July, 2016

John Flavel’s Double Table, part 2

Last week we began to look at the Double Table found at the back of volume 6 of The Works of John Flavel. Flavel’s “Double Table”[1] is a list of ten common sins among church members and ten duties required of church members. This list of ten “Do’s and Don’ts” of the Christian life can serve to really challenge us to greater growth in sanctification.

This week we begin with the third sin. The third sin is “talebearing.” This means gossip or breaking confidence. In Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding the Church, he admonishes Timothy to care for widows. However, he gives some qualifications for that care. The recipients of this assistance ought to be older, the wife of one husband, having raised children, hospitable, caring, and devoted to every good work (1 Tim 5:9. 10). If a widow is younger, don’t give that assistance because it might lead them to be idle (see sin #2). And idleness leads to being a gossip, “saying what they should not.” It seems that gossip is a sin more prone to idle women. But before men begin to think that this doesn’t involve them, Lev 19:16 commands, “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people.” Gossip, slander, libel, and breaking confidence are sins that create strife among all believers. Flavel describes it as a “cooling and quenching of mutual love.” This sin is like dumping a bucket of water on the embers of Christian affection.

What is the motivation, after all, of behavior like this? We can deceive ourselves and say we’re concerned for a particular person. We can even be so clever as to disguise our gossip in the form of prayer requests. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves, at its root is a subtle form of self-justification. We want to make the other person seem a little lower than us so that we can feel a little better about ourselves. The thought behind it is that my sin is not as bad as their sin. Then without ever dealing with our own sin and guilt, we are able to feel better about ourselves. It is an attempt to find our justification not in Christ but in feeling just a little bit better than someone else.

The fourth sin is being quick to believe rumors. Gossip, in and of itself, is a problem. Believing gossip is a consequent and equally destructive sin. Perhaps it is even more destructive, because if gossip were not so readily received, it would wither on the vine. The reality is that it is far too easy to believe gossip. Often our willingness to receive gossip is based on whether it will strengthen our own insecurities. If the morsel of gossip being dished out in no way emboldens or strengthens our own self-righteousness, then we would likely ignore it or even rebuke the person sharing the gossip. Unfortunately, our fleshly desire for self-righteousness is insatiable, so we often heartily gobble up every bit of gossip in a fruitless effort to make ourselves seem more respectable. Flavel’s warning is that “this strikes at the bond of peace.” Of course it does! The giving and receiving of gossip makes every other member flotsam to be used to keep your own head above water. While idleness denies the image of God in yourself, giving and receiving gossip denies the image of God in someone else.

The fifth sin common to members of the church is skipping church. Hebrews 10:24, 25 instructs the Christian, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Failing to attend church is not just a modern problem. It was not just a 17th century for Puritans. It was a problem as far back as the first century church.

There are times when issues arise and members need to miss the corporate gathering of God’s People on the Lord’s Day. Sometimes children are sick. Sometimes vocations of mercy and necessity require your presence on Sunday. Flavel is not referring to these situations. He is speaking about skipping church for “slight diversions” and “trivial occasions.” Just what might be considered “slight” or “trivial”? Flavel includes everything that is not covered under the categories of mercy and necessity. Things like little league games, that extra 45 minutes of sleep, fishing trips, getting “caught up” on personal responsibilities, studying for an exam, or tickets to that show or sporting event do not count as mercy or necessity. Don’t fall prey to the excuse that our lives are just so busy today that we need the extra time on Sunday to get our stuff done. The author of Hebrews was exhorting believers to “not neglect to meet together” because they were experiencing heavy persecution. Their temptation was to avoid worship in order to avoid persecution. If the threat of physical harm or imprisonment is not an acceptable excuse for skipping church, why would we consider something like our kids’ athletics as acceptable?

[1] The full title is A Double Scheme, or Table; containing, in the First Column, The Sins most incident to the Members of particular Churches, plainly forbidden in the Word, and for which God sets Marks of his Displeasure on them. And, in the Second, The Duties enjoined on them in the Scripture, in the conscientious Discharge whereof, they receive signal Fruits of his Favour.

John Flavel’s Double Take, part 1

Tucked away in the very back of volume 6 of the Works of John Flavel (1628-1691) is a short but brilliant piece. The full title of this work is A Double Scheme, or Table; containing, in the First Column, The Sins most incident to the Members of particular Churches, plainly forbidden in the Word, and for which God sets Marks of his Displeasure on them. And, in the Second, The Duties enjoined on them in the Scripture, in the conscientious Discharge whereof, they receive signal Fruits of his Favour[1] As the title more than adequately indicates, this work is a list of ten common sins and ten necessary duties for church members. The committing of these sins leads to God’s fatherly displeasure. The omission of these duties robs the members of his Church from the “fruit of his favor.” To put it succinctly, there is a lot of really great and very practical instruction in Flavel’s table of the “Do’s and Don’ts” of the Christian life. Over the next several weeks I want to walk through Flavel’s Table with some commentary and application for our lives.

The first sin is lacking care and attention in preventing offenses against those who are outside of the church. Flavel mentions that this is the most common sin of church members. He cites Colossians 4:5, “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders.” This is a good diagnostic question for us, how do you carry yourself around those who are outside of the church? Are you different around non-Christians than you are around Christians? John Calvin, in commenting on Col 4:5, gives three reasons we ought to conduct ourselves wisely toward outsiders: first, that there be no stumbling block before the blind (Lev 19:14). Secondly, that there be no occasion for our behavior to detract from the honor of the Gospel or the name of Christ exposed to derision. Lastly, that we would not be defiled by worldly or carnal pollutions and little by little become profane.[2] Flavel’s reasoning echoes this by warning that a lack of care in our conduct with outsiders will “harden the wicked in their sins, bring guilt upon ourselves, and reproach upon the name and ways of God.”

The second sin is idleness. Something important to notice is that Flavel is not speaking about an idleness with respect to church membership, per se. He is addressing idleness in “civil callings.” This is an idleness in one’s vocation. His warning is that it is a sin for church members to be lazy in their work. It is a violation of Paul’s instruction in 2 Thess 3:11, “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work….” This happens when Christians are either lazy workers in their jobs or lax in finding meaningful employment. Our capacity for distraction is bottomless. We often allow various types of things (blogs, social media, sports, porn, hobbies, television, movies, etc…) to suck the initiative out of us. The sin in this is multi-faceted. Idleness causes us to fail in upholding the image of God. As his image-bearers he gave us a mandate to work (Gen 1:28, 2:15) and through our work to create. The Proverbs repeatedly warn against the laziness of the “sluggard” (e.g. Prov 6:6, 9; 13:4; 19:24). Men are particularly called to lead and provide for their families (1 Tim 5:8). Flavel’s warning is that idleness in civil callings will bring “poverty on themselves, and scandal on religion.” Matthew Henry states, “Industry in our particular callings as men is a duty required of us by our general calling as Christians.”[3] Laziness, either in your job or in finding a suitable job, will both harm your family and make the church look bad.

We will continue to work through Flavel’s Table over the coming weeks (we’ve just scratched the surface!). I have found it to be very convicting in my own life. I invite you to pray and think about what our church would look like if we were to really apply these truths of God’s Word to our lives. What might change? How might I grow in my walk with the Lord? In what way might God reward our faithfulness? Let’s ponder these questions and wrestle with the implications of this Table and trust God to deepen our sanctification through it.

[1] John Flavel, The Works of John Flavel. (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997) vol. 6, p. 586.

[2] John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 225.

[3] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2349.

Elements of Worship – Benediction

Elements of Worship

The Benediction

 

The word Benediction is from the Latin and literally means “good sayings” or “blessing.” It is the common close to a worship service. But it serves as much more than just the closing words to worship. It is the transition point from the heights of the corporate worship of the Lord’s People on the Lord’s Day back into the common and regular world of our day-to-day lives. The Puritan John Owen wrote, “As to the nature of it, blessings in general are the means of communicating good things, according unto the power and interest in them of them that bless.”[1] It is the sending of God’s People, now forgiven, instructed, and blessed, into God’s creation to do His will on earth as it is in heaven. It is a reminder for God’s People to start their week in reality that they are, in fact, God’s People and ought to live like it.

The Benediction is given by an ordained minister. It “conveys the official endorsement of the church on all that has preceeded and carries Christ’s own Blessing on his people for the work he now calls them to do.”[2] The Benediction is the Church speaking on behalf of Christ to send God’s People out. As such, it is appropriate that only one who has been called and ordained to such an office pronounce this blessing.

The Benediction is marked by two types of bodily posture. The minister who gives the Benediction does so with outstretched arms. This is to communicate the bestowal of God’s blessing to all those under it. The response of the people is to stand and receive this blessing. The Amida is the daily Jewish prayer. It is also known as the Eighteen Benedictions. The Hebrew word amida means “standing.” So, the traditional posture for receiving the Benediction is to stand. Additionally, I believe it is appropriate to extend our hands with palms up as if to receive something from above. It need not be an obtrusive gesture. A subtle one is enough to remind us of the blessing that God is pouring out upon us.

The Benediction is a blessing from God. Bryan Chapell notes that the content is more than just a popular verse from Scripture or a nice summary of the sermon.[3] It is a promise of God’s faithfulness to his people and charge to walk in light of it. One of the most common is known as the Aaronic Benediction which is found in Numbers 6:24-26. “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” God promises that this benediction was the manner in which “I will set my name upon [you], and I will bless [you]” (Num 6:27). Much like when your mom wrote your name in all your t-shirts before you went to camp, God puts his name on all his people so that is it known, “This person belongs to me.” Additionally, in the three-fold repetition of the LORD’s name, grace and peace are offered to the People of God.

The Call to Worship calls the people to gather corporately to worship the Triune God. The Benediction is the opposite bookend that sends the people out from corporate worship back into the world to be the people who bear the name of the LORD. Ryan McGraw concludes, “When they hear the benediction at the close of the service, they should leave the special presence of God with their faith stirred toward his promises, knowing that they have been blessed and shall be blessed.”[4] We are sent out into the world to be the People of God who witness the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ going throughout all of creation, which happen to be the final words of the Bible. Appropriately, the Word of God ends in a Benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all. Amen” (Rev 22:21).

 

[1] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews with Preliminary Exercitations, Volume V, in The Works of John Owen, Volume XVIII, ed. William Gould (N.p: Johnstone & Hunter, 1854; reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), vol. V, 316.

[2] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009), 252.

[3] Ibid., 254.

[4] McGraw, Ryan, “The Benediction in Corporate Worship,” 18, accessed June 17, 2016, https://www.gpts.edu/resources/documents/The%20Benediction%20in%20Corporate%20Worship.pdf.

Report of the 44th General Assembly

The 44th General Assembly met in Mobile, Alabama with the theme, “Refreshed: In and For the Cross.” As usual, it was a great time of connection, fellowship, and encouragement. On the business end, there were several important matters which the Assembly took up. The highest profile issue going into the Assembly was that of racial reconciliation. But there were several other issues that generated substantial discussion both during and after the Assembly.

There were 42 overtures sent by presbyteries to the Assembly related to racial reconciliation. The Overtures Committee took up each one of these and put forward an amended version of Overture 43 from the Potomac Presbytery on “Pursuing Racial Reconciliation and the Advancement of the Gospel.” This overture passed by a vote of 861-123-23. It states:

Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in
America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical
sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial
sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race;
the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the
exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis
of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages
inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist
organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no
wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10)

This statement is good because it specifically and explicitly calls out the sin of the PCA’s past with respect to racism. If we claim to be the continuing Presbyterian Church in the US, then we have to own our past, good and bad. Jemar Tisby, Pres. of the Reformed African American Network, notes that we should view this neither pessimistically nor optimistically, but realistically. This was a good move for the PCA. But this does not mean the problem of race have been solved.

To that end, there were two follow-up overtures to Overture 43. Overtures 44 & 45 call for the creation of a “Unity Fund” to assist African Americans in education and church planting and for the creation of an ad interim Study Committee on Racial Reconciliation, respectively. The fund and study committee are necessary to move Overture 43 into a concrete reality and to answer the “So what?” question. These will serve to give real application to the Assembly’s statement.

There were a number of other issues brought before the Assembly that were less encouraging. Covenant Seminary gave a puzzling report on their decision to change the “Systematic Theology” department to a “Missional Theology” department. This is not a positive sign for the health and direction of our denomination’s seminary.

The Assembly also adopted a recommendation to erect an ad interim study committee on “The Role of Women in Ministry.” This recommendation came from the Cooperative Ministries Committee which is a subcommittee of the Administrative Committee. This is the first time in the PCA’s history (to my knowledge) that a recommendation of this magnitude has been handed down from the administrators above and not originated with the Sessions or Presbyteries at the grassroots level. This study committee will report back to the Assembly in one or two years’ time with a position paper and recommendations for the Assembly to adopt.

The recommendation to erect the study committee included the following areas of focus:

  1. The biblical basis, theology, history, nature, and authority of ordination;
  2. The biblical nature and function of the office of deacon;
  3. Clarification on the ordination or commissioning of deacons/deaconesses;
  4. Should the findings of the study committee warrant BCO changes, the study committee will propose such changes for the General Assembly to consider.

The repeated assertions to the Assembly that “no one is talking about ordaining women,” were hard to square given the areas of focus for the study committee. Historically, the UPCUSA, PCUS, CRC, and, most recently, RCA have demonstrated that this issue is a slippery slope into liberalism. This recommendation passed.

While it is likely true that the women of the PCA often hear more about what they can’t do than what they can do in the church, this is no reason to change or apologize for believing Scripture’s clear teaching on male headship. We can (and should) do more in using and highlighting the essential gifts and contributions that women make to the life of the church. But this study committee is not the best way to do this.

I left with concerns and yet I continue to be thankful for the PCA. We are a large and diverse denomination full of men and women who love the Lord Jesus Christ. We occupy, as Rick Phillips puts it, “the vital spiritual real estate at the crossroads of evangelicalism and Calvinism.” As the culture continues to align itself against the Church, we need to make every effort to find unity in Christ while unapologetically holding to the truth of God’s unchanging Word. My prayer continues to be that we will be faithful as we move through these times.

Elements of Worship: The Lord’s Supper

Elements of Worship

The Lord’s Supper

The common practice in evangelical churches and even in the PCA is to observe the Lord’s Supper monthly or quarterly. Our weekly observance puts us in the minority. During my committee examinations for ordination, I was asked, “How often should you observe the Lord’s Supper?” My quick answer was, “Weekly.” But then, after a few moments of thought, I said, “If I can modify my answer, I’d like to. I think the church should practice communion as frequently as is beneficial to the congregation.” In explaining my answer, I hope to share some of the reason and significance of the Lord’s Supper and why it is a valuable part of our worship.

It seems from early church records that communion was observed on a weekly basis. Justin Martyr outlines the weekly worship of the Christians in the early 2nd century, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read…Then we all rise together and pray…and when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought…and there is distribution to each.”[1]  The Didache (2nd c.) and Hippolytus (3rd c.) echo this idea. But as the Middle Ages came, the practice of the Lord’s Supper began to change.

In the Middle Ages the supper became something almost magical. The grace of the supper was not seen in the faith given by God, but in the actual doing of the sacrament (ex opere operato). The phrase hocus pocus, denoting something magical, was coined by Reformers as a play on the Roman rite where the priest would consecrate the elements by saying hoc est copus meum, or “this is my body.” Additionally, the celebration became more of a spectator event, where the congregation witnessed the presiding clergy receive the elements. Laypeople only participated after going through confession with a priest and doing penance. The burden of this practice meant that few laypeople took the Lord’s Supper with any regularity, often only once a year. The Reformers were battling, on the one hand, a magical view of the sacrament, and on the other hand, a striking irregularity of practice among the people.

Some sought to combat the infrequency of the sacrament. Calvin strongly argued for a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, “Plainly this custom which enjoins us to take communion once a year is a veritable invention of the devil, whoever was instrumental in introducing it…. It should have been done far differently: the Lord’s Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually.”[2] Unfortunately, the Genevan Council disagreed and only allowed Calvin to observe the sacrament quarterly.

 

John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, dealt with the other problem in his church. In dealing with the bloody ebb and flow of the English Reformation, Knox wanted to divest the church of the remaining Roman superstitions. His solution was to only practice communion once a year. This was coupled with a thorough period of examination and reflection in which the elders were to determine all those who were eligible to partake.

Today, I believe the broad evangelical church suffers far more from a loss of the mystery of the Lord’s Supper and a hyper-individualization of faith. Evangelicals are basically memorialists in their views, that is, the Lord’s Supper is merely a memorial of what Christ did. But the Scriptures speak of this sacrament in a way that is more than that. There is nothing magical in communion, but there is something spiritual that is deeply significant. It is a sign and seal of the covenant. The Heidelberg Catechism reminds us that “through the Spirit’s work, we share in his true body and blood as surely as our mouths receive these holy signs in his remembrance” (HC 79). We spiritually, really, and truly feed upon Christ’s body and blood. And our individualism is addressed in the broken bread and shed blood, in which we celebrate our one Faith. We are one Body. Rightly understood, the Lord’s Table should chip away at our tendency to individualize our faith and only think about “Me and Jesus.” It calls us to be a part of Christ’s Universal Church.

Our weekly practice is an effort to combat the dominant misunderstandings in the broader church today. The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. It is a visible word preached to us. It is a meal that “nourishes and sustains those who are already regenerated and incorporated into his family which is his church.” (Belgic Confession, 35). It is a means by which we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). And this is a message we need to receive weekly.

[1] “ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus – Christian Classics Ethereal Library,” accessed June 8, 2016, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.ii.lxvii.html.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; vol. 1; The Library of Christian Classics; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1424.

Elements of Worship: Baptism

Elements of Worship

Baptism

Periodically, we are privileged with the opportunity to worship God through the sacrament of Baptism. Hughes Old says, “Baptism is the presupposition and basis of all Christian worship.”[1] Old is right in his assessment because baptism serves as the rite of admission into the visible church. The normal biblical practice for all Christians is that they are to be baptized into the visible church. Old is also right because baptism is the sign and seal of God’s covenant with his people. It both signifies the promises of God’s covenant blessings on his children, and by the Holy Spirit it seals in us the righteousness of faith (Rom 4:11). And yet, Westminster reminds us that the grace of salvation is “not so inseparably annexed unto it,” (WCF 28.6) meaning one can be saved without baptism and one can be baptized and not saved. Our baptism in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, though, is to be commonly held by all believers as we gather on the Lord’s Day to worship.

Baptism is a means of grace. It signifies the gospel. In it we see our adoption as a child of the Father, the atonement of our sins through Christ’s sacrifice, and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptized the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and the voice of the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:16, 17). Baptism both signifies and seals the receiving of the Holy Spirit in God’s elect. It is a sign that we have been made sons and daughters of God the Father. Ezekiel prophesied:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek 36:25-28).

Baptism signifies the invisible pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit upon his children.

Baptism shows us the atonement of our sins through Christ’s sacrifice. Colossians 2:11-15 links together circumcision and baptism with the crucifixion and resurrection. In baptism we are buried and raised with Christ. That circumcision (i.e. baptism) points to the work of Christ on the cross, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-15). God forgave us because, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “Christ appointed this external washing with water, adding thereto this promise, that I am as certainly washed by his blood and Spirit from all the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as I am washed externally with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away” (HC 69). Baptism depicts Christ’s atonement for our sins.

Baptism also signifies our sanctification by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who causes the dead heart to be regenerated. He sprinkles the blood of Christ on the heart of a sinner (1 Pet 1:2). In our baptism we are called to “walk in newness of life” (WCF 28.1). Baptism is not a sacrament that is done once and then ignored. We are to “improve” our baptism (WLC 167), by which is meant that we are to remember our baptism and to allow the realities of that grace to change the way we live our lives. Our baptism should be used by us to propel our sanctification, that we would be “renewed in the whole man after the image of God,” and “enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC 35).

Baptism is, therefore, not something we do in our worship of God. Rather, baptism is something that God does to us in our worship of God. It is the basis of our worship. It signifies and seals our adoption, our atonement, and our sanctification (among other things). When we celebrate a baptism, we ought to lift our eyes to our Lord, who has cleansed us from our sin and welcomes us into his family. We should leave with the hope and joy that God is faithful to the rich covenant promises poured out on us in those waters.[2]

[1] Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship That Is Reformed according to Scripture (Atlanta: Knox, 1984), 27.

[2] James Montgomery Boice et al., Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship : Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2003), 192.

Elements of Worship: The Sermon

Elements of Worship

The Sermon

I was speaking with a neighbor who asked me what I do for a living. I told him that I am a pastor. He asked, “What else do you do?” I replied, “What do you mean? It’s more than a full-time job.” He said, “Really? The priest at my church only works on Sunday and gives the same homily each week.” I then explained to him a little bit about the ministry of CPC and how we structure our worship. “God has most clearly revealed himself through His Word,” I explained, “so our worship is centered around the Bible. The high point of our worship service is the sermon. I give a full exposition of a different passage of Scripture each week.”

My friend had never really been exposed to the ministry of the Word. As a result, he had little idea about who Jesus Christ is or the power of the Gospel. The sermon is the point in our weekly Lord’s Day worship when we gather to sit under God’s Word and be transformed by it.

Both the Scriptures and history prove that the preaching of God’s Word ought to be central to our worship. It was common in the worship in the Temple that the Scriptures were read and then explained. Jeremiah gives an explanation and exhortation on the Ten Commandments in the gate of the LORD’s house (Jer 7:1-15). After the wall of Jerusalem was reconstructed, Ezra the scribe read the Law. And after he had finished one section, the Levites stepped forward to explain and apply what had just been read (Neh 8).

This same idea is seen in the ministry of Jesus. In Luke 4, Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth. He reads from Isaiah 61. He rolls the scroll up and gives it to the attendant. At this point Luke tells us that every eye is fixed on him. All are waiting for him to deliver an explanation of this passage. Jesus then declared that this prophecy was fulfilled in him. He continued to explain the passage in light of his coming as the Messiah. Jesus read the Scriptures and preached it in light of himself that all might believe.

The apostle Paul did the same thing. His missionary strategy was to enter the synagogue of a new town and preach the Scriptures in light of the coming of Christ. He instructs his young disciple, Timothy, to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). And after explaining to Timothy the nature and use of the Scriptures, he tells him to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).

Historically, the early church followed this same pattern. The Word was read and then explained. Justin Martyr explains how the 2nd century church worshiped, “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the [pastor] verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”[1] The Church was blessed by the preaching of great pastors like Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. But beginning in the 9th century, the Middle Ages saw a decline in the systematic preaching of God’s Word in worship. This practice was revived in Reformation with the call ad fontes (to the sources). The Reformers sought to bring the people back to the Scriptures as the foundation for life and godliness.

What the Reformers recognized was that the power of the Gospel is given by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. And the preaching of God’s Word was the primary instrument through which that grace was given to the Church. The Second Helvetic Confessions states, “when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is preached and received of the faithful” (SHC I.4). God’s Word properly preached is God’s Word to his people. And it ought to be received as such.

So how ought we to listen to sermons in the church today? We should listen to the preached Word with expectation, humility, regularity, discernment, and obedience. We listen expecting God to speak to us. It is my assumption that God will work in our lives by his Spirit through His Word. We listen with humility, acknowledging that God knows better than we do. Sometimes our beliefs and behaviors need to be corrected. With humility we submit to God’s Word. If we want to understand God’s Word we must stand under it not over it. We listen with regularity. We will get more out of hearing God’s Word when we make hearing it a regular discipline. It takes practice to learn to listen well. We listen with discernment. As the pastor preaches we should ask ourselves questions about the text. Is that what the text says? Where is he getting that from? What is the main point? This prevents the Christian from being swept up by a charismatic and engaging speaker who may not be faithful to the Word. He may be entertaining, but he will not feed your soul. Finally, we listen with obedience. If God’s Word tells us to do something, we must respond by doing it. A failure to obey God’s Word in our lives means that we have not really listened to God’s Word.

[1] “ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus – Christian Classics Ethereal Library,” accessed June 8, 2016, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.ii.lxvii.html.

Elements of Worship: I Will Sing to the Lord

Elements of Worship

I Will Sing to the LORD

Music plays a crucial role in our Lord’s Day worship. It is a gift from God. Music has the ability to tap into parts of our being that are hard to reach otherwise. Many of us have had those moments where a song begins to play and we are emotionally transported to a particular moment or place. Theologian Robert Webber writes, “[Music] elicits from deep within the person the sense of awe and mystery that accompanies a meeting with God. In this way [music] releases an inner nonrational part of our being that words with their more rational and discursive meanings cannot unearth and set free to utter praise.”[1] God has given us this great gift so that we can worship him in deeper ways than we can without it. Martin Luther adds, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions which control men or more often overwhelm them.”[2] Music is an instrument of God to help transport our worship from the secular and profane to the holy and transcendent. Our music during the Lord’s Day worship is to be theological, congregational, and excellent.

A common response of God’s people after significant events in redemptive history is to break out in song. Moses leads the people in song after passing through the Red Sea (Ex 15). The Psalms are a collection of songs of worship that span the entire spectrum of human experience. The Magnificat is Mary’s song of praise in being chosen to be the mother of the Lord (Luke 1:46-55). And in eternity to come, the saints worship God with the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb (Rev. 15:3). The Bible is full of songs and our songs ought to be full of the Bible.

Much of the history of God’s people has been learned and passed down to future generations through music. The generations have learned what they believe through what they have sung. There is a reason the 4th century heretic Arius promoted his aberrant theology through song. If he could change the song, he could change beliefs. This should strike us sharply. If the songs we sing are basic, shallow, and vapid, then what are we learning to believe about God? We cannot expect people to reflect deeply upon the character and nature of God if we do not sing robust theology about our God.

Our music should be congregational. It serves to unite the body of believers and moves us forward in our worship of God. Think of the picture of the oneness of the body of Christ when all believers are united in singing a common praise to God. The early church pastor John Chrysostom saw the church singing together in corporate worship as an image of the mystery of fellowship in Christ:

The [song] blended all voices together, and caused one single fully harmonious chant to arise; young and old, rich and poor, women and men, slaves and free, all sang one single melody…. All the inequalities of social life here are banished. Together we make up a single choir in perfect equality of rights and of expression whereby earth imitates heaven. Such is the noble character of the Church.[3]

Our music is to be done with excellence. The Psalmist says, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (Ps 33:3). The musician is to be skilled. Those who help lead in our music should be trained, gifted, and prepared. We should seek to reflect the beauty of our great God in how we sing. But we should never drift into the idea that our worship is a performance. Worship music that becomes performance-oriented begins to focus on the performers and not on the people worshiping God. We visited a church where half-way through the opening music set, my oldest turned to me and asked, “Dad is this a concert or church?” That’s a problem. When worship music becomes a performance it is done well, but it is done without God. Liturgy without God was the very same thing Martin Luther was fighting against in the Reformation when he battled against a Roman liturgy devoid of God. Marva Dawn comments, “The modern version insists that liturgy be performed well in order to be effective, and its potency is determined according to the criterion that every participant must have had some sort of emotionally satisfying experience.”[4] Worship music is to be done with excellence but not as a performance. The effectiveness of that worship rests wholly on the faithfulness of God working in and through the believer.

Our worship through music is to help facilitate the overall worship of God on the Lord’s Day. We seek to use music that is theological, congregational, and excellent. Our hope is that God will use the ministry of music to reach into parts of your heart that would otherwise be deaf to God’s call. May our hearts be stirred by God’s gift of song that we would glorify our great God. “Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly” (Ps 149:1).

[1] Robert E Webber, Worship : Old and New (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1982), 176.

[2] Martin Luther, Liturgy and Hymns

[3] As quoted in, Webber, Worship, 176.

[4] Marva J Dawn, Reaching out without Dumbing down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the Century Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 243.