation of gospel truth (the good news) is most often given in bits and pieces within a western cultural context. Yet a cursory review of the New Testament (NT) reveals the gospel is presented in five narratives— 4 Gospels and a history of the early church (Acts). The remainder of NT books is the explanation of this gospel narrative for those unfamiliar with the larger narrative of God's Story, as it unfolds throughout the Bible. Even the last book, Revelation, is a heavenly narrative of how God's Story will conclude at the end of the Age.
Also consider how truth is processed by different people with different world-views. Generally speaking, western thought presents bits and pieces of information that are strung together until the whole picture is seen. In MOTROW (see link), information and truth is understood as a whole unit, so to speak, and the bits and pieces are seen as part of the whole. So, when truth is presented in bits and pieces there is often a disconnect between what is believed and how one lives.
A more recent western cultural world-view is more like MOTROW when it comes to understanding truth. The post-modern mindset may still approach things in a linear fashion, but there is often free-association with other truth or information. This leads to a belief system like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, as mentioned in last week's post—http://goo.gl/4lksK. What does all this have to do with the question—altar or throne?
An observation made by many regarding American Christianity is the common emphasis on what is termed performance-based Christian faith. This is the idea that I need to do something as proof of believing in God or being a Christian. I need to give something showing my commitment to God. This is often spurred on by well-intentioned calls to the altar—to accept Christ, to recommit your life to Christ, to serve Christ, and so on.
As mentioned in the last post, altars are for offering sacrifices and gifts. I see this as an expression of self-focused performance, especially when repeated many times in various services. Are these responses or calls to some altar of self-sacrifice genuine? Yes, often they are. But the question ought to be, are they necessary?
I realized long ago that there were only two (2) vows a person ever needs to make—one to follow Jesus and the other being joined in marriage. Both are all-inclusive and exclusive. Neither requires any additional commitments because they are open-ended commitments. The call to follow Jesus is simple and requires no further clarification—Matt 16:24; Luke 14:26-27, 33. God's view of marriage, which is repeated four separate times in the Bible, is just as simple—Gen 2:24; Matt 19:5; Mark 10:7, Eph 5:31. Some may say, "But there's more to it than that!" But I ask, does God see it that way?
Reading through the book of Hebrews, I was reminded of the great access provided for believers in the New Covenant established by God's grace—direct access into God's presence. This access requires nothing of ourselves—no giving, no doing, just coming into His presence—Heb 4:16. There are no minimum requirements for entering and remaining in the Kingdom of God. The only thing God asks is that we come to Him—Matt 11:28-30.
So, back to the question—altar or throne? How are you compelled to come to God? Are you offering Him something (including yourself)? Or, are you coming to Him in all circumstances, good or bad? An illustration I've used about this access is when my children were young and I was a young pastor.
When I was studying in my home office, I had an open door policy for my children and wife. I can easily become so absorbed in reading that I block everything (-one) out. But my wife reminded me of my need to intentionally make myself available to my children, and her, if I had any good sense. This is how I see a believer's access into God's presence. I can come at any time, in any condition, in any situation and His door is open. I need not offer anything, not even myself—for I've already done that once.
I'm sure there are many who can argue about all of this. I'm not interested in the debate. I was never fond of altar calls, even in my pre-believer days. I don't like being manipulated with emotion, nor do I want to just do something because it's the "thing to do." I have capitulated a time or two, but I'm still resistent—I don't repeat the prayer when told to do so, since I already made my commitment more than 40 years ago.
I'm not against altar calls per se, just the manipulative way they can be used, and the assumptions based upon responses to these calls. I'm especially concerned about the self-effort I see people exerting to get into God's good graces. It's just not necessary. God didn't ask Abraham to offer his son Isaac more than once. God accepted it and declared Abraham as righteous by faith (Gen 15:6; 22:1-18). Hebrews makes it clear Jesus only died once to justify those who trust in Him (Heb 9:12-14).
Is there any need for doing something additional? If you think so, you don't understand God's grace. I've laid my life at God's altar, and I made a vow to my wife 40 years ago. Now I approach His throne when I am in need, though I still fall far short of perfection. My perfection, my completeness, is only in my Lord and Savior, Jesus. I had nothing to offer long ago and still don't, but He's got all I am.
What about you? Are you going and "tarrying at the altar?" Or are you going boldly before His throne of grace (Heb 4:14-16 NKJV)? Jesus calls us to deny ourself and take up the Cross, not make more vows at an altar of self-sacrifice. Then He invites us to come to Him, as the traditional hymn declares, "Just as I am."