May, 2016

Elements of Worship: Reading of Scripture

Our worship is primarily and ultimately about God. We are participants, but the focus of worship is God. The difficulty with our fallen human nature is that we constantly and continually attempt to craft God into our image instead of seeing ourselves as made in the image of God. The natural sinful bent is to make man the center of worship. This is why our worship must be saturated with God’s Word.

God has revealed himself to us through general and special revelation. David sings, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1). Nature speaks about God. Simply by observing the natural world we can learn about God (Rom 1:19). God has also revealed himself through his special revelation. Special revelation consists of those times when God has specifically and specially articulated his nature and character to man. When God spoke to Moses, it was special revelation. Whenever Jesus spoke it was God speaking to man. When the prophets and apostles spoke God’s Word to the people, it was special revelation. Today, we have an inerrant and infallible record of this revelation in Scripture. And as this Word speaks to us, it declares more clearly the beauty, glory, and grace of God. David’s song continues,

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Ps 19:7-11)

The great difference between general and special revelation is that through special revelation we are given a clear picture of the hope we have in God. General revelation truly declares God’s glory but only in a manner that condemns us for our sin. But special revelation truly declares the grace of God through Jesus Christ. It saddens me that many of the churches today who profess to be “evangelical” and to “believe the Bible” conduct whole worship services in which only 1 or 2 verses of Scripture are actually read. This practice, whatever the reason, betrays their profession to be committed to God’s Word. If our worship is to be primarily and ultimately about God, then our worship must be saturated with the special revelation of God’s Word.

This has historically been the case. Christians are known as “people of the book.” Hughes Old noted that this was “a cardinal characteristic of Jewish worship.”[1] James remarked to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 that “from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21). And Paul instructed Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). Historically, the public reading of Scripture has been the Christian’s primary exposure to God’s Word. Its exposition presents the beauty and glory of God to the Church. In our day it helps foster attentiveness in a visual and distracted culture. And, as one of the ordinary Means of Grace, the reading of God’s Word promises a blessing upon those who hear (Rev 1:3).

All of the elements of worship must be saturated with God’s Word. God’s Word is central in our worship. If you look at the center of our sanctuary, you will find a pulpit. This is because the reading and preaching of God’s Word must be central to what we do. The reading and preaching of God’s Word is the highpoint of the Lord’s Day worship service. “I find delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes” (Ps 119:47-48).  Worship that is saturated with God’s Word builds upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20). The Holy Spirit works through his Word and gives us an understanding and love of God (1 Cor 2:14-16). As Scott Swain explains, “The reading of Holy Scripture is a creaturely activity that corresponds to, and is also sustained and governed by, the Spirit’s work of regeneration and renewal.”[2] Worship that is honoring to God is worship that is centered on God’s Word.

 

[1] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 1: The Biblical Period, First Edition edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1998), 20.

[2] Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation, 1 edition (London ; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011), 96.

Affirmation of Faith

In our post-modern culture, there is an animus toward authority. If something is true, then there is an implicit and ethical “ought” to it. Truth imposes an authority over the individual. The escape from this authority is the rejection of truth. Truth is seen by the post-modern individual as relative. If relative, then the ethical “ought” of truth is removed. Right and wrong falls to the individual. And everyone can do what is right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).

This seems to be particularly so when it comes to matters of faith. The response is often, “Well, that’s just what you believe.” Claiming something as “Truth” is decried to be an arrogant grab at power. Agnosticism is lifted up as a cultural virtue, applauding their own ignorance. Unfortunately, the modern evangelical church has not escaped this destructive mindset. It often evidences itself in a disdain for or outright rejection of creeds and confessions. “Deeds not creeds” is the post-modern evangelical battle cry. The belief is that creeds and confessions divide while doing good deeds unites. There is a ring of truth to that belief. Truth inherently divides what is true from what is not true. An affirmation of faith declares, “I believe this and not that.” That is divisive. But, if we think about it, the idea of good deeds is also divisive. What makes a “good deed” good? One would assume the fact that it is neither neutral nor bad. Therein lies the division; a delineation of good from bad. This begs the question, “Who determines what is considered ‘good’?” This is the quandary of post-modern philosophy. They want the benefits of authority and structure without actually having any authority or structure. To quote the great popular philosopher Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Sadly, even when the authority of Scripture is accepted in our churches, the use of creeds and confessions can be rejected. The historian Mark Noll notes that in 19th century American Christianity, the Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura was modified into a distinctively American motto, “no creed but the Bible.”[1] The creeds and confessions were derided as a “Paper Pope,” an unbiblical authority. But this was never what the Reformers meant by “Scripture alone.” This is a thorough misunderstanding of the role of creeds and confessions and the role of the Church. When we affirm our faith using a creed or confession, we do not affirm any authority inherent in the creed or confession. We affirm the authority of God as revealed in Scripture, which is explained in the creed or confession. Creeds and confessions are not Scripture. Any authority accorded to them is derived from Scripture. We affirm that which is true to God’s Word. In doing so we identify with the generations of God’s people who have found salvation in Christ alone. We affirm the foundational faith that was given to the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:19ff) and built into the Church. In affirming our faith, we affirm the authority of God’s Word, the role of the Church, and God’s good work in the world through the Body of Christ.

In fact, the use of creeds and confessions is following a biblical command. Paul instructs his young disciple Timothy to, “follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me” (2 Tim 1:13). What Paul means is that as Timothy shepherds the people of God, he ought to use biblically accurate summations of the faith, that is, creeds and confessions, to instruct the people of God in the Truth of God. This pattern of sound words has authority over the life of the Christian. It is not authoritative because Paul or Timothy say so. It is authoritative because those sounds words conform to the truth of God’s Word. As that pattern conforms to Scripture, it communicates an authoritative truth that ought to be believed by God’s People.

The PCA Directory for Worship states, “It is proper for the congregation of God’s people publicly to confess their faith, using creeds or confessions that are true to the Word…” (BCO §55.1). When we gather as God’s people to worship God it is fitting that we use creeds and confessions. They allow us to corporately confess or affirm that we submit to the authority of God’s Word. We affirm these creeds and confessions because they declare the truths of Scripture. We affirm these creeds and confessions because we believe they teach the pattern of doctrine in the Bible. We affirm that we hold no hostility toward God’s authority over our lives. We embrace it. We embrace the division of truth from error. And we believe that God’s Word is the only rule given to us by which we may discern truth from error. This is why we do not merely recite, read, or repeat a particular creed of confession. Anyone can do that. But only a believer in Jesus Christ can confess or affirm these statements with true faith. When a creed or confession is used in worship we confess or affirm it because confession and affirmation entail belief and submission.

 

[1] Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992), 151.

Elements of Worship: The Prelude and Call to Worship

Why does our worship look the way it does? Why do we do the things we do, and don’t do the things some other churches do? In this space over the next several weeks, I hope to lay out some of the reasons for the particular forms of worship we use at Covenant Presbyterian Church. It is my prayer that a deeper understanding of our worship will help each of us worship our great God with a greater passion. And perhaps it will answer some questions you’ve had or questions you didn’t even know that you had.

We are called by God to gather together to worship Him. This is the highest activity a human being can do. Our worship is a corporate celebration and remembrance of God’s deliverance of His people from slavery into freedom. From the beginning of history until now and beyond, God is a God of redemption. From Genesis to Revelation, the story God is telling is one of redemption, restoration, and re-creation. God gathers His people out of the oppression and slavery of this world and into the grace and peace of His presence (Heb. 12:22-24). Our worship is a foretaste of that ultimate gathering. Our worship is a calling to come receive the grace of God and to glorify the God who has authored so great a salvation.

As we gather together to worship, we should first begin to understand the magnitude of the hour. Sinclair Ferguson comments, “In worship, the veil that separates this world from the next world becomes very thin.” RC Sproul would often instruct his congregation in the preparation for worship that, “When we enter into this sanctuary, we cross the threshold from the secular to the sacred, from the common to the uncommon, from the profane to the holy, from darkness to light.” We should enter into this time with an appropriate demeanor. “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab. 2:20). Incidentally, this verse would be a good biblical instruction for turning off your cell phone before worship begins. At the risk of being the curmudgeonly old pastor; if you use a bible app, then turn it on silent and keep it to the app. Save your googling, shopping, and social media for after worship because you are about to embark upon a holy endeavor.

The moments before the worship service begins are a time of silent preparation. Frankly, we don’t do a good job of this. This should not be a “I’ll do it if I’m on time” part of worship. You will take some time to quiet your harried mind and prepare your heart for worship. If you are late to worship, then you’ll do it during some other element of the worship service. Is our attitude like David’s in Psalm 122:1, “I was glad when they said, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’”? If you were glad to come to worship, then arriving on time wouldn’t be a problem. Let’s be honest, chronic lateness is not a result of busyness. It is a matter of priorities.

The Call to Worship is the formal beginning to the act of worship. It is a historical practice observed in Christians churches across many traditions. The Call to Worship is the corporate aspect of one’s preparation for worship. The early church used the greetings from Ruth 2:4, “The LORD be with you,” or from John 20:19, “Peace be with you.” Calvin suggested the use of Psalm 124:8, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” The Westminster Directory of Publick Worship did not prescribe a set format or passage of Scripture, but encouraged ministers to “solemnly call the people to the worship of the great name of God.”

There is no absolute pattern or format. Faithful churches are free to use a wide variety of forms. At CPC we have the congregation stand because it is right to stand before the majesty of our God. Scripture is used to proclaim who God is and what God has done. Our Call to Worship is typically done as a responsive reading because it involves both a call and a response. The congregation hears God’s call to gather as the people known by His name. And the congregation responds to God’s gracious invitation. It also engages the whole congregation in the act of worship from the very beginning of the service. The Call to Worship reminds us that worship is not a spectator event but a participatory one. You are a congregation not an audience. Only the Triune God is our audience. So, as you enter into this sacred assembly, prepare to worship.