Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Way of Scripture and the Cross in Worship

"According to Reformed theology, worship is established by Scripture alone (sola Scriptura); thus, the final authority of Scripture and its material sufficiency are foundational principles of Reformed worship. The Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura affirms the primary and absolute normative authority of Scripture; it is the highest and only infallible rule of liturgical theory and practice, and all other ecclesial authorities are derived from and subordinate to it."

This quote from Glen Cary points to one of the mystifying things about the way Evangelical and some Reformed churches, influenced by the church growth and Charismatic movements, approach worship in our time, namely, that Scripture has nothing to tell us about what we should do in our worship together!  We say we believe Scripture is sufficient to tell us all that we need for life and godliness, and yet somehow these same Scriptures have nothing to tell us about how we are to worship the Lord when we gather together on his day!

But can this really be true that God's Word gives us no guidance about the most spiritual thing we are involved in together as believers?  Can it truly be the case that in terms of worship together as Christians we are left to our own preference?  Surely, the Lord has given us guidance in his Word for worship!

Sometimes people say that the Lord has not dropped from heaven a perfect liturgy.  While this is true, they then draw the faulty conclusion that we are free, therefore, to do whatever we please in our worship together.  This is a dangerous conclusion given the fact that the Lord himself has come down from heaven, the One whose very life and death was a perfect offering of worship to the Father!

At other times people say that ritual and liturgy can be abused and that people can go through the motions without a true engagement of the heart.  While this is true, these folks again draw the wrong conclusion: since the attitude of our heart in worship is more important than the liturgy, therefore the liturgy is unimportant and we do not need to pay attention to its details.  But this simply does not follow.  Knowledge and zeal are best kept together, for zeal apart from knowledge can lead to disastrous results as it did in the case of the Jews at the time of Christ (see Romans 10:1-3).

If, then, the first mistake Evangelical churches are making today is not to seek guidance from God's Word about worship, the second mistake is about the purpose of worship.  Or, to put it another way, who is the actor in worship?

Consider these verses from Psalm 50:
“Hear, O my people, and I will speak;
    O Israel, I will testify against you.
    I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
    your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house
    or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
    the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
    and all that moves in the field is mine.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
    for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
    or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
    and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
    I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

These verses teach us that when we come to worship, we come as people who are needy and empty-handed.  We don't come to give to God, but rather to receive from Him.  God alone is self-sufficient.  He needs nothing from us, and, in truth, we cannot give anything to Him.  When we come thinking we are the givers in worship, we dishonor Him.  The way to honor Him is to acknowledge our complete and total need when we come before Him.  The way to honor him is to call upon him, so that he will be glorified in delivering us.

The cross is the pattern for our worship.  "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling," is not only true for salvation, but also for our worship.  The reason thanks is the proper offering in the verses above is that thanks is a recognition that God alone is the Savior and Provider for every need of his people.

Therefore, the liturgy is a divine service.  In true worship together, Christ's people come to receive from Christ.  Jesus Christ retains the honor of serving his people.  Jesus comes among us to serve us through teaching and a meal, through killing us with his law and raising us with his gospel, through renewing our minds with his Word and our hearts with his body and blood.

It's when we let God be God that He is glorified.  It's when we come as needy sinners each Sunday, who need deliverance from sin, the world, the flesh, and the devil, that Jesus Christ is glorified.  It's when we come as empty people who have nothing to give to the Lord, that we honor Him.  The first lesson of worship, therefore, after looking to Scripture for direction, is to learn that we come to the divine service, not to give to the Lord Jesus Christ, but to receive from Him by hearing his teaching and receiving his life in the meal. When we come in this way of the cross to worship, we will become a thankful people.
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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Guarding the Pulpit and Guarding our Singing?

I was listening to a sermon today from Liam Goligher, the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia.  He was discussing Genesis 3 and pointing out how Adam and Eve were given the priestly task of guarding the garden and the Word of God.  Then he said that this same responsibility of guarding the Word is given to pastors and elders in the church today.

Here is how I believe some sound Evangelical and Reformed pastors are not guarding the Word today.  We guard the words of the pulpit, but we don't guard the words of the songs we sing.  So while we may preach perfectly sound sermons, the devil gets his lies  in through the lyrics we are singing.  If we are to guard the words from the pulpit, should we not also guard the words that we sing?  And, if we are to be Bereans, who test the words of our ministers against Scripture, should we not even be more diligent in testing the words that we ourselves our singing!  For at least when the sermon errs we are not implicated.  But when we sing error, we are implicated and participate in the guilt of singing false things.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Vaughan Roberts Quote about the Importance of the Cross

"The cross . . . has always attracted strong responses. I remember one brilliant student exclaiming contemptuously, 'That's ridiculous,' after I had explained that we can only be acceptable to God because Jesus Christ died for sinners on the cross to take the punishment we deserved. Another clergyman told me why he and others had so strongly opposed a church plant we had started. 'The truth is, Vaughan,' he said, 'we hate your theology.' He was speaking, above all about the message of the cross. The Bible's teaching that we all deserve God's judgment for our sin, and that Christ's death as a substitute is our only hope, was deeply offensive to him.

"While some dismiss the cross, others know that they owe everything to it. Our church recently baptized fifteen people in the River Thames. They were a diverse group: a few raised in atheistic China, one from the local council estate and some brilliant young British students, yet all spoke of how they had been transformed by the same message of Christ crucified. As Paul puts it, 'The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God' (1 Corinthians 1:18). . . . If we want to see people saved from God's wrath and reconciled to him, we must resist the temptation to give people what they want and instead follow Paul's example: 'We preach Christ crucified . . . .'" --Vaughan Roberts from his book "Authentic Church: True Spirituality in a Culture of Counterfeits"

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Singing Through the Heidelberg Catechism: Lord's Day 1

Lord's Day 1
Q & A 1
Q. What is your only comfort
   in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,
but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.
Q & A 2
Q. What must you know
   to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
A. Three things:
first, how great my sin and misery are;
second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery;
third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.

----------------------------------------------------------

Lord’s Day 1 serves as the introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism.  Q&A 1 is a beautiful summary of the Christian faith, and is worth memorizing.  Q&A 2 gives the basic structure of the catechism with its three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude.  Even more importantly,  it gives us the key to living and dying in the joy and blessing found in Christ Jesus.

Lord’s Day 1 teaches us that only Jesus Christ and his saving work on our behalf can give us true comfort.  The condition of the human race is like a patient in the hospital whose condition is critical.  Sin has brought death to the human race, and only Jesus’ death and resurrection can bring forgiveness and life.

The earthly advice the world gives to the patient is: “Live for yourself.  Seek your own honor and glory.  Love yourself.”  But the heavenly advice of the Bible is just the opposite.  “Be united to Christ by faith in his dying and rising.  Live for your Lord who set you free.  Seek the honor and glory of the triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit, who created and redeemed you.  Love the Father and the Son by the working of the Spirit within you.” 

Augustine, in his great work, The City of God, compared the two loves that can motivate the human heart:

“Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.  The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.  For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.  The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, ‘Thou art my glory, and the lifter of my head.’”

Where will this new heart come from to live for the Lord and his glory and to love Him?  Q&A 1 answers, Look to Christ in whom is forgiveness and life.  Through him, his Father is now our Father.  Through Him, the Spirit indwells our hearts, so that we make it our goal to live for Christ and not ourselves.

------------------------------------------------

Only One Comfort

To the Tune: EVENTIDE (Abide with Me http://www.hymnary.org/hymn/PsH/442 or http://www.hymnary.org/hymn/UMH/700).  Based on Lord’s Day 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Words: William Weber, 2010.

v. 1
There’s just one comfort in life and in death,
that I belong to Jesus, not myself.
The Lord completely paid for all my sins,
freed me from slav’ry, blesses me in Him.

v. 2
The Lord cares for me in a tender way,
watches my life and leads me all my days.
My Father works out all things for my good,
blessed in His Son I’m filled with gratitude.

v. 3
O Jesus, Lord, my Savior and my Song,
how blessed in You I am to now belong.
You send Your Spirit, plant Your life in me,
and in Your Word may I Your glory see.

v. 4
There are three things believers need to know:
How great my sin is, misery also.
How I am set free from iniquity.
How I should thank God who has set me free.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Love and the Liturgy

The typical Evangelical liturgy today goes something like this:
  • Introduction: A person stands and welcomes people for coming followed by a short prayer;
  • Congregational Singing: A few songs strung together with maybe a short prayer in between, all sung while standing;
  • Offering:  Gifts are collected while there is a solo or performance by the band;
  • Scripture Reading:  The text for the sermon is read;
  • Sermon:  The message is introduced and closed by short prayers;
  • Closing Song
  • Dismissal
Essentially, the service has two parts: Congregational Singing and a Sermon.  There is no call to worship.  There is no confession of sins and assurance of pardon.  There are no Psalm, Gospel or Epistle readings.  There is no pastoral prayer that comprehensively prays for the world and its needs, the worldwide church, the local church, missions, and individual needs in the congregation.  There is no benediction. All of this is replaced by 20-30 minutes of singing from a big screen while standing, followed by an offering and musical intermission, and then a sermon.

I have argued that there are biblical reasons for including God's greeting and call to worship (God must initiate the dialogue of worship, not us), confession of sins and assurance of pardon (our feet must be continually washed --- John 13), Scripture readings (we must be quick to hear the Lord and slow to speak --- James 1), congregational prayer (all of the New Testament commands concerning the content of prayer  --- 1 Timothy 2), and a benediction (note all of the greetings and benedictions in the Epistles).  But I want us to look at the typical liturgy today from another angle: the angle of love.

I would argue that there is a selfishness in much of what we do in the typical Evangelical liturgy that is grievous, and unloving toward those who are weakest among us: older people and children.

How is the typical liturgy unloving toward older people?

One of the ways the typical liturgy is unloving is the fact that we never sing while sitting.  It used to be that people would sit to sing at least one song.  The congregation was never on its feet for an excessively long time.  But now we string songs together to the exclusion of things like Bible reading and the congregational prayer.  The result is that we stand for long periods of time and this is difficult for people the older they get.

While those who are younger and stronger may prefer to stand while singing, love does not seek its own advantage, but is willing to forego its preferences for the sake of others, especially those who are weak.

How is the typical liturgy unloving toward younger people?

By standing for every song, and foregoing the use of hymnals, most short people cannot see the screens.  We taught our children when they were young to follow the words of the songs using a hymnal, but today there are no hymnals.  Most churches that have big screens do not print the words they are singing in the bulletin, so children and shorter people are just out of luck.  Again, there seems to be a lack of concern about those who are weaker by those who are stronger.  As long as the stronger are pleased is all that seems to matter.

Finally, by eliminating the systematic reading of the Psalms and the Gospels from our liturgies we are doing a great disservice to our young people---a disservice that amounts to a lack of love.  The only exposure many children will get to the Bible during the week is the church service.  If all they hear is four or five verses a week, this is not enough.  How sad it is to think that a young person can leave for college having never heard all of the Psalms and all of the Gospels more than once.  Yet, some of our kids are leaving home having never heard the Psalms and Gospels at all, even though they grew up in the church.

I was 16 years old when I began to be puzzled by the Gospel readings at church.  I kept hearing that Jesus must go to the cross as it was written.  This went against the grain of my young secular mind: you mean to tell me that Jesus was fulfilling some sort of plan?  How could that be?  What about choice?  I thought human choice was sovereign.  These verses didn't make sense to me and they started raising questions.  The Lord was using his written Word to awaken me out of my spiritual slumber.

I just read about a man who was converted to Christ simply by reading Matthew's Gospel.  God's Word is powerful, and yet we substitute this power in order to sing Chris Tomlin lyrics and Hillsong lyrics and Maranatha lyrics as though these words can possibly match the power of God's words.  Our kids go off to college having heard more of the words of contemporary choruses than the Psalms!  How grievous!

On top of this, consider the fact that some people have a difficult time reading, and never will read the Bible privately on their own, because reading is so hard for them.  Reading does not come easy to everyone, and so some people will never hear God's Word unless the church is publicly devoted to the systematic reading of Scripture.  Do we ever consider poor readers as we design the liturgy?  Are we acting in the long term interest of love for the church's children when we eliminate the Psalms and the Gospel readings from our churches, so that we can sing more?  Are our worship services loving to those who are the weakest in our midst?

Love and the liturgy---is it an issue we consider at all?  

Monday, September 2, 2013

Overcoming the Self-Focus of Our Congregational Singing

One day this past week I got into my car to go to work and turned on the radio.  A woman was being interviewed about a new book she had written, and I could hardly believe what I was hearing.  The premise of her book was that in order to be happy we have to establish a better relationship with ourselves!  Establishing a relationship with self is the key to joy, happiness, and life, she said.  It was amazing to hear this woman talk about "self" as though the self was God.  If you would have substituted Jesus for her use of the word self, she would have been an orthodox Christian.

I guess this worship of self should not surprise us.  After all 1 Timothy 3:1-2 teaches us, "But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.  For people will be lovers of self . . . ."  While the Bible's goal for the lives of men and women is conformity to Christ, modern psychology's goal for people's lives is self-actualization.  Thus, we live in a narcissistic age, where people believe that happiness comes, not from denying self in order to follow Christ, but from indulging self and living for self.  The notion Paul expressed in Galatians 2:20 in our time is considered the height of unhealthy mental health: " I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."  Nothing could be more opposite to psychology's notion of self-esteem than dying with Christ to self.

This is one of the reasons, then, that it is so foolish for Christian churches to sing choruses and hymns that are filled incessantly with the personal pronouns, I, me, and my.  Douglas Sean O'Donnell's study of the top 50 contemporary choruses sung in churches from 2000-2008 found that the lyrics of these songs promoted "an unnecessary and unscriptural self-focus."  Even the titles of the songs in the top 50 praise and worship choruses displayed this self-focus.  Five of the top 50 songs titles began with "I," and I, me, and my were prevalent in numerous other titles: "Here I Am to Worship," "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High," "Change My Heart," "O Lord, Draw Me Close," "He Has Made Me Glad," "Lord, Reign in Me," "My Life Is in You," "Open the Eyes of My Heart," "Trading in My Sorrows," "You Are My All in All," "You Are My King," and "You're Worthy of My Praise."


In the light of our culture's self-focus, one has to wonder about the wisdom of this self-focus especially in corporate worship.  Certainly, it is reasonable in our personal prayers to use I, me, and my when we pray.  But when we come together as the church to pray and sing (our songs are prayers addressed to the Lord), is it wise to use all of this I, me, and my language?  The give-away that it is unwise is to notice the discrepancy between our spoken prayers and sung prayers.  When people in the church pray in a corporate worship setting, they almost invariably use we, us, and our language.  On the few occasions when this does not happen, it feels odd and inappropriate that the one praying would be so insensitive to inject his own personal prayers using I, me, and my into our worship together.  This same incongruity should bother us when our corporate songs are filled with I, me, and my when we address our Lord together.

The apostle Paul makes an argument in 1 Corinthians 11 that could be easily and legitimately applied to what is happening in our congregational singing at the current time.  The apostle tells us how the Lord's Supper instead of unifying the Corinthian congregation has instead become a series of individual meals: "When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper that you eat.  For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.  What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?" Applying this to the self-focus of our congregational singing together, could we not say, "When you come together it is not corporate prayer and praise that you bring, but each one sings his own prayer and praise.  But don't you have your own private devotions and own homes in order to bring such individual praise to the Lord?"

While it is true that in singing all of these I, me, and my songs we are all singing the same words, this is also problematic.  What right does the church have to place words on the lips of the worshiper's individual prayers and thank offerings?  In the Old Testament there was a place for individual thank and votive offerings, but no priest would dream of putting their words in the place of the individual's unique words of thanksgiving or unique vows.  When Paul made his vow at the temple, it was his vow, not the priest's!  By the very nature of these individual and personal offerings, the words had to be those of the individual worshiper.  Thus, it can be wrong---even a violation of the conscience---to put I, me, and my language on the lips of worshipers.  By the very individualistic and personal nature of this offering, the words must come from the heart of the individual.

But is there a place for individual and personal singing and prayer in corporate worship? Obviously there is a place for individual and personal prayers and singing in our homes, but what about our worship together?

I would argue that there is a place for this individual prayer and singing in our services, but we must be careful not to violate the unity of corporate worship nor the consciences of those who worship. 

Here is how this individual praise and prayer can occur in the corporate worship setting.  First, it can occur in a public setting in things like a testimony.  Second, it can also happen during times of silent prayer or during the Supper, where there is time to offer up individual praise and prayer. This is one of the reasons we should have the Supper weekly, so that this sort of individual, personal fellowship with the Lord can occur each Lord's Day.  Third, I also think that we can sing some I, me, and my songs at certain points of the service if we are careful to emphasize the commissive language of the song we are about to sing.  Because worship is an offering of ourselves to the Lord (Rom. 12:1), each person must make that offering of themselves to the Lord in our worship together.  If we use I, me, and my songs in a careful and wise way, emphasizing the commitment being made in a particular song, there can be a place for I, me, and my in congregational song.  Just as the Apostles' Creed, which we rightly sometimes use in the worship service, commits us to certain beliefs and is thus commissive (I believe in God the Father . . . I believe in Jesus Christ his Son . . . I believe in the Holy Spirit . . . I believe in the holy, catholic or universal church ), so with careful introductions, a wise and limited use of I, me and my songs could help worshipers to make a meaningful commitment to the Lord.

But what about all of the wonderful songs that have I, me, and my language?  Do we have to jettison most of these songs in our worship services?  Personally, my favorite hymn is Beautiful Savior, and a close second is May the Mind of Christ My Savior both of which use first person pronouns.  Do we have to get rid of these wonderful songs in our worship together?

First, I think most I, me, and my songs could be easily altered so that we sing we, us, and our in our worship together, and nothing important would be lost.  Second, I have made the case for a limited use of these I, me, and my songs in corporate worship above, with careful introductions of these songs explaining the commissive language inherent in the words sung.  Third, I don't think copyright laws should dissuade us from bringing the Lord acceptable worship, and if this means altering I, me, and my to we, us and our so be it.  We must obey the Lord, not men, in something as important as worship. Also, if you do not think that songs are regularly edited in hymnals or song collections, you are simply naive.

In summary, I have argued, first, that in a narcissistic age such as ours, we would be wise not to promote this sinful self-focus with a self-focus in our congregational singing. Second, I have argued on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11 that unity requires that we sing, not individually with I, me and my songs when we gather together worship, but with we, us, and our songs.  Third, I have argued that the commissive nature of individual praise and thanks means that we must be very careful not to violate the consciences of worshipers by putting prayer and praise on their lips.  Fourth, I have pointed out the places in which we can incorporate individual thanks, praise, and prayer in our worship services. Fifth, I have argued for a limited and careful use of I, me, and my language at the appropriate time in our worship services, with an appropriate introduction that warns and makes note of the commissive nature of I, me, and my language in the song about to be sung.  Finally, I have argued that we should alter the lyrics of good songs that use I, me, and my to we, us, and our, so that we can continue to sing songs that deserve to be sung for the glory of our great triune God.  May our congregational singing magnify and make great his name, even as we minimize ourselves and take a lowly place before him.  Amen.

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