Worship By the Book: Or, Why Sincerity Is Insufficient for True Worship

bythebook04In his illuminating book, A Secular Age (summarized here), Charles Taylor argued the unbelief handed down to us from the Enlightenment, coupled with new religious expressions in the 19th century, and accelerated by the sexual revolution of the “Sixties,” has resulted in many and competing spiritual longings that live somewhere between belief and unbelief.

In short, we are living in an “age of authenticity,” where expressive individualism seeks to satisfy personal appetites in quasi-spiritual ways. On one hand, our age eschews organized religion and the constraints of any spiritual authority—be it a codified text or clerical leaders. Whereas faith in the divine was nearly impossible at the Middle Ages, in our day unbelief is becoming increasingly normative. On the other hand, our age is not satisfied with nihilistic unbelief. Spirituality abounds, even when such spiritual longings and beliefs are left undefined. In short,

People are increasingly looking for a life of greater immediacy, spontaneity and spiritual depth than can be provided for them in the immanent order of unbelief, while on the other hand many do not find the authenticity and wholeness that they desire in the established (mobilised) forms of religion. (From a summary of A Secular Age)

In this space, individuals and affinity groups continue to create new ways of spiritual living and corporate (read: customized) worship. As a result, it is hardly surprising that sincerity, not truth, is considered to be the greatest good for worship today. What defines spiritual worship is an interior experience, not conformity to a moral standard or faithfulness to God’s revealed will.

How far we have fallen! Even in the church, where people and pastors know and want to know God (or do they?), this all-consuming desire for spiritual authenticity authorizes worship leaders to invent new ways of worship. Yet, when we go back to the Bible, we learn that sincerity is never enough for true worship. Rather, worship that pleases God is patterned after God’s revelation itself. And we who long to worship God in Spirit and Truth must learn again from God how he wants to be worshiped. Continue reading

Liturgical Lathes: Exposing Modern Temples with Their Faux-Gospels

latheI suggest that, on one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry—which promises an erotically charge transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination—is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology then much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination. Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they ‘get it’: they rightly understand that, at root, we our erotic creatures—creatures who are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire. In sum, I think Victoria is in on Augustine’s secret.
– James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 76 –

What is Augustine’s secret?

In my first post on this subject, I traced James K. A. Smith’s argument that we are more than just thinking beings. We are loving beings, people of deep desires, who are powerfully shaped by our habits and practices (hence homo liturgicus). As Augustine put it, there exists within humanity, two kinds of cities—the City of God and the City of Man. And each city is driven by a particular kind of love; one ordered by the kingdom of God, the other by the kingdom of this age. This is (part of) Augustine’s secret, one that he discovered himself as he came out of a lifestyle of deep sexual sin.

In truth, made in the image of a God who exults over his people with loud singing (Zechariah 3:17) and burns with fire in his righteous jealousy (Exodus 20:5; Hebrews 12:29), we are a people of great passion. Passions are what drive us, and our bodies (with their faculties of thinking or acting) serve as instrument to express and carry out these passions. Accordingly, it is impossible cultivate virtue or eradicate vice with mental effort alone. We must “learn to control our bodies” (1 Thessalonians 4:4) and use our bodies as instruments which bring God glory (1 Corinthians 6:18–19).

But how? Continue reading

What Does the Bible Say about the Doctrine of Election?

electionIn the Bible, the word “election” is used in a number of ways. For instance, in Matthew 24 Jesus speaks of “the elect” (vv. 22, 24, 31); in Romans 9 Paul explains “God’s purpose of election” (v. 11); and in Ephesians 1:4–6, Paul says the Father “chose us in him before the foundation of the world,” and “in love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” These are but three examples that undergird the doctrine of election.

While debated, the doctrine is plainly biblical. ‘Chose,’ ‘elect,’ ‘election,’ and ‘predestined’ are Bible words. And when they are read in conjunction with passages that speak of God’s unique relationship with his sheep (John 10:26), his children (John 11:51–52), the ones given to the Son before the foundation of the world (John 17), and his appointment of some to believe (Acts 13:48), the evidence for unconditional election is incredibly strong. As George Mueller said of the doctrines that he once thought “devilish,”[1]

Being made willing to receive what the Scriptures said, I went to the Word, reading the New Testament from the beginning, with a particular reference to these truths. To my great astonishment I found that the passages which speak decidedly for election and persevering grace, were about four times as many as those which speak apparently against these truths; and even those few, shortly after, when I had examined and understood them, served to confirm me in the above doctrines.[2]

That being said, my point is not so much to advance a theological argument for the doctrine of election, but to observe more plainly how the Bible speaks of election. As Mueller stated, the New Testament authors assumed election was true. It was, in fact, part of their cultural heritage. The Jewish people were the covenant people because God chose them from among the nations (Deut 7:7). Yahweh blessed apart from the Gentiles (Rom 9:1–3). Accordingly, the doctrine of election is commonplace in the New Testament. Continue reading

The Doctrine of Creation: A Necessary Part of Our Worship and Evangelism

auroraCould it be that Christ-centered Christians can all too easily forget that the God of the cross is also the God of creation?

Not long ago I was visiting with some church leaders and the topic of transgender persons came up. While a number of good strategies were mentioned about sharing the gospel with them (and all people who sinfully rejected God’s moral norms for their sex lives) there were questions about what is wrong with a man desiring to be a woman, or the reverse. “Which verse does a transgender person violate?” was the question.

The short answer (and this again goes for all persons) is “all of them.” In Adam, all of us are guilty before our maker (Rom 5:12, 18–19). By nature, we are inveterate rebels. We don’t need a verse addressing our specific manifestation of sin, although there are plenty. The whole Bible speaks to the sinful condition of mankind—transgender persons included. Just read Romans 1:18–32 or Albert Mohler’s insightful “Biblical Theology and the Sexuality Crisis.” Sexual morality is far more than keeping all the laws.

But specific answers aside, I think there is a larger need in evangelical churches—namely, the remembrance that we do not worship God as Redeemer only, but also as Creator. In fact, in biblical revelation he is first Creator first, then Redeemer. And even in redemption, the goal is new creation—personal (2 Cor 5:17) and cosmic (Matt 19:28; Revelation 21–22).

In sharing the gospel, we must not forget that sin is not just law-breaking; it is anything that opposes or deviates from God’s created design. But we will only remember this doctrine of creation, if we give ourselves to worship God as Creator.

And for that reason, I offer give you six ways God’s creation should move you to worship and evangelize. Continue reading

A Severe Mercy: Rediscovering the Holiness of God

ok
Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen,
but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.
— Romans 11:22 —

When God created Adam and Eve, he endowed them with a holy calling to worship Him. In fact, made for God’s glory, it was the chief design of humanity to worship and serve the Creator—not only in holy assembly but in every human endeavor (cf. Col 3:17, 23).

Sadly, this original design was lost when the first couple rebelled against God (Gen 3:1–6). Seeking to be like God, they spurned their Creator. As Paul puts it, “For although they knew God, they did no honor him as God or give thanks to him, . . . Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” of created things (Rom 1:21–23).

The Idolatry of Self

In context, Paul is speaking about Gentiles, but indeed, he is using the backdrop of the Garden to explain the source of humanity’s sin. In a word, sin finds its source in idolatry (cf. Jer 2:13). Human hearts are compelled to worship, but after Eden, the Adam’s offspring worship what their hands can make, what their minds can imagine. Even the most avowed atheist cannot stop worshiping—even if he only worships himself. Continue reading

Reconsidering “Above All”: How Hermeneutics Must Intersect with and Inform Our Hymnody

aboveallYesterday, I raised concerns with the popular song “Above All” by Michael W. Smith. For some time, I have taken theological issue with the central lyric of the song:

Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall / And thought of me
Above all.

Those last two lines have always made me stumble because of the way they seem to eclipse God with humanity. I’ve always heard them as making the claim that Christ thought more of me than he did of God—which I argued reverses the God-centered nature of the universe and the cross.

For that reason, I was theologically opposed to the song. While I could sing the rest of the song with delight, I always cringed as the chorus neared. Hence, I set out to write these reflections so as to expose the errant chorus. However, a funny thing happened along the way—I read the lyrics again (and again) and this time in context.

Unlike any time before, I read the chorus in light of the whole song. Not surprisingly, reading it context provided greater light. But surprisingly, I had to adjust my thinking for I realized that if I (or we) let the song define its own terms—a principle of general hermeneutics—it does not ascribe humanity to a place higher than God. In fact, the song rightly retains a high view of God’s sovereignty and the dignity assigned to humanity, as the pinnacle of creation. Continue reading

Above All, Who Did Christ Die For?

crossCrucified / Laid behind a stone
You lived to die/ Rejected and alone
Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall/ And thought of me
Above all

 

These words, the chorus of the song “Above All,” have echoed in evangelical churches far and wide. On the whole I like the song, it’s first two stanzas testify to the universal sovereignty of God. However, as it enters the chorus, the sweeping sovereignty of God appears to be displaced by a form of sentimentalized love that is all too common in our self-exalting century.

The theological problem that some have with this song comes at its climax, the point that the whole song drives towards. In that final line, “Above All” ostensibly leaves the high ground of God’s sovereignty (“above all kingdoms / above all thrones / above all wonders the world has ever known”) to frolic in the marshes of ego-boosting self-esteem (God “thought of me above all”).

Intended to express breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s unfathomable love, Michael W. Smith’s lyrics come close to severing the root of God’s love by leading the chorus to sing that God in his love thought about me “above all.”  I say close, instead of actually committing the act, because I think upon closer inspection “above all” in the chorus should be delimited by the earlier “all” statements.

Tomorrow, I will show how I think “Above All” can serve as a God-exalting worship song, but today let me unpack the theological truth that has led many to take issue with this song, namely that the highest purpose of the cross is not directed towards man, but towards God himself. Continue reading

From Performing in the Flesh to Panting for the Spirit

vinePerforming in the flesh is shorthand for doing work unto the Lord in your own strength, by your own wisdom, and with your own will power. In short, it is service without spiritual grace, and Satan loves to seduce you with it. Such Spirit-less service may be outwardly beautiful, relationally effective, or even successful, but because it is done without faith, it displeases God (Rom 14:23; Heb 11:6) and bears no lasting fruit. Sadly because our hearts are deceitful we may even call such unbelieving service good, when God does not. For that reason, it is always right to return to the Word and ask: What does God say?

What service does God find pleasing? What counterfeit performances originate in unbelief? And how can we tell the difference? Continue reading

The Sweetness and Sacredness of Sundays

[This post is from our monthly newsletter at Calvary Baptist Church (Seymour, Indiana)].

When God created the heavens and the earth, he spoke light into existence and separated it from the darkness.  On the first day, he called the light “Day” and the darkness “Night.”  From the start, God’s world has run on a schedule.  Like a watchmaker, God spun the earth so that every revolution would take twenty-four hours, and every year would include 365 days, plus six hours.  It seems that in Genesis 1, God’s creation modeled the pattern that men would keep in all generations—six days of labor, one day of rest.

The rest of the Bible depends on this basic structure to frame all that God does with men.  In Exodus 20, God commands Israel to keep the Sabbath holy, saying “On it you shall not do any work, . . . for in the six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

Now, this command to rest was not a call to inactivity or sluggishness.  Rather, it was a call to make time a servant to men, a means by which men would learn to trust the Lord with their time and to know that they needed something more than they could acquire in their weekly schedules.

Since God did not rest because of fatigue, the Sabbath was not just a means of physical recovery for him, or for us.  It had a more Christ-centered purpose.  In fact, it seems that the Sabbath was a gift of joy and fellowship with God.  In other words, it was a holy day of worship, a day to set aside creation and to enjoy the creator. In a world unaffected by sin, this day off would have been needed, but how much more in a world wrought with sin and its effects?!

This was true in the Old Testament, and it is true today.  Only, since Christ’s advent, the meaning and application of the Sabbath has changed to the Lord’s Day.   Thus, as we make application, let us consider three things.

First, the Sabbath day in creation and Israel is a type of Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and he is the true rest.  Paul calls the Sabbath of Jesus’s substance (Col 2:16-17).  The meaning of this is that in Christ, we who are tempted to work in order to gain security, identity, and standing before God (and men) can now look unto Christ for all three.  In him, we have rest full and free.

Second, Sabbath Day worship has been replaced by Lord’s Day worship. After the resurrection, the New Testament church gathered on the Lord’s Day—the day of his resurrection (Sunday).  Thus, when we gather this Sunday, we announce to the world that Christ is risen and reigning. We do not gather on Sunday because it is the most convenient day for our church; we gather on Sunday because it tells the world that on this day Jesus Christ rose and is now present with us. Just the same, when someone makes a preferential choice to skip church they muffle the testimony of the Lord’s resurrection.

Third, the Lord’s Day is a gift of grace. Sadly, too many Christians obscure the grace of this gift.  The Lord’s Day is not simply a day to recuperate from work in order to return to work.  Your life is more than your vocation!   And it is more than just getting to the next vacation.  The Lord’s Day keeps this in perspective.

Instead of providing physical rest alone, the Lord’s day provides living water for the weary heart. It is a day devoted to the reading, singing, preaching, praying, and discussing of God’s Living Word. If you live on God’s word and not man’s bread, what could be a better gift to you than the promise that for hours this coming Sunday a banqueting feast of God’s word will be prepared before you.

The gift of the Lord’s Day is not merely a reprieve from the world, though it is that; it is a promise that God still speaks.  In a true church that faithfully proclaims the gospel, those who come to hear his voice will never go away disappointed.  This is the grace we need to keep our hearts strong; this is the grace for which your heart longs.  For those who desire God’s grace, gathering with God’s people on the Lord’s Day is a necessary part of life.  It is a day filled with grace for those who are willing to seek it.

Over the next few newsletters, I am going to consider a number of blessings that God gives us on the Lord’s Day and that come from attending church for the right reasons. I hope you will consider these points with me, and that you would share them with the ones who “know the Lord” but who prefer not to worship him in public Sunday by Sunday.  Perhaps together, we can encourage them to taste and see the sweetness and sacredness of Sundays.

For His Glory and your joy,

Pastor David

Scripture is Our Guardian and Guide to True Worship (Sermon Notes)

True Worship is Revealed By God

Yesterday’s post considered the way Exodus 32 warns us of false worship.  It confronts the many ways we (unintentionally) bring ‘golden calves’ into our worship services, and it makes us ask whether or not the elements in our worship are biblically-grounded or not.  Today, we aim to make a positive argument for true worship based on the ‘Regulative Principle.’

Moving from Old Covenant to New Covenant, we should notice that God is just as interested in true worship in the church-age.  The difference is the location of that worship–in the Spirit-filled temple of the gathered church, not Solomon’s temple made of stones.  On this John 4 is helpful.

In John 4, Jesus pursues a conversation with a sexually-dysfunctional Samaritan woman. This is a great passage on the subject of missions, evangelism, and salvation unto all peoples.  But it also speaks volumes about worship.  Tucked in this context, we see that God is still seeking worshipers who will worship Him in Spirit and Truth (v. 24).

To which we may ask: How do we worship in truth?  Exodus 32 has shown us what false worship looks like, but where do we find true worship.  Put simply, I would say that the whole counsel of Scripture is required to worship aright.

Now, this question has been debated much in church history.  There are some who will say, that the church is permitted to do most anything in God’s name, so long as it does not violate the teaching of Scripture.  This has been called the “Normative Principle.”

Conversely, others have argued for the “Regulative Principle,” which asserts that the church should do no more than what is commanded and/or explicitly modeled in Scripture.  This second approach has, in some cases, been taken to the extreme.  Some have argued that instruments, for instance, find no place in the New Testament and thus should be removed from worship.  Others, more moderately, have made adjustments such as allowing for amplification and powerpoint in their services, even though Scripture says nothing of these things (although a raised platform and assistance in understanding the text in Nehemiah 8 may give support for amplification and powerpoint–just saying).

The perpetual challenges of contextualization make this debate very challenging.  Nevertheless, based on the seriousness which God takes worship (cf Exod 32), it is a conversation worth having.  My point, from the text in Exodus 32, is simply that we ought to have a principle of regulation, that arises from the text in all that we do.  Creative freedom in worship seems to be what Exodus 32 is against, and it actually proves that such “freedom” results in the ultimate slavery (death). By contrast, when churches submit themselves to Scripture, they experience the freedom of the Lord, who descends upon the gathered church, and as 2 Corinthians says, where the Lord is there is a Spirit of freedom.

A Baptist Argument for the Regulative Principle

On the subject of the Regulative Principle, I have not found much that is immediately helpful–if you know of something, please let me know–but in a Baptist Press article from 2003, Donald Whitney, now professor at Southern Seminary (Louisville, KY), and author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Lifegives a number of helpful points.  Let me quote a portion of his article, Worship Should Be God-Centered and Biblical

The regulative principle of worship in essence says that God knows how He wants to be worshiped better than we do, . . .
”He has not left us in the dark about that and has revealed in Scripture [alone] how he wants us to worship Him, what the elements of worship are to be. If He has done so, then those are the things we must do and we should not bring any of our own ideas in addition to that.” 



 Biblical elements of corporate worship include preaching and teaching the Word of God, prayer, the public reading of Scripture, the singing of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, and celebrating the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. 

The regulative principle rules out extra-biblical elements such as drama, clowns and the like.

Whitney pointed out that many Baptists today practice what is known as the “normative principle” of worship. The normative principle says that corporate worship must include all biblical elements, but believers also are free to include things not forbidden by Scripture. 

This approach is dangerous because God’s will is known only through His special revelation, . . .

We don’t know what honors God except that which He has revealed, . . .  In areas like worship where He has revealed His truth, we may not go beyond the bounds of that. 

[Significantly, Whitney ends his article by pointing us to the Scriptures, quoting from even from Exodus 25-30, which serves as the true pattern that was broken in Exodus 32].

In the end, Scripture must be our guardian and our guide!  God has not left himself silent on matters of worship.  He does not want creative expressions borrowed from the world.  He wants his creation to worship him according to his Word.  He is not looking for new ways to know him, explain him, promote him, or seek him.  He has given us his word and his Spirit.  This is sufficient.

To those who interpret the world through lens acquired from the world, this seems foolish and weak. But indeed, it is the wisdom of God.  May we again press into know the Lord, and trust that we will not be dissatisfied.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss