Results tagged “worship” from Reformation21 Blog

Sobriety and the Gospel


In my previous post, I discussed how patience (along with the closely-related virtues of endurance and perseverance) is one of the most valuable Christian virtues in connection to Christian maturity. However, there is another virtue of the Christian life which, when duly exercised, will contribute substantially to our well-being as individual Christians and as a church body. If we are to pursue genuine Christian maturity, we must heed the exhortation towards sobriety.

I think that most Christians would think of sobriety primarily in terms of restraint from alcohol or other addictive substances. However, the scriptures give a fuller meaning of this virtue. 

Sobriety and Wisdom

Within the OT, sobriety is often depicted in terms of levelheadedness in judgment. For example, during Job's period of severe trial, Job sought to find and keep the proper balance between hope and despair, while his unwise friends gave exaggerated and lopsided explanations of Job's sorrows and of God's purposes. For this, the Lord chastises Job's friends (cf. Job 42:7), even as Job is commended for his level-headed judgment. In this sense, sobriety was a form of true wisdom. The book of Proverbs illustrates that OT saints were made well-aware of the importance and value of a mind and heart that maintained a sober and well-balanced view which was in harmony with the God's law and yet avoided extremes of judgment of action. This explains why impulsiveness, carelessness, and exaggeration in emotion are considered traits of folly (cf. Proverbs 14:5; 18:2; 29:11). 

The apostles build upon this OT background to define sobriety as freedom from every form of mental and spiritual drunkenness, which includes freedom from excess, inordinate passions, rashness, and confusion (cf. 1 Peter 1:13; 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:6). Therefore, the call to sobriety is a call to a well-balanced and self-controlled life and this call extends to all Christians and all stages of life. However, note that the apostles do not content themselves with the general call to sobriety, but address themselves in the matter to individuals and groups, listing Christians according to their calling with the specific application to their several needs. Consider the call of sobriety in our appraisal of gifts and character (cf. Romans 12:3), towards elders (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7-8), towards aged women (cf. Titus 2:4; 1 Timothy 2:9), towards young women (cf. Titus 2:5), towards aged men (cf. Titus 2:2), and towards young men (cf. Titus 2:2). Thus, sobriety is a necessary ingredient of every phase of our sanctified life and the very life of our church is conditioned by its influence. 

Fundamentally, the gospel itself makes sobriety an imperative (cf. Titus 2:12), which also explain why Christians are exhorted towards sobriety in light of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus (cf. 1 Peter 4:7). However, of what sort is this spirit of sobriety? Consider the excellent statement from renowned Greek classicist G. Murray in regards to the NT word commonly used to express sobriety:

"There is a way of thinking which destroys and a way that saves. The man or woman who is sophron walks among the beauties and perils of the world, feeling the love; joy, anger, and the rest; and through it all he has that in his mind which saves. Whom does it save; Not him, but as we should say, the whole situation. It saves the imminent evil from coming to be."

Christ: The Standard of Sobriety

How can we apply the above statement to Christian sobriety? We must first recognize that we are children of God by faith in Christ Jesus and thus, we are called to be imitators of Him. Our Savior's mind was a sober mind; a mind dedicated to and centered upon the one purpose of His life - namely to save His people from the dreadful course of their lives which must end in eternal death. Christ was truly man, and thus He was affected by hunger, thirst, pain, hostility, human emotion, and earthly needs. He stood against Satan and world, but He stood always for His people, whose substitute He had become in His Person. Because He was absolutely determined to saving us, every word and deed was intentional deliberate. He assessed every event, every act of others, every word and occasion from this posture. He did not swing wildly in His responsibilities, His feelings, and His expressions. 

Never did Christ compromise or ignore one jot or tittle of the Scriptures, yet consider how he varied His approach to men and situations. When a father implores Him in behalf of a demon-possessed son, Jesus meets the need immediately (cf. Matthew 17:14-23); however, when the Canaanite woman pleads for her daughter who is vexed by a devil, He deliberately delays (cf. Matthew 15:21-28). When the two sons of Zebedee approach Him with their strange request for seats of honor in His kingdom, the Savior chides them gently (cf. Matthew 20:20-24). However,  when Simon Peter attempts to dissuade Jesus from the cross, the Lord rebukes him (cf. Matthew 16:21-23). The Lord could attack the profaning of the Temple by money-changers with controlled indignation (cf. Mark 11:15-19) and admonish the Simon the Pharisee with measured patience (cf. Luke 7:36-49). In each and every case, we can readily see that the Lord's words and actions were carefully tailored to the saving approach which each circumstance dictated. 

Jesus is the pre-eminent example of sobriety, which has in itself the virtue of seeing in each case how Gospel truth, spirit and power will best be employed to promote a truly salutary result. Although we cannot hope to equal His performance, we can learn from it. For those of us who are Americans, we live in a society that is lives for the weekend and is oriented around entertainment and recreation. Our society is generally characterized by silliness, banality, and aimless hedonism, rather than the appropriate seriousness that comes from a saving understanding of the gospel. We must be especially careful not to allow this world to mold us into its likeness and to allow the lullaby of this world to cause us to fall asleep. As Christians, we are exhorted to take a sober stance at all times, in all our relationships with people, with events that confront us in our lives. This requires a circumspect, judicious mind which can properly evaluate the elements in a situation and respond to it in a sound and helpful manner. 

We must also be aware of the counterfeit of this virtue. The people of the world know of something similar to Christian sobriety, but the resemblance is no more than superficial. The world speaks of tact, of diplomacy, of being circumspect, of adapting oneself to situations, of the art of compromise. However, these traits are often done from a self-serving and self-seeking heart, which is the very opposite of Christian sobriety. True sobriety is intentionally directed towards love of God and love of man; it searches out and finds the point at which the converging lines of full and explicit obedience to the Gospel and of the true need of men meet, and there takes proper action in love. 

In light of the grace of God that has come to us, let us pursue maturity by living sober and godly lives in this present age as we wait for our blessed hope.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is Associate Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the College of Charleston, and writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Related Links

Sanctification: The Long Journey Home [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

A Small Book about A BIG Problem by Ed Welch

Sanctification, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]

Sanctification by James Boice  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]

A Heavenly Appetizer


Many Christians today hold to the misconception that the Lord's Supper is nothing other than a memorial meal, a time where we "look back" and reflect upon the death of Christ. This is generally the view of mainstream evangelicalism, though if we are not cautious it can easily become the default position in Reformed congregations as well.

I'm not denying that the Lord's Supper is a time of reflection and remembrance. After all, Jesus commanded His disciples to "do this in remembrance of me." But is that all it is? Our Reformed Confessions say otherwise. More than just remembering Christ, we are actually communing with Him by His Spirit. "Our memories of Christ are no substitute for his living presence," Marcus Johnson writes. "Our recollections of Christ's death, as meaningful and enriching as they are, cannot replace our very participation in the One who was crucified." [1]

So looking back on what Christ has done during our observance of the Supper is not enough. But what I would like to focus on in this brief article is how, in large measure, the sacrament is actually meant to be a time of looking forward in faith and hope about what Christ will do for His people. In fact, it is my firm belief that more than anything else, the Lord's Supper is the most powerful and effective means of exhibiting to us the hope of the new heavens and the new earth.

How so?

Being created in God's image, mankind is made to commune with God. We answer the great purpose for which we were made when we know God, glorify Him, and enjoy Him always. Thus in the Garden there was a call to obedience sent out to Adam (Genesis 2:17). He was expected to respond in faith and submission. As a reward for this obedience, Adam would have been privileged to feast with God at the Tree of Life (3:22). This was the goal: eternal feasting and fellowship with God Himself. In a word, communion. And by God's design, communion is most profoundly expressed and experienced through feasting.

But, of course, man sinned. Communion between man and God was ruptured, and it's full expression in the meal was never realized. But though God dealt punishment by withholding access to the Tree of Life, He does so only for a time. As Scripture unfolds, we see evidence that God was still extending that initial invitation to His image-bearers.

The establishment of Israel as a nation in the Book of Exodus is a grand example. God covenants with His people in a way very similar to that of Adam in the garden. He calls them to obedience (Exodus 20), they are meant to respond in faith (Exodus 24:3, "Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, "All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do"). As a reward, the people feast with God: "Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank" (24:9-11).

They weren't eating of the Tree of Life, but it was all a promise that one day they would. And so a practice was incorporated into Israel's rhythm of worship. This no doubt set the foundation for what was called the shelamin offering, or the peace or fellowship offering. Given only after the atonement or sin offering, we read of this in Leviticus 7. The blood would be offered to God, but the meat would be cooked and their would be a fellowship meal with both the priests and the worshipers. As scholar Tremper Longman writes, "Functionally speaking, the shelamin was a religious celebration with food, a banquet, so to speak, in the presence of God himself."[2]

The practice of covenantal worship found its climax in a meal with God. That drew Israel to the conclusion that our great desire as people of God should be the desire to feast with God face-to-face. Consider how in Luke 14, when Jesus makes a reference to the resurrection of the dead and the eschaton, a well-informed Jew next to him cannot but help make the connection between the end times and eating with God: "Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!" (v.15).  As this guest says, true blessedness is to be able to partake of this future meal. His interpretation of passages like Psalm 22:26, Zephaniah 1:7, and especially Isaiah 25:6-9 was spot on. And if there was any doubt, Revelation proves it. We are given a window into the end when this book shows us that the grand purpose of our eternal worship is to finally feast on the Tree of Life at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9, 22:2, 14).

As you prepare to come to the Lord's Table, think on this: We are given a literal taste of the meal that was extended to Adam at the very beginning, and the meal that we will one day have with Jesus at the very end. If we construe the Supper as only looking back in remembrance upon the death of Christ the sacrament will become more of a funeral than a feast. But if we see that God is pointing us forward in faith to what is to come in the next age, we will be unable to participate with anything but joy and gladness. "If God was faithful to bring his promised Son into the world the first time to live, die, and rise again for our salvation, we can surely trust his promise that Jesus will return at the end of the age to consummate the application of his saving work in our lives."

A staple in historic liturgies has helped worshipers keep this forward focus in the Supper. After partaking of the sacrament, the minister would exhort the congregation to "declare the mystery of faith." In response, they would reply: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." Indeed, it is Christ's return, when He ushers in the new heavens and the new earth, that will once and for all secure our face-to-face fellowship with God that we've been longing for since the Garden. When Christ comes again He will set the table before us and invite us to join Him in eternal fellowship.

When we feast at the Table we are brought into that intimate communion with God that we were made for but sin ruptured. Therefore the sacrament is a way of momentarily experiencing what was always meant to be the norm, and through the Gospel will be our future, everlasting reality. That's why, in many respects, the Lord's Supper is not only the climax of what we do in worship, but it is really anticipating the climax of an entire life of worship.

For those who come to God in faith, we can know this is a meal that has packed into it all the good things that God has been preparing for His people ever since He created us, and all of the good things that He will soon reveal to us.

- - - - - - 

[1] Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 240.

[2] Tremper Longman III, Immanuel in our Place (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 91.

[3] Guy Prentiss Waters, The Lord's Supper (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 91

Jonathan Landry Cruse (MDiv, Westminster Seminary California) is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Kalamazoo, MI. He is the author of The Christian's True Identity: What It Means to Be in Christ (RHB, 2019), and has written articles for numerous publications (including Modern Reformation, Core Christianity, New Horizons, and The Outlook). Several of his contributions to modern hymnody have also been published, some of which are included in the new Trinity Psalter Hymnal (GCP, 2018).

Related Links

What Is the Lord's Supper? by Richard Phillips

Feeding on Christ in the Lord's Supper, according to Calvin and the Westminster Confession by Wayne Spear [ Audio Disc | Download ]

Communing with Christ in His Supper by C.J. Williams [ Audio Disc | Download ]

The Puritans on the Lord's Supper by Joel Beeke

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
  4. Biblical Simplicity in the Lord's Supper
  5. Qualifications for Admission to the Lord's Supper
  6. Right Reception of the Lord's Supper
  7. Hindrances and Benefits of the Lord's Supper

Soul Food and Spiritual Drink


Humans are complex creatures, consisting of body and soul. God formed us out of the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7a). He gave us bodies, making us physical creatures. And He nourishes our bodies with physical things. The Lord provides food to satisfy our hunger and drink to quench our thirst.

But that's only one aspect of the person. God also breathed into us the breath of life (Gen. 2:7b). He gave us souls, making us spiritual creatures. So if He provides physical things for our bodies, how does He nourish our souls?

For many Christians, the answer is obvious: God nourishes our souls with His word. In the Old Testament, listening to the Bible was equated with eating and drinking (Isa. 55:1-2). Jesus also spoke this way in his earthly ministry. As he was tempted in the wilderness, he quoted an ancient truth: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Mt. 4:4, cf. Deut. 8:3). Clearly, the Bible is food for the soul, drink for the spirit.

Yet God offers a full course meal for his people...

Read the full article here.

Patience and Maturity


Over the past several months, I've taken a break from regular writing and blogging because I've been pondering the importance of Christian maturity. The apostle Paul himself stated that one of the central goals of his ministry was to "present every man complete in Christ" (cf. Colossians 1:28-29). This raises some basic questions: (1) What does it means to be "complete in Christ"? (2) Are we all aiming towards the same goal? (3) What is the role of the church and pastoral ministry in fostering maturity?

If we offered these questions to American evangelicals, I think that we would find that we often do not agree on these topics, and that many Reformed Christians would disagree with how those in our Reformed tradition have answered these questions.

A cursory glance of the New Testament shows that patience (along with the closely-related virtues of endurance and perseverance) is one of the most valuable Christian virtues in connection to Christian maturity. In the parable of the soils, we are told the seed in the good soil represents "... the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good hear, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with patience" (cf. Luke 8:15). The Apostle Paul tells us that God arranges the tribulations in our lives in order to produce patience (cf. Romans 5:3-4). Moreover, Christians are exhorted to be "imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (cf. Hebrews 6:12) with Jesus Christ being the pre-eminent example of patience (cf. James 5:7-10;

In contrast, our American society has been conditioned to expect immediate results. As Sinclair Ferguson writes,

"... we are encouraged to become replicas of the icons of our time, molded by the transient fashions they create. A pathetic sameness and unoriginality emerges as we are swept downstream in the flow of society's priorities."

In other words, we have a culture that is image-focused and impulsive, which is contrary to disciplines that are required to produce character. Consequently, we have a society that does not produce many men and women of character. There are few individuals whose moral integrity make them stand out from the crowd and are worthy of emulation.

However, If we were honest with ourselves, this criticism would apply to us as well. There are few Christians in our society whose integrity rises above mere societal norms. In what ways do we observe our lack of patience? First, we observe this in the lost disciplines of Christian piety, particularly of Christian meditation. Second, we observe this in the impulsiveness of Christian work and ministry.

Patience and Meditation

To put this bluntly, we fail to give enough time to prayer and Bible-reading, and we have largely abandoned the practice of meditation. The common feature of these three disciplines is that they require patience over an extended period of time in order to see their fruitfulness. For the Reformed tradition, meditation was a daily duty for every Christian that enhanced every other duty of the Christian life. Edmund Calamy describes daily, deliberate meditation as "a reflecting act of the soul, whereby the soul is carried back to itself, and considers all the things that it knows" and such deliberation dwells upon God, Christ, and truth like "the Bee that dwells upon the flower, to suck out all the sweetness."

The Puritans stressed the need for meditation because (1) it is a Biblical command, (2) the preached Word will fail to profit us without it, and (3) our prayers will be less effective without it. In reflecting of the practice of the Puritans, Joel Beeke writes, "As oil lubricates an engine, so meditation facilitates the diligent use of the means of grace, deeps the marks of grace (repentance, faith, humility), and strengthens one's relationship to others."

The consensus within the Reformed tradition is that it is impossible to become a stable, mature Christian without a diligent cultivation of piety through these disciplines. However, these disciplines are often treated as merely optional today. Some would say that this standard of piety is not practical for our busy world and is impractical due to shorter attention spans. While there may be an element of truth in this statement, we need to acknowledge two points. First, the truth is that we are frequently immersed and engrossed in our own personal interests for extended periods of time. Second, we should be honest to admit that the marked decline in these spiritual disciplines are tied to our expectations. In other words, we expect that spiritual growth and maturity should occur faster than it does, and we lose the motivation to continue when we don't see our desired results.

Patience and Impulsiveness

Impulsiveness among young Christians has always been a struggle; for this reason, God's purpose in the earliest part of our Christian life is to lay a foundation of humility and patience on which He will build in the future. Often, in God's providence, many young Christians to labor in relative obscurity as God uses trials and difficulties to build Christian character. If we examine the Scriptures, we will notice how often His preparation of individuals is slow (such as the lives of Joseph, Moses, and Paul). This is meant to train us to see that God's timetable is not our own and through this process, we will learn patience.

However, in our impulsiveness, we unwisely encourage new Christians--particularly gifted young men--to engage in public activities so early on in their lives that their spiritual growth becomes distorted and the quality of their long-term fruitfulness is diminished. This impulsiveness has only become amplified through the platform offered by social media. The learning of patience during times of obscurity has now been replaced by immediate public validation through social media and blogging. These dangers are not new to us; Paul counseled Timothy not to place young Christians at spiritual peril by exposing them to the temptations of public position and the attendant danger of pride (cf. 1 Timothy 3:6).

Our greatest need is to be patiently shaped by God's word and providence. If we are not patient here with the processes in which the Holy Spirit uses the word to transform us, then our development will be stunted and our fruit will be sub-standard. Is it any wonder that there are fewer Christians (and Christian ministers) whose life and doctrine are worthy of imitation? We cannot short-circuit God's purposes in producing godly character. Humble submission and patience are always required to see an abundant harvest.

These considerations also apply to Christian writing. Just like it takes time to produce godly character in our heart, Christian writing takes patience reflection, observation, and meditation to be useful. How much of our blogging and social media commentary is more of a reflection of our hastiness and impatience rather than a desire to honor God's word?

If maturity was the great goal of the apostles' ministry, then it ought to be a goal in our lives as well. Let us therefore pursue maturity, and become mature in Christ.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is Associate Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the College of Charleston, and writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Related Links

Sanctification: The Long Journey Home [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

A Small Book about A BIG Problem by Ed Welch

Sanctification, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]

Sanctification by James Boice  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]


Reciting the Creed


Why do we recite the historic creeds of the church in our worship services? There are a few ways to answer this question. First, we believe these creeds are really just recitations of the content of Scripture. All we are doing is reading a summary of what the Bible says. Second, we believe recitation leads to memorization. It is very important that we understand the basics of Christianity, and there are just some things that we ought to have memorized. And third, when we recite the creeds, we are affirming that what we believe about the teaching of Scripture is the same as what the Church has believed throughout history.

In October our church will begin reciting the Nicene Creed. The council of Nicaea was the first of what we know as the ecumenical councils of the church, meaning that it was attended by representatives of the global church at that time. The purpose of the council was to deal with one of the greatest threats to the Gospel that had existed up until that point: The heretical teachings of Arius. Arius taught that there was a time when Jesus did not exist. Jesus was not God, but rather a created being. Alexander, a bishop in Alexandria, first took up the challenge of debating Arius, a responsibility that was eventually carried on by Athanasius.

In order to keep the church unified, the Emperor Constantine held the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The result of this council was, of course, known as the Creed of Nicaea, or The Nicene Creed (and also an agreement on when the church should celebrate Easter).

That's all fine, but why should we recite the Nicene Creed today? After all, this creed sounds pretty academic. Doesn't it make it seem as though the Christian faith is just a series of doctrinal affirmations? Isn't Christianity more about a relationship and experience with God? 

It's important to remember--as the Nicene Creed shows us--that orthodoxy and doxology were not always seen as at odds with one another. There was a time when Christians saw the truths we profess as being a source of worship and a reason to rejoice! When we recite and share together in the creeds of the church in a corporate way, we don't just affirm our unity with the universal church that came before; we're also saying aloud that these truths are a cause for worship, and should give rise to joyful songs!

There is another reason we should share in these creeds corporately, and it is a very practical reason: It helps us remember. I believe and hope that we have recited the Apostles' Creed for so long that many of us could recite it in our sleep. Now, if you were to memorize the Nicene Creed, you would be better prepared to help others understand the faith, or to face serious error the next time the Jehovah's Witnesses come to your door.

Perhaps you might ask, "Why would we recite the Nicene Creed when we already have the Apostles' Creed?" The Apostles' Creed has much to commend it. It is shorter, simpler, and easier to remember than some later creeds (the Athanasian Creed, for example). It is also truthful and accurate to Scripture.

But the Apostles' Creed is really the bare minimum of Christian teaching. It doesn't get very specific about the deity of Christ. It doesn't speak to the nature of God beyond the fact that he is the creator. It doesn't speak of the deity of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Apostles' Creed is so general that even a Mormon could affirm it. That doesn't mean the Apostles' Creed is a bad creed, but it does mean that more development was needed that made clearer what the Bible teaches.

I'd like to higlight just a few ways that the Nicene Creed more clearly presents the Bible's teaching. First, the Nicene Creed has a doctrine of the Holy Spirit! The Apostles' Creed simply says, "I believe in the Holy Spirit." The Nicene Creed, on the other hand, has more to say:

"[I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets."

Nicaea makes us aware that the Holy Spirit really is a person of the Godhead, not merely a tacked on formality or affirmation. All three persons are co-eternal and co-equal as God; it is proper that the Spirit receive a greater place of prominence than the Apostles' Creed ascribes to Him. In Nicaea we see the centrality of the Spirit to creation, to Christian worship, and to special revelation. 

Second, perhaps the most important passage in the Nicene Creed is this statement that the Son was of the "same substance" with the Father: 

"[We believe in] one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father."

At first glance this might sound like abstract theological jockeying, but it was actually profoundly important for the Christian faith. How is the Son related to the Father? The answer changes how you see all of the universe, how you understand salvation, and how you think about your own relationship to God when you trust in Jesus. When Jesus died was he able to bear the full penalty of sin against the Holy God? If we are united to Christ by faith are we fully united to God? Is it appropriate to worship Jesus just like we do the Father? If you get these questions wrong, you get the Christian faith wrong. 

Yet as Carl Trueman reminds us, this creed does not only help us to remember, affirm, and speak propositional truths; it unites us as well:

"In reciting the creeds, the purpose is not simply to declare a set of propositional truths. Rather, the action is somewhat richer than that: to state the obvious, in reciting the words of the creeds together, each member of the congregation publicly identifies with every other member in expressing a corporate unity of belief in a common gospel. They are also expressing their common belief with every other Christian throughout history who has used these words to witness to Christ. Further, they are reminding themselves and each other of who God is and what he has done. In other words, the creeds, in liturgical context, become a means of fulfilling the public declaration that Romans 10 demands of believers: the confession (a document) becomes a confession (an act of pointing toward Christ before the church and the world)" [The Creedal Imperative, p. 144].

Adam Parker is the pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church (PCA), a regular contributor to Reformation 21, an adjunct professor at Belhaven University, and most importantly husband to Arryn and father of four.

Related Links

Our Glorious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download  ]

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw

Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain

Athanasius (Christian Biographies For Young Readers) by Simonetta Carr

Noah's first deed upon exiting the ark -- at least as recorded in Scripture -- was to build an altar and offer unto God sacrifices. He did this from the "clean" animals and birds which had accompanied him and his family on his recent water-based adventures. God, for his part, smelled Noah's sacrifices and apparently found the scent agreeable (Gen. 8:20). Calvin is quick to point out the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic nature of this statement, lest anyone think that God actually has nostrils or, even worse, actually deems pleasing per se the "filthy smoke of entrails, and of flesh."

Calvin is, of course, equally keen to discover what it was about Noah's sacrifices that particularly pleased God, in order to learn how we might perform acts of worship that bring pleasure to the one who has redeemed us from the flood-waters of sin, death, and hell.

Calvin ultimately discovers two ingredients in Noah's worship that rendered it pleasing to God. The first is Noah's faith. Faith is, according to the author of Hebrews, the sine qua non of pleasing God (Heb. 11:6). Noah was a man who, by virtue of his recent experiences, had a fair share of confidence in God. Even when Noah had removed the door of the ark and found the earth dry (Gen. 8:13), he remained in the ark until God bid him leave it (Gen. 8:15). "Thus we see,"Calvin observes,

"...that by a continual course of faith, the holy man was obedient to God; because, at God's command, he entered the ark, and there remained until God opened the way for his egress; and because he chose rather to lie in a tainted atmosphere than to breathe the free air, until he should feel assured that his removal would be pleasing to God."

Noah's reluctance to exit the ark without divine bidding was apparently informed by the tremendous episode of judgment and salvation he had just witnessed/experienced. It was clear to Noah that God was no one to be trifled with. It was equally clear that God was a God who kept his promises. The only sensible thing to do, in light of who God had just revealed himself to be, was to cast himself entirely upon God's mercy and obey his word, even to the minutest detail. It was this very remarkable sense of God's reality and power, and God's utter trustworthiness, which informed Noah's sacrifices and rendered them fragrant to God. Such faith should, of course, inform every person's worship of God: "This general rule, therefore, is to be observed, that all religious services which are not perfumed with the odour of faith, are of an ill-savour before God."

We should not, however, conclude that any old act of worship informed by faith is pleasing to God. The second ingredient -- also absolutely essential -- to sweet-smelling worship is careful attention to God's own instructions regarding how he wishes to be worshiped. Calvin admits that no explicit command to Noah to offer sacrifices is discovered in the biblical text, but nevertheless argues that Noah "rested upon the word of God, and... in reliance on the divine command... rendered this worship, which he knew, indubitably, would be acceptable to God." God's intention for Noah to offer animal sacrifices to him as an expression of gratitude for his salvation following the flood is discernible, Calvin argues, in the pre-flood instruction to take on board seven (three pairs plus one) of every clean animal, the seventh, un-paired animal being included "for the sake of sacrifice." It would, of course, have been useless to include a seventh specimen of every clean animal "unless God had revealed this design to holy Noah, who was to be the priest to offer up the victims."

The pre-flood "divine command" to sacrifice post-flood is also discernible in the distinction noted between clean and un-clean animals as such. "It is certain that Noah did not invent this distinction for himself, since it does not depend on human choice." All in all, it is apparent, in Calvin's judgment, that God had given Noah fairly detailed instructions regarding the sacrifices that he should make following the flood, even before the first drops of rain fell. "We conclude that he undertook nothing without divine authority." Calvin's argument certainly makes good sense of what Noah actually did upon exiting the ark. Noah got busy making sacrifices as soon as his feet hit dry ground because God, who had just revealed himself to Noah in a remarkable episode of judgment and salvation, had previously instructed him to do just that.

The lesson we are meant to take from this is decidedly not that we, however full of faith, should offer animal sacrifices unto God. Animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were picture prophecies of the Seed who would come to crush the head of the Serpent by offering himself up as an atonement for the sins of his people. In other words, 

"It was right that [Old Testament believers] should always have before their eyes symbols, by which they would be admonished, that they could have no access to God but through a mediator. Now, however, the manifestation of Christ has taken away these ancient shadows."

For that matter, however, Noah's sacrifices (in Calvin's judgment) were more like the "first fruits" offerings the people of Israel would eventually bring God in grateful acknowledgment of God's deliverance of them (cf. Deut. 26) than those sacrifices which properly pre-figured Christ (the true sin-bearing sacrifice).

In any case, the lesson we are meant to take from Noah's sacrifices is that our own worship, if we would have it be pleasing to God, must likewise be performed in faith and careful attention to God's own instructions about how he should be worshiped. We are, of course, not free to simply go through the proper motions of worship, without hearts full of faith. We are, equally, not free to worship God in whatever way we deem suitable, provided our hearts are full of faith. Both worship uninformed by faith and worship unsolicited by God are putrid in his nostrils. Only when we worship him as he has expressly commanded us to do, and do so in faith, is our worship fragrant to him.

Noah's faith, as noted, was informed by his participation in a rather remarkable episode of judgment and salvation. We who stand on this side of the Cross have been made witnesses to and participants in a rather more remarkable episode of judgment and salvation; we have been spared the flood-waters of God's wrath insofar as they have been poured out on our substitute. The faith that informs our own worship has no less substantial a foundation than Noah's faith had. 

And we, like Noah, have been given very clear instructions in Scripture concerning the kind of worship we should offer unto God, whether in private, familial, or corporate-ecclesial settings.

May we, then, be as quick and ready as Noah was to offer unto God our own faith-full and obedient sacrifices.

Aaron Denlinger (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is the Department Head of Latin and Bible at Arma Dei Academy in Highlands Ranch, CO. He has written on church history and historical theology in various journals, collections, and other publications, including Reformation Theology (Crossway, 2017). 

Related Links:

Worship: The Chief End of Man (Quakertown Conference on Reformed Theology 2019)

The God We Worship, edited by Jonathan Master

Reformation Worship Conference: Anthology

An Open Letter to Worship Leaders by Scott Swain

Editors Note: This post originally appeared at reformation21 in December of 2014.

Ain't Just Putting On the Ritz


Only a few days after Josh Harris told Instagram that he is no longer a Christian, Marty Sampson similarly announced that he is "genuinely losing [his] faith." To briefly summarize, the former Hillsong United lead singer is apparently the first person to notice that miracles aren't commonplace today (it might have be good for him to first study why miracles are less common today than, say, the days right after Pentecost). Sampson also mentioned that he is tired of Christians saying "I just believe" without giving reasons, which certainly is a problem. Still, neither of these are actual arguments against Christianity; they are arguments against a shallow faith that does not seek out answers.

It is always discouraging to hear someone say that they have abandoned the faith. Each of us, if we've lived long enough, have known, loved, and trusted people who eventually became apostate. Yet if social media is any indication, many are particularly crushed at the news about Sampson leaving the faith. They listened to his songs day after day. In some cases, they even sang his songs on Sunday mornings, and took spiritual encouragement from them. 

I might gently suggest that it was never God's intention for Christian singers to occupy such an important spiritual place in Christians' lives. Many Christians have learned to shape their spiritual lives and experiences around Christian music and radio. I'm not saying that those things are bad, or that God cannot use them in our lives, but there's a problem any time Christians begin to replace their own exposure to the Bible and preaching with music.

It may be tempting to look at singers as spiritual leaders, in part because music is powerful. Music creates a sensation and provides an experience that is undeniable, similar to how eating cotton candy provides an experience. But if we lived our lives for that experience, our stomachs would eventually go hungry and our teeth would fall out. We need substance that feeds, strengthens, and undergirds the experience.

A few weeks ago I saw a documentary about the band U2. I remember hearing a remark by Bono about their concert set list:

"Whenever we want God to walk through the room, that's when we play 'Where the Streets Have No Name.'"

I think I know what he means: When they want to lift people's eyes up with a sense of grandeur, to transport people to another place where they feel small in the universe, they play that particular song. I've seen U2 in concert numerous times, and I've felt that sensation myself. Music has the power to create powerful experiences; the temptation is to want to live for those experiences. We may even wonder why our church isn't like that, and begin to yearn more for inward experience rather than the reality of what God has actually said and done. 

When I was a teenager in the mid/late 90s, I really enjoyed listening to a Christian band called Skillet. They had a crunchy, industrial guitar sound paired with heavily distorted vocals (think Nine Inch Nails, if you know who that is), but the lyrics were basically Christian. They're still around today, and lead singer John Cooper recently reflected on Sampson's apostasy: 

"My conclusion for the church (all of us Christians): We must STOP making worship leaders and thought leaders or influencers or cool people or "relevant" people the most influential people in Christendom. (And yes that includes people like me!) I've been saying for 20 years (and seemed probably quite judgmental to some of my peers) that we are in a dangerous place when the church is looking to 20 year old worship singers as our source of truth. We now have a church culture that learns who God is from singing modern praise songs rather than from the teachings of the Word...singers are not always the best people to write solid bible truth and doctrine. Sometimes we are too young, too ignorant of scripture, too unaware, or too unconcerned about the purity of scripture and the holiness of the God we are singing to." [1]

Another one of my favorite Christian singers from the '90s was Rich Mullins. Mullins did what he could to steer people away from himself as some spiritual source and steer people towards the local church. I recall at one of his concerts he simply stopped after one song and reminded those in attendance that his concert wasn't a church service: 

"It's so funny being a Christian musician. It always scares me when people think so highly of Christian music, Contemporary Christian music especially. Because I kinda go, 'I know a lot of us, and we don't know jack about anything.' Not that I don't want you to buy our records and come to our concerts. I sure do. But you should come for entertainment. If you really want spiritual nourishment, you should go to should read the Scriptures." [2]

I know it sounds like I'm bagging on Christian music, but I'm really not. Christian music has a place in my own life, and I appreciate it. But we should be careful to put it in its place and maintain a healthy perspective on its relationship to our own hearts. The ordinary means God has given us to grow are prayer, the sacraments, and the reading and preaching of the Bible. Let's start there, and build our spiritual health around those things first and foremost.


[1] Posted on Facebook, August 13, 2019.

[2] cf. Lufkin, Texas Concert Transcript, Carpenter's Way Christian Church, July 19, 1997.

Adam Parker is the pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church (PCA) and an adjunct professor at Belhaven University. Most importantly, he is husband to Arryn and father of four.

Related Links

Worship: The Chief End of Man (Quakertown Conference on Reformed Theology 2019)

The God We Worship, edited by Jonathan Master

Reformation Worship Conference: Anthology

An Open Letter to Worship Leaders by Scott Swain

Something is terribly wrong when professing Christians do not identify with the church and love being a part of her. Something is wrong when professing Christians fail to be passionate about every aspect of the church and long to invest themselves in her, taking all that the church represents and does to heart. Listen, for example, to the way Paul instructs the Ephesians: "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:25-27).

I fell in love with the church the moment I was converted as a freshman in college in 1971. Having never attended any church until then, I discovered a community that was, to me, like a family: caring, loving, and nourishing. The church I found was able to tell me that I was wrong about some things without driving me away. I knew that I was loved. The church showed me acts of kindness and fellowship that I recall with affection to this day. I was introduced to expository preaching from the start - a style of preaching that puts the Bible above the personality and idiosyncrasies of the preacher. I discovered communal prayer times, and joyful singing, all of which have been the mainstay of my Christian life ever since. True, I have had my share of worship wars, when Christians disagree over important things and sometimes trivial things; but for all that, I have taken delight in her rituals of song and sacrament, prayer and proclamation, more times than I can relate. I love the church. I fully endorse Calvin's way of putting it (and the shadow of Cyprian that lies behind it): "For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels" (Inst. 4.1.4). In the church, I have discovered saints and angels (though not, as far as I know, real angels). I have witnessed deeds of extraordinary kindness done to myself and to others, and I have been the beneficiary of kindnesses done to me by those who remained anonymous.

Yes, there is a dark side to the church as there is to all things in this fallen world. The church is not perfect. It has her share of malcontents and killjoys, her energy-sapping attention-getters and despondent hearts. Adullam's cave has nothing on some churches I have seen, but none of this robs me of my love for the church. Even at her most eccentric - the King James Version's rendition of 1 Peter 2:9 as "ye are ... a peculiar people" is painfully accurate, if quaint -- she is still Christ's body. "Love me, love my church" is what Jesus seems to say in the Bible. I would not have it any other way. Would you?

*This post is a modification of a post originally published at Ref21 in September of 2009. 

Praying for the Dead


An individual dies and social media is flooded with sentiments about prayers for the deceased and their family members. Without doubt, it is altogether right and in keeping with a spirit of true Christian charity to pray fervently for the family members of one who has passed away. Any number of prayers can and should be offered to God on behalf of the those grieving the loss of their loved one. If the deceased and his or her family members are believers, they need other Christians to be praying for the comfort of the Gospel and the promise of the resurrection. If the family members of the deceased are unbelievers, they need us to be praying for them to come to know the saving grace of God in Christ. They may also need our prayers for their relational and material needs. However, it should strike us as strange to read statements--such as, "Praying that God will have mercy on him or her" or "May God grant that he or she may rest in peace"--made by professing Evangelicals about an individual who has recently died. It could be that such sentiments are merely tongue in cheek. However, we ought not consider this to be an insignificant matter. The Scriptures lack the slightest hint of support for any notion of intercession on the part of one believer for another postmortem. This is also a matter upon which the church has spoken early and often. 

In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck explained, 

"The Reformed rejected this intercession for the dead on the ground that their lot was unalterably decided at death. The fact is that neither the Old nor the New Testament breathes a word about such intercession...Intercession for the dead, therefore, has no basis whatever in Scripture, as Tertullian for that matter already recognized. For after he had discussed various church practices, including sacrifices for the dead (De corona militus, ch. 3), he added in chapter 4: 'If, for these and other such rules, you insist on having positive scriptural injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer"...Since, then, intercession for the dead cannot stand the test of Scripture, the question concerning its utility and comfort is no longer appropriate. All the same, these two things are hardly demonstrable. For though it seems a beautiful thing that the living can help the dead by their intercessions and make up for the wrong they have perhaps done to them during their lifetime, in fact this church practice takes Christian piety in a totally wrong direction. It gives the impression that--contrary to Matt. 8:22--caring for the dead is of greater value than love for the living; it credits one's own works and prayers with a meritorious, expiatory power that is effective even on the other side of the grave and benefits the dead; it is based on and conducive to the doctrine of purgatory, which, on the one hand, especially among the rich, fosters unconcern and, on the other hand, perpetuates the uncertainty of believers; and in the minds of Christians it weakens confidence in the sufficiency of the sacrifice and intercession of Christ."1

The Westminster Confession of Faith could also not be any clearer about the state of a person at death. In the chapter, "Of the State of Men After Death, and the Resurrection of the Dead," the Divines wrote, 

"The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption:a but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none" (WCF 32.1).

Since there is no purgatory, no holding place for the spirits of men and women upon death, and no soul sleep, there is no reason for a practice of intercession on behalf of those who have died. No amount of textual sophistry on the interpretation of passages such as Luke 16:19-31, 1 Cor. 15:29, or 1 Peter 3:18-20 can overpower the clear teaching of Scripture that when a man or woman dies, his or her spirit goes immediately to heaven or hell. Both the Old and New Testaments set forth a litany of examples of believers burying their loved ones, yet there is not the slightest intimation that any prayers were offered for them. John Calvin, in his polemics against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding purgatory and prayers for the deceased, wrote, 

"When, therefore, my opponents object, that it has been the practice for thirteen hundred years to offer prayers for the dead, I, in return, ask them, by what word of God, by what revelation, by what example it was done? For here not only are passages of Scripture wanting, but in the examples of all the saints of whom we read, nothing of the kind is seen. We have numerous, and sometimes long narratives, of their mourning and sepulchral rites, but not one word is said of prayers. [Scripture relates oftentimes and at great length, how the faithful lamented the death of their relations, and how they buried them: but that they prayed for them is never hinted at.] But the more important the matter was, the more they ought to have dwelt upon it. Even those who in ancient times offered prayers for the dead, saw that they were not supported by the command of God and legitimate example. Why then did they presume to do it? I hold that herein they suffered the common lot of man, and therefore maintain, that what they did is not to be imitated. Believers ought not to engage in any work without a firm conviction of its propriety, as Paul enjoins (Rom. 14:23); and this conviction is expressly requisite in prayer. It is to be presumed, however, that they were influenced by some reason; they sought a solace for their sorrow, and it seemed cruel not to give some attestation of their love to the dead, when in the presence of God. All know by experience how natural it is for the human mind thus to feel."2

The Scriptures teach us that of all the things about which we should care the most in life, our religious practices and prayers are of utmost importance. Jesus often rebuked religious leaders for their unbiblical customs and prayers--whether on account of a lack of divine institution, truthfulness or sincerity. In keeping in step with the teaching of Scripture and the practice of biblical churches, I would strongly assert with Calvin and Bavinck that though "it seems a beautiful thing that the living can help the dead by their intercessions and make up for the wrong they have perhaps done to them during their lifetime" we "ought not to engage in any work without a firm conviction of its propriety."

1. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 638.

2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997).

The Scripture's the Limit


Worship is truly the greatest privilege of the creature and all of creation is morally obligated to worship the Creator. When the topic of worship is usually discussed today, however, so much of the discussion involves musical style and preferences. This was not, in fact, the focus of the Reformed Confessions. Regarding worship, the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith states:

"... But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures" (LBC 22.1).

Most interesting is the way in which the authors insist that the acceptable worship of God is..."limited by His own revealed will." The common caricature of this statement is that it is inherently stifling to worship. However, the more I think about this particular phrase, the more I am convinced that it is a reminder that the essence of our public worship is only to be governed by the knowledge of God which comes through His Word.

I grew up in settings in which it was common for people to treat "worship" as a mysterious act to be explained by catchy clichés such as, "worship is a lifestyle." I have subsequently come to realize that such sayings fail to answer how we should worship. Others cautioned me about false worship, but their definition of true worship was shrouded with mysticism and subjectivism (i.e. "in my experience, worship is ____"). Still others equated an acceptable worship experience with meditative music in the service. If we divorce our understanding of worship from the Scripture, then we will, by default, make up our own criteria for worship.

The more we grow in the knowledge of God by understanding His Word, the more we begin to understand the nature of biblical worship. The Apostle Paul gives us beautiful examples of how one should apply the knowledge of God to their worship. Paul often wrote about lofty biblical truths and then conclude his discussion with a doxology. This suggests that the Apostle was overwhelmed by the glory of God while discussing these truths and thus, he found that it was only fitting to write a doxology after reflecting on a given topic. There are three passages in which Paul models how worship grows from our knowledge of God and His own revealed will: Romans 11:33-36; Ephesians 3:14-21; and 1 Timothy 1:15-17.

God's Eternal Purpose and Worship

In Romans 11:33-36 Paul concludes his survey of the accomplishment of salvation. After meditating on his conclusion he exclaims, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!" Paul was left in awe of the wisdom and knowledge of God. In reflecting on our justification by Christ's righteousness, our election by the Father, the calling of the Gentiles, the partial rejection of the Jews, and the final restoration of the Jews, Paul breaks forth into exclamation. God's ways are not our ways! When we mediate on our salvation, we see that it is truly a profound display of God's knowledge and wisdom. We know that we will not fully comprehend this salvation, but what God has revealed of His work of salvation is the basis for the worship of God.

Consider how much of our corporate worship is focused on our union with Christ and the salvific benefits that flow from that union. As we grow in our understanding of the depth of God's wisdom in salvation, we will understand the subtleties and nuances of Paul's doxology. The saints throughout the ages have also mediated upon God's wisdom. We now have the rich hymnody that we have as a consequence of their meditations. When we reflect on God's dealings with us, it humbles us to the dust and initiates prayer and praise towards God. The more we come to understand this, the more it deepens our worship of God. This is the essence of the regulative principle of worship: as we meditate on God's revelation in the Scripture, the content of our worship is shaped by it and it drives us to worship Him.

The Love of God and Worship

Ephesians 3:14-21 concludes Paul's discussion of unsearchable riches of Christ for the Gentiles. As he begins to pray for the Ephesians for perseverance, he writes,

"Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen."

In this doxology, Paul prays that believers would comprehend that they are fully grounded in the love of Christ that "surpasses knowledge." In reflecting on the greatness of God's love, Paul again breaks off to a doxology, knowing that God will answer his prayer in superabundant ways. Paul is astonished by the truth of the sure foundation that he is resting on and realizes how able and willing God is to accomplish this. In other words, the eternal purpose and power of God is so abundant towards His church that we can be sure that He will accomplish more than we could even think. The thought that He has prepared a glorious future for His church causes Paul to worship God for His goodness and love. Here, Scripture indicates that our worship for God deepens as we understand God's purpose for our redemption and as we become more assured of the glorious future of the Church because of God's grace and mercy. 

Our Testimony and Worship

In Paul's first letter to Timothy, Paul gives his personal testimony of his conversion and in acknowledging his own sinfulness, he writes

"The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen" 1 Timothy 1:15-17.

The Apostle doesn't describe the details of his conversion, but simply states that he is the direct product of mercy. The mercy he received was not only for himself, but it was to magnify God's patience. Here, we see why our personal testimonies are a cause for worship. It can also be said that our entire life before our conversion have been designed to reveal God's patience towards us. We can look back on our lives and observe how patience God has been towards us and here, we see a reason to praise God.

From these examples of Paul's doxology, we discover that God's revealed will is the sure foundation for our spiritual service of worship. As we grow deeper in our understanding of God's Word, then our understanding of God inevitably deepens and thus, our desire to worship God according to His word deepens. Worship is directly correlated to our understanding of God's word and inseparable from our theology. Therefore, we must conclude that true worship is "limited by His own revealed will." 

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

The Zwinglian Option


You will have heard of the "Benedict Option" for coping with the culture wars. I would like to propose to Reformed Protestants the "Zwinglian Option" for ending the worship wars: eliminate all music from our public services. Zwingli, the outstanding musician among the Reformers, removed all music from the church in Zurich. We wring our hands over our worship divisions. The two ends of liturgical spectrum endlessly annoy each other. Think about it. Take away the music and we have little left to fight about. No more arguments about instrumentation. No more fights about types of songs. No more conflicts about the amount of time spent singing. Take it all away. No more music. No more songs. No more singing. This would be a very painful option for me personally. I love metrical psalmody. What is better than worshipping with a congregation that knows the Trinity Hymnal version of Psalm 51 to Redhead ("God Be Merciful to Me") or Psalm 146 to Ripley ("Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah") or Psalm 23 to Crimond ("The Lord's My Shepherd")? It would be an equally painful option because I love classic hymnody. What is more moving than a full house of worshippers singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" to Nicea, or "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" to Hamburg.

The loss would be significant, yet the gains would be abundant. No more heartburn for traditionalists when the bongo drums and tamborines are unleashed. No more inward groans when we sing a mediocre modern tune with mediocre lyrics as led by unordained "worship leaders." For the other side of the spectrum, we'd have to give up today's favorite contemporary praise songs and modernized hymnody. But think of what we'd gain: no more dreary old hymn tunes to dampen the spirit. No more funeral dirges to inflict on otherwise celebratory services. Remove all music and nothing is left to distress anyone.

Unity in worship

What would be left? Only that upon which we can all agree. Reformed worship in all its beauty and simplicity would remain:

  • a full-diet of biblical prayer (praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercessions, illumination, and benediction)
  • lectio continua readings of Scripture, or at least substantial readings
  • expository preaching, hopefully of sequential texts, taking congregations through books of the Bible, but at least of texts selected topically
  • regular administration of the sacraments

Who possibly could object to these slimmed down services? Can you not envision the happy result for those who move from one community to another, or those on vacation, as hither to unknown Reformed churches are visited, and nothing is found to complain about at the services?

Let's walk through such a service. A strong opening prayer of praise might be offered, followed by a chapter read from the Old Testament. A prayer of confession of sin with thanksgiving for pardon might come next. Perhaps a baptism might follow. Then the sermon text might be read followed by the sermon. Prayers of intercession followed by the benediction might end the service. What do we have? A simple, substantial, spiritual service. No one is jockeying for "their" music. No one is upset because the service is too light and frivolous or too heavy and serious. No one is uncomfortable because of the emotional restraint and staid postures of the old-schoolers or the emotional excesses and bodily movements of the new-schoolers. Our congregations are unified and at peace. Our denomination is unified at that most vital of times, the hour of worship. Everyone knows what to expect when he or she visits one of our Reformed churches. The solution to the worship wars easily is solved by the Zwinglian Option. No more music. No more singing. No more songs. Nothing remains to divide us. Music has become an idol that divides the church. Let us then smash it.

Genevan option

Is the "Zwinglian Option" too severe? I suspect many will consider it so. Let me then modify my solution to the worship wars by offering a second option, a tweaked version of the first: the "Genevan Option." The Genevan Option would be less stringent and more palatable for many. Let's restore the singing. However, we'll continue to eliminate the instrumentation as in the Zwinglian Option. No more musical instruments. All singing would be acapella. There, isn't that better? Don't for a moment think that this is unworkable. Reformed Protestants worshipped without instruments for nearly 300 years, which, by the way, is longer than we have worshipped with them. Our friends at the RPCNA will assure us that unaccompanied singing is the most beautiful of all church music. The human voice, after all, is the most beautiful of musical instruments. We'll get used to it, and for most people it will beat the Zwinglian Option. Unconvinced? You are thinking that we'll still fight over the types of songs that we'll sing? My answer is, yes and no. Without instruments to carry the song, the two extreme ends of the musical spectrum will quickly be eliminated. The contemporary music that is more suited to performers will prove unsingable for congregations without instrumental support, as will overly complicated classical music. This will push our song selection into the middle of the spectrum where consensus is more likely.

Or, we could go a step further with the Genevan Option and eliminate hymns along with instruments. This would not be my preference. Yet if we're going to argue about whose songs get sung, let's settle the issue by limiting our songs to the Psalms, metrical psalms. Again, this is not unprecedented. After all, this is all that Reformed Protestants sang in their public services until Isaac Watts and his contemporaries gained widespread acceptance in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Surely it would not be onerous merely to return to the dominant practice of our forefathers for the better part of 300 years.

There. We've done it. We have a way forward. We can reunite our divided churches by one of two paths, the Zwinglian Option or the Genevan Option. Plenty of latitude remains: we may or may not utilize the Creeds and the Ten Commandments ("lawful oaths") in our orders of services; we may administer the Lord's Supper weekly, monthly, or quarterly; a wonderful variety continues in our prayers, readings, and preaching. Plenty remains in our services to thrill the heart and feed the soul. They will continue to be God-centered, gospel-structured, word-filled, church-aware, and Spirit-dependent. The path ahead for us is clear. All we need do to restore church unity is give up our songs or at least our instruments, or at least our instruments and hymns. Surprisingly easy, isn't it?

A Psalm-Singing Resurgence


We are experiencing something of a Psalm-singing resurgence in our day. Resources abound online for people who would like to learn more about psalm singing. Churches are making strategic plans to train their members in singing the psalms. Blogs buzz with excitement over the Psalter. It is undeniable that the church is waking up to that which once marked it--the passionate singing of psalms. I am a child of this movement. 

As a seminary student at RTS in Charlotte, NC, I stood looking at the blue sign that said NTGreekIntro as it hung over neatly stacked volumes awaiting the next batch of seminary students. I was one of those students and it was my first visit to the bookstore. I read the list. Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek--check. UBS Greek New Testament--check. Trinity Psalter--huh?

I thought I was signing up for a class on New Testament Greek. Why was I being asked to purchase an Old Testament book in English? The words "required text" overpowered my confusion and I purchased my first psalter. I would soon discover that Dr. Cara's Greek class, and all of his classes for that matter, began with the mandatory singing of a psalm. I became a psalm singer by requisite. 

So, how does someone set about the task of rediscovering the psalms? First, you must keep the benefits that God attaches to worshiping with the psalms before you. Second, you must decide practically how you will begin singing psalms in private, family, and corporate worship.

What benefits should you expect from singing Psalms?

When you sing psalms you sing the Bible. The hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" is a moving meditation on the cross of Christ. No hymn matches "For All the Saints" in its contemplation on the communion of the saints. But neither of these hymns are the actual words of the Bible. They are reflections on it. Forgetting for a moment that we are not singing the psalms in Hebrew, we are still singing the very words of God. The versification, themes, and content of the psalms are the inspired word of God for his church in every age. When you sing a psalm you sing the Bible.

When you sing the psalms you interact with a wealth of theology. Martin Luther said of the Psalter, "that it might well be entitled a Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended." The 150 psalms cover the span of theology. To learn the psalms is not just to learn a specific topic of theology. It is to learn about every area of theology. Anthropology, theology proper, a theology of Scripture, Christology, soteriology, eccleisiology, and eschatology are all covered in the Psalter. Take for example Psalm 19 and its two part contemplation of God's revelation in creation and in the Bible. Or consider John Calvin's observation of God's attributes in Psalm 145, "in which the sum of all his powers is so precisely reckoned up that nothing would seem to have been omitted." The psalms provide a thorough exposure to the fullness of theology.

When you sing the psalms you are memorizing Scripture. An important part of Christian maturity is the ability to recall passages of Scripture at need. Educational circles have long advocated the use of music to aid memorization. Music has a way of impressing truth into the mind in ways that reading alone cannot. This is no accident; it is the providential hand of our Creator God. He wants you to memorize his word and has provided a mnemonic for easy memory--the Psalter as Scripture set to music.

When you sing the psalms you guard against heresy. Andrew Fletcher said, "Let me write a country's songs, and I care not who writes its laws." He was on to something. Songs drive information deep into our hearts. However, this power can be used for ill means. As long as the church has existed, songs have been used to inculcate heresy. There is an assumption that if you can sing it then it must be true. How shall we guard against sung-heresy? Sing psalms.

When you sing the psalms you engage a collection of songs that address the full range of human emotions. Godly anger, heart-wrenching sorrow, dark depression, effulgent joy, honest questioning, and exuberant praise are just a sampling of the emotional range covered by the psalms. Most churches sense the burden of teaching their people how to think. Very few consider their responsibility to teach their people how to feel. Christians do not struggle with feeling. Feeling just happens. But our feelings must be trained by the gospel as much as our minds must. The psalms serve as the class room of our affections.

When you sing the psalms you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ. One of the most ignorant statements a Christian can make against psalm singing is, "I don't sing psalms because they aren't about Jesus." Too many evangelicals--having unwittingly drunk deep of the Marcionite heresy--have ceased to see the Old Testament, and especially the psalms, as a masterpiece of redemptive history telling in types, shadows, and rituals the person and work of Jesus Christ. When the earliest Christians wanted to sing praise to God for the redemption wrought by Jesus' atoning death they turned to the psalms. It is sheer biblical ignorance and chronological snobbery to assume we can write better songs about Jesus than are provided in the psalms through the lens of the New Testament. To sing the psalms is to sing of the person and work of Christ.

When you sing the psalms you are training for spiritual warfare. As my Peruvian friend insisted, the psalms are militant. They are filled with images of war, divine conquest, and righteous triumph. Are those themes no longer needed in our day? As we watch men leave the church in droves dismayed at the feminization of worship is their no need for masculine, militant spirituality? As we watch Satan and his legions pillage congregations and hold Christians captive in doubts and error do we not need songs of war? J. C. Ryle understood this crucial element of Christian worship when he said, "true Christianity is the fight of faith." What songs will the armies of God sing to steel courage and embolden spiritual warfare? When we sing the psalms we sing the songs of war against sin, the world, and the devil.

When you sing the psalms you are engaging the communion of saints. The psalms were composed over a certain period in Israelite history. But they are not relics. They have been sung by the covenant people of God in each successive generation up to today. They will be sung until Christ's return. This touches on the doctrine of the communion of the saints. There is a solidarity in Christ for all who have been bought by his blood. That solidarity extends across cultures and generations. The psalms are rooted in the covenant identity of all God's chosen race. To sing them is to confess the communion of saints.

How can you learn to sing the Psalms?

First, find a Psalter you can sing. Notice I didn't simply say, "find a Psalter". Just as the best Bible translation is the one you read so the best Psalter is the one you sing. Different Psalters are suited to different musical abilities--congregational and personal. Some set each psalm to a particular tune while others simply provide the suggested meter allowing you to choose the tune. Don't buy a Psalter you can't sing.

I own three Psalters. The Trinity Psalter (Crown and Covenant) was developed for my denomination for use in congregational worship. It provides a single suggested tune for each psalm and breaks long psalms up into suggested portions. The Book of Psalms for Worship (Crown and Covenant) also suggests tunes for each psalm but provides multiple settings for each psalm taken from different historic Psalters. This method provides you with more options--helpful if you don't know a particular tune or prefer a different versification. The third and most used psalter I own is The Psalms of David in Metre (Trinitarian Bible Society). This is the version that follows the 1650 Scottish Psalter. It provides each psalm in the common meter. While lacking in musical sophistication this version is imminently singable.

Secondly, you must know your Bible. Devote special study to the background of the Psalms. Ask your pastor to suggest good commentaries on the Psalms. Purchase a Bible with cross-references and note where Psalms are quoted in the New Testament. Let the authors of the New Testament teach you how to apply the psalms to Christian worship and life.

Let me also add the suggestion that you read a good book on redemptive history. Graeme Goldworthy's According to Plan is a great place to start. A good foundation in the Bible's overarching plan of redemption and how it culminates in Jesus Christ is essential to singing the psalms well. For example, what are you singing about when you ask God, "to let you dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Psalm 27:4)? Should you set up a cot in your local church? Or, what does it mean to praise God for his protection of Jerusalem (Psalm 51:18)? By Jerusalem, do you mean geographic Jerusalem or the Christian church? A good background in redemptive history--sometimes called biblical theology--is essential to answering these questions and others as you seek to sing the psalms with understanding.

Third, to sing the psalms well you must understand how the psalms direct us to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Again, a Bible with cross references is valuable in this type of study. Many psalms are directly fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. The authors of the New Testament regularly draw on the psalms to describe what was accomplished on the Cross. The beauty of the psalms is magnified as they are placed in the setting of God's redemptive work in Jesus Christ. The psalms are thoroughly Christian--being centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. We sing the psalms at the foot of the Cross.

The fourth thing you will need is the willingness to try something new. Psalm singing can be difficult for someone who has been raised solely on a diet of Reformation and post-Reformation hymns. Psalm singing can be downright alien for someone who has only known modern praise songs. But the promised benefits--briefly mentioned above--are immense. It is not easy work but it is good work. It is not quick work but it provides long-term, lasting joys.

A church that refuses to sing the psalms places itself on a restricted spiritual diet that will result in spiritual malnutrition. Psalm singing is a staple in Christian worship no matter what your view on hymns. If you want to read more on the interface of hymns and psalms throughout the history of Reformed worship let me suggest to you chapter 4 of Hughes Oliphant Old's book, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture.

*This is an adaptation of an article originally published at Ref21 in June of 2008.

Everyone Plays a Part in Preaching


Every Christian needs to understand the theology of preaching in Scripture because Christ designed every Christian to sit under sermons. Yet are there ways for all believers to participate in sermons?

All Christians, and not the preacher only, should participate actively in the preparation, delivery, and reception of sermons. While this may sound ambiguous and surprising initially, drawing broadly from biblical principles shows that we all have a role to play in preaching, whether or not we are preachers.

All Christians should be involved in sermon preparation. Preachers are Christ's gift to the church for her protection, edification, growth, and unity in the Lord (Eph. 4:11-16). We must recognize that the sermon is an act of the congregation as well as of the pastor. As we have seen, God gifts preachers for their task through Christ by the Spirit. The church recognizes gifted men by electing them to office and presbyteries (elders) commissions them for their work. Church members do not simply elect preachers to do their work with nothing else to do. The primary means of assisting pastors in sermon preparation is prayer (Rom. 15:30-32; 2 Thess. 3:1). We should cultivate private and family habits of praying for preaching, but we should prioritize corporate prayer as well (Jn. 14:12-14; Acts 4:32-31). The sad reality that prayer meetings are ordinarily the worst attending meeting of the church reflects the fact that the church has often lost her sense of responsibility in relation to sermons. We should pray for preachers in light of the biblical definitions and goals of preaching. We should pray privately and corporately that the Spirit would accompany our pastors in their studies in order to achieve the aims of preaching. Do we pray that the Spirit would increase love for Christ in our ministers so that they would preach him devotionally? Do we pray that the Lord would grant them the skills needed to fulfill the duties of their office? Do we pray that Christ would give them the ability to apply their sermons wisely, warning every man and teaching every man in order to present every man perfect in Christ? (Col. 1:28). The role of church members in sermon preparation through prayer is equally vital (if not more so) as the pastor's prayers throughout his studies. Through private and corporate prayer, we participate in the preparation of sermons.

All Christians should be engaged in the delivery of sermons. We should prepare ourselves to receive the preaching of the Word. Since the Spirit uses the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, as an effectual means of our salvation, "we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives" (WSC 90). We must take diligent heed to what we hear (Lk. 8:18), searching the Scriptures to see whether these things are so (Acts 17:11). We must prepare to hear the Word with prayer, expecting to hear Christ in the sermon (Rom. 10:14). We must receive the Word from Christ with faith and love (1 Thess. 2:13), holding fast to what is good (1 Thess. 5:21). We must lay up the Scriptures in our hearts and practice their teachings in our lives, being doers of the Word and not hearers only (Jas. 1:22). We should also pray for the pastor while he preaches, just as the people prayed for Zacharias while he served in the temple (Lk. 1:10).

All Christians should promote the reception of sermons. Our work does not stop in expecting to hear Christ through preaching. Our duties as listeners extend to ourselves and to others beyond the time of preaching itself. We should strive to increase the profit of the sermon by referring to it in conversation and in family worship. We should be ready to highlight what is good in the sermon and to overlook many faults in the preacher. The best way to kill the profit of sermons is to build prejudices against ministers. We should prevent such prejudices in ourselves and others by holding fast to what is good and rejecting what is not (1 Thess. 5:21-22). We should prayerfully invite others to come and hear Christ through sermons just as his early disciplines invited others to "come and see" Christ for themselves (Jn. 1:39-41). Christ proclaims the good news of God's righteousness in the assembly of the saints (Ps. 40:9-10). Part of our evangelism consists in calling others to magnify the Lord with us (Ps. 34:3) so that under the preaching of the word the thoughts of their hearts would be revealed and they might know that God is truly among us (1 Cor. 14:25). We should sit regularly under the preaching of the Word in both services on the Lord's Day. Attendance at evening worship is often poor, second only to prayer meetings. These things are connected. Instead of asking where the Bible requires us to come to evening worship, should we not come to both services, in part, because of the high importance the Bible attaches to preaching? Those who pray privately and corporately for pastors, who engage in spiritual labor to profit from sermons, and who want to help others do so are more likely to look for opportunities to hear sermons. For some, the question is whether they can attend evening worship, but for many the question is whether they desire to be there. We should use every means at our disposal to ensure that we receive sermons profitably and help others do so.

Effective preaching depends as much on the labors of the congregation as it does on the labors of preachers. The purposes of preaching should set the tone for our prayers for the preached Word, especially in our prayer meetings. Our aim in listening to sermons should be for our own salvation for and that of others (1 Thess. 5:15). We should not be passive observers with regard to sermon preparation, delivery, and reception. We have an active and vital part to play in preaching, even if we never deliver a sermon or stand behind a pulpit.

*This is the twelfth entry in Dr. McGraw's series on Preaching Christ

Considering Exceptions: Singing Psalms


Often, potential exceptions to the Westminster Standards take this form: "If the Confession is saying 'x', then I must state my difference with that section." One particularly common example of this is found in WCF 21.5, which reads, If the "singing of psalms with grace in the heart" means that we may only sing psalms, as opposed to hymns, many (myself included) would need to seek an exception. It is, therefore, a matter of no small importance for us to understand just what that phrase-and the section as a whole-truly means.

Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith covers the subjects of worship and the Sabbath. Section one asserts the principle from Romans 1-that by the light of nature all men know that there is a God and that he deserves our worship. While all men know this truth (however much this truth is suppressed), the acceptable manner by which we are to worship God is instituted only by Himself in His word. As such, men may only properly worship God in accordance with the revelation he provides. For us, that means we must worship God only as he has revealed himself in the pages of the Old and New Testament. Section two, then, specifically directs our worship only at the Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sections three and four cover prayer as one special part of worship. Section five sets forth the ordinary and seasonal parts of worship. Section six talks about the time and place for worship, while the remaining sections deal with the Christian Sabbath.

When we come to section five, we find a list of the parts of worship: the reading, proclamation, and conscionable hearing of Scripture, the singing of Psalms, and the administration and receiving of the Sacraments. These are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God. In addition to these ordinary elements, various activities can be added as the season or occasion demands. These include oaths, vows, fasts, and thanksgivings.

The primary question, of course, concerns the statement about singing: Is the Westminster Confession of Faith advocating exclusive psalmody? Or, to put it another way: If one were to adhere to the confession without any stated difference, must that person refrain from singing any song in worship that was not one of the one hundred and fifty Psalms found in Scripture? For a variety of reasons, I do not believe the answer to either question is "yes."

The first reason is that the confession's use of the word 'psalm' does not necessarily restrict worship to the book of the Bible with that particular name. As Chad Van Dixhorn has stated in his reader's guide to the confession:

...the commendation of the Psalms in the confession and the directory [for public worship] needs to take into account that early modern use of the term 'psalm' is not limited to the Book of Psalms only. The common use of psalm almost always included hymns, and in it is scriptural proof texts the assembly deliberately directs readers of the confession to passages like Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19, and James 5:13, which call Christians to 'sing praise', or to sing 'psalms and hymns and spiritual songs'.1

As an historical document, the common usage of the word when it was originally written must take precedence over our usage of the word today. Further, however much the divines may have disliked the idea of adding in the Scripture proofs, the confession itself was not finalized without them. As such, they provide additional insight into their thought process (even if collected after the fact) in putting forth the Confession and Catechism.

Yet, even if one were convinced that "the singing of with grace in the heart" meant just that (and only that), I would still argue that the singing of hymns would not be contra-confessional and the conviction that singing hymns is acceptable and biblical would not require the granting of an exception. Further, it is my frank opinion that to argue otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand this chapter of the Confession.

The contrary argument (that the confession only allows the singing of Psalms) is based upon the notion that this section gives us an exhaustive list of acceptable elements of worship. 21.5 lists several elements and declares that these "are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God." At least two things mitigate against this being an exhaustive list. First, 21.5 does not say the preceding are "the parts" or even "all the parts" but rather "are all parts." The very language the divines used shows us that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list.

Second, we can consider the good and necessary consequences of an exclusivist reading of 21.5. If you believe that the confession only allows the singing of Psalms, you also have to admit that the collection of an offering is not part of ordinary religious worship. To be sure, an offering may be a form of thanksgiving. It would at least seem odd, however, to include something appropriate in "their special times and seasons" every week (especially while only occasionally observing the Lord's Supper!). Therefore, to assert that the confession only allows Psalms is to introduce a inconsistency with the very principle the Confession puts forth: the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and is not limited to the list in 21.5.

If, however, one does argues that 21.5 is an exhaustive list (perhaps because they don't collect an offering...), you still have an even larger problem of inconsistency. If 21.5 is the list of what can (and therefore cannot) be included in the ordinary or seasonal worship of God, then the confession of faith is precluding prayer in worship. Prayer is not found in the list that 21.5 gives. It is, of course, the subject of 21.3-4 - but if 21.5 is the list, it is utterly unbiblical in its setting forth the whole of worship! But, of course, that isn't the case: 21.5 sets forth examples from Scripture on the basis of the principle outlined in 21.1. We look not to the confession for our exhaustive instruction in the proper worship of God, but to Scripture alone.

I would, therefore, encourage everyone to sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs - knowing that the confession does not discourage the practice at all. Further, I would encourage anyone who believes that this portion of the confession is worthy of a stated difference (no matter how minor or merely semantic) to reconsider. When properly understood, the 21st chapter of our confession deepens our understanding of and reliance upon the self-revelation of God that is found in Scripture and 21.5 continues this by way of example, not by way of exhaustive list.

1. Chad Van DIxhorn, Confessing the Faith, A reader's guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Banner of Truth, 2014), p. 285. Note that this is contra G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (P & R, 2004), p. 217. I agree with Williamson that the historic practice of Presbyterian (and many Reformed) churches has been to sing only Psalms. I am not convinced that this necessarily means that the Westminster Divines were of the same mind. See also Nick Needham, "Westminster and Worship: Psalms, Hymns? and Musical Instruments?" in Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (Mentor, 2005), 2:223-306.

The Exception and the Rule

Over the years, many have approached me in order to ask what I believe the Bible teaches on some particular theological or ethical subject. In many cases, no sooner have I finished answering them that I'm met with the reply, "But what about...?" All of us are eager to find an exception to the rule. When I first started noticing this pattern among Christian, I mentioned it to our assistant pastor, who said, "Let's be honest. Most people love the idea of the exception and almost no one loves the idea of the rule. When I served in large evangelical churches, it was always about the exception. No one cared about the rule." Sadly, I have a sneaking suspicion that this is not just endemic to those in large evangelical churches--it is a problem associated with fallen human nature. The love of the exception--as over against that of the rule--seems to be prevalent in Christian circles in our day, especially when discussing the moral law, God's requirements for worship, the government of the church and the means of salvation. 

Christians confess that Scripture is the only rule for life and godliness insomuch as it contains everything necessary for those things. God's will revealed in His moral law is unchangeable because He is unchangeable. On account of that fact, we must proceed with the utmost care and caution when insisting on the exception without necessarily emphasizing the rule. Granted, Pharisaism was founded on the idea of preserving the rule to such an extent that the Pharisees built an elaborate system of man-made rules and regulations around God's law in order to protect it from what they perceived to be lawless abuse. Ironically, they too were doing away with the rule by adding to it. While insisting on upholding the rule, the Pharisees offered man-made exceptions for themselves to make the rule more attainable. This was especially the case with regard to the Pharisaic emphasis on the fourth commandment. In a very real sense, the Pharisees set themselves up as the Sabbath police and set the other nine commandments on the fourth commandment and their subsequent additions and subtractions. This is one of the reasons why we find so much about the Sabbath in the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. The application of the fourth commandment serves as a prime example (and case study) of the exception/rule principle when seeking to understand what God requires of His people. 

In what is arguably the greatest explanation of the fourth commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) states: 

"The sabbath or Lord's day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the public and private exercises of God's worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day."

Note the important parenthetical statement: "except so much of it as it to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy." According the members of the Westminster Assembly, the two exceptions to the rule of the fourth commandment are mercy and necessity. So, how are we to determine acceptable exceptions and how are we to view them in regard to a right understanding of the rule set out by God? 

The divines, no doubt, highlighted what they believed to be biblically defined exceptions to the rule of the fourth commandment based on their understanding of the accounts recorded in Matthew 12. There, we find Jesus walking through the grain fields and plucking heads of grain with his disciples on the Sabbath. When challenged by the self-appointed Sabbath police, Jesus referred them to the account of David and his mighty men in 1 Samuel 21:1-6, the fact that the priests had to work on the Sabbath day and the principle of mercy over sacrifice from Hosea 6:6. Jesus' appeals to the exceptions were based squarely on exegetical insight. 

Jesus knew that he was the great anti-type of David. As David had asked for the showbread for himself and his mighty men when they were hungry--though it was unlawful as far as the rule was concerned--Jesus and his disciples walked through the fields and plucked heads of grain on the Sabbath. In David's case, his action was an act of mercy and an act of necessity. In this sense, it served as the exception to the rule. In Jesus' case, the law allowed the poor and the sojourner to pluck heads of grain from the fields of strangers (Lev. 23:22). Nevertheless, he was guided by the principles of mercy and necessity on the day that typified the mercy and rest that he would himself provide through his atoning death on the cross. 

Jesus also understood that there were some who, by virtue of their vocations, had to work on the Sabbath day. Since worship is to take place on the Sabbath day, the priests had other option than to work on the Old Covenant Sabbath. Today, pastors have to work on the Lord's Day. Someone might make the case from the "ox in the ditch" principle that some doctors, nurses and law enforcement may also have occasions on which they have to work on the Lord's Day. Those are all biblically defined exceptions, however. As a rule, God commands His people not to engage in their regular weekly vocational labors on the Lord's Day. Instead, the rule is that we are to delight ourselves in Him in worship, rest and service throughout the entire day. 

Finally, Jesus corrected the Pharisaic misunderstanding regarding ceremonial commandments--explaining that God cared vastly more about His requirement of kindness and compassion as He did about outward religious adherence. Regarding Christ's appeal to Hosea 6:6, John Calvin explained: 

"God declares aloud, that He sets a higher value on mercy than on sacrifice, employing the word mercy, by a figure of speech, for offices of kindness, as sacrifices include the outward service of the Law. This statement Christ applies to his own time, and charges the Pharisees with wickedly torturing the Law of God out of its true meaning, with disregarding the second table, and being entirely occupied with ceremonies....

...External rites are of no value in themselves, and are demanded by God in so far only as they are directed to their proper object. Besides, God does not absolutely reject them, but, by a comparison with deeds of kindness, pronounces that they are inferior to the latter in actual value... believers, by practicing justice towards each other, prove that their service of God is sincere, it is not without reason that this subject is brought under the notice of hypocrites, who imitate piety by outward signs, and yet pervert it by confining their laborious efforts to the carnal worship alone"

Perhaps the chief reason why so many of us are drawn to exceptions rather than to rules is the fact that we know that none of us has ever kept the rule as we ought. All of us have fallen so very far short of the glory of God by transgressing every single one of His commandments many times. As the members of the Westminster Assembly so clearly state in Larger Catechism 149: "No man is able, either of himself, or by any grace received in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God; but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed." The Heidelberg Catechism answers the question, "Can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?" by stating, "No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience..." 

Be this as it may, those who have been redeemed by Christ are called to be a people who love his commandments. Heidelberg Catechism 114 goes on to say, "Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God's commandments." Believers can now confess with the Apostle John that we do not "find his commandments to be burdensome." Christ has borne the heavy load for us by fulfilling the Law and by taking the curse of it in our place and for our good. Believers will neither be justified nor condemned by the Law (WLC 97). Jesus has died and risen to give us rest from the guilt and shame of our sin. He has satisfied God's justice and propitiated His wrath for us. Having forgiven us all of our trespasses, he has sent his Spirit to write his Law in our hearts and in our minds (Heb. 8:10; 10:16). With David, we cry out, "Oh, how I love Your law. It is my meditation all the day" (Psalm 119:97). With the Apostle Paul, we affirm that "love is the fulfillment of the law"--the motive and animating principle by which any true Spirit-wrought obedience occurs in our lives. 

Believers are called to understand the nature and purpose of God's commandments. This certainly includes understanding what exceptions there are to the rule--while always recognizing that exceptions are what they are by virtue of the rule being what it is. We must refuse to turn the exception into the rule, without pressing the rule to such an extent that we exclude the exceptions. As we seek to walk in ways that are pleasing to our God, may He give us great care to know and love His rules as well as the exceptions that He has defined in His word. 

Martin Bucer and the Reform of Worship


If Martin Bucer (1477-1548) is not an unsung hero of the Reformation, he is certainly an undersung hero. This particularly is the case when it comes to public worship. Bucer's fingerprints are all over Calvin's Form of Church Prayers (1542) as well as the Book of Common Prayer (1552, 1559, 1662). Calvin acknowledges that most of his Form was borrowed from Bucer, while Bucer's 50-page response to King Edward VI's first Book of Common Prayer (1549), entitled Censura, led to major alterations in a solidly if incompletely Reformed direction.

Particularly noteworthy is Bucer's publication in 1524 of Grund und Ursach, recently reprinted as Ground and Reason, the first major defense of Protestant liturgical reforms. Hughes Old calls Grund und Ursach "one of the most significant documents in the history of Reformed worship." It represents Bucer's attempt on behalf of the Protestant ministers of Strasbourg to explain the ground (Grund) and reason or justification (Ursach) for the reforms taking place in their city. Services were being conducted in German, images had been removed, shrines and relics destroyed, and other substantial alterations in the medieval mass made. On the one hand, traditionalists were outraged and moderate humanists had become alienated from the movement for reform, while on the other hand Carlstadt and the Anabaptists didn't believe the reform had gone far enough. Bucer moves systematically, issue by issue defending the changes in worship in Strasbourg. It is perhaps surprising, but more than that, encouraging to see the continuity in thinking from Bucer to, say, Hughes Old, in identifying the fundamental principles of Reformed worship. The Reformed consensus from Bucer to Calvin to Westminster to today is striking, as he addresses the Lord's Supper, baptism, holy days, images, church song, and preaching.

Lord's Supper

Bucer makes one basic point which has manifold repercussions: the Lord's Supper is not a sacrifice, but a supper. He terms it "a most pernicious and most abominable error" to believe that in the Lord's Supper the body and blood of Christ are sacrificed. He demonstrates both that the communion elements are "common food" (not the substance of Christ's flesh) and that Christ's death was "once for all" and complete. Because it is a Supper, he maintains, it should be called what the Bible calls it, the Lord's Supper. What were formerly called altars should be called tables. All that implies sacrifice should be removed from the service: the elevation of the bread and cup, priestly vestments ("the magnificent armor of the Mass lovers"), and all gestures, postures, and language not found in Scripture, including the superstition-saturated sign-of-the-cross. These so-called "innovations" of Protestantism, removing the extra-biblical features, are rather "restorations," Bucer claims, "of what is right, old, and eternal." Fully 70% of Grund und Ursach is taken up with the reform of the Lord's Supper.


Bucer urges the reform of baptism by abolishing extra-biblical elements used in baptism - chrism, oil, salt, bread, candles, and consecrated water. These and other practices have "no scriptural justification," he insists, and serve "no good purpose." Rather, baptisms should be conducted "without ostentation."

Holy days

Because of religious superstitions in connection with holy days and "carnal pursuits" surrounding them, Bucer argues for the abolition of all holy days that cannot be justified from Scripture. Why "establish useless celebrations," he asks, that are "without a single Word of God?"

Images and holy places

Bucer praises the removal of idols and images from the churches on the basis of the 1st and 2nd Commandments. He urges, "The lay people should be taught with the Word of God and not with dumb blocks, stones, and paintings." Bucer also attacks the veneration of saints and relics and pilgrimages to allegedly holy places. For such practices, "there is no Word of God," there are no holy places (God's help is not more available in one place than another), and "there is none who is more inclined to be merciful and to help us than our God and Father."

Singing, prayer, preaching

The custom had become to sing songs and offer prayers not based on Scripture and to sing or say them in Latin. Bucer argues for songs and prayers "based on Holy Scripture" and in the language of the people "so that all may be encouraged and edified" (1 Cor 14:1-40; Col 3:16). "No services are to be held for the assembled congregation without sermons," Bucer insists. This is perhaps the weakest part of his presentation. However, in the liturgy itself the sermon was the central feature, along with lectio continua readings of Scripture.

Guiding principles

What were Bucer's guiding principles? Even in our brief review, they are plain enough.

First, Christian worship must be "according to Scripture." Bucer appeals repeatedly to Scripture as the basis for reform. That which cannot be supported by Scripture must be eliminated or altered. That which is required by Scripture must be incorporated into the liturgy. This principle may be found on virtually every page of Grund und Ursach. In addition, Christian worship must be filled with Scripture and in the language of the people. The prayers, songs, and sermons must be full of scriptural content. "Everything is based on the Scriptures," he insists.

Second, Christian worship must be spiritual and simple. Worship should be concerned primarily with inner spiritual realities. It is not primarily a matter of ceremonies, procedures, rituals, and forms. Rather, it is grounded in faith and motivated by love.


Bucer's Grund und Ursach provides a clear example of how the Reformation's reform of worship was theologically driven. Once the sufficiency and finality of Christ's atonement was understood (solus Christus), and once the means by which the benefits of that atonement were received was understood (sola fide, sola gratia), the worship of the church had to be reformed. The former required the removal of everything that explicitly or implicitly suggested sacrifice in favor of the simple observance of the Lord's Supper, at a table, administered by a minister, dressed in a simple gown. The latter required the removal of relics, images and idols (since faith comes by hearing the word of God, not gazing upon religious artifacts), and replacing them with reading, preaching, and singing of God's word. Bucer's reasoning is as compelling today as it was nearly 500 years ago, and it stands as a reminder to Reformed Protestants of why we do what we do in our public worship services.

How to Discourage Your Minister in the New Year


I recently had someone come to see me who was struggling in their church. In all honesty it would have been hard to be more depressed by what they had to say. I had very little sympathy with their complaints and told them if they wanted affirmation I was the wrong man to whom they should come. However, on account of their coming to me, I want to give you 6 ways to discourage your minister in the New Year:

1. Attend Worship Services irregularly and be unreliable - Maybe attend 2 out of 4 services, sometimes 3 out of 4, but make sure it's irregular. Nothing depresses ministers like people not being in church. The other thing to do is, when you're asked about it, be defensive, clearly show to the person who's asking that you're ok and it's no big deal; the church should be grateful you are there at all. If you're asked to do something, or are on a rota, try to pull out as late as possible or even just not show up.

2. Grumble, moan and complain. - This is an obvious one but when you speak to people about church make them aware how unhappy you are, how unfriendly folk are, how the church isn't focussed on you and people like you, that you don't get much out of the preaching, songs are not good, nobody cares and throw in 'It's not just me that feels like this'. Compare and contrast with other churches who do things better, preferably bigger churches that have more resources.

3. Focus on minutiae of church life. - Chairs, coffee, timings of meeting, musicians, service schedules, publicity.

4. Speak to others in the congregation but not the leadership - This way word gets back to the leadership through others, 'Some people are saying...' ordinarily this is normally one person but nobody likes to name names so they will instead couch it in the plural.

5. When you come to worship, try to arrive late and leave as soon as possible. - It's really difficult to catch folk who come late and leave immediately after the service. By doing this you're not giving people the opportunity to speak into your life but it does allow you to use the 'No one really speaks to me' line.

6. Take things personally. - If there's an invitation that you didn't get, a notice that was given that was poorly worded, an email that didn't mention you, a thanks that was given by someone in church leadership that overlooked you, a joke that you didn't appreciate, someone who didn't get to speak to you on a particular Sunday - make sure you take these as a personal slight and hold on to it.

On the positive side of this have a watch of Ligon Duncan - How to encourage your Pastor.

The Quest for Biblical Worship (Part 2)


Reformed churches not only have the regulative principle worship (RPW) to guide them regarding elements and forms, but they also, throughout their history, have had liturgies and directories. The liturgies were the more restrictive (e.g. Strasburg, Geneva, Amsterdam), the directories (Westminster Directory of Public Worship and the family of directories it spawned) less so, allowing more freedom, leaving more to the discretion of the minister. Yet a high degree of uniformity has always been the goal, even among Presbyterians.

The Directory and Directions

We might ask ourselves, what is the function of a directory if not to direct? What is the point of providing examples of prayer and descriptions of preaching and rubrics for communion and baptism if it is not for those examples and descriptions and rubrics to be followed? The aim of the original Directory was substantial uniformity, or "sameness," with the past, in the present and for the future. The Westminster divines explained in the "Preface" to the Directory that they were "persuaded" that "our first reformers... were they now alive... would join with us in this work." There is the connection with the past, with the first generation of Reformers whose work revived the worship of "the ancient church," as Calvin claimed. 

Moreover, they understood themselves to be answering "the expectation of other reformed churches" abroad for whom, along with "many of the godly at home," the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) "proved an offense." There is uniformity with present-day Reformed churches, domestic and foreign. 

Consequently, they argued, their work of "further reformation" was required, bringing the churches of England, Ireland and Scotland into conformity with "the reformed churches abroad." There is the goal of perpetuating their work into the future. Through the Directory they aimed to "give some public testimony of our endeavors for uniformity in divine worship" which they had promised in their Solemn League and Covenant, wherein they pledged to endeavor to bring about "the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church government, directory for worship and catechizing." 

No one, from Bucer to Calvin to the Westminster Assembly to the late 20th century considered liturgical uniformity unusual, indeed the opposite. All thought substantial uniformity was necessary to (1) promote unity; (2) to guard the church from the introduction of unbiblical (as determined by the RPW) and therefore unauthorized elements into the services of the church; and (3) ensure that the authorized elements receive the attention they are due. Medieval novelties were removed by the Reformers; future novelties were barred. Our fear of uniformity, our resistance to conformity to historic liturgical forms is unprecedented and unbiblical. Unbiblical? Let me explain.


How much "sameness" is enough and how much is too much? The devil, quite literally, is in the details. The Apostles expect a high degree of uniformity between the churches and demand a high degree of conformity. The same Paul who gave directions to the chaotic Corinthians for "when you come together as a church," not just informally, casually, or ad hoc, but officially, "as a church" (1 Cor 11:18; cf 5:4; 11:32, 34; 14:26), also exhorts them, "We have no other practice, nor have the churches of God" (1 Cor 11:16; cf 1:2; 4:17; 14:33). He appeals to the uniform practice of the churches, and he expects aberrant churches to conform to that standard. The point of the historic Reformed orders of service is that of the Apostles: unity in worship and ministry. The radical sects might do whatever they perceived the Spirit was leading them to do, but Presbyterians have maintained standardized orders based on the elements and forms determined by the RPW. This meant substantial lectio continua reading of Scripture, expository preaching, the singing of psalms and (later) biblically sound hymns, a full diet of biblical prayer, and the simple administration of the sacraments. This also meant the elimination of all unauthorized elements, ceremonies, rituals, postures, and gestures that might disrupt the church's unity in worship or might distract attention, time, and energy from the ordinary and authorized means of grace.

The goal of Reformed worship from the beginning, as repeatedly stated in Martin Bucer's defense of the reforms implemented in Strasburg in 1524, Ground and Reason (Grund und Ursach), was to fill the biblical elements with biblical content: the word read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen (in the sacraments). Let this be enough. If we could agree on these few elements and forms, administered in simplicity, we'd still have issues to discuss. Yet such agreement would go a long way toward unifying the church at the hour of worship, promoting appropriate sameness without strangeness, that we might "together... with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 15:6).

*This is the second installment of Dr. Johnson's short series of posts on "The Quest for Biblical Worship." You can find the first post in this series here

The Quest for Biblical Worship (Part 1)


Which is more likely today, liturgical sameness or liturgical strangeness? Which is more damaging to the integrity of Protestant denominations? Are we suffocating from liturgical uniformity--encountering the same old predictable things in the Reformed churches we attend? Or, are we unsettled by the unusual liturgical activity that we encounter in our sister churches and regional assemblies? Have we become bored with routine or shaken by what has become unrecognizable? Isn't there a biblical principle that regulates how we worship (i.e. the Regulative Principle of Worship - RPW) that is supposed to spare us both liturgical sameness and strangeness? Indeed, one would think so.

Regulative Principle of Worship

Given that the RPW limits the elements of worship to those God has set out in Scripture, we should expect a significant degree of liturgical uniformity. The six, basic elements (i.e. the reading and preaching Scripture, prayer, singing praises, administering the sacraments, and lawful oaths) should be found in all of our services. Other things (i.e. unauthorized rituals, ceremonies, programs, gestures and postures) should not. Those who agree with this observation must conclude that a significant degree of sameness should be expected.

However, the RPW, as traditionally understood allows the elements to be expressed in a variety of forms. For example, readings, sermons, prayers, and sung praises may be short in duration or long. That is a matter of form. Sermons may be topical or sequential. Readings may be Old Testament or New Testament or both, etc. As long as the form does not compromise the integrity of the element, there is considerable latitude. In addition, the RPW recognizes varying circumstances of worship such as seating, sound projection, use of printed texts, and lighting that are "ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence" as well as "the general rules of the Word"(WCF 1:6). This means that there is considerable, not absolute, but considerable latitude when it comes to these practical matters. A certain degree of diversity should be expected.

If one defines the RPW narrowly--insisting that the Scripture defines elements but hardly touches forms--the degree of uniformity one may anticipate decreases. When this occurs, individuals begin to suggest that just so long as a church reads Scripture (a verse or two), preaches (a religious theme), sings (devotional thoughts), prays (a bit), and administers the sacraments (occasionally), it complies with the RPW. A great deal of time is then invested in planning on inserting "special music," or a 20 minute song set, or among the more radical among us, a liturgical dance or liturgical drama (biblically defended, of course). This narrow understanding of the RPW leads inevitably to heightened diversity. Decreased sameness opens the door for increased strangeness. The gap between a "traditional" church and a "contemporary" church can grow very wide indeed at this point.

However, if one adopts Hughes Oliphant Old's simpler but broader definition of the RPW as worship that is "according to Scripture," ironically, the gap will narrow. Now we're not just settling for reading Scripture, any Scripture and preaching a sermon, any sermon, but we're turning to 1 Timothy 4:13a to learn how the early church read Scripture. "Give attention to the reading" (lit.), the Apostle Paul tells Timothy. Liturgical scholars all agree that the readings were a known entity (hence the definite article) and were lectio continua, as they were in the synagogue (see the Notre Dame study, The Early Liturgy, by Jungmann).

"Give attention ... to exhortation and teaching," the Apostle continues (1 Tim 4:13b). The natural reading of this direction to Timothy, buttressed by Acts 13:15, 27 and Luke 5:16-22, is to understand the sermon, the "exhortation and teaching" as arising out of the Scripture reading. A simpler but broader understanding of the RPW leads to a commitment both to lectio continua reading of the Scripture and lectio continua preaching, that is, sequential expository sermons. If all the churches "buy in," the gap narrows.

We might sing "according to Scripture" by noting that the Bible has its own hymn book, the Psalms, given to the church that God's praises might be sung. We might turn to Acts 4:24-26, buttressed by Eph 5:19, Col 3:16, and Jas 5:13, and note that the early church sang psalms. We might further sing hymns, but do so "according to Scripture," by allowing the psalms and canticles of the Bible to teach us what God-pleasing and God-honoring praise looks like, and conforming our own compositions to that pattern. Our hymns as a consequence would be God-centered, develop a theme over multiple stanzas, use minimal repetition, and express the full range of emotional experience. If all the churches get on board, the gap narrows.

We might pray "according to Scripture" by turning to the Apostle Paul's directions for public prayer in 1 Timothy 2:1, 2, note his varied prayer terminology, and conclude that all types of prayer are meant. We might turn to the great prayers of the Bible as well as the Book of Psalms, functioning now as the prayer book of the Bible, and discern six basic prayer genres as did our Reformed forefathers: praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, and benediction. We might commit our congregation to a "full diet of biblical prayer" in its regular services. The gap narrows further.

The basic question is this: Are we truly committed to worshipping "according to Scripture?" Will Scripture both determine the elements and shape the forms of worship? Will Scripture determine not merely that we pray, preach, read, and sing, but what and how? Will we allow Scripture to shape our understanding of reverence, our concern for catholicity of form, and our commitment to the communion of all the saints, not merely to the preferences of our chosen demographic? If so, greater liturgical sameness will result and liturgical strangeness will be less common.

*This is the first post in a two part series by Dr. Johnson.

The Regulative Principle of "Liturgical Sameness?"


In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--the denomination in which I serve as a minister of the Gospel--quite a number of ministers lament the fact that you can attend five of our churches (all within the same city) only to have five very different worship experiences. Additionally, these same ministers lament what seems to be an utter lack of any kind of corporate worship identity within the denomination as a whole. It is indisputable that there is a lack of uniformity in worship practices within the denomination. In light of that truth, the questions that we should be asking are: "Why is there such diversity regarding worship practices in the PCA?" and "Should we view this diversity as a negative thing?"

Some have suggested that the basis for such divergence in worship practices is due, at least in large part, to a lack of understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW)--a principle that is found in Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Others have suggested that it is due to the fact that the "Directory for the Worship of God" (a section of the PCA's Book of Church Order) is mostly, non-binding upon the church. Still others have intimated that it is due to what they perceive to be a descent into the dark valley of the Judges, where everyone merely does what is right in their own eyes.

Whatever one may say, of this much we may agree: There is a lack of understanding of the RPW on the part of many who enter into this debate. The PCA's "Directory for Worship" functions merely as an advisory document; and, apart from chapters 56-58, the Directory has no "force of law" in the PCA. Regardless of that fact, I want to make the following observations about the the greater issues that lie behind the widespread divergence in worship practices in the PCA:

First, I have observed an almost universal lack of understanding as to what the Regulative Principle of Worship actually is. Therefore, there is a lack of understanding of what the RPW is not. In the first paragraph of chapter 21 of the WCF, the Divines explain that however much worship is owed to God by mankind, He must only be worshiped according to the way he has instituted in his Word. God may not be worshipped according to "the imaginations and devices of men or the suggestions of Satan." Worship, then, must be conformed to the instructions given in Scripture. As we proceed through the various paragraphs in chapter 21, we discover the various activities (i.e. the "elements" of worship) that are given in the Word: Prayer, the reading of Scripture, the preaching (and conscionable hearing) of the Word, the singing of psalms, and the sacraments as ordinary parts of worship, along with oaths, vows, fasting and thanksgiving upon special occasions.

Interestingly the WCF says nothing about an order, or "liturgy," for our worship services. It also says nothing about which instruments, if any, should be used to accompany the congregation in their singing. Therefore, it ought to strike us as awfully strange and "unconfessional" to argue that those churches that have a particular liturgy and uses traditional hymns accompanied by a piano are worshipping according to the RPW, whereas those churches that have an different liturgy and sing contemporary hymns accompanied by a guitar - even (dare I say it) an electric guitar - are not worshipping according to the RPW. To be sure, there is nothing in Scripture that gives us the positive warrant to use of a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall half stack turned up to eleven to assist the congregation in singing praise to God. But, to be fair, neither would the Apostle Paul know what a piano was if it ran him over as it rolled down the street. Yet either (at least theoretically) can be used to accompany congregational singing--provided they are circumstances of worship--since they do not run contrary to the RPW. The RPW tells us what elements are to be present during worship, but the RPW does not tell us how those elements may be circumstantially accompanied and performed. Neither, frankly, does Scripture. There is great freedom to plan and arrange worship, then, within the framework of the RPW. To argue otherwise is to go beyond what the RPW was designed to teach. Therefore to go beyond the basic principles of the RPW is to go beyond Scripture.

Second, I wonder if any of those who refer to the "Directory for the Public Worship of God" in this debate have actually read it. This applies both to those who point to its "unconstitutional" status as well as to those who raise irate opposition when someone suggests that it should become constitutional in our denomination. It is actually quite benign. I read nothing in it by way "regulative principles" that I do not find in the WCF. What it does contain is a wealth of helpful advice-much of which is couched as pious advice-for worship. It prescribes no specific liturgy. It demands no particular forms. No doubt those who state differences with the Westminster Standards on issues related to the Sabbath would have similar concerns with Chapter 48 - yet even those who find the Standards too restrictive on issues of recreation would find much helpful advice in that particular chapter for every other aspect of Sabbath keeping.

I mention the "Directory of the Public Worship of God", however, to remind those engaged in the worship wars that the Directory does not demand monolithic uniformity in our worship service. Neither the directory nor the confession give the kind of rule and guide that would create any kind of liturgical uniformity such that you would finally be able to attend five different PCA churches and not experience five different worship liturgies or five different expressions of congregational singing. As Derek Thomas has aptly explained in his 2010 Tabletalk article, "The Regulative Principle of Worship:"

[The RPW] "does not commit the church to a 'cookie-cutter,' liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is enormous room for variation--in matters that Scripture has not specifically addressed (adiaphora). Thus, the regulative principle as such may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary or traditional songs are employed, whether three verses or three chapters of Scripture are read, whether one long prayer or several short prayers are made, or whether a single cup or individual cups with real wine or grape juice are utilized at the Lord's Supper. To all of these issues, the principle "all things should be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied."

Third, given that the PRW and the Directory do not, in themselves, provide a set liturgy for the organization of worship (and, therefore, for organizational uniformity within the denomination), upon what basis are local churches to decide how to organize their worship? Clearly, they are to be guided by the elements as they are laid out in Scripture. Clearly, the RPW provides a grid though which to understand both what elements are to be included and what potential elements are to be precluded. And, clearly, the constitutional sections of the "Directory for Public Worship" gives specific guidance to their respective elements. But what else is there to which we are to adhere?

If Scripture tells us what to do but does not always tell us how to do it; and, if the Westminster Standards advise us in these matters--but also refrain from telling us precisely how to do it; and, if the "Directory for Public Worship" expounds upon what we ought to do in worship--but even it refrains from telling us how to do it, then the only thing to which we may apply ourselves is God-given wisdom. To put it in different terms, the only thing left is for sessions to do what is wise in their own eyes. In fact, the elders of a particular church must do what is wise in their own eyes in this regard, because there is no other body that is genuinely responsible for making those particular decision! They can be--and often are--guided by a whole host of considerations: what the church has historically done in worship, what resources are available (hymnals, etc.), what gifts are present within the body, what are the preferences of the congregation, what insights and instruction may be gained by considering the practice of other churches-both current and historical, both Presbyterian and not. These are questions which local sessions must seek to answer. So long as the elements prescribed in Scripture are present and nothing is added by way of elements, a church does not sin merely because it chooses to organize its worship differently than some other PCA church. Again, Thomas notes:

"It is important to realize that the regulative principle as applied to public worship frees the church from acts of impropriety and idiocy -- we are not free, for example, to advertise that performing clowns will mime the Bible lesson at next week's Sunday service...If someone suggests dancing or drama is a valid aspect of public worship, the question must be asked -- where is the biblical justification for it? (To suggest that a preacher moving about in the pulpit or employing "dramatic" voices is "drama" in the sense above is to trivialize the debate.) The fact that both may be (to employ the colloquialism) "neat" is debatable and beside the point; there's no shred of biblical evidence, let alone mandate, for either. So it is superfluous to argue from the poetry of the Psalms or the example of David dancing before the ark (naked, to be sure) unless we are willing to abandon all the received rules of biblical interpretation. It is a salutary fact that no office of "choreographer" or "producer/director" existed in the temple. The fact that both dance and drama are valid Christian pursuits is also beside the point."

The fact that one church might choose to organize its worship differently than another is not, in itself, evidence that the RPW has been broken or neglected. The RPW does not promote the idea that unless a principle institutes uniformity then it has failed as a principle. There are those who argue that unless there is in fact some degree of liturgical sameness (along a completely undefined axis) within the PCA, the Regulative Principle of Worship is fit merely for the trash heap of failed ecclesiastical experiments. However, nowhere in the Westminster Standards or in the Directory of the Public Worship of God are we told that uniformity in worship practice and liturgy is something that is to be desired. Nowhere are we told that such a notion is, in fact, biblical.

I have certainly not visited each and every congregation in the PCA (nor do I have any plan to do so), but I have yet to visit a church in our denomination that does not conform--at least, broadly speaking--to the Regulative Principle of Worship. A church that includes only those elements in its Lord's Day worship services that are prescribed by Scripture follows the RPW whether it realizes it or not, whether it agrees with the principle or not. This is not to say I agree with every decision made by every church in the PCA with which I am familiar. But a biblically derived principle that makes room for decisions based upon wisdom cannot be deemed a failure simply because some of the churches in a given denomination are guided by the principle make unwise decisions--and certainly not because different churches make different decisions. To deem the RPW a failure because of a lack of "liturgical sameness" is to say much more about one's own preferences for worship than it is to say anything about what the Scriptures say about worship.

The word "liturgy" continues to be a trendy--yet often indeterminate--buzzword among young(er-ish) Christians. This is especially so with regard to those who have recently made the shift away from broad evangelicalism and toward historic worship practices of Christendom. Alongside this phenomenon lies the ever present willingness of many professedly Protestant churches to embrace, either in part or whole, the liturgical calendar for the structuring of their worship services. One can see the apparent appeal. After all, many have suggested that the Liturgical Calendar offers a recognition of the organic unity of Scripture centered on the redemptive-historical nature of Christ's saving work and participated in through the corporate worship of God's people. But is this actually the case? Does the Liturgical Calendar enhance or undermine the redemptive historical nature of Christ's saving work? 

Not surprisingly, many Anglicans--at one and the same time--acknowledge the lack of biblical support for a liturgical calendar while insisting upon a pragmatic adaptation of it. For instance, N.T. Wright suggests:

"There is nothing ultimately obligatory for a Christian about the keeping of holy days or seasons. Paul warns the Galatians against adopting the Jewish liturgical calendar (Gal. 4:10)...However, many churches have found that by following the liturgical year in the traditional way they have a solid framework within which to live the Gospels, the Scripture and the Christian life. The Bible offers itself to us as a great story, a sprawling and complex narrative, inviting us to come in and make it our own. The Gospels, the very heart of Scripture, likewise tell a story not merely to give us information about Jesus but in order to provide a narrative that we can inhabit, a story we must make our own. This is one way we can become the people God calls us to be."1

While adherents of the liturgical calendar frequently insist that it aids our experience of the redemptive historical nature of Christ's work, the opposite actually proves to be the case. When we subject ourselves to a temporal recapitulation of Jesus' life and labors--from incarnation to baptism to wilderness testing to death to resurrection to ascension and to Pentecost--we end up undermining the full, rich implications of the once-for-all nature of that saving work. We run the risk of bifurcating the work of Christ. 

In doing so, we can also illegitimately make the Gospel something that we do rather than something done by Christ for us and received by faith alone. Strict adherence to the Liturgical Calendar puts us in danger of forfeiting the privilege that we have to live the Christian life in light of the full realization of what we already definitively possess in union with Christ--rather than seek to fulfill or appropriate it by our own experience.  When one intimates that we have to recapitulate the events of redemptive history in order to live the Christian life, he or she functionally denies those aspects of the Messianic ministry that are foundational to the "already" of our experience as believers. As Roland Barnes notes: 

"The Liturgical Calendar can be spiritually stunting insofar as it asks believers to suspend their living in the light of the finished work of Christ as they march along from incarnation to resurrection and ascension throughout the calendar. The Reformed observance of the weekly sabbath and the regular practice of expository, Christocentric preaching emphasizes that we are now living in the full realization of the finished work of Christ. Each Lord's Day we celebrate the fact that 'He is Risen!' We live each Lord's Day in the light of the triumph of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus."2

To prove this point, I'll share a story. A number of years ago, I was rebuked by a strict proponent of the Liturgical Calendar for preaching a passage of Scripture on the birth narrative on the first Sunday of Advent. His response to hearing that I had done so was, "Not yet!" That example serves to illustrate the hinderance that the Liturgical Calendar can have to our living the life of faith in light of the full realization of what we already have in our union with Christ. When we say, "not yet" to the fulfillment of all things in the finished work o f Jesus, we are in danger of laying aside our privilege of entering in on the application of the benefits of that once-for-all accomplished work.

A consideration of Reformed and Protestant thought on the Liturgical Calendar will also be of use to us as we consider whether we should adhere to it or not. However widespread adherence to the Liturgical Calendar may be in our day in Protestant and Reformed churches, it is far from the majority view of the continental Reformers, English Puritans and Post-Reformation scholastics. The Reformers' aversion to the observation of a liturgical calendar was built on their supposition that the Lord's Day was biblically sanctioned while "holy days" were rooted in the self-righteous Roman Catholic penitential system. In his monumental work, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures (vol. 5), Hughes Oliphant Old explained:

"Discontinuing the penitential seasons of preparation for Christmas and Easter was one of the first reforms of Reformed Protestantism. This may seem radical to some, but it is at the heart of the Reformed approach to worship. The whole history of these seasons of fasting had been marked by a legalistic asceticism which is far removed from Christian piety as taught in the New Testament. While specifically Reformed churches have been characterized by their avoidance of Lent and Advent, few Protestants find the kind of asceticism implied by these observances consistent with the teaching of Jesus. Most Protestants have found the old observances of Lent and Advent terribly reminiscent of the piety of the Pharisees which Jesus so explicitly condemned. The objection to Lent and Advent is that they overemphasize the penitential dimension of Christian devotion."3

"So, is it wrong for Protestants to focus in a special way on specific elements of Christ's saving saving work during seasons like Christmas and Easter?" This is, no doubt, a question brewing in the minds of any reading this post. At New Covenant, we loosely celebrate Advent with a month long sermon series on the incarnation and the second coming. At Easter, I preach a sermon from a particular passage about the resurrection of Christ. The reason is simple: The birth and resurrection of Jesus are crucial elements of His redeeming work. In that sense it is always spiritually beneficial to give them a focused place in our preaching. Barnes again notes:

"We can celebrate the incarnation during the Christmas Season (Advent), but we do so only in light of the fact that the incarnated Son is now our Risen Lord. We do not enter into worship during the months between Christmas and Easter waiting for a resurrected Savior. We come each Lord's Day to celebrate His resurrection and triumph over sin, death, and hell. At worse the calendar holds believers back from the celebration of the resurrection until Easter, or at best it subdues their celebration. The weekly celebration of the resurrection reminds us that the babe that was born in Bethlehem is our triumphant Lord, that He suffered so that we would be spared judgment for our sins, that the veil of the Temple was rent in two and that we enter in to the very Holy of Holies each Lord's Day as we gather for worship."4

Wherever one falls on the spectrum of adherence to elements of the Liturgical Calendar, we must learn to live our Christian lives constantly in light of the once-for-all atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. We must always live and worship in dependence on the One who ascended to the right hand of the Father and is our great High Priest ever living to make intercession for us. We must live our Christian life in union with the One who cried out "It is finished," even as we anticipate His return. All of our worship practices must coincide with those truths and must be derived squarely from the prescriptive elements of Scripture and the example of the Apostles. To that end, it will be an enormous benefit for us to submerse ourselves in the Scriptures and in the rich repository of Reformed, Puritan and Post-Reformation writings on worship. 

1. N.T. Wright For All the Saints? (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2003) p. 24

2. An excerpt from Roland Barnes' article, "The Practice of Lent in the Reformed Tradition" in The Confessional Presbyterian (vol. 10) 2014. 

3. Hughes Oliphant Old The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, vol. 5, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) pp. 60-61.

4. Ibid.

The Public Reading of Scripture--Presbyterian-Style

In 2011, the session of the church that I pastor sought to educate and assist the members of the church regarding proposed changes that we had decided to make to an important aspect of our corporate worship services. Prior to these changes, unordained men would regularly lead the congregation in the public reading of Scripture and prayer. Desiring to bring our worship into greater conformity with our doctrinal standards and historic Reformed practice, our Session passed a motion limiting the public reading of Scripture to the minister who is preaching.

Since we are a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America, some within the congregation rightfully and insightfully raised the question about the propriety of this change in light of Book of Church Order 50.2. That section reads: "The reading of the Holy Scripture in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God and should be done by the minister or some other person." Obviously, the phrase in question at the end of the statement is, "or some other person." So, are we to understand by this phrase that unordained men and women are allowed to read Scripture in a worship service in the PCA? Those who allow unordained men to read the Scripture in public worship appeal to this phrase, as do those who wish to allow women reading Scripture in the context of public worship.

What follows is not intended to be an exegetical wrestling with Scripture about the topic of women or unordained men reading the Scripture in worship; neither is it meant to be a substitution for that. That is, of course, most important and necessary. This is an attempt to investigate the background of BCO 50.2. Additionally, appeal will be made to the Westminster Larger Catechism and the Directory for Public WorshipAfter all, the BCO should be interpreted in light of those documents due to their respective provenances.

First, if "some other person" means, "anyone else without qualification," then there is clearly a contradiction between BCO 50-2 and WLC 156 where restrictions are placed around the reading of the Word. WLC 156 states:

"Q. Is the Word of God to be read by all? A. Although all are not to be permitted to read publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families: to which end, the Holy Scriptures are to be translated out of the original into vulgar languages."

We must ask the question, "Who is not permitted to read publicly to the congregation?" At a recent meeting of our Presbytery, one minister insisted that this was merely excluding five year olds. Aside from the obvious fact that the vast majority of five year olds don't read, such a suggestion is intellectually offensive and stretches credulity to the breaking point. Did the framers of the confession really only want to restrict young children from the public reading of Scripture in worship?

Contextually, the restriction should be understood in light of the encouragement. "...all are not to be permitted...yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves..." Those not permitted to read the Scriptures publicly, then, are the "all sorts of people" who are encouraged to read it privately. "All sorts of people" is most certainly, then, not a reference to age or to gender but rather to those who do not hold the ordained office.

Support for this is found in the Scripture proofs chosen to defend the statement that "all are not permitted to read publicly to the congregation"--namely, Deut. 31.9-13 and Neh. 8.2-5. In the Deuteronomy passage, Moses specifically tasks the Levites to read the Word of God to the people. Similarly, in the Nehemiah passage it's Ezra the Priest who gathers the people and reads and explains Scripture to the people. These passages highlight the distinction between the ordained and unordained ministry.

This is also the conclusion of Johannes G. Vos in his commentary on the Westminster Larger Catechism. After citing the Scripture proofs he offers the following comment:

"Reading the Word of God publicly to the congregation is the duty of those especially called as ministers of the Word." (Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, 438).

Later Vos asks, "Why are not all Christians people 'to be permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation?'" He then offers this commentary:

"Reading the Scriptures 'publicly to the congregation' is a part of conducting the public worship of God, and therefore it is to be done only by those who have been properly called to that office in the church. Of course in the absence of an ordained minister or licentiate, the elders of the church may properly appoint some person to read the Scripture and conduct a prayer meeting or 'fellowship meeting.' What the catechism denies is that any private Christian may lawfully take it upon himself to conduct public worship, without being appointed to do so by those whose office it is to rule the house of God (Vos, 439).

Since WLC 156 was written many years prior to the "some other person" statement of BCO 50-2, it should be clear that "anyone else without qualification" cannot be the authorial intention ofBCO 50-2, but is to be understood in light of the restriction referenced in WLC 156.

Second, the context of the question is important. WLC Q. 154 begins by dealing with the "outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of mediation." These means are all His ordinances, but especially 1) the Word; 2) sacraments, and 3) prayer.

From here the ministry of the word is taken up and divided into two subcategories: Reading (Q/A 156-157) and Preaching (Q/A 158-160). In this series of question and answers the catechism envisions the one who is preaching also to be the one who is reading because the reading of Holy Scripture is a ministry of the Word and thus a function of the minister who has been ordained to the ministry of the Word and sacraments.

Furthermore, from this it follows that all who are entitled to read are also entitled to preach because both reading and preaching are two aspects of the ministry of the word.

Third, the progression of the developed teaching of BCO 50.2 is important to understand. Consider the following:

  • The Directory for the Publick Worship of God; agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, 1645, III-1 & 2 

"Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one mean sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.
 Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto."

  • PCUSA, 1786, DfW, 2d Draft
"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the Congregation, is a part of the public worship of God; and ought to be performed by the Ministers and Teachers."

  • PCUSA 1789. DfW, III-1
"The reading of the holy Scriptures, in the congregation, is a part of the public worship of God, and ought to be performed by the ministers and teachers."

  • PCUS 1894, III-1

"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God, and ought to be performed by the minister or some other authorized person."

  • PCUS 1925, Directory for Worship, III-1

"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God, and ought to be performed by the minister or some other authorized person."

  • PCUS 1933, Directory for Worship, III-1 [§310] 

"The reading of the Holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God, and should be done by the minister or some other authorized person."

  • PCA 1975
"The reading of the holy Scriptures in the congregation is a part of the public worship of God and should be done by the minister, or by some other person."

What is equally fascinating is the way that BCO 50-1 is so restrictive while BCO 50-2 is so expansive. In 50-1 reading is restricted to the minister alone.

"The public reading of the Holy Scriptures is performed by the minister as God's servant. Through it God speaks most directly to the congregation, even more directly than through the sermon. The reading of the Scriptures by the minister is to be distinguished from the responsive reading of certain portions of Scripture by the minister and the congregation. In the former God addresses His people; in the latter God's people give expression in the words of Scripture to their contrition, adoration, gratitude and other holy sentiments. The psalms of Scripture are especially appropriate for responsive reading."

How are we to explain this seemingly obvious discrepancy between BCO 50-1 and 50-2 and between BCO 50-2 and the WLC? In his commentary on the BCO, one of the founding fathers of the PCA makes the following statement:

"As already noted, this paragraph [BCO 50-2] is in contrast to the first sentence of the 50-1. The "or some other person" was added by the PCA by motion from the floor of the Assembly when it was adopted in the Book, and it is evident that it was not carefully compared to other portions of the Book. Without any qualifications as to the "other person" it nullifies all restrictions implied in both 50-1 and 50-2. This is one of those areas that needs further study" (Morton Smith, Commentary on the PCA Book of Church Order, 408).


From these historical, confessional, and contextual observations, I am led to conclude that the phrase "or some other person" of BCO 50-2 can only be expanded to include visiting ordained ministers, ruling elders, and those who are not yet ordained as either a TE or RE, but are in training for that office and have been approved by the Session.

Moving forward those on both sides of the debate should insist that BCO 50.2 should be updated and delivered from its current opacity, which is neither promoting unity or clarity in our denomination.

Creation Calls For Wonder

"The work of creation is, God's making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good." Thus the Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the Christian doctrine of creation (WSC 9). What response should this doctrine elicit from us?

Too often, I think, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo elicits from us a posture of war. We immediately raise our defenses, or take the offensive, against perspectives that trace the origin of all things to something other than our Triune God. We arm ourselves with biblical references to, or summary statements of, or supposed scientific proofs reinforcing the truth that God made all things, and we stand ready to do battle with alternative (presumably naturalistic) accounts of how this world we inhabit came to be. Or perhaps we aim closer to home, preparing ourselves to do battle with any who question our understanding of creation "days." Regardless, an immediate posture of war when confronted with the doctrine of creation speaks, in my judgment, to fundamental boredom with the truth we are so eager to defend. We've taken the doctrine of creation ex nihilo for granted, it has become commonplace to us, if our first instinct when confronted with it is some apologetic strategy or another.

Of course, apologetics have their place. Naturalistic accounts of how this world we inhabit came to be can and should be discredited. Those who disagree with my understanding of creation days should be made to conform to my superior insight. But only after we have let ourselves be washed anew with wonder at the astonishing fact that once there was nothing but God, and then God spoke all things into existence. Creation calls, first and foremost, for a posture of wonder, not war. The right response to the reality that "God said" and thus "there was" (Gen. 1:3) is fundamentally, well, this.

We see this in Psalm 33: 8-9. Note the reaction of this world's inhabitants at God's work of creation demanded by the psalmist: 

"Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm" (emphasis mine).

One implication, I think, of a right sense of wonder at what God has done (namely, made everything) -- one "tell," if you wish, that this truth has properly gripped you -- is a humble and proper sense of the distinct likelihood of unlikelihoods in this world, the distinct probability of improbabilities. All bets for what might happen are off in a world spoken into existence by an eternally Triune God. Pretty much anything can be -- from seas parting to asses speaking to men rising from the dead. The doctrine of creation, in other words, primes us to appreciate the fundamentally enchanted (magical, if you will) character of the world we inhabit. Expectation of the unexpected is wonder's closest kin.

Jared C. Wilson evidenced his sense of this world's enchantment, an expectation for the unexpected rooted in the reality of creation ex nihilo, in what was easily my favorite blog post from 2016 (except, of course, for all the ones I wrote): 'His Eye is On the Sasquatch'. Check it out if you've not already read it. It's well worth your time.

And ponder, at some point today, God's work of creation. Let the reality of that work fill you with wonder. Let it inform your understanding of the world in which you live. "Live your life filled with joy and wonder." So suggested Michael Stipe in the lyrics to the song "Sweetness follows" on one of my favorite cassette tapes from high school, R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People. R.E.M.'s music gave me much pleasure in my teenage years, even perhaps the occasional chill running down my spine (in a good sense). Unfortunately, it (and most other things I devoted myself to in high school) never gave me the resources to actually live a life persistently filled with joy and wonder. Careful attention to the doctrine of creation, however, does just that.

When in Babylon...

Regard for the Lord's Day is on a steep decline, and, sadly, has been for quite some time. Disregard for the Lord's Day is evidenced by the fact that many churches have decided to cancel their worship services this Sunday in order to encourage families to spend time together on Christmas. The Babylon Bee recently ran an article titled "Church Honors Birth of Jesus by Cancelling Worship Service." The satirical (though it would be straining to call it entirely fictional) piece goes on to hilariously put words in the pastor's mouth: "I can think of nothing more worshipful on the Lord's Day than foregoing worship services in order to tear into gift after gift after gift from under our ornate tree... Also, I'll get to play with my new iPad that I just know my wife, Kate, got me. I felt the package. I'm pretty sure it's the Pro edition."

It's a brilliant piece of satire. However, many have become extremely defensive about it. I know that I shouldn't be surprised, but I'm naïve enough that I was shocked at the vitriol in the comments section under the Facebook post. It is clear to me that very large segments of the readership of The Babylon Bee don't have what we might call a "robust" view of the Lord's Day.

Now, I also know that massive swaths of the church (sadly even those in the Reformed camp) would like to see the Larger and Shorter Catechisms consigned to the dust bin of history. And it causes me no loss of sleep to think that someone, somewhere, is having fun on a Sunday. What does concern me is the sorts of arguments that people are offering in favor of cancelling church whenever the Lord's Day and everyone's favorite holiday should come into conflict. Here are some of the more troubling comments from the Facebook post:

  • "Love the Bee but, since the church is not a building, place or event, it is never closed. There are other ways to BEE the church this coming Sunday, Christmas Day!"
  • ""Thus saith the Lord, 'Thou shalt have a church service every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night without ceasing, and shouldest never to cancel any service for any reason under the sun'." II Opinions 3:12"
  • "Don't be so hypocritical to condemn those who realize that church isn't a building you have to go to worship but the fact that through salvation we are able to worship him in our heart."
  • "I'm not trolling and have intention of starting a flame war but only legalism dictates church has to be open...ready and willing on Sunday morning or God is not honoured."
  • "It seems that many people prefer the sacrifice of 'going to church' on Christmas, but maybe Jesus desires the compassion of letting people have the freedom to worship the day as they see fit. Go and learn what this means..."
  • "Our church building IS closed on Christmas day and we are not holding services. We can spread the Good News in other ways."
  • "Some people spend too much time in Church, and not enough time with their families. I think it's important for families to be thankful together at home. We as a church must never stop worshipping, but we can get caught up in feeling as if going to church service and true worship are the same thing."

The comments go on and on like this. One could fill pages with the arguments that have been set forth. The most serious problem is that arguments of this sort prove too much. If these arguments are correct, then the end result isn't just that Sunday worship can be displaced whenever it comes into orbit with a better holiday. The logical result is the elimination of any day of the worship of God in the gathered assembly of the people of God for local churches.

If it's really true that we can "spread the Gospel in other ways" than holding services, it is reasonable to ask why we have services in the first place. If the "doors of a church don't need to be open" in order for God to be honored, then why should they open at any time? If it's enough for us to "worship him in our heart," then why do churches even gather? If we should "have the freedom to worship the day as [we] see fit," then everyone can have their own Lord's Day - why have any services? If "it's important for families to be thankful together at home," and if it's not the case that "going to church service" is true worship, then there is literally no reason I can think of why churches as local gatherings of God's people need to exist at all.

On top of all of these problems, these sorts of arguments lead to a church that is not only scattered geographically already, but is also scattered chronologically. If you take for granted that any day is fair game, and if it's just a matter of when you want to worship, then an anarchic approach to picking which day to worship on means the church would no longer even be temporally united. While the early church gathered on the first day of the week to break bread, meet as one group (Acts 20:7; 27:35), to take up offerings as a collective, and to meet with the Apostles (Acts 20:11), many of these arguments would have the believers disband out of a sense of "compassion" (see the third comment from the bottom in the list of comments above) or out of a sense that it is sufficient to "worship him in our hearts." We have entered an era when it is actually viewed as lacking in compassion for the early church to have met every time the first day of the week rolled around.

What I can't help but think in the midst of this all is that many actually have such disdain for meeting together with believers as The Church that they view Sunday worship as "lacking compassion." And I'm left just shaking my head. Is it really that bad? Meeting together with our family which is closer than blood? With people closer than blood - with whom we share the Holy Spirit? Is it really that bad? Hearing the Savior tell his people from his Word that he loves us? Is it really a burdensome yoke that God would call us together?

While this disdain for the worship of the Lord is troubling, we need to know that there are more than just fellow evangelicals looking in on this whole situation. I conclude with one comment which beautifully illustrates the ugliness of it all for "Protestant" churches:

  • "For real, if your church is closed, the Catholic Church will welcome you in, standing room only, with lots of smiling folks making room for you. Gathered together near the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist."

Our churches need to be open, because there will be people looking to worship with God's people in spirit and truth according to His command (Exodus 20:8-11; Hebrews 10:24-25), and they will be expecting to do it on the same day that God's people in the New Testament era have always gathered (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). If we don't hold out the light, someone else will be holding out the imitation.

Properly understood, diversity highlights aspects of both the atoning work of Christ (Rev. 5:9) and the economic Trinity (John 3:34-35). The former, in part, underscores the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). It is, therefore, incumbent upon Christ's Church to take the Gospel to the nations. As we do, we will encounter people who are dissimilar aesthetically, culturally, generationally, politically, socio-economically, intellectually, and ethnically. Our cultural blind spots will be exposed, our preferences will be challenged, and our Christ-likeness will increase.

As the diversity conversations continue, there are many areas on which we can focus. How did we get here? That's partly an historical question. There are things in this nation's past that created the division that is clearly evident in the church today. How can we change? That is a strategic inquiry. We must examine our cultural assumptions, hospitality practices, variation within our relationships, and so on. Within the umbrella of that question, one area of supreme importance is that which concerns Lord's Day music. How does our church music promote or prohibit the inclusion of African Americans?

Before briefly examining church music selections, I want to dispel the notion that all one must do is preach the Gospel and leave the results up to God. Although I believe preaching the good news is paramount, no church merely preaches the Gospel. There are cultural accoutrements that may hinder the possibility of growing in diversity. Language (i.e., phrases, Clichés, colloquialisms, etc.) and the ethos of one's church are two examples. If a minister, for instance, states from the pulpit, "We, as conservative Christians, believe that Jesus [insert the good news]," that could cause quite a stir for some African Americans. Like the word diversity, conservative is a buzzword that means different things to different people. In recent history, so-called conservative Christians did not allow African Americans to worship with Anglos on the Lord's Day. Professing conservative Christians helped institute the practice of redlining. Today, it seems that some conservative Christians are more concerned about life inside the womb than life outside of the womb. The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) requires both. (See WLC 135). Language, therefore, can hinder diversity within one's church, and we need each other to help uncover those areas that might prohibit those for whom Christ died from entering our Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. (For an explanation of the ethos element of our church cultures, here is a talk that I gave at the 2016 PCA General Assembly. It may be helpful).

What about our church music may promote or restrict the diversity within our congregations? As I write this, I'm specifically referring to areas that contain a high African American demographic. If the area in which the church building is stationed is predominantly one ethic group, the church-gathered should reflect that. Those areas are decreasing more and more, however. According to some reports, the United States will be a majority-minority nation by 2044. In the meantime, how should we be thinking about church music? Even within the realm of exclusive psalmody, our music can hinder or promote diversity.

One area we must tackle, as it relates to church music, is our assumptions. What do African Americans like and prefer? Based on numerous conversations and multiple Facebook posts, it seems that there is growing consensus, particularly among whites, that African Americans prefer gospel music. That genre of music has a rich heritage within many African American churches. Whether Baptist, Pentecostal, or African Methodist Episcopal, you can be certain that on the Lord's Day, your souls will be uplifted with a vibrant and biblical choral selection. However, simply because many black churches sing gospel music does not mean all black churches sing gospel music.

Recently, one of our elder candidates and I visited an African American church (an Independent Baptist church). Three things were notable. First, he was one of only about three whites in the entire building. Second, he knew more of the hymns than me. This man happened to be brought up in an Independent Baptist Church. Third, the congregation only sang hymns and they sang them at a slower pace than I'm accustomed to singing them in a PCA setting. You could neither clap your hands nor sway your hips to them! In short, African Americans are as diverse as the color of our skin. We do not have a preference for only one genre of music.

Among some blacks, there is a growing trend to rearrange hymns. The words, "Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace," sound quite different in standard measure on a piano than accompanied by a guitar and played with more of a neo-soul flavor. Consider also the modern hymn "The Power of the Cross" by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, Doxa recently rearranged it. You can clearly hear and feel the difference.

All of this is an extended way of saying that we must be careful--in our pursuit of fostering God-glorifying diversity by means of musical selection--not to presume that African Americans necessarily prefer a certain genre of music. Requiring complete cultural assimilation will work against you. Nevertheless, as you ponder potential musical changes in your Lord's Day service, it might be a good practice to speak with African Americans in your community. If they are a part of a congregation, ask them what kind of church music they are used to and/or prefer. Use that as a barometer for any changes you may consider making in your congregation. You can also speak with other African Americans in your denomination or federation. Receive general input from them. I'm certain it will be helpful to the process.

We have highly valued music since the start of our church plant. Not wishing to make assumptions about the genre of music preferred by those who were coming, I asked our members to submit the top 5 church songs that they would like to sing in worship (and, I continue to ask new members this question). From these lists, we then selected some of the songs that we believed were robustly biblical and that we could sing congregationally. In our context, this process has worked quite well. Members of our church feel that they have a hook on which to hang their cultural hats. Music is a terrific way to address--not to ignore--the preferences of the people and love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Psalms in Worship

Too many churches never sing the psalms in public worship. Despite the fact the two direct injunctions that relate to singing in the New Testament place psalms at the head of the list of what Christians ought to sing as they 'make music in [their] heart to the Lord' (Eph 5.19; Col 3.16), these expressions of praise are strangely absent from many orders of service.

It would be interesting to explore the reason for this. It may well be because of straightforward ignorance on the part of many. The form and content of worship have gone through many phases over the years and important elements of both have often been lost only to be rediscovered by later generations. The use of structured liturgy is one example. So it may also be the case that churches that do not sing the psalms do so because they have never had exposure to them. But it needs to be asked what led to these omissions in the first place. What caused so many churches to move away from more formal liturgy and why did it so often coincide with a departure from psalm singing in the process? Continue reading...

This post was originally posted by Mark Johnston on


Hughes Oliphant Old: A Personal Remembrance

Tomorrow the remains of Hughes Oliphant Old (April 13, 1933 - May 24, 2016) will be interred at the Christian Street Cemetery in White River Junction, Vermont. A prince in Israel has died, leaving behind mourners who will miss both his genteel Christian piety and the vast body of knowledge that he will take with him to the grave. The reward in heaven for this humble servant of Christ will be great.

The dedication page of my doctoral thesis reads as follows:

"To Hughes Oliphant Old,
the dean of Reformed liturgical scholars,
a voice crying in the wilderness,
calling the church ad fontes,
to the sources of Reformed worship in Scripture,
the Fathers, and the Reformers,
that the heirs of the Apostles, Augustine
and Calvin might worship
"according to Scripture." 

There is a true sense in which the ministers of my generation know all that we know about the public worship and ministry of the church generally, and the Reformed church specifically, from the writings and lectures of Hughes "Scoti" Old. My own pilgrimage with the great man may prove instructive.

My introduction to Dr. Old (I could never bring myself to call him by any name less formal) began soon after my arrival in Savannah to pastor the Independent Presbyterian Church in January 1987. A seminary friend of mine sent me a copy of Old's book, Worship that is Reformed According to Scripture.  Up to that point I had developed certain instincts about public worship after two years of daily chapel at the Trinity College in Bristol, England, an Anglican theological college. All my previous experience in public worship had been comparatively shallow. I was beginning to conclude that when the church gathers, more Scripture should be read, Psalms should be sung, prayer should be more substantial, and communion should be served more frequently that once a quarter. Yet I also was convinced that the read prayers of the Book of Common Prayer were not the answer. The "free" prayers of the Reformed church should not be surrendered easily, nor the commitment to lectio continua reading and preaching of Scripture.

Old's Worship that is Reformed opened up a whole new world for me. A chapter was devoted to a discussion of each element of worship, beginning with its roots in Scripture, followed by surveys of its practice in the early church, its modification (and at times corruption) in the Middle Ages, its restoration during the Reformation, and its continuation by the Reformed church since. Again, for ministers of my generation, there was simply nothing like it to be found. Here was the objective answer to our subjective instincts. Here was the antidote to the seductions on the one hand, of the trivialities of the budding contemporary worship movement of the 1990's, and on the other hand of the ritualization and liturgical formality of Anglicanism. Reading it was, well, thrilling. It was an oasis of sanity, an island of edifying order in a church world spinning out of control.

In 1992 Dr. Old published The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth 
Century (not a title calculated to produce a best seller). While absorbing its extraordinary scholarship on vacation in Hound Ears, North Carolina, I wondered, is he still alive? Might I talk to him? So I called information for the phone number of a Hughes Old in Trenton, N.J. It was listed! I called. His wife Mary answered. She said he was out working in the garden. I begged her to let him be, but she insisted, no, he'll want to talk to you. So we talked. About an hour. He was endlessly fascinating and a goldmine of information. I called repeatedly as I prepared Leading in Worship for publication, even sending him the manuscript. Likewise, I called as I prepared Reformed Worship and other projects.  Always he was generous with his time and counsel.

At some point I learned that behind his publications was his doctoral thesis, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship,  a rare but groundbreaking book that vindicates Calvin's claim that the reforms of worship in Geneva were "According to the Custom of the Ancient Church." The reforms of Reformed Protestantism, Old demonstrated, were rooted in the Patristics (the church fathers), such as Augustine, Chrysostom, Tertullian, and Origen, among many others. Patristic Roots is a comprehensive rebuttal of high church claims of the antiquity of their worship and a vigorous defense of the Reformers and historic Reformed practice.

Dr. Old kept churning out the books. Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology is a brilliant but under-appreciated work that shows how Reformed worship honors various scriptural genres: the prophets critique of Israel's formalism, the poets' love of sung praise, the wisdom tradition's bookish piety ("O how I love your law"), and so on. The Reformed church doesn't rely on a text here and there to justify its practices, Old demonstrated. Whole biblical genres may be invoked to support its ministry.

I read Old's Leading in Prayer  on the way to Scotland for a ministerial conference. Dr. Old, for whom Matthew Henry (1602-1714) is a heroic figure, sought with its publication to revive free prayer in the tradition of Henry's Method of Prayer,  the deterioration of which had become, in his words, "an embarrassment to the tradition." He urges a "full-diet" of biblical prayer, providing practical helps for those leading in public prayer: prayers of praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession (including the five-fold petitions for the sanctification of the saints, the church, the sick, the civil government, and Christian mission), illumination, and benediction.

Beginning in 1998, Dr. Old began to publish his seven volume History of the Reading and Preaching of Scripture in the Christian Church, a landmark in liturgical scholarship and a monumental defense of lectio continua reading and preaching as acts of worship, indeed, worship at its apex. Finally, he published in Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church, a massive articulation and defense of the communion practices of the Reformed church and the role of the eucharist in nurturing piety.

To my surprise and delight, Dr. Old in 2004 was named the Director of the John Leith Institute for Reformed Worship at Erskine Seminary in Due West, SC, just four hours from Savannah. Immediately several of us determined we'd take every class he taught, which I did from 2004 to 2008, resulting in a D. Min. from Erskine and the doctoral thesis mentioned above. His lectures were not as strictly organized as his writings, yet they were sprinkled with crucial insights and exhaustive bibliographic knowledge. His students experienced his brilliance both formally in the classroom and informally over meals. The value of being his student is easy to establish: it was priceless.

If my vocation is to pastor a local church, my avocation for 30 years has been to popularize Dr. Old's work for the sake of ministry in the late 20th and early 21st century, particularly among conservative Calvinists. My dependence upon him, direct and indirect, has been close to absolute. I have sought to elaborate the connection he suggested between Reformation theology (represented by its mottos: sola scripturasolo Christosola fidesola gratiasoli Deo gloria) and liturgical reform, of which Worshipping with Calvin is the result. I have also sought to elaborate the continuity in the Reformed church through the centuries as to actual practice, also suggested by Dr. Old, resulting in Serving with Calvin, an expansion of an earlier work, The Pastor's Public Ministry. I make these admittedly self-serving references that I might stimulate others to take his many seminal, but underdeveloped scholarly findings and elaborate them for the benefit of the church.

Dr. Old has been the leading figure in a third liturgical movement of recent years (after the better known ecumenical liturgical movement and the contemporary worship movement), promoting the revival of the elements of historic Reformed worship: lectio continua reading and preaching of Scripture, psalm-singing, a "full-diet" of biblical prayer, and the administration of the sacraments as covenantal signs. Many hands shall have to take up his mantle if the momentum of revival is not to be lost. I say many hands, given that "Scoti" knew more than any of the rest of us, and likely, more than all the rest of us combined.

Bringing Our Children to Jesus

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One of the most important things we will do at Second Presbyterian Church is disciple our children to a living, personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We live in a society that assumes that when children grow up they will jettison the family's beliefs and values. But the Bible sees things differently. The book of Proverbs says that the childhood years have a formative influence that lasts throughout life: "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6). 

There are a number of mistakes that I have observed Christian parents making over my years in ministry. One mistake is to think that our duty as Christian parents consists solely of disciplining our children. To be sure, the Bible clearly states that Christian should be disciplined (see Heb. 12:6; Prov. 13:24). But discipline - the process of bringing the will into submission - is not enough. Another mistake is have seen consists of the belief that need only provide a good Christian environment for our children. We bring them to Sunday School and church, we home school them or educate them in Christian schools, we ensure that their friends are from believing families, we send them to Christian camps, etc. I am certainly not against any of these things. But providing a Christian environment and structure is simply not enough for the Christian nurture of our children. Our generation is seeing a shockingly high percentage of young people raised in a Christian environment who do not continue in the faith outside of the home. Surely, the primary reason is the poor quality of Christian faith in so many churches and homes. But I am persuaded that another reason is that many parents do not recognize their role in discipling their children in the faith. 

What do I mean by discipling our children? Ted Tripp put it this way in his excellent book, Shepherding a Child's Heart: Discipling is "the process of your children embracing the things of God as their own living faith... to see your children develop identities as persons under God" (p. 198). Discipling arises out of the bonded relationship parents are to have with their children. We see this throughout the book of Proverbs, which was written in the form of counsel from a father to a son. Proverbs 23 is especially filled with this kind of language. Solomon writes, "My son, if your heart is wise, then my heart will be glad" (Prov. 23:15). He adds, "Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old" (Prov. 23:22). My favorite - and this verse presents the heart behind the wisdom of Proverbs - reads: "My son, give me your heart and let your eyes keep to my ways" (Prov. 23:26). How important that statement is: children will follow our ways only if they have given us their hearts. 

So how do parents foster a close relational bond that results in their children following in our ways? I would offer parents four commitments designed to build a strong discipling relationship with their children. I base it on four easy-to-remember words: Read - Pray - Work - Play. 

First, parents (especially fathers) must read God's Word to and with their children. Countless Christians raised in strong believing homes will remember the influence of their father's fervent and faithful ministry of reading (plus explaining and discussing) the Scriptures. Paul states that "faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). Therefore, our children's faith will feed off the hearing of God's Word from the mouths of their fathers and mothers. This takes many forms. Little children should be read Bible stories and memorize simple verses. The every-day speech of parents in the home should liberally include the truth of God's Word. In my view there is no substitute for regular family worship, in which the whole family gathers to study God's Word and pray. And of course, our children need to see our own devotion to God's Word lived out in the home, experiencing first-hand from us the righteousness, peace, and joy that comes from the gospel. 

Second, parents must pray for and with their children. How it warms a child's heart to know that his or her parents are fervently praying on his behalf. Parents should have regular times of prayer with the children and should frequently pray individually with their children. A child's heart should be warmed by the voice of her mother and father beseeching God's blessing and help for her. Thus parents should make sure that their children know they are praying for the specific challenges and trials that they are facing. This requires us to be involved in the affairs of their hearts, which discipling always requires. 

Third, parents should work with their children. This means that parents should be involved in the children's work - mainly schoolwork - both to help and guide them. But it also means that we should invite our children into our work. Shared work builds relationships. Work in the kitchen, work in the yard, work painting walls or repairing furniture. Children love to work alongside their parents, and the process of growth and shared experience forges a strong bond. Families should also engage in works of Christian service together. 

Fourth, parents should play with their children. This involves our participation in their play and our invitation for them to join in our play. When a father gets down on his knees to work on a model or Legos with his boys or to do crayons with his little girls, the relationship bond is strengthened. When mothers share books that she loved growing up or sits down for a game with the kids, her knits their hearts with hers. Parents should share their passions with their boys and girls and invite them into the fun of hobbies and pastimes. All of this play has a very serious purpose: the bonding of hearts in loving relationship through joyful, shared experiences. 

"My child, give me your heart," says the Bible. This assumes, of course, that the parent has already given his or her heart to the child. This will always take the form of time: serious time and play time, time in worship and time in service together. If we will give our hearts to our children, we will find their hearts eagerly offered back to us, so that we may then lead them into the reality of our faith in Christ. Indeed, the nurturing, discipling bond between a parent and a child is one of the promised results of Christ's coming: "He will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers" (Mal. 4:4). 

*This first appeared on Ref21 in August 2008. You can find the original post here

Hebrews 12.28 prescribes that Christian worship be grateful, awe-filled, and reverent. Hebrews 12.29 describes why Christian worship should be so: "our God is a consuming fire." In the preceding post, we paused to consider the significance of this imagery and concluded that it presents God to us as a holy wonder, unprecedented and incomparable in his transcendent brilliance. We also concluded that, if this unprecedented and incomparable God is to be known, enjoyed, and worshiped rightly, he must interpret the meaning of his identity to us in his Word. 

God answers our need for divine self-interpretation in the revelation of his name YHWH to Moses and in the actions whereby he brings his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to pass through the events of the exodus. We may more fully grasp the meaning of the image of God as a consuming fire by contemplating the meaning of this name and the meaning of these events. We will pursue the first path of contemplation in the present post and the latter path in the post that follows.

The meaning of God's name

Along with the holy wonder of the burning bush, Exodus 3 also presents to us the holy wonder of God's name YHWH, the so-called Tetragrammaton. The name YHWH offers further insight regarding the image of God as a consuming fire.

Following a broad tradition of catholic and Protestant exegesis, the Leiden Synopsis identifies YHWH as "the proper name of God." By this name, the Synopsis explains, "God has set himself apart from everything." Like the sign of the burning bush, the name YHWH is unique and unprecedented. According to Francis Turretin, "this name is so peculiar to God as to be altogether incommunicable to creatures." Though God appropriates an almost endless variety of creaturely names in making himself known to his people--he is a warrior, a rock, and a fountain of living water, the name YHWH is not one that he shares with creatures (Isa 42.8). YHWH is God's "holy name" (Ps 145.21).
Given the incommunicable nature of God's proper name, God alone can provide the exegesis of its meaning. And this he does in Exodus 3.14 in response to Moses' request. "I am who I am" is not, strictly speaking, an etymology of YHWH, but a wordplay that expresses something of its enigmatic meaning (thus Andrea Saner). As God's proper name YHWH is absolutely unique, so its exegesis in Exodus 3.14 reveals that its meaning is wholly self-referential, self-interpreting, self-determined. YHWH and YHWH alone is the measure of YHWH's meaning. The Father in relation to whom every family in heaven and on earth is named (Eph 3.14-15) is not himself named in relation to heaven or earth but only in relation to himself. 

Exodus 3.14's wordplay on God's proper name associates the name YHWH with "being," as the entire tradition of Christian biblical interpretation (higher critical biblical interpretation excepted) has acknowledged, following both Septuagintal and New Testament glosses of the name. YHWH is "the one who is" (Exod 3.14 LXX), the one "who was and is and is to come" (Rev 4.8). YHWH, moreover, is not identified as being-this or being-that but as absolute being-itself. To be YHWH is to be the absolute fullness of every good thing that may be found to exist in a finite and divided manner in God's creatures. YHWH is "the bread of life" (John 6.35), "the light of the world" (John 8.12), "the door" (John 10.7), "the good shepherd" (John 10.11), "the resurrection and the life" (John 11.25), "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14.6), and "the true vine" (John 15.1). YHWH, furthermore, is absolute being existing in and of himself. As the meaning of this name is self-referential and self-interpreting, so the being of YHWH is self-existent. YHWH has "life in himself" (John 5.26). Finally, the fact that this name is God's memorial name forever (Exod 3.15) indicates that YHWH is eternal and unchanging, a connotation picked up in New Testament evocations of this name as well (John 8.58; Rev 4.8).


YHWH is the proper name of God as holy wonder. By this name, God identifies himself as self-existent, unchanging, fullness of being, "I am who I am." The fire of YHWH burns but the bush is not consumed because YHWH is a fire that burns without need of fuel. 

The good news of Exodus 3 is that this God is our God, "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," who exhibits his identity as YHWH in trouncing Pharaoh and his armies and in rescuing his people that he might dwell in their midst, that he might speak out of the midst of the fire, that his people might serve and worship him. As we will see more fully in the next post, this is the greatest wonder of all and the defining feature of Christian worship: that YHWH, the eternal and unchanging one, the holy one of Israel, would dwell in the midst of a sinful people and that they would not be consumed.

Advocates of "family-integrated worship" -- a fancy term for keeping kids of every age in church services rather than shuffling them off to the nursery/crèche, Sunday School (UK), or Children's Church (US) -- generally claim their practice as the historical one up until rather recent times. "What we advocate," writes one proponent of family-integrated worship, "is nothing new, but is rather the practice of historic Christianity. [...] It was not until the philosophy of age-segregated education inflitrated [sic] the educational regimen of the nations, and then was adopted in the churches, that the people of God had to face so many family disintegrating forces." With considerably more levity, the brilliant forces behind Lutheran Satire recently named age-segregated worship as a modern invention (courtesy of Mr. Thompson and the Vicar) fundamentally at odds with "the multi-generational model of worship so foolishly employed by all the Christians in the history of forever until five seconds ago."

Whatever the merits of including children from early on in church services (and there are, I think, many), I'm not convinced the evidence for such being the unequivocal practice of previous ages is all that strong. Too often the argument from history on this matter seems to be one from silence more than anything else. Moreover, Kirk session records from the sixteenth-century suggest that Scottish church leaders at least thought keeping younger kids out of church services might be in the best interest of the whole congregation, even if there is, admittedly, no evidence that they spent any effort devising a wholesome alternative to corporate worship for the youngsters.

In her fascinating work The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland, Margo Todd observes that infants and young children were "systematically excluded... from Sunday sermons" in sixteenth-century Scotland in the interest of making sure that more mature parishioners were hearing and benefiting from the preaching of God's Word. Indeed, presbyteries and sessions went so far as to impose monetary fines on parents who breached ecclesiastical regulations against bringing potentially distracting youngsters to Sunday worship. Glasgow's churches apparently made 8 years of age the "cut-off" for attending the sermon. Aberdeen excluded children from corporate worship until they had reached school-age and demonstrated their ability to "take themselves to a seat." In Kingsbarns, just south of St. Andrews, the laity were ordered not only to exclude "little ones and young children" from worship, but to keep them enclosed at home (to prevent them from distracting worshippers by "running up and down" and making a racket in the vicinity of the church building). Church legislation in Perth in 1582 threatened parents with a hefty fine of six shillings and eight pence and/or imprisonment for bringing their "bairns... [to] kirk in time of preaching."

As Todd astutely points out, the exclusion of infants and children from worship presented a difficulty when it came to baptismal services "since one could hardly exclude the baby" to be baptized from such. Perth legislation of 1587 offered a resolution to this issue by ordering that infants "be holden in some secret place til the preaching is ended" and then brought forward for baptism, lest the crying of the baptismal candidate create "din in time of preaching, so that others incoming thereto are stopped from hearing."

Such efforts by early modern Kirk authorities to regulate the attendance of infants and young children at church might prove to be a historical anomaly. But I suspect that some digging would demonstrate that early modern Protestant churches elsewhere engaged in similar exercises. Of course, we need not necessarily follow the lead of our (Scottish) forebears on this particular issue. Personally (for what it's worth), I'm in favor of including kids in worship from pretty early on. I suspect that carpeted floors and the amplification of the preacher's voice has made some (though not all) of early modern kirk sessions' worries about the distraction children might cause other congregants less pressing in our day. Regardless, it seems to me that such worries shouldn't be permitted to trump the reality that faith comes through hearing, and so the benefit of situating our covenant children under the authoritative preaching of the Word of Christ from their earliest days (Rom. 10.17).

Perhaps the most appropriate lesson to be learned on this point, then, is simply not to make assumptions too quickly about how Christians did things in the past. It's all too easy to project our own ideas and customs on to persons or groups that inhabit days gone by, and then to turn around and claim historical precedent for our ideas and customs on that (illegitimate) basis. We must, rather, engage persons from the past truthfully and charitably. After all, the Scriptures that urge honesty (Ex. 20.16) and charity (1 Cor. 13.7) upon us in our interactions with others contain no qualifications about whether the "others" in question are living or dead. 


According to Nicholas Wolterstorff, worship is the "Godward acknowledgement of God's unsurpassable greatness . . . whose attitudinal stance toward God is awed, reverential, and grateful adoration." As we saw in our last post, this definition aptly summarizes the vision of worship set forth in Hebrews 12.28-29. As we also saw, the foundation for this vision of worship lies in God's identity as "a consuming fire." 

If we are to understand what it means to call our God "a consuming fire," we have to appreciate (1) the meaning of an image, (2) the meaning of a name, and (3) the meaning of a series of actions that unfold in God's redemption of Israel from Egypt and in his coming to dwell in Israel's midst. In the present post, I want to consider the meaning of an image by considering two texts which generate that image and which indicate its significance, namely, Exodus 3.1-6 and Deuteronomy 4.24.

Exodus 3.1-6

Exodus 3.1-6 describes God's appearance to Moses in the burning bush. Several features of this appearance are worth noting. First, the burning bush is a wonder. Moses has seen bushes before. Moses has seen fires before. And he, in all likelihood, has seen bushes on fire before. But Moses has never seen this: "the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed" (Exod 3.2). The wonder of the burning bush--its novel and unexpected nature--draws Moses like a magnet, causing him to "turn aside to see this great sight" (Exod 3.3). Second, the burning bush, as a sign of God's presence, is a sign of God's holiness: "When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, 'Moses, Moses!' And he said, 'Here I am.' Then he said, 'Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exod 3.4-5). Third, the burning bush is a sign of God's covenant faithfulness. From the midst of the bush, God declares, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Exod 3.6), and he announces that he has come to make good on his covenant promises to the patriarchs through the hand of Moses, whom he commissions to serve as the covenant mediator (Exod 3.7-22). 

The image of the burning bush thus provides a threefold revelation of what it means for God to be a consuming fire. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as a wonder. God is sui generis, unique and unprecedented, and, for that reason, he is an attractive force. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as holy. God is transcendent, set apart in his pure and radiant brilliance and therefore elicitive of reverence and fear. To describe God as a consuming fire is to describe God as faithful. God is one who hears his people in their plight and who keeps his promises in the face of all adversity and opposition. Moses' response to the threefold revelation of God as wonderful, holy, and faithful is appropriate, if not yet fully informed regarding the full significance of God's identity as a consuming fire: "Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God" (Exod 3.6).

Deuteronomy 4.24

The image of God as a consuming fire, though initially revealed in Exodus 3.1-6, receives further elaboration in Deuteronomy 4.24: "For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God." 

Within its immediate context, the image evokes God's presence at Sinai. There God entered into covenant with Israel through Moses (Exod 19-24; note also the comparison of Sinai and Zion in Heb 12.18-29), in fulfillment of the prophecy spoken by God in Exodus 3.12 and by means of an unprecedented act of deliverance (Deut 4.32-35). There, in another unprecedented act, God spoke to Israel "out of the midst of the fire" (Deut 4.12, 15, 33, 36). This fiery mode of divine self-communication, whereby God causes Israel to hear "the sound of words" rather than to see a "form" (Deut 4.12), provides the basis for the prohibition of images in Deuteronomy 4.15-19. The identity and presence of the God who speaks from the midst of the fire cannot be depicted in or mediated by graven images because this God radically transcends all classes of creatures and thus all classes of creaturely forms, whether in heaven, or on earth, or in the midst of the sea. If the identity of this unique and incomparable God is to be known, and if his presence is to be enjoyed, then Israel must not look but listen: "Hear, O Israel" (Deut 6.4)! 

The description of our God as a consuming fire in Deuteronomy 4.24 indicates something about God's identity and something about the worship which he finds "acceptable" (Heb 12.28) and which he blesses. As the unique and incomparable one, God gloriously transcends all categories of creaturely being. Moreover, he is not to be numbered among the panoply of Ancient Near Eastern gods. He is "the God" (Deut 4.35). Because he is this one, he prohibits the use of images in worship. Furthermore, because he is this one, the unique and comparable one, God's identity can only be known through a unique and incomparable medium: that of his self-revealing Word. If he is to be known, enjoyed, and worshiped aright, the Lord must proclaim his name to us, a point which we will unpack in the next post.


The good news of the God who speaks "out of the midst of the fire" is that the God who prohibits images also promises to make himself known through his Word and, in doing so, to come to us and bless us (Exod 20.23-24). Worship, first and foremost, therefore is a matter of hearing this promise and of preparing ourselves for the presence and blessing of our God, who is a consuming fire.
In his book, The God We Worship, Nicholas Wolterstorff defines worship as the "Godward acknowledgement of God's unsurpassable greatness . . . whose attitudinal stance toward God is awed, reverential, and grateful adoration." 

According to Wolterstorff, worship is "Godward" in its orientation. In our everyday lives "we are oriented toward tasks, toward our neighbors, [and] toward the created world." Though we seek to honor the name of the Lord in these various everyday orientations, in public worship, "we turn away from attending to the heavenly bodies and away from attending to the neighbor so as to attend directly to God." "In assembling to worship God," he says, "we turn around and orient ourselves toward God; we face God."  

The Godward orientation of worship, furthermore, brings with it a distinctive "attitudinal stance." An attitudinal stance, in Wolterstorff's understanding, is "a way of regarding" another person. Though it includes emotions, an attitudinal stance is more than a feeling. An attitudinal stance refers to the intellectual, volitional, emotional, and physical posture in which a person or, better, an assembly of persons attends to God in worship.

Wolterstorff argues that "awed, reverential, and grateful adoration" is the attitudinal stance appropriate to the Godward orientation of worship. God's awesome presence awakens awe. God's holy name inspires reverence. God's grace and kindness elicit grateful adoration. 

Whether intentional or not, Wolterstorff's definition aptly summarizes the vision of worship set forth in Hebrews 12.28-29: "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire." In verse 28, the author of Hebrews summons us to gratitude, for by God's grace we have become heirs of an unshakable kingdom. Moreover, he calls us to worship God with reverence and awe

In verse 29, the author provides the reason or warrant for worshiping God in this manner: "our God," the God of the covenant, "is a consuming fire." God's identity as "a consuming fire" is the basis for worshiping God with reverence, awe, and gratitude. His nature dictates our response. Theology is the foundation of doxology.

In the several posts that follow, I plan to discuss what it means to describe our God as "a consuming fire" and to consider a few implications of this description for Christian worship. 

The Death of the Evening Service

At the church where I minister, we have a morning and an evening service, both of which are practically identical in their order and form. As far as I am aware, we are one of the few Presbyterian churches in Canada who have both services on the Lord's Day. In America, from what I am told, more and more churches are abandoning the evening service.

When I first arrived at Faith Presbyterian our attendance at the PM service was unimpressive; I even thought - wrongly, I might add - the service began at 6:30pm instead of 6:00pm the first time I showed up. Over eight years later, by God's grace, we actually ran out of wine at our last PM service when communion was served. The elders brought back empty trays to me, which was probably the only time in my life I've been glad the wine ran out.

When I was first asked about my "vision" for the church, I made the point that I'd like to see better attendance at the evening service. From some outside the church I received a few silly suggestions, but I resolved to do two things:

1. Not coerce or manipulate people to come to the evening service. 
2. Let the gospel do its work. 

So why is retaining the evening service a good idea?

As Christians, we need to remember the frequent warnings about family in Christ's ministry (Mk. 3:33-35; Lk. 18:29). Christ's family comes before our blood relatives. Our true brothers and sisters - those whom we will spend eternity with - are those whom we belong to as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-26). That may include our blood relatives, but not only them. A PCA minister once told me that he's against the PM service because he wants to spend time with his wife and children. Quite frankly, I want my children to spend more time with other Christian children. 

I sometimes wonder if one reason for the failure of the evening service reflects more on the failure of the church to understand she is a family, where relationships are to be cultivated, not taken for granted. The early church gave themselves to fellowship (Acts 2:42). The time after the services on the Lord's day is a wonderful opportunity for God's people to fellowship, ask questions about how each other is doing, see how we can better pray for one another, and build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11). Why do some Christians consistently love to leave so quickly after church? 

Moreover, worship is a means of grace. When we come to hear God speak to us, we respond in faith, hope and love to our triune God. God builds up Christ's people, for we are Christ's fullness (Eph. 1:22-23). Worship makes us more like Christ, and for that reason I believe that consistent attendance at the AM and PM services, if possible, will ordinarily lead to a more spiritually vibrant Christian life. Public worship is to be preferred before private communion with God. What happens on the Lord's day is a foretaste of heaven (Heb. 12:22-23).

Some might object: then why don't we have three or four services? I believe we should also keep in mind Psalm 103:14. It is possible to overburden God's people (Matt. 23:4). But two services doesn't seem to be a burden that no man can bear, especially in North America where we are free to worship. I had to be moved to a special room in China when I lectured there last year because the authorities were after us. But that isn't the case here in North America. 

We have some folk who drive in for both services, and each way is 40-50 minutes for them. They make sacrifices for things of eternal (and temporal) value. Considering most parents are willing to drive their children all over town for sports or music, I'm amazed at how many Christians complain of distance when it comes to church. 

Pastors who preach two different sermons each week also know of the strenuous demands this puts on them. My week is a lot different when I only have to prepare one sermon. Very often I'm not persuaded that either sermon is adequate, but more often than not I've also seen how God can take something very ordinary and do extraordinary things among his people. 

As a PCA minister who takes seriously our Confession on the Sabbath, I also tend to think that two services helps my family to keep the Lord's day not only a delight, but also holy. Almost every Sunday our family spends time with other families during the day and we enjoy warm fellowship. My children also understand that on Sundays we worship the Lord, not the god of sports. For us Sabbatarians, I think there's a greater temptation to let the day go astray spiritually when there is one service. (Though I do know of some who do an admirable job, even though they can only attend church once).

In addition, we have many who cannot make the AM service because of work (e.g., nurses). A PM service may allow Christians in your area to worship the Lord when it would ordinarily be unlikely. We also have many Christians from other churches come and worship with us in the evening, which (because their church won't have a PM service) is a great occasion for a more catholic Christianity. Plus, some of them would never sing a Psalm or Hymn if they didn't come to a Presbyterian Church.

So what if you're reading this and you are a minister who is currently wrestling with the idea of having a PM service? 

For what it's worth, consider:

1. Reformation takes a long, long time. We have to be patient with our people. We cannot expect change overnight. 

2. As a minister, your own attitude to the PM service will make or break whether it becomes a success or a failure. God's people can tell if you are taking the PM service seriously in your preparation and attitude. 

3. Remember that God's word will do its work. God's word changes hearts. We are mere instruments. Pray and trust that God will do the work you are incapable of doing. 

4. If you and your family are the only ones present at the church for several months at the beginning, then so be it. 

I'm surprised that we have better things to do on a Sunday evening than worship the Lord. I'm surprised we don't want to be around our brothers and sisters a lot more. 

The evening service is worth it. I've witnessed the blessing it brings to God's people. I'm not prepared to say it is explicitly commanded, and therefore people are sinning if they don't attend an evening service (however, see Ps. 92:1-2, which speaks of morning and evening worship). There are some cases where I would even advise against an AM an PM service. But I am prepared to say that of all the Christian "activities" that could fall by the wayside - and perhaps there are some that should! -, the evening service should be last on the list.   

This year God allowed me to preach and teach in Brazil, China, Hong Kong, South Africa, and the USA. Let me assure you, we have it really easy here in North America. But perhaps that explains the death of the evening service.  

New Calvinism, Trinitarian Worship, & American Flags

One area where I think the so-called "new Calvinists" (and some PCA churches) need to perhaps give some more careful attention to in their retrieval of Reformed theology is in the area of worship, especially if they want to be taken seriously as "Calvinists". For all the positive developments in terms of recapturing a biblical view of grace, justification, salvation, etc., I worry about the worship in many "new Calvinist" churches. On occasion, in some of these churches, I have feared that a massive hole was going to consume us all. The lyrics to "Amazed" by Jared Anderson are an example of my concern.

I'm not talking only about the worship songs that sometimes have more in common with Air Supply than the Psalms, but even the basic structure of the worship service or the common understanding among the parishioners of what happens when worship takes place. How many Christians worship as functional Unitarians? 

In Christian worship, God the Father calls us into his presence. By the gift of the Holy Spirit, who binds us to Jesus, the Father brings us into heaven itself. This is why having an American flag in church is so utterly ridiculous: true, biblical worship is heavenly worship. An American flag in a church basically says: we don't ascend any higher than the land upon which this building stands.

In Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we stand before the God who has made all things, and has redeemed us from our sin. And through the Holy Spirit, the Father renews us in Christ, so that we might be increasingly conformed into his image. In other words, Christian worship begins with a "downward" motion, with God reaching out to us in love to grant us the gift of life. This "downward" motion is Trinitarian. 

A good question to ask someone who holds to the "doctrines of grace" is how he or she understands worship to be Trinitarian. It seems as though there is today very little awareness of how the Trinity affects our view of worship.

Each of the three persons of the Trinity is intimately involved. But the work of God is not the fullness of worship. Worship is made complete when we respond to God's grace with joyful thanksgiving. But even here, we need to be aware of the Trinitarian activity in our response. By the gift of the Holy Spirit, we respond with faith, hope and love to the Father's call, in union with Christ. Because we belong to Christ, and are hid in him, our response is indeed the faithful response of the divine Son to his heavenly Father. So even our response is, in a very real sense, God's work and activity.

Christian worship, then, is the joyous fellowship and communion that occurs when the Father summons his people, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, to gather together in his special presence. What does the Father do to us in this gathering? He refreshes, renews and nourishes us in Christ through the Holy Spirit. And in response to God's gracious work, we, by the enabling of the Spirit who is given to us in Christ, give thanks to the Father for so rich a salvation. In short, worship is simply the Father remaking us in Christ through the Spirit so that we might respond with thanksgiving to the Father in Christ through the Spirit.

Yet, we must also remember that as we are conformed to Christ, we must have the mind of Christ. Few Christians truly understand the emotional life of Jesus on earth. I think the best way to understand Christ's emotional life is to immerse ourselves in the Psalter.

I am not convinced of exclusive psalmody - though some worship services have caused me to briefly reconsider my view - but the psalter gives the church easy access, in one sense, into the emotional life of Christ. It amazes me that "Above All" is more likely to be sung than Psalm 22 or 88 or 45 in churches that would identify with the New Calvinism that is so popular today.

The problem with contemporary worship today is not that it is too emotional. No. The problem with contemporary worship is that it is not emotional enough. Our emotional life, because of our union with Christ, should reflect the full range of emotions found in the Psalter, which was Christ's hymnal and balm to his suffering soul on earth.

All of this is to suggest that true worship is both Trinitarian and Christocentric. Why? Because true theology is both Trinitarian and Christocentric. Throw in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant and you have all that you need for a robust doctrine of worship.

But what role does the Trinity or the covenant or the emotional life of Christ play in contemporary worship today? Instead we have "worship leaders" saying the word "just" more times in their (pastoral?) prayer than actual words that come from the Scriptures.

So, yes, I agree with John Owen that we need to allow and accept that there will be some differences in the precise way we worship God, and that we should not be too judgmental towards others who may differ from us a little. But these differences should never come at the expense of what it means, fundamentally, to be a Christian. We live Trinitarian, Christ-centered lives, in the context of the covenant, and so our worship ought to reflect those realities in a meaningful way.

*edit: I originally, by accident, used "neo-Calvinist" when I meant "new Calvinist". My apologies.

Noah's first deed upon exiting the ark -- at least as recorded in Scripture -- was to build an altar and offer unto God sacrifices from the "clean" animals and birds which had accompanied him and his family on his recent water-based adventures. God, for his part, smelled Noah's sacrifices and apparently found the scent of them agreeable (Gen. 8.20). Calvin is quick to point out the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic nature of the activity and sentiment thus attributed to God, lest anyone think that God actually has nostrils or, even worse, actually deems pleasing per se the "filthy smoke of entrails, and of flesh."

Calvin is, of course, equally keen to discover what it was about Noah's sacrifices that particularly pleased God, and so to learn how we might perform acts of worship that bring pleasure to the one who has redeemed us from the flood-waters of sin, death, and hell. Calvin ultimately discovers two ingredients in Noah's worship that rendered it pleasing to God.

The first is Noah's faith. Faith is, according to the author of Hebrews, the sine qua non of pleasing God (Heb. 11:6). Noah was a man who, by virtue of his recent experiences, had a fair share of confidence in God. Calvin discovers evidence of just how strong Noah's faith had grown in the biblical record of Noah's departure from the ark. Even when Noah had removed the door of the ark and found the earth dry (Gen. 8.13), he remained in the ark until God bid him leave it (Gen. 8.15). "Thus we see,"Calvin observes, "that by a continual course of faith, the holy man was obedient to God; because, at God's command, he entered the ark, and there remained until God opened the way for his egress; and because he chose rather to lie in a tainted atmosphere than to breathe the free air, until he should feel assured that his removal would be pleasing to God."

Noah's reluctance to exit the ark without divine bidding was apparently informed by the tremendous episode of judgment and salvation he had just witnessed/experienced. God, it was clear to Noah, was no one to be trifled with. God, it was equally clear, was a God who kept his promises and was absolutely reliable. The only sensible thing to do, in light of who God had just revealed himself to be, was to cast himself entirely upon God's mercy and obey his word even to the minutest detail. It was this very remarkable sense of God's reality and power, and God's utter trustworthiness, which informed Noah's sacrifices and rendered them fragrant to God. Such faith should, of course, inform every person's worship of God: "This general rule, therefore, is to be observed, that all religious services which are not perfumed with the odour of faith, are of an ill-savour before God."

We should not, however, conclude that any old act of worship informed by faith is pleasing to God. The second ingredient -- also absolutely essential -- to sweet-smelling worship is careful attention to God's own instructions regarding how he wishes to be worshiped. Calvin admits that no explicit command to Noah to offer sacrifices is discovered in the biblical text, but nevertheless argues that Noah "rested upon the word of God, and... in reliance on the divine command... rendered this worship, which he knew, indubitably, would be acceptable to God." God's intention for Noah to offer animal sacrifices to him as an expression of gratitude for his salvation following the flood is discernible, Calvin argues, in the pre-flood instruction to take on board seven (three pairs plus one) of every clean animal, the seventh, un-paired animal being included "for the sake of sacrifice." It would, of course, have been useless to include a seventh specimen of every clean animal "unless God had revealed this design to holy Noah, who was to be the priest to offer up the victims."

The pre-flood "divine command" to sacrifice post-flood is also discernible in the distinction noted between clean and un-clean animals as such. "It is certain that Noah did not invent this distinction for himself, since it does not depend on human choice." All in all, it is apparent, in Calvin's judgment, that God had given Noah fairly detailed instructions regarding the sacrifices that he should make following the flood, even before the first drops of rain fell. "We conclude that he undertook nothing without divine authority." Calvin's argument certainly makes good sense of what Noah actually did upon exiting the ark. Noah got busy making sacrifices as soon as his feet hit dry ground because God, who had just revealed himself to Noah in a remarkable episode of judgment and salvation, had previously instructed him to do just that.

The lesson we are meant to take from this is decidedly not that we, however full of faith, should offer animal sacrifices unto God. Animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were picture prophecies of the Seed who would come to crush the head of the Serpent by offering himself up as an atonement for the sins of his people. "It was right that [Old Testament believers] should always have before their eyes symbols, by which they would be admonished, that they could have no access to God but through a mediator. Now, however, the manifestation of Christ has taken away these ancient shadows." For that matter, however, Noah's sacrifices (in Calvin's judgment) were more like the "first fruits" offerings the people of Israel would eventually bring God in grateful acknowledgment of God's deliverance of them (cf. Deut. 26) than those sacrifices which properly pre-figured Christ (the true sin-bearing sacrifice).

In any case, the lesson we are meant to take from Noah's sacrifices is that our own worship, if we would have it be pleasing to God, must likewise be performed in faith and careful attention to God's own instructions about how he should be worshiped. We are, of course, not free to simply go through the proper motions of worship, without hearts full of faith. We are, equally, not free to worship God in whatever way we deem suitable, provided our hearts are full of faith. Both worship uninformed by faith and worship unsolicited by God are putrid in his nostrils. Only when we worship him as he has expressly commanded us to do, and do so in faith, is our worship fragrant to him.

Noah's faith, as noted, was informed by his participation in a rather remarkable episode of judgment and salvation. We who stand on this side of the Cross have been made witnesses to and participants in a rather more remarkable episode of judgment and salvation; we have been spared the flood-waters of God's wrath insofar as they have been poured out on our substitute. The faith that informs our own worship has no less substantial a foundation than Noah's faith had. 

And we, like Noah, have been given very clear instructions in Scripture concerning the kind of worship we should offer unto God, whether in private, familial, or corporate-ecclesial settings.

May we, then, be as quick and ready as Noah was to offer unto God our own faith-full and obedient sacrifices.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

See It Publicly

When I made arrangements to start blogging here, I told the fellows in charge that it was unlikely that I would blog more than twice a month at Ref21, but I'm about to only have posted once in my premiere month.  That's a soft start to be sure.

Last time, as you remember, I made the point that Christ must have his Church - but not just some universal church, some church without particular people in it.  And I left you with the pointed affirmation that if we want what Jesus wants, we also ought to want the church in a particular sense.  For those of you who aren't getting what I mean, let me say it plainly: if you don't belong to a local church, you're disdaining the people Jesus has called to himself.

There are a lot of places to go from there - places most people avoid studiously so they can do as little as possible for those who are fallen and only Jesus can get them back up again.  But I'm going to make my second post here about someplace I think you need to think about before the weekend kicks off: your worship is too puny if you worship this weekend without God's people.

Look: How Sweet the sound that Saved a Wretch like Me, right?  Everybody reading this blog understands how great is the grace which is used to save "me personally," (whosoever you personally may be), but that fantastic, impossible, immeasurable grace which God used to save you is magnified when you stand next to someone else who was also saved by that grace - your spouse, for example.  Or maybe your kids.  Or maybe all of you - and some of you are planning to House Church it this weekend because you have two or more gathered together in His name.  In that way, you think your job is done, your obligation and gratitude toward God Almighty and the Lamb who was Slain before the Foundation of the World is all set.

But I want you to think about this:  Jesus didn't die for us so that those who were born of the will of man could (or merely might) worship with us.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.  That doesn't mean that you were surprised at how many children you and your spouse had because they were all born when God appointed them to be born: it means that there are many more people born into the family of God than you and your spouse can have made.  It means that somehow God's grace and mercy in Jesus Christ is greater than the will of any man or woman.

That's why you need to get together with other people not related to you by blood or marriage or because they are like you in some ordinary way based on your preferences: because God is glorified when we get together all of us who are born into His family and show it and say it and see it publicly.  It Makes God's greatness obvious to all and confuses the world in all the right ways when we do it - because they have no idea why every tribe and tongue and neighborhood ought to be able to sing the same (unpopular) songs and eat the same (small portioned) meal and hear the same (sometimes complicated, sometimes apparently-clichéd) words of life.

But we do.  And we should.  And if we don't, shame on us - for making too little of what God has done for us.

Where should your children be during corporate worship? What does the Bible say about it? Does church history help us answer this question?

Over the years, I have tried to read various positions regarding the inclusion of children during Sunday service or the departure of children, whether just before the sermon or during the entire service, to an "age-appropriate" lesson. To my knowledge, no book has been fully devoted to a biblical and/or historical exposition of why we should exclude children from all or part of Sunday service. John Frame, in his book, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship, provided one paragraph on the topic. Although this was not the point of his book, he, nevertheless, stated, 

It is important that teaching be intelligible, clear, and edifying (1 Cor. 14). When Ezra and the Levites taught the law to Israel, the assembly consisted of those "who could understand" (Neh. 8:3). Those who could not understand, evidently, were instructed in other contexts. Some Reformed people insist that all children should be present in church during every sermon, rather than being sent off to nurseries and "children's churches." There is certainly value in families worshiping together as much as possible. God deals not only with individuals in Scripture, but also with households. The family is vitally important. In worship, however, edification (1 Cor. 14:26) is more important than mere togetherness. Ideally, everybody should be taught at his own level of understanding. (92)

It seems that Frame embraces an "age-appropriate" model for worship. If so, he is not alone. Throughout many denominations, people have concluded that children must learn the Bible in a manner that is fitting their level of intelligence. Amid these conclusions, some have ventured to write books that oppose this point-of-view.

At just 60-pages, Rev. Daniel Hyde offers a brief historical and biblical account of why he believes children should remain in worship. What follows is an outline of his book, The Nursery of the Holy Spirit: Welcoming Children in Worship.

In the introduction, Hyde suggests that he is writing this book "to take away that strangeness and scariness of having children in worship" (xvi). He also shares the two groups to whom he is writing. "First," Hyde notes, "I am writing to those of you who worship in a church that encourages and welcomes little ones to join with the rest of the congregation" (xvi). Second, Hyde writes to those "who may only know the Sunday school / children's church model of ministry..." (xvi). His desires in addressing these two groups are: first, "to make a case that welcoming children in worship is a practice consistent with the examples we see in Scripture and is a highly beneficial practice...", and secondly, "to offer some practical advice on how you can bring children into worship and help them make the most of their worshipping alongside of you" (xvi-xvii).

While Hyde believes his conclusion is historically and biblically grounded, he recognizes that "including children in worship is of the wellbeing (bene esse) of the church and not of the essence (esse) of the church" (xvii). He says that he believes "it is the best practice, but [he] cannot say it must be the only practice" (xvii).

In chapter 1, he provides a brief overview of the history of children's church. He claims that children's church is a derivative of Sunday school, which originated in England, as an outreach to unbelieving children (p. 1). As the model of Sunday school transitioned from outreach to Christian education, the purpose of Sunday school became a means of educating children during corporate worship. Since parent(s) were concerned that their children get something out of the sermon, the Sunday school became a place for them to understand something about the word of God at their level (pp. 2-4).  

Despite current Sunday school, or children's church, practices, historically, Hyde claims, children remained with their parent(s). After this suggestion, Hyde provides a Reformed covenantal view that grounds his position. Hyde's covenantal approach should not restrain people from reading this book, however. He recognizes that "you may not have this same theological understanding;" nevertheless, "experientially we most likely view our children the same way" (p. 11).  In other words, Hyde believes he is providing a book to argue his case for children remaining in the service that reaches beyond those who hold his covenantal position.

In chapter 2, Daniel provides several scripture references that support his conclusion. He uses both the Old and New Testaments to provide several examples of children incorporated in the corporate worship of the almighty. Attempting to state his case somewhat provocatively, Hyde says, 

To put it in a provocative form: imagine if the practice of so many churches today, which have children's church during the entirety of corporate worship or which dismiss children to children's church just before the reading and preaching of the Word, were going on in Paul's day. While Paul's letters were being read to the congregations, his practical exhortations to the church's children to obey their parents would have fallen upon deaf ears if all those children were not present" (p. 32). 

In chapter 3, while he recognizes the difficulty of having children in worship, he provides some practical ways parent(s) can bring this to pass. He suggests that training children at home, preparing for worship the evening prior, and participating in various aspects of corporate worship are all practical ways to train your children and keep them in service (pp. 43-52).

During Hyde's concluding thoughts (pp. 55-60), he makes a final plea to reconsider any practices that are contrary to his, and in closing he writes, "I pray that as you reevaluate your understanding and position on this vital issue of our children in worship, not only will you come to include them, but also that your children will include theirs for generations to come" (p. 60). 

Another bite of the Apple

How pleased and blest was I
To hear the people cry,
"Come, let us seek our God today!"
Yes, with a cheerful zeal
We haste to Zion's hill,
And there our vows and honours pay.

The excitement is building and the tension is mounting. We have been eagerly anticipating this day, a day on which we get to consider marvels and receive blessings, in the company of others so marvelling and blessed. We have been planning for this, clearing our calendars, arranging our schedules, saving our offerings, cancelling other commitments and structure our family life with this day in mind. It comes regularly, but it feels rarer. We know something of what to expect, but we are hoping that - this time - something better may be our experience, that the glories we have come to know in part might beam a little brighter this day. Yes, with a cheerful zeal, we haste to Apple's [sic] hill, and there our vows and honours pay. Because today they might show us a new watch.

If that is your testimony, and these your priorities, something may be wrong.

If your appetite for Apple transcends your appetite for God; if your excitement for the company of those faithful is more than for God's faithful; if the prospect of the Spirit of Jobs drawing near stirs you in a way that worship never has; if there is no planning, clearing, saving, cancelling and structuring in anticipation of the day of worship, but there is for this; if you obsess over the merely good but miss the truly great - something has gone awry.

Just saying.
We tend towards one of two extremes in our attitudes towards work: either we make too little of it, or we make too much of it. We make too little of work when we regard it with contempt, when we treat it as an evil -- albeit a necessary one since it supplies the financial resources necessary to pursue the things we actually value (relationships, possessions, status, leisure, etc.).
Against any such tendency, we need to be reminded that God gave Adam a job immediately after he made him. "The earth was given to man... that he should occupy himself in its cultivation." Calvin doesn't hesitate to draw a universal principle from this -- not that we should all, in imitation of Adam, set ourselves to farming (or even manual labor), but that we should set ourselves to doing something. "Men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness." Indeed, "nothing is more contrary to the order of nature, than to consume life in eating, drinking, and sleeping, while in the meantime we propose nothing to ourselves to do."

Calvin has much to say, in due course, about how we go about choosing something "to do." Selecting a job or career is a matter of measuring one's desires and abilities, and determining how one might best serve God and others -- not so much one's self -- with those desires and abilities. The fundamental point here, however, is that work is a good thing, an integral aspect of creaturely existence in a pre-fallen world, and so also in our fallen world. Work is not the product or penalty of humankind's rebellion against God, granted that some -- indeed a fairly significant -- degree of frustration has been introduced to all human work in consequence of that rebellion (Gen. 3.18-19).

But recognition of work's intrinsic goodness can leave us exposed to that other error to be avoided, making too much of work. We make too much of work when we treat it - rather than glorifying and enjoying God - as man's chief end, or as an indubitably permanent feature of creaturely existence. Against any tendency to over-value work, we must be reminded of two things: first, the relationship which work sustained to rest/worship in Eden; and second, the relationship which Eden itself as a whole, with work as one ingredient, sustained (and still sustains) to the eternal state (heaven, if you will).

According to Calvin, God's image bearers had a corporate calling which was higher than their individual vocations from the very beginning; namely, that they "daily exercise themselves to consider the infinite goodness, justice, power, and wisdom of God, in this magnificent theater of heaven and earth." God, in order to direct his image bearers towards that end, set apart one specific day--first by his own example, and then by benediction made upon his own day of rest (Gen 2:2-3)--for the exercise of such activity. In Calvin's judgment, the obligation for all men and women to desist from "other business" and "apply their minds to the Creator of the world" can be traced back to creation; it is, of course, an obligation binding "the whole human race."

God's sanctification of the seventh day (Gen. 2.3) and the peculiar responsibilities entrusted to us on that seventh day -- both rest, in imitation of God's own cessation from the work of creation, and worshipful contemplation of God and His ways -- mutually indicate that man's seventh-day activities are more significant than his other-six-day doings. If is, of course, a more profound thing "to celebrate the justice, wisdom, and power of God" in worship than it is to cultivate the soil (although both work and worship, in Calvin's vision, should ultimately be done to God's glory). This privileging of rest/worship over work, the latter succumbing to the former in a weekly pattern established by God, puts work in proper perspective.

Considering the relationship of the original, Edenic state to the eternal, heavenly state also serves to put work in proper perspective. In Calvin's judgment, Adam's life in Eden was ultimately a temporary one, regardless of whether he stood or fell. "His earthly life truly would have been temporal; ...he would have passed into heaven without death, and without injury." Thus Adam too, before he fell, was called to "meditate on heavenly glory" while "passing through his earthly life." This was no idiosyncratic view on Calvin's part; both before and after the Reformation the view was prevalent that God always intended something surpassing Eden's splendors for his human creatures.

If Adam's "earthly life" was in fact temporary, so also was the job he was given. In other words, even in a sinless world, work would have given way to that eternal rest, worship, and fellowship with God which was from the very beginning prophetically imaged in humankind's weekly rest, worship, and fellowship with God. This may prove a hard pill to swallow for those who, quite frankly, value work so highly, or so find identity in their occupations, that the promise of a heaven without work sounds like the loss of all they cherish and the dissolution of self (i.e., hell). But neither Calvin nor Scripture offer any suggestion that work in general, or our specific callings in this life, will survive the transition to the next. Our lives in the life to come will, I suspect, be rather busy (without being tiring), but that busyness won't entail finishing up those projects we never quite managed to complete before the present heavens and earth were rolled up like scroll (Isa. 34.4).

Calvin calls us to walk a fine line in our assessment of work, neither underestimating nor overestimating its value. His vision of a work/rest pattern for God's image bearers makes ideas about work championed by our present-day culture seem rather thin by comparison. His vision simply cannot be reconciled with models which treat work as the rather unpleasant but necessary price of admission to weekends and holidays of self-indulgence, or those which make occupation the definition of a person, and offer him or her weekends and holidays (rest) as a mere chance to recharge the batteries for greater productivity. Against either unsatisfactory view, Calvin offers us his vision: six days of fruitful, God-glorifying work (a high calling) culminating in one day of rest and concentrated worship and enjoyment of God (an even higher calling), which day of rest and worship anticipates and prophetically images that eternal rest and enjoyment of God which he, the fall notwithstanding, has prepared for his people (the highest calling).

The Alliance is partnering with the annual Reformation Worship Conference outside of Atlanta, Oct. 23-26. We are so very happy to join with our friends at Midway Presbyterian Church, outside of Atlanta, who host the annual Reformation Worship Conference ( This annual gathering is designed for all Christians and ministry leaders. A guest faculty, consisting of W. Robert Godfrey, Steven Lawson, Richard Phillips, Terry Johnson, Douglas Kelly, Jon Payne, T. David Gordon, and many others will assemble for a rich weekend of biblical instruction, encouragement, and modeling of robust, reformed worship. 

Please see the entire program at, and a discounted registration price is available through the end of August.  And since the Alliance is a partner in this event, we invite all our friends to join us and stop by our booth at the conference. Please contact Judy Dodd ( for more information about group rates or to register. 

"Our call to worship comes from...", "If you have confessed your sins, I declare to you...", and "The Lord bless you and keep you" are statements frequently found on Lord's Day worship at Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Are these things keeping African-Americans away from our churches?

In the previous post, I narrowly defined the terms "liturgy" and "minority." Liturgy, I suggested, "is the pattern or arrangement of one's Sunday service." Since every church has a liturgy, I more particularly narrowed the focus to "that pattern or arrangement of the elements of worship that is often employed in Presbyterian and Reformed churches" (see DPW, section II). Regarding the term "minority," I mentioned, "...I am specifically thinking of middle class, African-Americans with some church experience. The ecclesiastical affiliation subsumes under three categories: Pentecostal/Charismatic, Baptist, and Non-Denominational."

At the conclusion of part 1, I suggested, "Liturgy does not...ultimately keep African-Americans away from Reformed and Presbyterian churches." However, what can keep some African-Americans away from our churches, specifically regarding liturgy, is how the liturgy is conducted. Previously, I noted, 

"The second issue (i.e., there is a dullness to the liturgy) is also off-putting to some African-Americans. If they are accustomed to Baptist, Pentecostal/Charismatic (and yes, I recognize there are differences), or Non-Denominational churches, there is normally a liveliness to the minister's leading of the service. He does not normally stand behind the pulpit with his elbows locked, hands latched unto the pulpit as he slightly leans toward the congregation telling us what is next in the liturgy with a monotone voice. The dullness, therefore, does not come from the liturgy itself but from the liturgist. African-Americans, in many cases, are formed by enthusiasm that comes from the pulpit. It is obvious the minister believes, or at least we hope, what he teaches. When that is not present, the liturgy can seem unappealing."

Along with a somewhat stale presentation of an otherwise glorious event, something else that can keep African-Americans away from our churches is the pace of the liturgy. Further, I would suggest the culture of that church, which is expressed within the liturgy, may also reduce African-American presence in our churches.

The Pace of the Liturgy

Having visited many Reformed and Presbyterian churches across the United States, the pace of the liturgy is often the same. Once one aspect of the service is complete, the minister immediately proceeds to the next section. For example, after the declaration of pardon, the minister soon thereafter states some variation of, "Having heard the declaration of pardon, let's sing a song of response." The pianist then begins playing. In the majority of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, it seems, that is acceptable. The pace provides a certain flow to the service that has become normative. That pace, nevertheless, can become inhibiting to those who are a bit more demonstrative. 

Some of our Caucasian brothers and sisters are not extremely expressive in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. A head nod, perhaps an "amen" under her breath, or, according to one seminary president, a grunt is an adequate response to confirm what just transpired during Lord's Day corporate worship. For many African-Americans--I am included--the aforementioned verbal or bodily gestures of agreement are acceptable and within one's comfort zone. However, for others, they are not. Some African-Americans desire to more loudly or expressively declare their verbal or bodily assent to a certain declaration from the minister, but the pace in many of our churches prohibits it. In other words, there is very little time to express one's gratitude to the glorious truths found, for instance, in the declaration of pardon because the service quickly advances to the next segment. Unless someone desires to get into a shouting match with the minister, it is best to remain silent. 

For some African-Americans who have experience in Pentecostal/Charismatic, Baptist, and/or Non-Denominational churches, there is sometimes space, due to the pace, to offer verbal or bodily assent to a certain portion, or portions, of the service. That sometimes occurs because the minister solicits it. At other times, there is enough down time, or space between parts of the service, to allow verbal confirmation. In our churches, what may that look like?

After the declaration of pardon, instead of moving directly to the next area of service, the minister could say some variation of, "And all God's people said?" The response should be, "amen." That provides an outlet for those who are more expressive in worship. One might also ask rhetorical questions (e.g., "Isn't that good news?"), or other questions, that grant people the opportunity to express themselves, albeit decently and in order. Who knows? You may have some people in your congregation currently who would appreciate this, and they may not be African-American.

The Culture of the Church Expressed within the Liturgy

While the pace of the liturgy in many of our churches may not allow demonstrative worship, the culture of the church, which is depicted within the liturgy, also does not provide space for demonstrative worship.

Several of my African-American friends have expressed feeling somewhat alienated when they declare a passionate, "amen" to the minister's sermon or the declaration of pardon. In their opinion, the stares, after an "amen" is stated, confirm their feeling of alienation. They, therefore, feel prohibited from making further gestures of agreement. That is not something liturgy does. Liturgy does not inhibit nor prohibit verbal expression (e.g., "amen" or "preach, Pastor") nor a bodily response to certain parts within the liturgy (e.g., raising hands) -- people do. 

Outside of singing, confessing sin, and reciting a creed, many of our congregations are silent. Although there may be no bylaws suggesting one should be quiet, the culture, which provides those "unwritten rules," clearly announces that reality. Must those African-Americans who are more demonstrative in worship conform to the church's culture, or will there be enough room for them to maintain that aspect of their cultural identity and remain expressive in church?

Perhaps you are either thinking, "To what degree should a minister and/or congregation allow people to be expressive?," or "How do I inculcate a more expressive culture in my church?" Maybe you are not asking either question. To the extent that some of you may be interested, perchance I will attempt to articulate answers to those questions at another time. 

Until then, consider requesting a copy of the liturgy from Christ Central Church, City of Hope, or Grace Mosaic. Each of these churches are cross-cultural, multi-ethnic, intentional about reaching out to various ethnic groups and cultures, maintain a word and sacrament centrality, and uphold the liturgical elements found in DPW, section II. These churches, though this anecdotal, confirm that liturgy does not keep African-Americans away from our churches.
"Let's face it. It's music that keeps minorities out of our church," said a PCA layman during the question and answer section of my Sunday school class. I have heard many comments like this. Perhaps you have also. Is it true?

To your disappointment, I am only going to focus on the liturgical aspect of worship in this post. I am somewhat aware of the many worship war debates and how the emphasis is often music; I will return to that. For now, let us briefly consider liturgy and what that may be doing to provide (dis)interest to minorities in your community.

First, allow me to clarify some things, specifically in terms of what I mean by "liturgy" and "minority." I confess that every church has a liturgy, even those congregations that believe the Spirit should not be contained within a set structure every Sunday. Most often, at least in my experience, those churches still have a certain order, or flow, of worship that is fairly concrete. Liturgy, then, is the pattern or arrangement of one's Sunday service. In the context of this post, however, when I refer to liturgy I specifically mean that pattern or arrangement of the elements of worship that is often employed in Presbyterian and Reformed churches (i.e., what some wrongly title, "covenant renewal ceremony"; see also DPW, section II).  

As I use the term "minority," I am being extremely limiting as well. I am specifically thinking of middle class, African-Americans with some church experience. The ecclesiastical affiliation subsumes under three categories: Pentecostal/Charismatic, Baptist, and Non-Denominational. The reason for such constriction is because these are the classifications with which I have most familiarity. 

One final point. As I write this, I am assuming there are African-Americans in your community and/or the community in which the church building is located. From a previous post, which highlighted ethnic diversity and the lack thereof in many of our reformed churches, one gentleman asked, "How do you know that these monochromatic churches don't already "reflect the communities in which they are"?" In many cases, they might; regardless, I am writing from the perspective that your community is ethnically diverse, particularly as it relates to African-Americans. If the community in which you live and in which the church is located is primarily one ethnic group, we should expect the church to reflect that demographic. However, with the changing trends in many parts of the USA, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find communities that are primarily one ethnic group.

Is liturgy keeping African-Americans out of our church?

It may and it may not. One ought not to assume that African-Americans are allergic to liturgy. Unfortunately, I have had many conversations with people who have suggested that, in order to attract African-Americans to one's congregation, there should be as little liturgy as possible. "African-Americans need to be free to express themselves," I was told, "and if you are liturgical, they will feel inhibited." Interestingly enough, my dear Anglo brothers were the ones making the aforementioned comments. How ironic?

In many traditional predominantly African-American Baptist churches, they have liturgy. In fact, I recently visited a church that was extremely dialogical and liturgical in their approach. They confessed their faith, had numerous scripture readings, call-and-response segments, and a host of other things that we would find in a Presbyterian and Reformed church. As an aside, though this is outside the boundaries of the three ecclesiastical categories previously mentioned, also consider looking at the liturgy at some African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches. They, too, are accustomed to utilizing liturgy that is present in our reformed churches.

It is not merely traditional black Baptist churches that employ liturgy but also a recent wave of Pentecostal churches. "Bishop Gregory Bowers is pastor of Penuel Missionary Baptist Church and also leads the Jubilee network of churches," which has partnered with the ACNA with the expressed intent to see God's church unified and employ common liturgy. 

While I have many testimonies of African-Americans enjoying, and even becoming fond of, liturgy, there are times when it is not quite grasped or liked. In my experience there are two main reasons why liturgy is not received well. First, there is a lack of understanding and familiarity with liturgy. Second, there is a dullness to the liturgy or more particularly, the liturgist. Allow me to explain the former by personal experience.

When I was first introduced to Reformed and Presbyterian churches, I knew very little about them other than the ministers preached the doctrines of grace. Singing from a hymnal, liturgy, and weekly Lord's Supper were foreign. Simply because I was unaware of such practices, however, did not make me skeptical nor hostile toward the practice. I believe I was eager to learn.

The first church my family visited was a bit off-putting, though. While the liturgy was, generally, outlined in the bulletin, the congregation said and did things that were not listed in the bulletin. For example, there were certain songs that were sang throughout the service that were not in the bulletin (e.g., the doxology). When people either stood up or sat down, that was not outlined in the bulletin either. For a newcomer, it seemed like there was a hidden code that I needed to know in order to properly fit in. That was a turn-off. Since I was already ignorant to many liturgical practices, the unfamiliarity with that particular church's liturgy did not help in my understanding and enjoyment of it.

The second issue (i.e., there is a dullness to the liturgy) is also off-putting to some African-Americans. If they are accustomed to Baptist, Pentecostal/Charismatic (and yes, I recognize there are differences), or Non-Denominational churches, there is normally a liveliness to the minister's leading of the service. He does not normally stand behind the pulpit with his elbows locked, hands latched unto the pulpit as he slightly leans toward the congregation telling us what is next in the liturgy with a monotone voice. The dullness, therefore, does not come from the liturgy itself but from the liturgist. African-Americans, in many cases, are formed by enthusiasm that comes from the pulpit. It is obvious the minister believes, or at least we hope, what he teaches. When that is not present, the liturgy can seem unappealing. 

Liturgy does not, therefore, ultimately keep African-Americans away from Reformed and Presbyterian churches. While there are some African-Americans who will not enjoy liturgy no matter how enthusiastic the minister is nor how much education is provided regarding the flow of service, in many cases, African-Americans do not mind liturgy. Although, again, this is anecdotal, I believe our church plant is a testimony to this truth (View image). God is drawing a people together, who will worship on the Lord's Day, using many of the liturgical elements found in the DPW.
Sunday worship is a sensitive issue. Advocates of the regulative and normative principles of worship each have a lens through which they look to subscribe to certain principles about worship. Which is right?

Years ago I began reading on the topic. Having a wide array of Sunday morning experiences, I felt obligated to know what is and is not acceptable during Sunday worship. While I now have an opinion on the matter, the books I have collected over the years present various views.

In the list below I have not included books on the sacraments, preaching, and prayer. In most worship war debates, people generally accept the aforementioned three items. These books, generally, are more concerned with the order of worship and those things that are permissible--outside of the administration of the sacraments, preaching, and prayer--during Sunday services. As always, I do not necessarily agree with everything in the books listed nor do I necessarily agree with the individual author's stance on other topics not mentioned in these books.

I am particularly interested in origins of Christian worship as it pertains to liturgy. Number 3 is the latest addition in that category. I desire to read much more on in that arena.

1. The Worship Sourcebook published by Faith Alive Christian Resources (2004)
2. Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God's Narrative by Robert Webber
3. The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (2 ed.) by Paul Bradshaw
4. Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody by Michael Bushell
5. Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship by John Frame
6. Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship by David Peterson
7. With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship by D. G. Hart and John Muether
8. O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church by Robert Rayburn
9. Liturgies of the Western Church: Selected and Introduced by Bard Thompson
10. The Reformation of Our Worship by Stephen Winward
11. Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship by Robbie Castleman
12. Children in Church: Nurturing Hearts of Worship by Curt and Sandra Lovelace
13. Encountering God Together: Biblical Patterns for Ministry and Worship by David Peterson
14. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James Smith
15. Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence by John Jefferson Davis
16. Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation and the Directory for Worship by Richard Muller and Rowland Ward
17. The Dialogue of Worship: Creating Space for Revelation and Response by Gary Furr and Milburn Price
18. Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past and Present edited by Lukas Vischer
19. Worship: Reformed According to Scripture by Hughes Oliphant Old
20. A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship by Michael Horton
21. Leading in Worship: A Sourcebook for Presbyterian Students and Ministers Drawing Upon the Biblical and Historic Forms of the Reformed Tradition by Terry Johnson
22. The History and Use of Hymns and Hymn-Tunes by David Breed
23. The Early History of the Liturgy by J. H. Srawley
24. The Lord's Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship by Jeffrey Meyers
25. The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul
26. Worship by the Book edited by D. A. Carson
27. In the Splendor of Holiness: Rediscovering the Beauty of Reformed Worship for the 21st Century by Jon Payne
28. Book of Common Worship published by Westminster John Knox Press (1993)
29. The Book of Common Prayer (1662) published by Everyman's Library 
30. Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense by John Frame
31. Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal by T. David Gordon
32. The Psalms as Christian Worship: An Historical Commentary by Bruce Waltke and James Houston
If you look around the United States today (with apologies to our overseas readers), several things stand out. First, we are a military power. We face threats, but we have confidence in our military might.

Then there is our economy - the most robust in the world. We live in a time of almost unprecedented prosperity.

But there are problems we sense too. We have had confidence in our security for years, but how secure are we?

And what about the economy? While it's true that wealth is increasing, the worldwide gap between rich and poor seems to be widening. And in many cases, it seems as if the wealthy are able to exploit these gaps.

Continue on Place for Truth.

Text link -

Defending Eutychus

A recent book enjoys the witty title, Saving Eutychus. The book itself is intended to encourage and assist preachers to preach engaging sermons in the hopes of preventing their congregations tumbling out of windows to their death, or something along those lines.

Please understand that I am all for preachers setting out to capture and hold the attention of their hearers, although I am slightly concerned that a number of recent books on this topic tend to focus on the homiletically mechanistic and rather bypass the spiritually dynamic aspects. Neither am I suggesting that its authors are ignorant of the slight unfairnesses inherent in the title to Paul and perhaps to Eutychus himself (maybe the cleverness of the title was just too enticing to pass by?).

However, I wonder if I might offer an interpretation of the passage that might rehabilitate both preacher and hearer?

The episode in question is recorded by Luke in the midst of a blizzard of evangelistic and edifying activity carried out by Paul and a fairly large crew of companions. They arrive in Troas were Paul has an opportunity to instruct the saints. Reading some popular interpretations, one might imagine that Paul begins to preach at a fairly typical hour - perhaps six or seven o'clock, let's say - finds himself a little carried away and gets his second wind at about 11pm. Still going strong at midnight, it's all a bit much for Eutychus, who - overcome with a mixture of boredom and weariness - finally loses the battle against sleep and rolls out of his window seat to his doom, almost literally preached to death. But not to worry! The apostle simply heals the chap, and - undeterred - cracks on unrelentingly with his sermon until daybreak. Insensitive Paul! Inattentive Eutychus! The obvious lessons? Preachers should not go on too long and should make sure they maintain the attention of their hearers, and/or hearers should care enough about the truth not to fall asleep while it is being preached.

But is that what is actually happening? I would suggest not.
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, "Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him." Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed. And they brought the young man in alive, and they were not a little comforted. (Acts 20.7-12)
You will notice, first of all, when they meet: it is on the first day of the week. This is that day on which the risen Christ made a repeated point of meeting with his disciples to speak truth to them for their blessing. Although the language of breaking bread does not require us to understand that this is a worship service in which the Lord's supper will be celebrated, it is not an unreasonable supposition.

However, on this occasion, these saints have the privilege of Paul himself being briefly present with them, and he takes the opportunity to explain the truth. Now, it is clear that Paul preaches for some time, but it is also worth noting that we are not informed when he began preaching. That is important, because it might help us appreciate what is going on.

Could it be, then, that what we have here is a congregation of believers from various backgrounds gathering as opportunity provides? Several sources inform us that Eutychus was a fairly common name for slaves. If this were the case here, then we might suggest that Eutychus - together with several others of the same or different circumstances - has made his way to worship once his day's work is done, late at night or very early in the morning being the only times when such meetings could occur for the whole church. It may even be feasible to suggest that Eutychus has already met with the saints at dawn. Pliny the Younger, governor and arch-whinger of Bithynia-Pontus not many decades after these events, described Christians as being
in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to (do) any wicked deeds, never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of good food - but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. (Book Ten, Letter 96)
Without demanding this interpretation, I hope that a slightly more favourable portrait of Eutychus and Paul begins to emerge. On the one hand, this is not Paul preaching a long and dull sermon without regard for the capacity of the hearers. On the other, this is not dopey Eutychus who simply cannot sustain his interest, or who is too young and weak to keep up the pace.

More likely is that we have here a group of committed and earnest believers who are seizing their opportunity to hear the Word of God from that fruitful servant of the Lord, Paul, before he moves on. They meet when they have their chance, perhaps at the end of the working day (which might have been later for the slaves, not to mention others in an environment where health and safety legislation tended toward the minimal). They come weary but eager, lighting the lamps in the room to enable them to make the most of the brief hours available. Yes, they are tired (preacher and hearers alike). Yes, it is warm. But this is a rich opportunity, and they are eager to make the most of it.

Far from criticising Paul for preaching too long or commiserating with Eutychus for being subjected to such an ordeal, we ought to be commending these men for their appetite for fellowship with God and his people. Yes, young Eutychus does eventually succumb to the atmosphere, and fall from the window. But notice that - once restored - it is not as if everyone decides to call it a night. They keep going until dawn breaks, and there is no indication that Paul locked the doors and put Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus and Trophimus on the exits to prevent people leaving.

Leaving aside the practical issues of engaging preachers and engaged listeners, I wonder how eager we are to meet with God and his people on the appointed day to hear the truth explained, proclaimed and applied? How determined are we to make the most of our opportunities for worship? Are we ready to swap shifts or make up hours in order to meet with the saints? If necessary, either because of persecution or some other necessity, would you be willing to meet before dawn and after dusk in order to worship the Lord your God in company with his people?

Eutychus sets us a good example. To be sure, rolling over in our beds is a lot safer than rolling over in an open window, but - taking into account all the issues - I think Eutychus was with the right people in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. Perhaps such questions are already a live issue for believers in Islamic countries, for example, or in those nations where there is no notion of Christendom (please note that I am not commending the notion, just recognising its existence). These are challenges which converted children in godless homes must take into account, or those with unconverted spouses, for example.

So, let your sermons be engaging, and let your eyes be open, by all means, but - most of all - let your hearts be eager to be where God is making himself known through the preached word.

Concessions and contentions

I may have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is, "Never get involved in a land war in Asia," but only slightly less well known is this: "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!" Then further down the pecking order comes this one: "Never quote Owen in response to Trueman if you do not want a trampling."

Ah, well, if I may quote the great doctor (Trueman, of course), "Fools rush in where monkeys fear to tread." At least taking aim at everyone includes me - thank you, Carl, for making me a part of this . . .

I must admit I come to this with my admiration for Carl marred somewhat by the unsettling notion of a Pentecostal phase. It is like being told that, prior to discovering Led Zeppelin, he flirted with Showaddywaddy or had a brief Diana Ross period. Nevertheless, I care for him enough not to allow his life to become too boring, and so I offer the following concessions and contentions.


Naturally, one reads Owen in his own context, and the issue of state imposition of a specific liturgical form is part of that. To simply lift a statement and drop it on someone else without nuance would be unhelpful, and I did not intend to do that. I am glad that Carl has given me an occasion to clarify the issue.

I am not dismissing all "formal liturgy" as necessarily ritualistic and formalistic (although the fact that the words formal and formalistic have the merest smidgin of something in common should suggest a potential connection to our minds).

I am not in the least seeking to dismiss the Reformers as s/Spiritually insubstantial men. However, surely we must apply the same criteria as to Owen and others, that they too were (as we are) of their time, subject to certain influences, thinking in certain categories, reacting against certain issues.

I accept that formalism and fanaticism are not mutually exclusive categories. I think - and this is part of the point, as I shall suggest below - that this may be a horseshoe spectrum (similar to the political example in which both fascism and communism are both actually manifestations of totalitarianism). A person could be fanatically formal or formally fanatical.

I am not dismissing the value of worship informed by the best that the past has to offer. I believe that to divorce ourselves from the past is as much a folly as our enslavement to it - I do not accuse Carl of either the former or the latter, although I imagine that as a church historian he is probably particularly concerned about the historical myopia characteristic of too much of the modern church.


The fact that Owen is deriving his principle out of and applying his principle into a specific set of historical circumstances does not render that basic principle necessarily flawed or its present application necessarily inappropriate. Even if we do not see the arrival of liturgy in Colorado Springs as "necessarily representing some kind of formalist dust inevitably filling a vacuum left by the departure of megachurch evangelicalism," I think it is legitimate to ask whether or not it may possibly be typical or representative of the kind of shifts that take place under such circumstances.

Here we might return to the idea of the horseshoe spectrum and the underlying point that I wish to make. Owen - in various places, and not just when addressing liturgy specifically - is concerned that where Christ is not worshipped in spirit and truth then that absence (and all that is lost with it) will be supplied, at least in wish, by recourse to the senses and appetites of men. In that sense, both formalism and fanaticism, properly understood, pander to carnality, and there is enough of it remaining in every saint for us to be constantly on guard against either.

The original article by Gene Veith suggested that the congregation in question was trying to "find its place in historic Christianity" by "bringing in liturgy, every-Sunday communion, the church year, and pastoral care. Its new statement of faith is the Nicene Creed." The parent article in Christianity Today puts some flesh on those bones. However, there's not much doubt that those elements that Veith identified are not inherently united. For example, the church year and pastoral care are no more necessarily bound together than they are necessarily separated. That said, there are elements of the package described that do tend and have often historically tended toward formality, even where they do not impose it.

My concern is that, moving further away from the specifics of this example (and making no accusations), it would not be at all surprising to find that a church that had discovered the emptiness of megachurch evangelicalism and charismatic excesses might very well, rather than turn to the fullness of Christ, simply find a different emptiness that at least had the virtue of novelty without actually solving the problem. So, yes, it may not be inevitable to see a formalist procession sweeping into the vacuum left by fanatical activity, but it is not altogether unlikely.

In this regard, might it not be time to drop this 'everyone has a liturgy' weapon, especially when employed as a catch-all dismission of any dissenting opinion with regard to worship? It has become de rigeur, especially among some Presbyterians, to employ this as a screen not so much to prevent any charges of formalism as to give a blanket defence of their own modes of worship. I recognise that there is a set of definitions of liturgy. Taking a simple line, we acknowledge that almost every church has a liturgy in the limited sense that almost every church conducts its public worship in accordance with a prescribed form (from the highest of Roman or Anglican or Orthodox worship to the broadest of megachurch evangelicalism, as the fairly well-known "Contemporvant" video makes clear).

In responding to Carl, I am not crassly suggesting that the alternative to all this proto-Catholicism is the four hymn sandwich. So, for example, the church I serve has a fairly well established format which allows for a number of variations but follows the same basic outline. It involves reading and singing psalms each Lord's day, morning and evening, as well as portions from the Old and New Testaments, together with a sermon, other hymns, and praying (always extempore, though we do address particular topics). We celebrate the Lord's supper as part of our worship on a regular basis. I hope it is clear that I have no appetite for chaotic, irreverent, man-centred worship-as-performance. At the same time, I steer clear of the deliberately dramatic and theatrical, the scripted, the heavily symbolic (except where biblically mandated), the overtly clerical. In that sense, I do not think that many people would wander into one of our services of worship and immediately suggest that we have a very 'liturgical' approach to things in the popular sense of the word.

I think that Carl and I would both contend that - taking the basic definition of liturgy, and echoing Carl's language - we desire and promote an intelligent pattern of worship that is theologically informed, which we and the churches we serve acknowledge and upon which they reflect, something that is grounded in the Word of God. Doubtless, in pursuing this, we come to the matter burdened by our own experiences and informed by our own convictions, and needing to take account of our own errors and imbalances.

I have not visited the church which Carl serves, so I don't know about their forms of worship, and I will not presume that they have a high and ornate liturgy any more than Carl will (I hope) be presuming that the church where I worship enjoys a four hymn sandwich (for the record, we usually sing three times in each worship service, at least once a psalm). But I am concerned that there are two extremes to avoid, and I see some of my Presbyterian and Baptist brethren reacting to and over-reacting against one or the other extreme. Given the general tendency in much broader evangelicalism toward fanaticism, I am concerned that those who wish to establish or even boast of their Reformed credentials do not swing to the other end of the spectrum, and find themselves in a very different environment, but really not that far away from the errors that they sought to avoid. I am prone to the same reactions and over-reactions, and so I wrestle with the same issues.

I do not deride or ignore the light of the centuries in which men have been living as new covenant believers. I live in it and I love it. But it is not the language of radicalism or shallowness - a sort of aggressive solo Scriptura or Scriptura nuda notion - to say that I pursue the simplicity and sublimity of scriptural worship. I desire something that does not pander overmuch to the senses if the Spirit is not enlivening us, either by way of forms and rituals or excesses and abandonment. I would rather that it all fell to the ground than that we went away imagining that we had worshipped when there had been nothing of any spiritual substance in our exercises, but we had managed to cover it over with something merely carnal, whether of imposed form or seeming freedom. I do not believe that such a desire is mysticism, Welsh or otherwise.

"Formalism is a matter of the heart, not of the written page," writes Carl. That is true, but an over-reliance on forms provides a particular opportunity for formalism just as the abandonment of order opens a door for fanaticism. At the same time, we must all be careful not to portray this simplistically as a fight between incipient radicalism and incipient ritualism. I think that Owen's principle holds good. The discussion for Reformed believers, with our different expectations and traditions, is how to walk the fine line without falling into the pit on the one side or the swamp on the other.

Not so unlikely?

Though Carl reports that the arrival of a formal liturgy at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs is considered a surprise, if I remember John Owen correctly, he would probably be expecting it.

I cannot recall the precise place (I may try to track it down, or someone might recall it - I vaguely remember having this conversation before!). Nevertheless, Owen somewhere suggests that, in the absence of spiritually (perhaps better, Spiritually) substantial religion, men will run to two extremes in an attempt to fill the void with practices that they hope will replicate or shadow something of the sense and weight that they feel ought to be there. Those two extremes are fanaticism (excess, 'enthusiasm', wildness) and formalism (mere ritual and performance).

While I don't know what David Wells surmises or demonstrates in the book Carl mentions, the suggestion that "forms of worship and content of theology are not neatly and cleanly separable" seems to be at least in measure supported by Owen's assertion.

So where we find an alleged evangelicalism that is not grounded in Scripture but is seeking some kind of religious or spiritual substance, we should not be surprised to see those two extremes being offered as potential alternatives, or people and churches swinging back and forth between formalism and fanaticism. Frankly, I find the current appetite for charismatic excesses and carnal excitements on the one hand, and the growing cultivation of a high and ornate liturgy on the other, mapping pretty accurately across the landscape that Owen suggests. (By the way, if he doesn't suggest it, someone else probably does. If no-one else does, I will gladly take the credit!)

The only thing that arrests the swing is when the anchor drops in the Word of God and simple, unaffected worship enlivened by the Holy Spirit is known and felt by saints who are satisfied with pursuing and enjoying God's promised ends by God's appointed means.

Asking the right questions

At the risk of being trampled by the ireful in the latest slanging match over rap and hip-hop, I wonder if I might interject? It seems to me, watching from a distance and not trying to read every contribution, that the debate quickly escalates into absolute and swingeing declarations that fail to take account of the various issues that ought to come into play. I may be wrong, but I hope I can lob a few thoughts into the debate.

I suggest that there are at least three questions that ought to be asked in assessing not just rap and hip-hop but other musical genres and forms.

First, and most generically, in what ways can a Christian appreciate, enjoy and embrace either a form or genre of music in and of itself, or a particular instance of that form? There are issues here of taste, excellence and morality, all of which need to be taken into account. Can and/or should a Christian enjoy certain forms of the musician's art, taking into account the manifestation of God-glorifying skills (even in the realm of common grace and some expression of the image of God remaining in man), the cultural context and baggage of a certain form or genre, the deliberate or unintended communication of certain moral perspectives and messages, and the appetites and tastes of the person who is listening?

It is at this point where, for example, we might say that we can recognise the cultivated excellence involved in a given form or genre, or a particular expression of it - the skills of the rapper, the voice of the tenor, the talents of the guitarist - while mourning and rejecting entirely the unmitigated moral filth that those skills have been prostituted to communicate. I am not suggesting that we can or should simply filter out the wickedness and enjoy the excellence - the former might so thoroughly compromise the latter that the whole package needs to be put away. For example, a singer with a fantastic voice might sing a thoroughly lewd piece from a highbrow operetta. I might recognise and in that sense appreciate the quality of the voice but I cannot truly enjoy it or embrace what it is communicating. At that point the vehicle and its contents are so closely intertwined that I cannot take the one without the other and must therefore give both a pass.

Likewise, we might recognise or believe that there is little discernible or negative cultural or moral baggage in something that we feel free to enjoy. I do think we have to be careful about simply assuming that what we quickly call high culture is good and that - at the other end of our spectrum - low culture is bad. There might even be a genuine intent to glorify God in something but - once exposed to it - we would wince at the misguided and miserable attempts to do so in a form or genre in which the participant(s) have no real capacity or skill. Sometimes there is nothing remotely joyful about the noise being made. So we might say that, even though the intent and content appear purer, it is such a terrible effort that we simply cannot appreciate it.

Between these various extremes there might be some middle ground, and that might be different for different Christians as a matter of trained conscience, personal experience or particular sensitivity. I know some believers who can appreciate the artistry of a certain song or piece of music and who experience no pressure from or attribute no weight to its particular content and context; other Christians, hearing the same piece, cannot even begin to contemplate listening to it. That might be because either party (or both parties) need to be better instructed, or it might be that something which is sin to one is not sin to another (and that is not situational or shifting ethics). Neither am I at all suggesting that there is a neutrality to culture here, considered either as high or low. Every Christian needs to think through these matters for him or herself, and to be aware of what they are imbibing and what it carries with it, whether we are listening to Bach or Tupac, Einaudi or Eminem, Rieu or Rihanna, Beethoven or Bon Jovi, Jay Z or Joe S (as Johann Strauss was known to the other chaps in the neighbourhood), or their equivalents across the genres (or the 'real' artists to whom aficionados turn with disdain for the big names in the mainstream who are, by definition, no longer true to their roots or rootz, depending on how cool you are being). Philippians 4.8 really means something here: "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy - meditate on these things."

Second, and a little more narrowly, to what extent is a certain form or genre an appropriate vehicle for the communication of distinctively Christian truth? Here we are focusing in on those things where there is a deliberate attempt being made to bring honour to God through the accurate and appropriate communication of divine truth, evangelistically or homiletically or in some other sphere.

It may be that a Christian says that they enjoy a certain kind of music and that they would rather listen to a Christian or Christianised expression of it than a worldly expression, raising questions about whether or not the music itself communicates something of moral weight and content, either in itself or by its usual associations. These are the murky waters in which all manner of claims for the redemption of certain genres are made. Here, we may be assured, are the death metallers who profess conversion and begin singing death metal praises to God, for example. Here are the personally godless classical artists who wrote religious music and lyrics of a high order. Here, I suppose with a shudder that is poorly expressed via the keyboard, is Cliff Richard. Here - to get to the nub of it - are those who rap high and full and careful theological truths. Here also are the testimonies of men and women who were exposed to the rich theology of certain lyrics from Christian rap or hip-hop and were either converted and/or instructed. Here too are those who say that certain genres or forms are beyond redemption. Here are all those middle-of-the-road soft-rock guitar bands or whatever else they might be 'updating' and 'improving' classic hymns by setting them to modern musical forms or writing their own stuff. And here are countless Christians who stick in their headphones, wind up their gramophones, turn on the wireless, bung a disc into the player in the car or plug in their MP3 players, stream a few albums, and make this their casual or consistent listening.

And here we must wrestle with the questions of the moral weight of both style and substance, defences and accusations and defences again about pragmatism, worldliness, separatism and fundamentalism, about babies and bathwater, and whether or not the baby has swallowed so much bathwater that you must either retain or reject both.

But third, and most specifically, is this question: is a certain form or genre a legitimate and appropriate means for the corporate worship of the gathered church? This brings us into a whole new realm, for it raises the issue of the artist and his or her audience and the distinctive dynamics of the saints of God gathered in one place for the purpose of worshipping God. The answers to these questions are sometimes assumed in the debate, but often they have been neither raised nor addressed. I have offered some thoughts on these matters before, so will not do so again in full. So we must take what is entirely proper and appropriate for a Christian's private enjoyment, or even legitimate and beneficial as an element of his private worship, and ask by what set of criteria it must be judged when it comes into the realm of the gathered church at worship. Is worship a performance with God (or, indeed, men) as the audience? For the record, preaching as performance is at least as inappropriate as singing as performance, if not more so. Is the worship of the gathered church a matter of what we imagine God enjoys or what we would hope that he appreciates? What role does excellence of form play? Is it simply a matter of our sincerity or are we arrogating to ourselves the right to employ our gifts, real or imagined? What questions should we ask: 'What will God allow?' or 'What does God prefer?' or 'What does God require?' I have my own convictions on these matters, and they are going to make a huge difference to what happens in those services of worship where I have been given a measure of responsibility and authority.

Whatever genre or form we consider, and whatever its context and content, when we come to the issue of worship in its more narrowly defined sense, we must bring it under the particular scrutiny of Scripture. Leaving all other considerations aside, I cannot see that this provides for an operatic solo any more than for a rap performance; it does not provide for a classical concert as the church's expression of her worship any more than it does a rock opera. At this point, it is not about my personal tastes and preferences, my experiences or lack of them, or what I might appreciate and enjoy at other times. It has to do with God's requirements, and the Scriptural demand for the whole participation of the whole congregation of saints in the sung worship of the gathered church.

When we have these conversations about music, we might still end up with very different and deeply-held answers. But let us at least acknowledge that the issue requires us to ask the right questions, and to ask them all the way back to first principles, ultimately out of a concern that the Lord God we serve be honoured in all things, but also as an expression of our concern to deal rightly and reasonably, accurately and carefully, with one another.

All that Grace Does!

This coming Monday evening, June 17, we begin our pre- PCA General Assembly conference, hosted at Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville by the Gospel Reformation Network.  The conference is titled, "What Grace Does."  Too often today, salvation is preached as if it consists only of justification through faith alone.  Thank God for the good news of justification!  But we must also proclaim and enter into all of  the good news of what grace does.  Our conference will celebrate how grace regenerates, liberates, recreates, and consummates those who are brought into union with Christ through faith.  If you are in Greenville for the PCA General Assembly, I hope you will join us for worship and God's Word, Monday evening at 7 pm.

Singing in worship

Now that the news has broken that my album - tentatively entitled Funkier Than You Think - may be hitting the market before long, I feel marginally better qualified to speak to the issue of the sung worship of the church.

The New Testament data with regard to singing in the worship of the church is, to put it bluntly, sparse. On the one hand, it seems strange that an issue which excited so little attention in the early church should be the sphere of so many of the worship wars which have erupted in recent years. On the other, perhaps it is precisely because the instruction is sparse and simple that we feel we have a right or even a need to develop our own principles and practice.

In this regard, it is strange how many of those who emphasise, even trumpet, their new covenant credentials in other areas are so quick to run to the Old Testament for a justification of the manner (as opposed to the matter) of worship. And, of course, for sung worship it is often very much a surface reading of the psalms, which immediately provide us with good reason for choirs and multiple instrumentation and a host of other options: after all, David had harps and lyres, didn't he? Q.E.D. Or, in fact, quod non erat demonstrandum. I do not deny that the Old Testament sheds much light on our principles of worship, and ought to be employed for that purpose, but I do not believe that it ought to be normative for its forms.

There are only a few passages which directly address the sung worship of the militant new covenant church gathered together in the presence of God:
"And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God." (Eph 5.18-21)

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." (Col 3.16)

"What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding." (1Cor 14.15)
I pass over James 5.13 - "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms" - because it seems to be primarily a private instruction, although it is interesting to compare it with the experience of Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16.25). 1 Corinthians14.26 also suggests that psalms were in the mix in the Corinthian church, but is, perhaps, more incidental than the others. The simple and sweet narratives of the Lord's supper do not offer us much more. However, the clearest passages offer a few straightforward principles that we would do well to consider.

Firstly, the instrument to which the New Testament gives a clear priority, and on which it lays the greatest emphasis, is the human voice expressing the fullness of the heart. Whether or not you accept that this requires the positive and complete absence of musical instruments as accompaniment, I would suggest that it certainly puts them in their place, and the concern with the style and quality of the musicians that seems to dominate much of the discussion is seen to be simply inappropriate. At best, musical instruments ought to accompany the voice, guiding and supporting it, not competing with or drowning it. Given this, the use of musical instruments should probably be minimal, providing a platform for the voice, the primary instrument by which the saints of the New Testament praise the Lord.

Secondly, that instrument is to be played by every member of the congregation. Sung worship is essentially congregational. The light of nature may point toward, again, some kind of leadership, but there is nothing here of the individual or group, however formally or informally, isolated from the mass and pursuing something separate from or before them. Congregational worship helps to avoid any element of mere performance creeping in, no small blessing in an age in which music and singing are almost irrevocably linked with performance and show. Of course, the absence of a band or choir or soloist does not necessarily secure the ends intended. How many congregations are dominated and even crippled by people with powerful voices who sing without reference to anyone else around them, their timings, speed, and volume governed - it would seem - by their own spirit separate from others, or without any real awareness of what is happening, or even by the desire to be heard and to impress? A good voice, well and humbly employed, is a help to those of us who may not have such a gift from God and who sometimes feel that our contribution is "a joyful noise" but not much more. Individuals must bring their gifts within the body and for the purpose of serving the whole, not parading in front of them, ignorantly or otherwise. Edification will, in some instances, mean a proper and determined restraint in the employment of our gifts, as well as gusto in other cases. Families can assist in forming the pattern by singing in family worship, encouraging the children to make a cheerful and willing effort. Parents should set a good example, standing straight, opening their mouths and using their lungs, not mumbling themselves, nor allowing their children to slump and mutter through the singing.

Thirdly, this suggests something about the musical style. The tunes to be employed must fall within the range of the congregation. I am not saying that it would be wrong to develop the capacity of the congregation in the praise of God, either in the range or style of the tunes, or our ability to sing them, but - if the whole congregation is to sing - then the range and structure of any particular tune ought to lend itself to the participation of everyone. To that end, principles of simplicity and freshness and tunefulness and memorization ought to be part of what governs the writing and singing of tunes.

Perhaps here it would be appropriate to point out that the tunes ought to be fitting to the words. There is nothing that grates more than a melody that is in overt conflict with the mood of the lyrics that are being sung. Again, the light of nature dictates that a more contemplative song needs a more contemplative tune; a song of overflowing joy ought to be sung to a tune, in a key, at a tempo, and with a volume that connects with its meaning; the mournful cry requires its own setting if the singing is to be in keeping with the substance. Again, the temptation of many congregations - especially those with larger numbers - to sing with abominable and often increasing slowness must be resisted; so must the instinct to dash through everything without giving opportunity for breath or thought. Lingering on notes, especially at the ends of verses, tends to have the effect of dragging everything out, so that each verse begins more slowly than the last, and every tune becomes a dirge by the time it has been finished. As Spurgeon once encouraged his congregation, "Dear friends, the devil sometimes makes you lag half a note behind the leader. Just try if you can't prevail over him to-night, and keep in proper time." If the lively hymns are sung to lively tunes in a lively style, then there is space for the more meditative and mournful contributions to adapt.

Of course, these passages also speak to the internal realities of our worshipful singing. So we find that the singing is to consist in "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs," the outflow of the word of Christ dwelling in us richly in all wisdom and the filling of the Spirit. Whether or not one agrees with the interpretation that will have these categories as three divisions of the psalter, it is immediately clear that the fundamental content of our songs ought to be Biblical truth. That does not mean that there is no space for personal experience (the pattern of the psalms alone would indicate otherwise), but that experience ought never to be divorced from the truth. The content of our songs should be drawn from and governed by Scripture in all its wealth.

But notice further that this truth is to be expressed in both its vertical and horizontal dimensions. By this I mean that our singing is in part directed toward God and in part toward men. Godward, you are "singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." Manward, you are "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" and "teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." It would be wrong to draw too fine a distinction between these elements, insisting that every composition must fall into one or the other category, but - whether or not, or to what degree, these are blended - we must consider that we are singing to one another, bringing needed truth before one another's minds and hearts, and singing to the Lord, expressing all the realities of his being and doing, and the realities of our relationship to him. But notice the motives: the intention is not to impress God nor to entertain men, but to thank and adore the Lord and to instruct and exhort his people. These aims must be ever before us as we sing, or we will lose our way.

And, as with all new covenant worship, it must be worship in spirit and truth (Jn 4.24). Whatever that much controverted verse means, there is surely something of the same sense in the instruction to "be filled with the Spirit," "singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord," "singing with grace in your heart to the Lord." This speaks of a supernatural dimension and assistance, of spiritual sincerity, thoughtful participation and genuine engagement. It does not permit us to avoid the happy songs if we are ourselves sad, nor to balk at the sad songs if we are ourselves happy. We are told to enter into the spirit of what we might not ourselves be instinctively feeling: "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" (Rom 12.15). In so doing, we offer to others what they need, and perhaps dose ourselves with a necessary medicine: as John Wesley said to Methodist singers, "Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing."

Wesley went on:
Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Surely this is an instruction that every saint - regardless of their physical ability - can follow? Isaac Watts offers a similar sentiment by way of warning in his paraphrase of Psalm 47:

Rehearse his praise with awe profound,
Let knowledge lead the song,
Nor mock him with a solemn sound
Upon a thoughtless tongue.

Watts brings us back to the matter of truth and understanding, and so guides us again toward a blending of some of these concerns. If we are to sing in the way just described, we must heed Paul's conclusion: "I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding" (1Cor 14.15). Spiritual reality does not suspend or bypass the mental faculty, and our singing - if it is to pass this test - must be coherent and intelligible. It is in this way that we enter most readily into the glorious truths of which we sing. This requirement does not mean that our songs must be childish or unintelligent. Words should be clear and accurate both in their meaning (if the poetry or the vocabulary require explanation, this is usually easily done) and their vocalization, so that they can be understood - after all, how can you instruct your brother if he cannot tell what he is hearing? I would suggest that it does mean avoiding what is unnecessarily archaic or abstruse in our language, especially in environments where there may be many visitors, or a number of people who are not singing in their first language. At the same time, our sole concern is not horizontal, and it is perfectly appropriate to use accurate and rich expressions of praise to God that may require explanation to those unfamiliar with them. In addition, part of the teaching we offer on the horizontal plane may also require further explanation at times. To borrow a pithy thought from Machen, and apply it in a slightly different way: "I am by no means ready to relinquish the advantages of a precise terminology in summarizing Bible truth. In religion as well as in other spheres a precise terminology is mentally economical in the end; it repays amply the slight effort for the mastery of it" (What is Faith? [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991], 162-3).

It seems to me that simplicity is of the essence of our worship, allowing the spiritual substance to be expressed with sincerity and without distraction. As I have commented to our own congregation, imagine a situation in which the church is being persecuted. The secret police have learned that following the people who leave their homes with pianos on flatbed trucks on Sunday mornings is usually quite a productive train of enquiry, no less so those who carry violin or guitar cases. Perhaps it is too great a risk even to carry a Bible. Therefore, taking all necessary precautions, the believers meet at a pre-appointed place in the misty dawn, perhaps under a gospel oak as they did in days not so long ago. The saints gather swiftly and silently and with much prayer for their safety. There the appointed preacher arrives, and after prayer asks one of the saints to recite from memory the portion from which he intends to preach. He then expounds the passage, making its appropriate applications. The saints softly sing a couple of psalms or hymns together, ones easily memorized and readily learned. In a nearby stream a new convert is baptized, changing swiftly out of wet clothes, and then the Lord's supper is celebrated by the saints breaking bread and passing around wine. Before they depart they sing again, their voices muted but intense. Before long, the service is over, and the believers melt away into the growing day, leaving in various directions and small groups so as to arouse no suspicion.

What more is required? I am not saying that this is the ideal, or that anything different would be inherently sinful, but I do contend that absolutely nothing is lacking to make this pleasing to the Lord.

While much more might be said, I hope that these few thoughts will at least stimulate us to consider once again and more carefully, the hows, whys and wherefores of our sung worship, lifting up heart and voice in the right way and for the right reason, glorifying God and doing good to men as we sing a new song to the Lord.

This Lent I am giving up . . . reticence

I will make no bones about it: I am an Old World (for which please read 'continental European') Christian, of Puritan inclination, and a Dissenter - specifically, a Particular or Reformed Baptist. That means several things. By conviction and heritage I belong to those who left the Anglican communion as a matter of conscience, sick of its halfway reformation and unwilling to conform to the general shabbiness and unscriptural demands of the Act of Uniformity. My conscience with regard to the extra-Biblical trappings of mere religiosity is tender. My attachment to simplicity of worship as a gathered church is sincere. I am sensitive to those doctrines and practices over which my forefathers spent their energies and shed their tears and sometimes their blood, both from within and then from without the established folds of their day. I see things with an awareness tuned by walking the streets, graveyards and memorials of men and women who suffered and sometimes died for conscience' sake.

Out of such an atmosphere I cannot help but be sickened by the seeming obsession with Lent and Easter at this time of year, and Christmas at the end of the year. Please do not misunderstand me: conscience also demands that - where the cultural vestiges of a more religious society patterned to some extent on the significant events of the life of Christ provide for it - I take every legitimate opportunity to make Christ known. If an ear is even half-opened by circumstance, I willingly and cheerfully speak into it, and seek to make of it a door for the gospel. I do not see the point of making a point by not preaching about the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord if some benighted soul wanders into the church with at least some expectation of hearing about his humiliation and exaltation.

But what chills my blood is the unholy elevation of things not mandated by the Word of God. I find it odd that some of the very people who obsess about contextualization and resist 'religion' have swallowed hook, line and sinker the empty traditions of men, that the men who wear Mickey Mouse T-shirts (quite literally) all the year round besides dress in sombre suits every April, telling us with one breath that all of life is worship and so tending to level out our experience and the Biblical rhythms of our relationship with God (especially dismissing the one-day-in-seven pattern established at the first and the new creation), and with the next telling us that this is Holy Week, and we are somehow falling short if we do not build it into some unholy jamboree. Meanwhile, those who trumpet their credentials as the true heirs of the Reformation either seem willing to stop with the house half-clean or seem quite keen to redecorate it with the junk that their more enlightened forefathers were in the process of throwing out (establishing the principles of the matter even if they never quite got round to that corner of the attic themselves).

Whether or not it is a vestige of the Emerging/Emergent appetite for a range of 'spiritualities' or an enthusiasm for an over-ripe liturgical renewal, I cannot say, but I wonder if it is in part a matter of distance both of time and space. This alleged 'recovery' of Lent and Easter is not actually a matter of historical sensitivity and an inheritance regained but of historical unawareness and an inheritance lost. Whether or not it is the high-grade muppetry of entire churches being urged to tattoo one of the stations of the cross on some part of their anatomy, or some gore-drenched re-enactment of the unrepeatable sacrifice, or some spotlit image-fest in which a total insensitivity to physical representations of the Christ - the image of the invisible God - is displayed, or some be-robed priest-figure half a step away from incense and obeisance, it does not come from Scripture and it does not belong in Christ's church. It is a replacement of God's order with man's notions, a disruption of God's regular rhythms of true religion with the unholy syncopation of mortal religiosity. As John Owen somewhere says, where genuine spirituality is substantially absent, men will turn either to fanaticism or to ritual - or perhaps to both - in an attempt to fill the void. Whichever way you sniff at it, and whichever way the wind blows, to the trained nostril it all begins to smell a touch Romish.

But there is a solution. This year there are - if you wish to see it this way - fifty three Easters. Most years there are fifty two. Each is a high and holy day, an opportunity to remember and rejoice in the one thing that the saints of God are commanded to remember and rejoice in: the Lord of Glory - the incarnate Son - who was crucified but who rose again, in whom we live eternally, and for whom we perpetually look with eagerness, our eyes straining for the first glimpse of the one whom not having seen, we love, who will shortly appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. Each is a day of sober and grateful remembrance and recollection of his being and his doing. We have our regular (if not all of us a weekly) meal at which we remember the Lord's death until he comes, celebrated usually on the day of resurrection. On these days, putting aside the trappings of the world, we begin the cycle of time on our weekly peak, equipped by communion with God in Christ by the Spirit for the challenges and the opportunities of the days ahead.

Frankly, it seems odd to me that many of those who have proved very quick to abandon all manner of patterns and habits and convictions of Christians over decades or centuries, retain Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (Resurrection) Sunday as set in stone in the calendar, one of the high points of the Christian year (which pattern, we are informed, provides the central event in the church year - the climax of worship, expectation, and celebration, an exercise of the church's discipline). If you're not sold on Easter, you might be dismissed as one of the "diehard Reformed" for whom "this [Easter] Monday is like every other Monday because Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday." To say that Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday is not to suggest an upgraded view of Easter Sunday but a downgraded view of every other one.

I try not to be a Scrooge (although I cannot help but shed a silent tear that I am now literarily reduced to trying not to be a Grinch, but it's only a silent one and fairly dry, because Dickens' plotting makes many modern soap operas look like masterpieces of restraint and reason). I try not to be whatever is the Easter equivalent of a Scrooge or a Grinch (probably something that destroys bunnies or steals eggs). Again, for the record, I delight in the incarnation, and love to explore the excellence and wonder of Christ's coming into the world. I love to do so at any time of year, and find it grievous that I am sometimes not expected to handle those truths or sing incarnation hymns apart from at the dead of winter. Neither do I for one instant deny the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the only Redeemer of God's elect, in the glorious good news that the church of Christ declares.

But when we are told that this is the time of year when Christians begin to think again about the death and resurrection of Christ, does it not prompt the question of what we are supposed to be doing for the rest of the year? When men speak after their so-called Holy Week of the abating euphoria of the resurrection, surely they are explaining why a merely annual remembrance is insufficient? Christ Jesus is the risen Lord for 365 days of every year (plus the extra one when required), and we have a weekly opportunity for the distinct recollection of his death in an atmosphere conditioned by his resurrection. To flatten the whole year, perhaps rising only to a few unnatural annual peaks, is to miss so much, to lose so many things, to gain so little.

Christ died to set us free from empty things. Men died to liberate us from the rigamarole of unscriptural traditions and man-made routines and performances of religiosity. I hope that you will hear a voice from the blood-washed streets of the Old World, where those battles and the cost of their victory are ground into our consciousness, where the issues and enemies are neither distant nor tame, and where the lines remain clearly drawn in the collective memory of some of the Lord's people, and consider whether or not the prizes so hardly won ought to be so quickly abandoned.

On Liturgical Gnats and Theological Camels


I probably should begin this post by establishing my "traditional worship" bona fides.   My tastes in worship are decidedly traditional--my wife and I attend a church with a pipe organ where the organ is used . . . every Sunday . . . and a classic Presbyterian order of worship is followed, complete with the reading of the Law, corporate confession of sin and assurance of pardon, a confession of faith, the singing of the Gloria Patri, and 40-minute sermon.   Moreover, the congregation is growing steadily and there are scads of young people about, so "traditional" clearly does not equal "stodgy" in this case.  Nevertheless, there is nary a guitar, drum kit, or electronic keyboard to be found, let alone exercises in liturgical drama and dance, and that's fine with me.

Of course, those who know me well might wish to remind me of an earlier day when, yea and verily, I played guitar in a "praise band" in a CRC mission church.  True enough, but I have put the guitar away, at least for purposes of corporate worship.  Now I will cheerfully admit to pulling out a Fender Esquire and a tweed Deluxe on occasion for the odd Led Zeppelin or ZZ Top cover tune, but my days of playing "praise and worship" music are long gone.

All that being said, I have had a nagging question in the back of my mind for some time now, and that question is this: Does at least some of the current interest in "traditional worship" have more to do with the postmodern turn to the aesthetic than with a principled concern for truth?  I recently observed to a theologically astute friend (and one with a long history in Reformed worship discussions) that I have been struck by the fact that some conservative Reformed proponents of traditional worship would seemingly rather hang out with PCUSA Barthians who practice traditional worship than with other Evangelicals who share their view of Scripture but whose worship sensibility is more contemporary.  His response was, "It's a fascinating question, isn't it?"  Fascinating indeed!

I began pondering this issue after listening to a stimulating paper by D. G. Hart presented at the 2000 meeting of the Calvin Colloquium at Columbia Theological Seminary (an expanded version of the paper was later published as chapter 13 of Hart's Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition [Baker, 2003]).  In it Hart in essence asked the question of why some Reformed theological "conservatives" can be so "liberal" on worship while those further to the left theologically are often so "conservative" on matters liturgical.  His test case is a comparison of PCA teaching elder John Frame's Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R, 1996) and PCUSA worship scholar Hughes Oliphant Old's Worship That Is Reformed according to Scripture (John Knox, 1984).  As Hart puts it, "In the 'liberal' PCUSA, if Old's book is any indication, the traditional elements and rites of historic Reformed liturgy are firmly in place.  But in the 'conservative' PCA, using Frame as a guide, the conventional pieces of Reformed worship are in flux" (p. 183).  A bit later, Hart contends, "If sideline Presbyterian denominations such as the PCA and the OPC were as conservative about the Reformed tradition as they regard themselves, then we would expect Old's book to have come from a PCA or an OPC minister and to have been published by a conservative Presbyterian press.  Moreover, if the mainline Presbyterian denomination was as liberal as its conservative detractors insist, then it would make more sense for Frame's book to have come from a PCUSA officer and publishing house.  Yet the opposite is the case.  The conservatives have turned modernist, if by modernism we mean the self-conscious adaptation of the faith to modern times.  Just as unlikely, the modernists have become the chief defenders of the historic Reformed faith, at least in its liturgical aspects, against efforts to preserve the kernel while refashioning a modern husk" (pp. 187-188).

Hart goes on to suggest two reasons for this "ironic reversal"--evangelism and biblicism. First, conservative Reformed Christians, he says, are concerned about evangelism and, by extension, about making worship accessible (p. 195).  Conversely, having perhaps lost sight of the particularity of the gospel and the imperative of gospel proclamation, "mainline Presbyterians have been freer to hold on to a liturgical tradition that never made worship into the handmaid for evangelism" (p. 196).  Second, conservative Presbyterians are biblicists; they hold to the inerrancy of Scripture and are suspicious of ecclesial traditions that cannot be justified by appeal to the biblical text.  Conversely, mainline Presbyterians are more open to the role of tradition in worship.  Here, interestingly, Hart also asserts that "conservatives no doubt caricature mainline Presbyterians when they argue that liberals do not believe the Bible is infallible and authoritative" (p. 196).  As one with deep family roots in the PCUSA who is reasonably aware of that church's current condition, I find this statement astonishing.  Is Hart saying that J. Gresham Machen was wrong after all?  Fascinating indeed!  

While there is doubtless some substance to Hart's arguments, there are things that give me pause.  For example, while his analysis may stick with regard to some sectors of the PCA, how is it that Hart implicates his own denomination (the OPC) in this alleged "liturgical modernism"?  The Orthodox Presbyterians that I know are serious about Reformed worship and the means of grace. Some of them may not be particularly elegant about it, but they are distinctively Reformed in their approach to worship.  In addition, I suspect that the PCUSA preference for traditional worship has less to do with theology and more to do with social location--in this case, the upper-middle-class preference for formalism in worship and distaste for pietistic enthusiasm.  In light of this, I can't help but wonder whether there are cultural and aesthetic factors at work in this conservative Reformed embrace of the liturgically conservative/theologically liberal Protestant mainline.  It seems that, for some, a concern for evangelism and biblical authority are not such good things when they result in worship that is less than tasteful.  In short, is the real problem for some conservative Reformed champions of "traditional worship" that a lot of evangelical worship is, by upper-middle-class standards, a bit tacky? 

Given an unhappy choice between holding on to the gospel and the authority of Scripture on the one hand and aesthetically pleasing traditional Reformed worship on the other, the issue for me is clear.  Why strain a liturgical gnat and swallow a theological camel?  Fortunately, that is a false dichotomy, a choice that need not be made. 

While preaching recently on the twelve apostles, I focussed on John's statement about Thomas: 'Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came'. John, of course, does not tell us why Thomas was missing, but his despondent, melancholy frame of mind was not helped by his absence from the gathered group of disciples, into whose presence Jesus came. Sometimes God, in his providence, isolates his people from the means of grace - and that is always with a good purpose in view; but when they isolate themselves, it is always to their detriment. The presence of Christ - the peace of Christ - the promise of Christ; all these were lost to Thomas simply because he was not there.


I am conscious of the fact that some Christians question the need for all but the most basic commitment to public worship, and of the fact that evening worship is generally more poorly attended than morning worship (although interestingly in Lewis the reverse is the case), or has dropped out altogether.


But what is worship? Is it not the divine bridegroom saying to his bride, 'Come with me ... How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine...' (Song 4:8, 10). Why is the bride in the twenty-first century so ready to find other things better than the assembly of the saints, and the prospect of a meeting with Christ among them?

This past Lord's Day evening, our church saw the ordination of Rev. Gabriel Fluher.  Gabe is a recent graduate of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and has been a most outstanding intern at our church for the last few years.  We have called him to our pastoral staff primarily to minister to our youth.  I had the enormous privilege of preaching Romans 1:16, the same passage James Montgomery Boice preached at my ordination (which says something about what I think of Gabe).

Ordination services are important, and I'd like to note a few reasons why I love them:

I was alerted by Scott Clark's blog to a year-old article by Sally Morgenthaler in which she declares the worship-evangelism mega-church experiment, of which she was such a proponent, to be a failure.  After a generation of seeker-sensitive consumer-driven worship, the unchurched have not been reached, the megachurch has simply gathered the churched through blatant consumerism, and the overall position of the Evangelical movement in America has been greatly weakened.  She writes: "For all the money, time, and effort we've spent on cultural relevance - and that includes culturally relevant worship - it seems we came through the last 15 years with a significant net loss in churchgoers, proliferation of megachurches and all."


I had the privilege yesterday, along with the other elders of Second Church, of spending the afternoon and evening (before and after evening worship) hearing professions of faith from applicants for membership in our church.  As is usual for a city church, it was an incredibly diverse group and almost half of them are joining by profession of faith.  Among them were two young couples (early to mid 20's), who fit a mold that I increasingly observe.  First, they are very theologically motivated and speak with great doctrinal intensity.  Second, feeling welcomed and accepted is enormously important to them.  Third, they all evidence a very strong, biblical, and beautiful commitment to gender complementarity.  In separate interviews, two young wives said, "I completely agree with my husband.  But I also trust his judgment and want to following his spiritual leadership."

The Christian calendar practiced by most evangelicals today is extremely illuminating.  What it shows is our generally weak appreciation for the fullness of Christ's saving work.  Two big holidays occupy our minds completely: Christmas and Easter.  So we focus on the birth, death, and resurrection of our Lord.  So far as it goes, that is perfectly wholesome.  But what a huge event Pentecost is in the life of the Christian church (not to mention the Ascension)!  There can be little doubt that while most of our churches faithfully observe Mother's Day thsi coming Lord's Day, most will completely ignore our Lord's great redemptive-historical gift of the outpoured Holy Spirit.

The Family Worship Book

Anyone who wishes to respond to Rick Phillips's stirring call to family worship will find a helpful resource in Terry Johnson's recent publication, The Family Worship Book.  In addition to a rationale for family worship and helpful hints for getting started, Terry provides outlines, suggested orders for worship, resources for singing psalms and hymns, and many other valuable tools.  And all between the covers of one book.

2008: A Year for Family Worship


Returning to our editor's theme for the start of this year, I would make another suggestion for "the most important issue facing the church in 2008?"  Having already suggested a renewed passion for world missions and the support of the growing church in the developing world, I would also like to consider the situation here at home.  I believe that one of the most pressing needs is for evangelical Christians to respond to our staggering failure to lead our children into a saving discipleship with Jesus Christ.  Both statistics and experience reveal that an appallingly low number of "Christian" youth are transitioning into adulthood with a living faith.  I would suggest that the main causes of this are 1) the way so many Christians live compartmentalized lives, with Christian discipleship relegated to Sunday mornings only, so that their children are turned off by the obvious lack of authenticity in their parents' faith; 2) the superficial approach to everything, but especially youth ministry, in evangelical churches today; 3) parents' failure to personally disciple their children in the faith.  Given this dire situation and its alarming sources, I suggest that a need of vital urgency among Christians is for believing parents to recommit to a hands-on approach to the Christian nurture of their children.  The most significant way to address this is by a renewed commitment to family worship in the home.

A couple of weeks ago, I addressed this in my pastor's letter to my congregation.  Perhaps our readers might benefit from it as well:

Family Worship

One of the most important commitments our families could make in 2008 is commitment to regular family worship in the home. Dr. Joel Beeke has written eloquently on this subject:

"Every church desires growth. Surprisingly few churches, however, seek to promote internal church growth by stressing the need to raise children in covenantal truth. Few seriously grapple with why many adolescents become nominal members with mere notional faith or abandon evangelical truth for unbiblical doctrine and modes of worship. I believe one major reason for this failure is the lack of stress upon family worship."

I agree with Dr. Beeke. Over the years, I have observed the mistake many parents make in their hands-off approach to the Christian nurture of their children. They assume that if they bring their children to Sunday School and church, and if they home school them or send them to a Christian school, and if their children participate in a Christian youth group, that will be sufficient to ensure their children's commitment and growth in Christ. But this is wrong, since it just is not enough to provide a Christian environment to our Christian. We must personally disciple their minds and hearts unto Jesus Christ. And if we do not practice regular family worship, I cannot imagine when parents would be able to disciple their children in the faith.

What is family worship? Family worship is the gathering of the father, mother, and children to worship God in the home. It involves two essential elements: the reading and teaching of God's Word and prayer. It is also good for the family to sing together. Our family begins with a short prayer, after which we sing a psalm together (we use the Trinity Psalter). Next is a time of family Bible study in which I teach, allowing questions and discussion (presently, we are working through Acts). I have often been thrilled by the insightful questions asked by my children, which shows they really think about biblical things (and really are learning in Cat Kids and Sunday School!). After the Bible lesson, we pray together, with every member of the family participating. At the very end, we stand together, hold hands, and sing with the Doxology.

I know that many families are intimidated about family worship because it just seems undoable. However, a quick look at our use of time will show that we do have the time if we make this a priority. To help you get started, let me address some specific concerns:

Frequency: Does family worship have to happen every night? No. It would be impossible for our family to gather for worship every night. Along with Sundays and Wednesdays, there are many other nights when I am out or some activity makes family worship impossible. I would suggest that consistency is more important than frequency. If our families held family worship one night per week, that would make a massive difference. Two nights a week would be a good goal.

Timing: Any time that consistently works. And it may shift during different seasons of our children's lives. We have gotten away from trying family worship at meal times, since there is just too much distraction. At present, we aim for evenings before bed time, which means 7:30 or 8:00 for family worship. This way, after we sing the Doxology all the children are off to bed.

Length: Don't worry too much about this and don't think you have to make it a huge production. However long it takes to study the Bible together, pray, and sing. My guess is that our family worship lasts about 40 minutes.

Discipline: The flesh wars against the spirit, and our children find family worship to be difficult. It is not all that rare for at least one of them to get a spanking during family worship (although we would much rather avoid this). This is why family worship is a team endeavor of Mommy and Daddy together. Generally, the father will lead the worship and the mother will be plenty busy in her help-meet role.

The bottom-line is that our families need to make a commitment to worship in the home. If we don't do this, when will we read the Bible and pray with our children? When will they see an open window to look upon our faith? When will we bond at the altar of prayer? What will happen to our children if we don't? Family worship may get de-railed from time to time, and we will need to jumpstart it again. But it is a commitment that will pay eternal dividends. I would urge all the families of our church to seriously consider making a commitment to family worship in 2008.

Dr. Beeke recounts that for his parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary, each of their five children wrote a note of thanks for one particular thing. Interestingly, every one of them thanked their mother for her prayers and every one of them thanked their father for leading family worship. In Beeke's booklet, Family Worship, he reminds us that great revivals have often begun through a recommitment to family worship. Our own nation desperately needs revival: perhaps it will begin in our living rooms, at our kitchen tables, and in the hearts of our own precious boys and girls.

Results tagged “worship” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 21.3, 4, 5

iii. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of His Spirit, according to His will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.

iv. Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.

v. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.

Sections 3 and 4 of Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession provide a list of the "elements" of true worship in accord with the regulative principle as defined in 21:1. New Testament (corporate) worship is characterized by five things: prayer (for the living but not for the dead), reading of Scripture, sound preaching and conscionable hearing, singing psalms, sacraments ("instituted by Christ," limiting these to two, baptism and the Lord's Supper), and occasionally, oaths, vows and thanksgivings. 

This list tells us immediately that biblical corporate worship is essentially simple. In the background lay Roman Catholic worship, providing religious significance to rites and ceremonies that had no place in any biblical understanding of true worship. Also in the background lay Protestant claims that so long as the Bible did not expressly forbid a certain practice, it could be viewed as legitimate. Thus article 20 of the Anglican Thirty Nine Articles stated: "The Church hath power to decree Rites and Ceremonies, and[hath] authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written..." This is a very different point of view from the regulative principle which insisted on specific biblical prescription. The Anglican formulation allowed practices not expressly forbidden. Examples forbidden by the Westminster Confession but allowed by the Thirty Nine Articles would be, when an officiating priest dips his finger in water and marks the sign of the cross on the forehead of a child after baptizing, investing such a rite with religious significance. 

Not every issue is easily solved by alluding to a list of the biblical elements of worship. Should the singing be of psalms only, or does the term include other portions of Scripture and humanly composed "hymns"? There is considerable evidence to suggest that the term "psalms" was inclusive of what we might call "spiritual songs" and "hymns." (See, Nick Needham, "Westminster and Worship: Psalms, Hymns? and Musical Instruments?" in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (ed. Duncan), 2:223-306). Should they be accompanied by musical instruments (organ, guitar or human choirs)? Should preaching follow a definite form (textual, lectio continua, topical)? To these questions, the Confession has already intimated an answer in Chapter 1 (section 6) when it insists that "there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God... which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence." Common sense should guide us in addressing certain questions bearing in mind that a circumstance of worship does not constitute a constituent act of worship. 

There are certain principles of common sense that apply to all human societies (secular as well as religious). It is a principle (as we shall see in the next section) that the people of God gather for worship on the Lord's Day; it is not, however stipulated in Scripture at what time, how frequently, or for how long such gathered worship should entail. These latter consideration will vary from one society to another.

In light of these principles, the Westminster Assembly did not produce a Book of Common Prayer, but rather, a Directory which contains principles rather than stipulations. It contains no liturgies, for example, viewing the matter as a violation of the very principle that Scripture demands no one liturgy to be imposed upon a congregation. The Puritans had, after all, rejected the Elizabethan settlement's attempt to impose such a thing despite the threats of fines and imprisonment. 

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is minister of preaching and teaching at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Chapter 21.1, 2

i. The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.

ii. Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to Him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.

Chapter 21 focuses upon two related items: worship and the Sabbath. It begins with a statement that distinguishes between religious truths that can be discerned from (a) "the light of nature" and (b) God's "revealed will" - in other words, general and special revelation. Interestingly, the section begins with a reaffirmation of general revelation and "the light of nature" (see, Chapter 1, sections 1 and 6). God reveals himself to everyone, everywhere: externally, in creation and common grace; internally, in reason and conscience. "Light of nature" may well refer to the latter more than the former in seventeenth century thought. Every human being knows more of God and of a moral and spiritual obligation to worship than he is prepared to admit (see, Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:19-32). Thus, general revelation informs us that we ought to worship and pray - God is "to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served." We are created beings who owe our existence (creation and providence) to the governance of an almighty God.

But general revelation does not tell us how to worship. It is here that the Confession elaborates on a principle already affirmed in the opening chapter - the regulative principle. Few issues were more pertinent in the Puritan era than the issue of conscience - who has the right to impose upon conscience what may or may not be done? Thus the pivotal statement in the previous chapter of the Confession: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship" (20:2). The interference of the State and/or the hierarchical church, insisting on the use of prescribed liturgies, a Prayer Book, kneeling, genuflecting, etc., violated this principle. Far from being viewed as legalistic and restrictive, the regulative principle - that only a prescribed revelation of God may govern my conscience - was seen as liberating. Scripture, rightly interpreted, provides principles and specifics, that inform us as to how God is to be worshipped. We are not at liberty to worship any way we please - whatever works for me, whatever seems fashionable. This would be to put ourselves under the tyranny of the power-hungry and ambitious, or even Satan himself. It is a measure of the importance given to the regulative principle that the Confession suggests that anything less leaves us at the mercy of the devil!

One particular issue is highlighted: we may not employ any "visible representation" of God in worship. The second commandment, which prohibits idolatry generally, specifically forbids making a visible representation of God. For the Divines, it was the crucifix that was the focus of this prohibition. A visible representation of Christ on the cross can easily become an object of worship in itself. It is but one example, of Calvin's warning, that the mind of man is a perpetual factory of idols (Institutes 1.11.8). 

True worship is always Trinitarian (21:2), and with Roman Catholic abuses in view, the Confession rejects a Mariolatry and the veneration of saints , insisting on the sole Mediatorship of Jesus Christ. Solo Christo and sola Scriptura characterize the Protestant understanding of true religious worship.

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas is minister of preaching and teaching at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.