Every family has an altar—the questions are: To which god? and, How often is it used?
After the Flood, Noah built and altar to the Lord (Genesis 8:20). So did Abraham (Genesis 12:7), Isaac (Genesis 26:25), and Jacob (Genesis 33:20). Moses (Exodus 17:15), Joshua (Joshua 8:30), Gideon (Judges 6:24), Samuel (1 Samuel 7:17), and David (2 Samuel 24:25) built altars to the Lord as well. In the Books of 1 and 2 Kings, and in the writings of the prophets who ministered during that time, God repeatedly commanded that altars to false gods be torn down. After times of idolatry, the altars to the true God had to be rebuilt.
Have you torn down the altars in your home devoted to false gods? Have you built an altar to the true God? Would a visitor to your home recognize that you have a family altar? Will your children’s memories of the childhood you now are building for them be centered around the family altar?
What Is a “Family Altar”?
Our Lutheran fathers called their family devotion space and time “the family altar.”
In the 1800s, Norwegian Lutheran immigrants to the American Midwest customarily built a small shelf or cabinet diagonally in the corner of their log cabin. Called a skap, or “Papa’s Cupboard,” in pious homes the shelf contained a Bible, a catechism, and a hymnal. While sitting down for a meal, the father had these precious books within arm’s reach in order to read them to the family.
Your dining room table becomes your family altar when you sanctify that space with the Word of God and prayer. Your living room couch becomes your family altar when you open up the Bible and read it to your children. You children’s beds become the family altar when you teach them to kneel beside them to pray.
As Luther explained in the Large Catechism, “Whenever God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read, or meditated upon, then the person, day, and work are sanctified.” However, “when the heart is idle and the Word does not make a sound, the devil breaks in and has done the damage before we are aware.” For these reasons, Luther encouraged Christians to view the Third Commandment—“You shall keep the day of rest holy.”—not as pertaining to the physical act of going to church on the Sabbath, or of abstaining from work that day, but to the spiritual gift by which the Word of God sanctifies both the church service and family devotions, whether on Sunday or any other day. “The Word,” wrote Luther, “is so effective that whenever it is seriously contemplated, heard, and used, it is bound never to be without fruit.” Therefore, “we should daily be engaged with God’s Word and carry it in our hearts and upon our lips.”
How to Construct a Family Altar?
Simple: Let God’s Word be proclaimed daily in your home.
Read a chapter of the Bible at the breakfast table. Pause at the end of supper for prayer requests. Sing a hymn together before bed. Memorize a section of the catechism each week. Do any one of these things, or any combination of them, or any other similar thing—whatever approach best serves your family with daily spiritual bread.
You might read only from the Bible, or you might expand your Christian home library to include other devotional materials that are faithful to God’s Word.
You might choose a hymn of the week from among the hymns sung at your local congregation that Sunday.
You might spend the whole week reviewing the Scripture readings from the preceding Sunday, or previewing the readings for the coming Sunday.
You might seek to read through the entire Bible in a four-year cycle.
You might construct a family altar board to provide a visual aid for reinforcing the Bible lessons of the week.
In the end, it’s not really about what you do or what you plan, but about God’s Word sanctifying the entire household. God promises that His Word is active and effective, bringing blessing upon those who hear it as the Holy Spirit creates and strengthens faith in their hearts (Isaiah 55:11; John 8:31–32; John 17:20; Romans 10:14,17; Hebrews 4:12; 2 Peter 3:5–7; Revelation 1:3).
The family altar is God’s altar, the place where God Himself is present, “wherever two or three are gathered in [His] name” (Matthew 18:20).
Is there any family activity more important, more beneficial, more eternally significant than this?
In Deuteronomy 6:6–9 and Ephesians 6:4 God assigns a duty to fathers, essentially the duty of constructing and maintaining a family altar. Fathers who take this duty seriously soon will discover that this “duty” is really more of a “privilege.” To the believer, the family altar is not a burdensome Law, but an uplifting Gospel of comfort and joy. God loves us. God forgives us. Jesus lived, died, and rose for each one of us. He right now is preparing a place in heaven for us and soon will return for us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. These are the recurring themes proclaimed at the family altar. Here were receive the spiritual manna that simultaneously give us our full and yet leaves us ever craving more. Yes, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matthew 5:6)!
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean and Professor of History and Philosophy at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.