Is Reformed Worship Boring?

October 22, 2014

Is Reformed Worship Boring?

By Fred T. Balbuena

A Review of, With Reverence & Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship by D.G. Hart and John R. Muether

The style of worship is one that divides Christians in many churches today. The argument is primarily about how we are supposed to worship God together publicly in ways that honor Him and serves the spiritual needs of the people. In spite of the clear teaching in Scriptures about the kinds of elements that must take place in worship services (eg. singing, praying, preaching God’s word), churches today struggle as to how to do these essential elements biblically. Individual responses about how worship services are supposed to be done reveal that worship has become a battleground for many. There are those who view worship services to be both a means of evangelism while at the same time a way to build up the faith of the believers in Christ. D.G. Hart and John R. Muether wrote With Reverence and Awe (Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship) to address this topic providing a biblical view of worship. They begin with the notion that to end all “worship wars” we need to return to the basics of worship. The aim of this book is to provide “a brief overview of how Reformed theology informs the way we think about, put together, and participate in the worship service. Our aim is to help church officers and members gather corporately for worship and do so in ways appropriate to the God who has revealed himself in Christ Jesus” (page 13).

Hart & Muether begin from an explicitly reformed perspective believing that the worship style flows from sound theological convictions. They argue that good theology must produce good worship while defective theology produces poor or inappropriate worship. This is something the church, such as what Martin Luther did during the early 16th century, has understood in the past. The Protestant Reformers’ work in reforming the liturgy of the church was aimed at the application of sound theology. However, the church at present has lost sight of this in recent years. Many believers today formulate worship services primarily to meet the felt needs of the people rather than the exaltation of the attributes of God. For this reason the authors say that the Reformed Protestant’s theological distinctiveness will embody a worship gathering in ways that are distinct from other theological traditions. Good theology is biblical theology, and it begins, continues, and ends with the sovereignty of God. Our worship then, if it is to be biblical, must be theocentric. Good theology defines itself in worship and in being Reformed. According to Hart & Muether, “[this] means more than holding to a certain system of doctrine or a certain kind of church government. It also involves certain practices, and some of the most important of these activities take place in public worship” (p. 16)

Chapter 1 begins with the relationship of the church to the world. This is a critical place to begin putting together a God-centered worship service. The authors affirm that the church must be separate from the world because it is God who separates the church, in order to gather with Him, to be in His presence. In this fashion, true worship “will be odd and perhaps even weird to the watching world. This oddness is not lamentable but essential to the church’s faithfulness and witness” (page 34). Therefore, believers must not conform to the ways of the world as they continue to be in the world. To be set apart from the world is what displays the identity of the church as the people of God and what gives it effectiveness to demonstrate the transforming work of Christ to all the sinners who come to Him by faith. Separation from the world is not mainly for the well-being of the church. Being antithetical to the world is an essential part of to its very being. On the other hand, this does not mean that believers must not have anything to do with people who are in the world. Christ commanded us to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39) and we are also commanded to make disciples of all nations beginning with sharing the message of the Gospel with them (Matthew 28:19-20). Still, according to Hart & Muether, “such love of neighbor does not refute the fundamental difference between the church and the world” (p.33) Worship is not meant to make the church accessible to the world as a means to attract the unchurched to the Gospel. There are specific ways for the people of God to show acts of love to the unbelievers in the community especially if they happen to come to our worship services. Nonetheless, worship must not be modified to accommodate the mindset and feelings of the unbelievers. Worship is not for the purpose of evangelism or an instrument to move forward church growth either. It is evident that the authors do not downplay the importance of evangelism and taking the Gospel to the world; however, they believe that we can only properly understand the church by seeing her as a body meant for worship and discipleship. Worship is for the church, not for the world, they concluded.

In the fourth chapter the authors mention the fact that confusion about worship is tied directly to the American Protestant’s violation to observe the Sabbath. If Christians are called to live holy lives in the world, and that God ordained that one day every week be dedicated to worship Him, then the Lord’s Day is to be devoted to spiritual rest and filled with activities that show He is our treasure.

There are two principles which are critical to the author’s argument about what makes worship acceptable to God. The first is the “Regulative Principle”. This principle teaches that we may only worship God in ways expressly stated in Scripture. Obviously, there is no proof text that gives an exact order of worship. Therefore, what is left unstated is as equally forbidden as what God expressly prohibits. The second principle is the “Dialogical Principle” which teaches that the covenantal pattern of Christian worship takes the form of a dialogue between God and His people. (p.95) This principle instructs us to see worship as a meeting of two parties: God and His people. God speaks to us and we must listen to Him. We must not disregard this principle, according to Hart & Muether. A response to God’s goodness in the presence of other believers is proper and edifying. However, we deprive ourselves of the blessing God would have for us as He condescends to meet us if we focus too much on speaking and responding to what He said and did for us instead of coming to His presence continually to hear Him speak to us.

In the tenth chapter the authors make a distinction between the “elements, circumstances, and forms” of worship. The elements that are commanded by God, from which we may not subtract and to which we may not add, are: reading and preaching the Word, sacraments, prayer, song, and collection. How often we sing or the number of songs we sing, or if we sing at all is circumstance determined by the session/consistory or the elders. Interestingly, it is not until the final chapter that the authors contemplate music. They believe that music should inspire reverence, and like the Sabbath day of rest, should be unlike what we hear all throughout the week. This, once again, flies in the face of most modern teachings about music which teaches that church music should sound similar to what people listen to every day. The songs we sing in church should be as distinctive as the theology we believe with our hearts and our minds. Based on the writings of Terry L. Johnson, the authors suggest four criteria for music appropriate for the worship service. First, is it singable? Second, is it biblically and theologically sound? Third, is it biblically and theologically mature? Fourth, is it emotionally balanced? As Johnson writes, “It is crucial that the church’s songs be substantial enough to express accurately mature Christian belief as well as the subtlety of Christian experience….Simplistic, sentimental, repetitious songs by their very nature cannot carry the weight of Reformed doctrine and will leave the people of God ill-equipped on occasions of great moment” (page 173).

Can Reformed worship be boring? This all depends on what participants are looking for in a worship service. The supremacy of God over all things is inescapable even in the midst of uncertainty and human suffering. If the goal of the church is to magnify the honor and excellencies of God, then our minds will not be able to contain our emotions, both joy and reverence to be in His presence during the worship service. This happens when the gathered people of God are encouraged to “look for as many ways as possible to soak in the Gospel that God ordained the ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer to communicate” (p.116) We have to imagine (not fantasize) that God is with us during worship to fight against boredom in worship.

 

We Are Especially Created by God to Display His Renown

October 6, 2014

We Are Especially Created by God to Display His Renown

By Fred T. Balbuena

 The doctrine of creation is essential regarding the nature of man in its theological context.  Areas particularly needing attention are in reference to the meaning and purpose of our lives as determined and designed by God, which comes from the truth between the Creator-creature distinctions. According to J.I. Packer, this is one of the reasons why this phrase is in the Creed.  All true thoughts about God and man are related to Him being our Creator and we human beings as His creations.[1]

Everything about us is a result of God’s plan and design. The Bible teaches that God created Adam and Eve in a special and personal way. “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7) God also created man in His own image. When God said, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness”, (Genesis 1:26) it means that God made man similar to Himself in a sense. Of course, man is not identical with God possessing all the qualities that were mentioned above. Being created in the likeness of God means, we, as human beings represent something about God. Wayne Grudem describes two popular views about what it means to be created in the likeness of God. First is the idea that the image of God refers to man’s intellectual ability as well as having the power to make moral choices. Secondly, it is in reference to man’s original moral purity or His creation as male and female, or his dominion over the earth.[2]  Whatever truly represents the meaning of being created in the likeness or the image of God, one inescapable truth is that man, in many ways, represents God.  What is very important is to look to the nature and attributes of God in attempting to understand who we are and what we are here on earth for.  Only then, life begins to makes sense.  Apart from this truth, life is void of meaning.

The Geneva Catechism explains this carefully and provides a reason as to why creation language was included in this system of confessions.  It says:

“As he has manifested himself to us by works, (Romans 1:20,) in these too we ought to seek him. Our mind cannot take in His essence. The world itself is, therefore, a kind of mirror in which we may view Him in so far as it concerns us to know.”[3]

As man is not his own maker, it stops us from thinking that we are here by accident or that we are the ones who determine our purpose in life.  God is our maker.  This is the first fact of life we must admit.  As J.I. packer said, we need “a healthy sense of creaturehood to keep us facing it”.[4] This is what gives us a sense of purpose in this world.

 Another important truth that the doctrine of creation reminds us is about our primary purpose in life.  God did not leave us to guess what our lives are mainly for. God created us for His glory. “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth (says the Lord), everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory” (Isaiah 43:6-7).  If God’s goal in creation is to display or the pursuit of his own glory, then the only satisfying experience we can have in this life is to do everything for the purpose of advancing God’s honor or fame. The centrality of God in our lives must be the fountain of your everlasting joy.  John Piper says:

“If we live our lives in such a way that they don’t point people to the glory of God, then our lives are without positive significance from a Christian standpoint. What we become is just an echo of a God-neglecting culture. We fit into the world so well that our lives don’t point beyond the world. We are no longer aliens and strangers, but simply conforming citizens of the God-ignoring world.”[5]

Psalm 100:2 says, “Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!”  God’s will for our existence is to serve Him with gladness. Therefore, from a biblical standpoint, creation directs us to the truth that the greatest issue about our existence in this world is to rejoice and be glad in the glory of God. All human behavior is meant by God to get attention for Himself. This is what Peter urges his readers to make the aim of their lives in spite of persecution.  “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”(1 Peter 2:12)  This is where we find the real significance of our life, whether it is short or long.  It is measured by the way our lives point people to the glory of God from the time you get up in the morning till the time you go to bed at night. God created us to give Him glory.  This means we exist for other people to see God as glorious and praise Him as glorious. This doesn’t mean we make God more glorious when we do things He wants us to do for others.  That would be false since the glory of God is not dependent on our obedience or disobedience. To “give Him glory,” means acknowledging Him and treasuring Him above all things. Our lives give glory to God when all the nations see in us that God’s worth is our highest treasure. “You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:6). We are not only created to display the glory of God but are also created to worship Him, which also gives glory to God.

 

[1] J. I. Packer, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), pg. 55.

[2] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), pg. 443.

[3] “Historic Church Documents at Reformed.org,” Center of Reformed Theology and Apologetics, 1996, quotation, accessed January 13, 2011, http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/calvin/geneva_catachism/geneva_catachism.html.

[4] J. I. Packer, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), pg. 57.

[5] Piper, John. “The War Against the Soul and the Glory of God – Desiring God.” Home – Desiring God. 2011. Accessed February 13, 2011. http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/the-war-against-the-soul-and-the-glory-of-god.