The Church Reformed
The Church Reformed
It is one thing to attempt to define the general meaning of what it is to be Reformed. It is quite another to translate that 'general meaning' into practical terms which enable us to know what a Reformed church may be. The task of describing the Reformed faith is a difficult one. Many have attempted to isolate the specific genius of the Reformed theological heritage, and some writers have settled on this idea, others on that, as the essential and all-governing principle of what we call the Reformed faith. While scholars may not be entirely in accord with one another, they usually share a common point of departure and a common frame of reference. At least people have some substantial notion of what is intended by the faith, the theology, the theoretical content of Calvinism. For example, all Calvinists are in enthusiastic agreement with respect to the doctrines of grace.
The position is quite different when we begin to speak of the application of the Reformed faith to the life of the church. How does one set out to define a Reformed church? When I use the expression 'Reformed church', I do not have in mind the broad subject of ecclesiology in general, the doctrine of the church as a whole. Obviously enough, when one discusses any facet of the life of the church, one will have to make reference to the doctrine of the church. There will be differences of viewpoint in terms of some aspects of ecclesiology among those who are committed to the Reformed theology. Thus, a Congregationalist or Independent will have a quite different conception of the nature of the church from that held by a Presbyterian. The Presbyterian will speak of the congregations grouped in a presbytery as a manifestation of the church, or of a denomination as a manifestation of the church — in fact, as in a real sense the church — while a Congregationalist will find it virtually impossible to do that. At the same time, both Congregationalist and Presbyterian may find common ground at the point of the life of the local congregation. This is especially the case with those Congregationalists and Presbyterians who agree that the New Testament mandates a plurality of elders in the local church. The reader should know that it is particularly the practical side of the matter which I wish to stress in this series of articles, rather than the doctrinal one. It will be recognized, of course, that the practical side cannot be divorced from the doctrinal. As a matter of fact, the life of the congregation is formed by the teaching of the Word of God on the subject of ecclesiology. We cannot so much as speak of practice without doctrine; the one flows forth from the other. At the same time, the two are distinguishable, and I have in mind a discussion of the character, the appearance, the shape of the local congregation — what the church on that level is like — rather than a more abstract description of a theological nature.
The question I mean to ask, then, is this: What is a Reformed church? It strikes me as exceedingly important that we arrive at an adequate answer. Many of us have been caught up — with great thankfulness of mind and spirit — in the revival of interest in the Reformed faith over the past twenty or twenty-five years. We have rejoiced in it. Some among us were privileged to grow up in congregations and under ministries where the old preaching and teaching of the Reformed faith could still be found.
There was sometimes a feeling of embarrassment, however, because it seemed as though one was experiencing a relic of the past, a kind of survival into the twentieth century of what ought long since to have been consigned to dust. The churches — in particular, the evangelical churches — had moved beyond us. The ethos of our youth was not the prevailing ethos of the Christianity which had come to dominate the scene. Then, in the late 1940's and the 1950's, the situation began to change — to change very much for the better — and that in many places, some of them highly unlikely. People came to realize that what they had rejected was in important ways incomparably better than what they had received in its place. And others of us, freshly introduced to the gospel, or perhaps after long experience in generally evangelical or fundamentalist churches, discovered John Calvin anew, then perhaps Whitefield and Spurgeon, and the great Puritan writers themselves.
While it is certainly true that in some quarters the downgrade is still perceptibly taking place, notably in denominations and connections where once a warm commitment to the Reformed faith was taken for granted, yet in many others the drift of the times seems to have been reversed. Today where one finds serious Christians one is also likely to come upon people rejoicing in the sovereignty of God, holding fast to the doctrine of irresistible grace, probing with eager minds and hearts the depths of the doctrine of particular redemption. The list of publications sent into the world by the Banner of Truth Trust alone furnishes us with an index of the progress that has been made. And a prodigious number of earlier and more recent writings, displaying clearly the influences of Paul, Augustine, and Calvin, has been made available to the reading public. One may almost speak of an embarrassment of riches, especially in comparison with what was the case only a relatively few years ago. Ministers have begun again to preach the doctrines of grace, and to do so with enthusiasm. It strikes me as probably true, moreover, that they are now preaching with more winsomeness and popular attractiveness than was so, at least in some places, not very long ago. Hundreds, even thousands, of young preachers have been sent out into the churches with high aspirations, fervently held convictions and a craving for the reviving movement of God's Holy Spirit upon the face of his people. A hitherto unheard of number of conferences and special lectureships offer a vitally interested public the means for enriching the understanding and deepening experience of biblical teaching from a Reformed perspective.
My impression is that there is now more interest in preaching from a thoroughly biblical point of view than was the case only a few decades ago. Many writers on homiletics are not anything approaching thoroughly Reformed, to be sure; but preaching has begun again to come into its own. And the esteem in which preaching is held by individual Christians and by congregations is, I think, higher than it was when I studied theology. A powerful witness to this is the flourishing market for tape recordings of Reformed sermons.
However, preaching alone does not make a Reformed church. The question with which many of us are faced is this: How do we get from Reformed theology, and from the consistent preaching of the Bible, to a Reformed congregational life? I know young men who are committed to the doctrines of grace, and who are well-taught in the theology of Calvinism, but who at the same time have no more notion of what constitutes the life of a Reformed church than they do how to speak Mandarin or how to build a computer. Somehow or other it does not occur to them that there is any kind of necessary connection between theology, on the one hand, and the life of the church, on the other. But a theological commitment necessitates an understanding of the nature of the church consistent with it.
We have grown accustomed to this sort of disharmony among a certain class of churchmen. For many a long year it has been perfectly plain from the example of much of the church's leadership that while the old theology had its place — and one could continue to give a kind of lip-service to it — yet that theology had no essential connection with what goes on in the day-to-day life of the church. Thus, hosts of ministers have persisted in subscribing to orthodox confessional statements while paying them no attention whatever in the conduct of their affairs. We have a similar sort of thing also in men who are genuinely evangelical but who at the same time, while perhaps professing the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith, have largely ignored it in terms of the practice of their ministries. One thinks here of those who have been pastors of Presbyterian congregations, for example, but whose preaching is virtually indistinguishable from that of Arminian ministers and whose church programmes have been almost exactly like those of congregations in the fundamentalist or broadly evangelical traditions. As a matter of fact, it is even said that one should be a Calvinist in the study and preach as though one were an Arminian in the pulpit. But surely that is not the position to take. A man may mean to say that he wants to be earnest and zealous in the call of the gospel when he preaches, not bound and constricted in a kind of theological strait jacket, as from time to time some Calvinists have appeared to be — so rigidly insistent upon preaching the doctrine of election and the sovereignty of God on any and all occasions that no authentic general summons to faith in Christ could be heard. I would have to insist as forcefully as I can that such a view of Calvinism is a fearful distortion; and that if it has ever existed it has been a corruption of what is good and true, not the good and true itself. Few readers of this periodical will take issue with the assertion that if a man is a Calvinist, or an Augustinian, in his view of the person and work of Christ, this ought to show itself in his preaching!
What of those, however, who are unashamedly Reformed in their convictions? I am afraid that among them, too, are those who do not see any necessary relationship between what they believe theologically and what they do practically.
At least two pernicious tendencies need to be signalized here. To be mentioned first is the personalistic style of ministry, as I term it: that is, the ministry which calls attention to itself and in which the personality of the successful minister himself is continually at mid-stage. No doubt it is very easy indeed for a man to fall into the trap of putting himself forward, of thrusting himself into the limelight. When one is successful people begin to take notice. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that as such. The Lord has been pleased often to make use of brilliant personalities through the years; men through whom much good was done and under whose preaching great numbers of people were brought to Christ. A successful man, however, has always to be on his guard because he is prey to terrible temptations of many kinds. The temptation to be stressed in this context is the temptation to allow oneself to become the focus of the congregation one may serve as minister. When the person of Christ is blurred by the person of his servant, then the situation has become very serious indeed. We are reminded by the Apostle Paul: 'For we preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake' (2 Corinthians 4:5).
Possibly this kind of Reformed hierarch is especially to be found in a context of Congregational church government, for there is in that situation no counterbalance to the lordly minister in the form of a plurality of elders or a presbytery. But the same phenomenon may occur even where the safeguards are all present. Some of the most hierarchical and lordly ministers of whom I have any knowledge were in Presbyterian churches. How careful a man must be whose ministry the Lord blesses and who is gifted with great public endowments to be much on his knees before God! It is always Christ who matters. John the Baptist is the paradigm for every gospel minister in this respect. It was he who said:
He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.John 3:29, 30
Most of us are not called to such noticeable success, however. Yet there is another tendency to be descried among more ordinary mortals called to the ministry of the gospel. We live in a time when younger men in the ministry particularly are highly sensitive to the needs of people. What can be said against that? Surely it is a good thing that pastors care about people and try to help them. Obviously a Christ-like spirit of love for those in need is commendable in every way. The problem arises when those who care about people begin to make personal needs the starting point for the ministry of the church. The focus in the life of many a congregation at the present time is on the people rather than on God, or on the people before God. The prevailing ethos is what we may call an anthropocentric, rather than a theocentric, one. Considerable numbers of young men are much more interested in a small group ministry, oriented to Bible study and discussion situations and to what they like to call personal discipling than they are to more traditional forms of Christian ministry. The word I have just used — 'traditional' — is almost a red flag to them. Anything that is traditional is in the nature of the case suspect, probably obsolete, useless and counterproductive in the modern world.
I hardly need say that in my view also the 'traditional' is not sacrosanct. I am, after all, a Calvinist! And though my personal predilection may be for the traditional rather than the innovative, I have to make very certain that I clearly distinguish my preference from the truth. Here, too, the apostolic command certainly applies: 'Prove all things; hold fast that which is good' (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The rest will have to go the way of all transitory and perishable human traditions. We are to make very sure that we do not engage in what the apostle calls 'will worship' (Colossians 2:23). At the same time, 'traditional' may stand for what is biblical and 'innovative' may represent that which is merely appealing in a temporary way to people who are always seeking after some new thing.
The degree to which the supposed needs and desires of the individual are at mid-stage at the present time is quite extraordinary. The whole face of congregational life is in the process of being altered in many places. We have been accustomed to expecting a combination of religion and popular psychology from certain quarters. After all, 'the power of positive thinking' has been with us for a long time. Hence, new variations on the same theme should not particularly surprise or unsettle us. Though the words are slightly different, the ideas are virtually indistinguishable, and there is nothing much to choose between them. As evangelicals we have protested vigorously against the man-centred character of such thinking. Now those who are much more conservative in their theological convictions are coming to an evangelical equivalent of the popular ego-builders on the other side. One hears much talk about the need for coming to a healthy self-image, of the place of positive re-enforcement, of the benefit and profit to individuals of small group relationships in the church, and the like. While there is no doubt something good in these things, the problem — so it seems to me — is that these approaches to the Christian faith and its application to life are coming from the wrong direction.
We ought to be interested in people's needs. Who will dispute that? But the point is that the needs which are most serious and most difficult to meet are just those needs which people often do not spot themselves and which, apart from the true application of the gospel, they are likely never to be able to see. People do not have to acquire a self-image which is agreeable to them and with which they can live as a primary step in the direction of living a wholesome and fulfilled Christian life. Rather, they must be humbled before God. They need first of all to come to see 'how great their sins and miseries are' (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 2). It is common enough now to hear a deriding of the 'miserable sinner' mentality of a former day; the day of the General Confession of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer; the day also of some of the great hymns which speak much of the lowliness and guilt of sinners in the presence of a holy God:
Alas! and did my Saviour bleed,
And did my Sovereign die.
Would he devote that sacred head,
For such a worm as I?
One does not have to deny that some of the terminology formerly much loved went rather too far, to insist at the same time that there is a basic spiritual truth at stake in what all these expressions intended to say. To lose sight of that spiritual truth is to court disaster.
The individual situation and the personal need are exceedingly important. There can be no question about that, from a biblical perspective. Moreover, in many so-called Christian churches people were sometimes ignored. That must be deplored. I have myself been in churches of a Sunday morning or evening as a visitor when after the service had been concluded not a single person came up to me to assure me that I was welcome and to make me feel a part of the fellowship of believers in that place. Such a state of affairs is utterly lamentable, and steps should be taken to remedy it. I may add as a kind of footnote here that in my experience those churches which publicly make most of extending a welcome to visitors on a given Lord's Day are sometimes churches also in which after the service members are most silent so far as greeting strangers is concerned. The public intent of the minister and elders is undercut by the actual practice of the people. I am not sure why this should be so. Part of the reason is no doubt cultural and social. In some congregations there is a much greater degree of reticence than in others. But part of the reason must also be indifference to people. If one cares about others, that care and concern and Christian love will certainly be shown. Almost everyone, after all, is capable of extending a hand of greeting. Churches ought to be fellowships where Christian warmth is immediately felt, where the compassion and the love and the caring of Christ are perceptible. But we should also be cautious lest we draw conclusions that go too far. We must not be so foolish as to identify evangelical warmth with liturgical chaos, or to suppose that authentic Christian love can be experienced only when we have torn down the old theological structures of biblical worship and praise.
We return again to the great consideration with which we set out. How does one describe a Reformed church? What is Reformed church life like? In what way does our theology show itself in the life of the people of God?
So far as I am aware there is no succinct way to answer such queries. Just as it is the case with respect to Reformed theology itself that no one central idea is all-dominating and so comprehensive as to enable us to define the whole in terms of it, so is it also regarding the application of that theology to the congregation, to God's people. In seeking an answer we have to bring together a cluster of motifs and ideas, all of which are important and all of which have their own part to play in the experience and practice of the church. Where shall we begin?
It should be said at once that a Reformed church is an evangelical church. All who are Reformed are at the same time evangelical. The reverse is not the case: not all who are evangelical are Reformed. We may believe that they ought to be, and it is precisely this that we should like to see them become. The fact is, however, that many Christians, in a great variety of denominations and connections, are broadly evangelical, lacking any commitment to the Reformed theology. It would be arrogant to seek to unchurch them or to make any negative comment on the degree of their devotion to Christ. We are glad to acknowledge all who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity as our brothers and sisters in him. It is not my purpose now to attempt a definition of conditions of Christian fellowship. What truths are absolutely essential? What truths are, though important because a matter of God's revelation, relatively less essential? That is a subject worth taking up on another occasion, but it cannot detain us here. We should no doubt remember that in the Reformed churches a measure of latitude has always been allowed for divergencies of viewpoint. For example, Amyraldianism in one or another of its various forms has long been tolerated even though officially deplored. In my own denomination those with baptist views on baptism may be members in good and regular standing even though the church itself is clearly and emphatically paedobaptist. Anti-paedobaptists may be members of the church and enjoy all the privileges of membership, with the single exception that they cannot be made officers in the church. Surely this is as it should be. We have no right to establish conditions of fellowship which the Word of God does not require. At the same time, it is also apparent that truth is a matter of great consequence, and that we must take our allegiance to the Scriptures with much seriousness. I am not suggesting that the right course is one of doctrinal relativism, but only that all true believers are one family with us.
When we speak of evangelical Christianity we have in view the paramount truths of the gospel. I would insist that fundamental to our position must be a high view of the Bible as the Word of God: that is to say, we accept the Scriptures as the authoritative and infallible Word of God, inerrant in all they teach. Who will dispute that this is in fact the ancient teaching of the whole Christian church? But as evangelicals we also confess our faith in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe that the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate for us and our salvation, that he was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary; that he suffered, bled, and died on the cross for the sins of his people; that he rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures; and that he is coming again in glory at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead. We insist, furthermore, that forgiveness of sins and new life are ours by the grace of God through faith in the risen Saviour. It is 'not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy (that) he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost' (Titus 3:5). We hold with Martin Luther that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article of a standing or a falling church. It is likewise our firm conviction that the church is to administer the sacraments of Christ's own appointment — namely, baptism and the Lord's supper — and to do so in the manner our Lord commanded. We insist, too, that the redemption which is in Christ is not appropriated in the way of a right understanding, as though it were sufficient to be doctrinally sound and correct in our views of these things; rather, it is Christ Jesus himself who saves, and who saves all those who come to God by him with a true and lively faith. I am confident that it would be possible to expand the list of doctrines I give here; but I find it hard to believe that evangelical Christians, though they might disagree on many things and would perhaps express some of these truths in a slightly different way from what I have done, or even understood them as implying more or less than I do, could possibly part company in these respects.
The perspective from which I write is not merely or only an evangelical one; however, I am unashamedly evangelical. But I am also more than that. I go further and state that I believe all Christians ought to be more than that, though I recognize as my Christian brothers and sisters those who are not. I mean to say, of course, that I am a Reformed evangelical Christian. I stand in a certain tradition; I am heir to a specific heritage; I have sat and learned at the feet of Paul and Augustine and Calvin and the Westminster divines. I know, too, that most of the readers of this magazine have sat with me and have come to rejoice in the glorious light which the teachers of grace have cast upon our minds and hearts. Our present interest is in ascertaining what this 'more than evangelical' commitment of ours means to us in the life of the church. Is there a difference, thus, between a broadly evangelical congregation and a Reformed congregation? Recognizing the family traits we share, we nevertheless inquire whether it is possible to identify a Reformed church from the character and quality of its life when compared with a church that is not. As I think about this question and try to answer it as responsibly and faithfully as I can, I believe I am able to say with conviction that there is such a difference.
That leads us to a further question, inevitably: wherein does the difference consist? If it is true that in Reformed theology the great preoccupation is with the doctrine of God, and if we believe on the ground of biblical teaching that God is the altogether sovereign One on whose grace we are utterly dependent, it must follow that in churches shaped by this theology there will be a God-centredness which is everywhere and palpably apparent. At the core of biblical teaching is the Lord God himself. And we are something less than true to that teaching when we displace it with something or someone else.
Often enough I have heard people discuss and evaluate churches in terms which utterly pass by so fundamental a truth. The situation may be as follows. A family has moved from one district to another. The parents are professing Christians, eager to become part of a congregation that will meet and satisfy their own and their children's needs. Various churches may be visited with a view to spying out the land. At last it becomes necessary to make a decision, to settle on a new church relationship that will be more or less permanent. On what ground is the decision based? Such people will frequently evaluate the churches they have come to know in their new locale using as the principal criterion the various activities offered. The calibre of the choir may be important to them. Certainly one much-discussed point is what may be offered for young people. I know that young people are exceedingly important. We have a son who is rapidly becoming a teenager, and what the church has for him is not to be ignored. However, no amount of activity will compensate for the things that really matter in the end. And though young people may be attracted to a strong youth programme which keeps them busy and occupied in useful ways, all that will perish in the end unless it is ancillary to the main thing. I am pretty much persuaded in my own mind that young people's activities in many a church are sometimes designed to compensate for what parents will not do; and the provision of a busy programme of this and that may very well be a substitute for much more substantial relationships which ought to be built instead.
It should be made clear that I am in no way despising concern for young people. I believe it to be essential that we address ourselves to them, that we make provision for their instruction in the faith, and that we offer them opportunities for fellowship with others also from Christian homes. What I am determined to resist is the notion that we ought to settle on a particular congregation because it displays a busy calendar and because it promises to keep our children occupied with activities. Many a small congregation with little to offer in this respect may be a much better spiritual home for us than a large church in which God has been thrust aside in the rush of a busyness that does not contribute to the cultivation of the fear of the Lord.
Perhaps I am touching here on a largely American problem. I doubt that this is so, but if it be in fact the case that this is only an American disease, I insist even so that it here presents a considerable problem and a sadly widespread one. At the heart of any church that is living in accordance with the Scriptures is not a frantic programme for ourselves or for our children and young people, in the first instance, but the Lord our God. The church is his. It belongs to him. Its life revolves around him. It exists because of him and for him. Everything it is and does has its focus and object in him. The significance of this great principle can scarcely be overestimated.
But how do we get at what this means in more detail? I believe that a happy balance must be struck. When I speak of theocentricity, I have no idea of hinting that people are unimportant. To suggest that would be to fly in the face of the Scriptures. The Lord Jesus Christ came to save people, sinful human beings. He loved us so much that he was prepared to die for us, to give himself utterly for us, to assume the burden of our guilt, and to satisfy the demands of divine justice in our stead. The Gospel accounts make it perfectly clear that he always had time for people, even the most unlovely and degraded people. Moreover, what he felt and did, we should also feel and do, in the degree to which that is possible. We can never assuage God's wrath for others, but we can be living tokens of God's love for them. At the same time, what matters in the end is not so much that we care about others, but that God cares for them. He gives form to that love of his through us, to be sure. But beyond the human intermediaries is the one great Mediator between God and men. Frosty indifference to the human condition cannot be tolerated in the church. We remember the words of our Lord himself in Matthew 25: the hungry are to be fed, the naked clothed, the sick visited; human needs, whether physical or spiritual, are to be met. But those with great physical needs are also to be brought to him and taught to worship and adore him.
Theocentricity here means that God is at the centre of our lives as Christians in the church. One remembers the words of the Shorter Catechism: 'What is the chief end of man? Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.' That is it in a nutshell. The focus of our faith is not man, in any sense or in any degree, but the Lord God himself. If we begin with human feelings, we shall end with human feelings. If we begin with God and what is due him, the cravings and needs and desires of men and women who serve and worship him may also be satisfied.
A striking and distressing illustration of the increasing mancentredness of many congregations is to be found in the worship services of the church. These worship services, professedly aimed toward God and conducted to bring honour and glory to him, are very frequently directed instead toward those who have come to worship. A significant shift is at once discernible here. In place of a summons to worship — 'Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth', or some similar sentence — ministers now commonly begin the service with a hearty: 'Good morning', or 'Good evening'. This is not done with any evil intent. Rather the reverse. It is done indeed with the most genial spirit of good will, the idea being no doubt to make people feel welcome and at ease. But the whole exercise of worship is re-cast when such an approach is introduced. People are not to come for the purpose of engaging in an amiable dialogue with the minister. It is not as though their favour needed to be won, or their time as pleasantly and amusingly filled as possible. By definition and in the nature of the case, worship is the worship of God; and from beginning to end worshippers are to be led to the throne of the Lord of heaven and earth.
Others may have been struck as I have been by the singular phraseology with which congregations are addressed in public worship. For example, ministers will often say to the people after a psalm or hymn has been sung: 'Thank you. You may be seated'. What an extraordinary mode of expression! For what reason in the world ought people to be thanked by the minister for their having lifted up heart and voice in praise to God? Perhaps what is behind the bonhomie of many a minister today is the apprehension that people have the need to be stroked, to be complimented and given the assurance that they are important and appreciated, that they are to be congratulated for having roused themselves from their Sunday morning slumbers to make their way to the house of God, and at the same time the fear that if all this is not done they may betake themselves elsewhere and not come back again.
Even more offensive still is the introduction of a new word into the vocabulary of modern ministers. It is the word 'share'. I tell my students, only half in jest, that 'share' is one of the despicable platitudes to have entered the ministerial vocabulary in the twentieth century. Ministers frequently begin their sermons with some such sentence as this: 'I want to share with you this morning from the Word of God as it is found in John 3:16.' One hears variations upon this same usage: 'I want to share my testimony with you'. 'We are grateful to Mr So-and-So for sharing with us this evening'. To be sure, sharing is a very good and admirable thing, and one should want to encourage it. But a preacher of the gospel does not share something with the people; he proclaims God's Word to them. No doubt the intention behind the use of 'share' in the pulpit is not bad. But the very fact of its having come into such wide currency is itself an indication that people have lost sight of the nature of biblical worship. The preaching is no longer the solemn heralding of the gospel of Christ, the exposition and application of the Word of God; rather, it is a kind of mutual sharing in which a high degree of reciprocity is involved and which lays bare the misconception so very prevalent — the misconception that the services of the Lord's Day even are primarily directed toward people rather than toward God. The horizontal dimension of worship is the one which is accentuated today; but while the horizontal, man-ward, dimension of worship is clearly important, it is the vertical dimension, the God-ward thrust, of worship which is paramount and central according to biblical teaching. Again, the compulsion to cater to human needs, to make those needs the point of departure for what the church does when it is at worship, becomes apparent.
I recognize that what we are discussing here is by no means a simple matter. As I speak with former students who are now in churches as ministers of the gospel I am forced to acknowledge the peculiar problems which many of them face. People are human in large churches and in small. But perhaps in small congregations the human proclivity toward pettiness and egocentricity is harder to cope with than in congregations where the membership is much larger. Small congregations can be much more cordial and responsive. People know each other and show their love for each other much more readily in small congregations than in large ones. And the fellowship of God's people can be very rich indeed in a struggling church where every member is known to the group as a whole, and where suffering and pain are more generally shared. At the same time, however, it is also true that the sense of selfish possessiveness can be more fully developed in small congregations than in large. People are easily offended when things happen to be done in a different way from what has been the case in the past, or when they are not consulted about every single decision, no matter how trifling or insignificant. As a result, young men who are ministers in small congregations often find themselves in a position of having to worry about the effect of this action on a sector of the company of professing believers, or the possibility that that group may be disaffected by some decision of the church's leadership.
My heart goes out to zealous, earnest, keen-minded young ministers who are frustrated by the criticism to which they are sometimes unfairly subjected or by the refusal of the congregation to yield to the promptings of the Spirit of God as the Word of the Lord is preached. Only those who have attempted to exercise leadership in a tiny congregation of stiff-necked members bound to human traditions can understand the agony of a man of God who longs for more responsiveness and greater evidence of a love for the Lord Jesus Christ on the part of his people. In what I say I am not finding fault with those who have been forced to lag behind with congregations turned in upon themselves. What is more, I believe also that the love and grace of Christ, as these qualities are exemplified by a faithful and longsuffering minister, can in the end work wonders even in an apparently hopeless situation. If the Apostle Paul had been interested in an easier ministry he could have gone elsewhere than to the stubborn and abandoned centres where he exercised his ministry; and he could have turned his back upon the companies of early Christians who so often went out of the way. Had Calvin satisfied his desire for a quiet life of scholarly work he would never have tarried in a Geneva where his position was still insecure until the last years of his ministry in that city.
My purpose is not to carp at men whose life is already sufficiently heavily laden with problems. I acknowledge, too, that I have only touched upon a few symptoms, in themselves relatively incidental and without much importance. I would insist, however, that these symptoms point to a much graver disease underneath, a disease which cries out for treatment. The life of a Reformed church is centred, not upon man, but upon God. And the seriousness of that enormously important truth must never be obscured.
I have a vivid recollection of an elder in the church where I began my ministry. In the course of his systematic visitation of the families to whom he had been assigned he would with tears and evangelical solemnity urge those who had become delinquent to return to the worship of the church and the hearing of the Word of God for the good of their souls. As I think of him I compare his witness and his holy boldness with the present widespread hesitation to say anything that could offend, no matter to what good purpose. The approach has been turned right round, and I fear that we are not the better for it. My friend the faithful elder had no idea of insulting or injuring; but he understood that true interest in those whom he visited, and with whose spiritual good he was charged, must show itself in straight dealing with their souls. In my heart of hearts I know very well that I would much rather have such a man come to me and call me to repentance with transparent love and tears than I would have a visit from another who showers me with encomiums I know I do not deserve. A part of me responds to the compliments, however without foundation; but inside I feel unrest and contempt for what is patently something other than an honest dealing with my soul.
We have seen that a Reformed church is God-centred. Now we need to carry our discussion a step further along; we need also to become more specific. I would affirm in addition, therefore, that the life of a Reformed church is governed by the Word of God. In view here, of course, is what has often been called the 'regulative principle'.
The principle of the regulative authority of the Scriptures was basic to the Calvinistic Reformation. One finds it clearly expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men (I.6).
It is important to note that the other great Reformed confessional documents contain similar statements. The Belgic Confession, written in 1561 while Calvin was still active in Geneva, declares:
We believe that these Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever men ought to believe unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein. For since the hole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an Apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scripture: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the Apostle Paul saith' (VIII).
We believe that this true Church must be governed by the spiritual policy which our Lord has taught us in his Word (XXX).1
This is not to say that the conclusions which all of the Reformed churches have drawn from the Scriptures in the application of the principle are identical. On the Continent of Europe some of them introduced elements into the worship of God which the Church of Scotland and the Puritans in England did not allow. Likewise, in some Reformed churches religious festivals were early observed — e.g., Christmas, Easter, the Ascension of our Lord, and Pentecost — while to the present time in many Scottish congregations, which continue to adhere to the tradition of the Reformation in Scotland, people persist in their refusal to admit them, indeed regard them as a form of will worship. Nor is it to say that once the principle has been affirmed all problems are at once resolved and nothing remains to be said. I tend to agree with the observation of a colleague of mine who insists that the regulative principle is very difficult to live with, but quite impossible to live without. There remains the immensely important question of biblical interpretation, of which Calvin and the Westminster divines themselves were very much aware. The biblicistic sects also claim the warrant of the Word of God for their innovations and sectarian peculiarities. My point is that, whatever else needs to be said under other circumstances along these lines, the principle so firmly enunciated by all the Reformed churches is our common property; and any church which lays claim to being Reformed will have to accept it and live under its banner. Sola Scriptura! Better still: Sola et tota Scriptura, the Scriptures alone and the Scriptures in their entirety!
But let us look more closely at the principle of the regulative authority of the Scriptures: the authority of the Bible over our doctrine, worship, polity, faith, and life. It hardly needs to be said that many Christians do not adhere to this principle. It is also true that many who pay lip service to it largely ignore the principle in their daily life. Perhaps in some measure we have all come to do that. One may ask the question: Is it so plainly the case that the Bible is to be regarded as authoritative for the whole life of the people of God?
If that be answered in the affirmative, how is the principle to be supported from the Scriptures themselves? What considerations are to be adduced that will show the normative character of the Word of God, not only in doctrine, but also in worship, government, and practice? I have thought long and hard about this, over many years; and I may say at this point that in my view there are certain considerations which argue strongly for the Reformation position.
- The first to be mentioned is what we may call the whole matter of analogy. No one who regards the Bible as the Word of God doubts that the life of the Old Testament people of God was carefully prescribed in the divine revelation given to Israel. That much is clear from Genesis to Malachi. But if God was so specific in the Old Testament economy — for example, in imposing on his people a ceremonial law whereby the worship of the congregation was to be governed and controlled — are we not entitled to expect something analogous to that in the New Testament? Ought we not to look for a similar attention to the worship and government of God's people under the administration of the gospel, something different in kind perhaps, and more consonant with the new age that dawned with the coming of Christ, but quite as firm and comprehensive? It is true, of course, that the Old Testament period was a time of anticipation and therefore of type, shadow, and prefiguration; Israel needed precepts, forms, and laws in a way that is no longer the case in this age of realization and fulfilment. But shall we believe that the Lord was concerned with the ordering and regulating of the life of his people then, while remaining indifferent to these things now and abandoning the new people of God to their own devices?
Certainly such religious and ceremonial prescriptions are much more in evidence in the Old Testament than they are in the New, as one would expect, given the nature of the two economies. Their evidentness in the Old, however, does not in any sense argue for their exclusion from the New. Herman N. Ridderbos writes on this very point: 'Although, in keeping with the incipient character of the church to which Paul addresses himself, and in view of the peculiar significance of his writings as epistles, a systematic exposition of the precepts regarding church order is lacking, these epistles contain a multitude of motives and directives that are of great and abiding significance for correct insight into the structure, connection, and government of the Christian church and thus for its organizational upbuilding as the people of God and the body of Christ'.2
- We may also speak in this connection of presupposition. The New Testament church is the body and the bride of Christ, the new people of God. It is for the church that the Saviour came; and his promise is to build his church in such a way, and on such a foundation, that the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:16ff). The New Testament is full of metaphors which describe the church in its relationship to the Lord. These figurative descriptions — the church as Christ's body, as God's building, as God's field, as Christ's bride, and the like — stress the importance of the Lord's people to him. Are we to suppose that for the life of the church, so very precious to him and so significant in his sight, the Lord would not have taken steps to provide for the vitally important matter of instituting good order, sound government, and spiritual worship? The only answer we can give is that such an omission must be regarded as inconceivable. We have already seen that Paul's epistles, for example, are full of precepts for the regulating of the life of the apostolic church. Whatever may lie behind it, the attempt to plead that the New Testament does not oversee the life of God's people in a manner sufficiently comprehensive as to supply the needs of the church is grounded on an erroneous assumption; namely, that while the Old Testament church was bound, the New Testament church is free to do as it pleases.
That a marked distinction exists between the two is perfectly clear, as we have seen; and Paul himself likens the position of the New Testament church to that of an heir come of age (Galatians 4:1ff). The church has reached its majority; it has responsibilities to discharge and decisions to make concerning matters which were once minutely prescribed but which are now no longer so completely controlled as was formerly the case. Nevertheless, the presupposition must be very strong that in the Scriptures, particularly in the New Testament, we are given the fundamental constitution of the church of Christ: its book of worship and government as well as doctrine. We are surely correct in insisting that while the authority of Scripture is most certainly supreme with respect to the doctrines of our faith, we have no right to stop there. We must go further and affirm that the whole life of God's people is regulated by the Word of God — that precepts and principles are laid down for the development and cultivation of the church's life, on the basis of which its mature determinations are made.
- It is necessary as well to speak in this context of explicit command. An imperishable set of statutes is given to us in the decalogue. Reformed Christians have always agreed that the ten commandments are a permanent institution. Their very nature as a mirror of the holiness of God is sufficient proof of that. But the decalogue is also regularly reaffirmed in the New Testament. In the decalogue itself the second commandment is addressed precisely to matters we are now discussing. That commandment, which in a negative way proscribes the employment of images in the service of God — 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image...: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them...' (Exodus 20:4-6) — by clear implication governs the whole worship of God in a positive sense. It is in this way that the second commandment has been understood by the writers of our Confessions and Catechisms. The Heidelberg Catechism asks, for example: 'What does God require in the second commandment?' And then it gives the answer, to be memorized by the faithful: 'That we in no wise make any image of God, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word' (Question 96). The Shorter Catechism speaks to the very same effect: 'What is forbidden in the second commandment?' 'The second commandment forbiddeth the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word' (Question 51). There is no question but that, at least in the understanding of the Reformers and their successors, we have here an unalterable assertion of God's sovereignty over our worship, a sovereignty which is exercised through the teaching of the Scriptures. The regulative principle is claimed in the way of an explicit precept by the Bible itself.
- Another argument thrusts itself forward as we seek to establish our case. I may call it the argument from coherence, or from logic. All evangelical Christians hold that the Bible is our only infallible rule for faith. We get our doctrine from God's Word, not from history, human tradition, or the religious genius of man. What we are to believe about God and man and salvation and the plan of redemption is revealed in the Bible, the Word of God written. But is it reasonable to go so far and no further? Surely, to do this is to truncate the authority of Scripture in a way that from an evangelical perspective makes no sense whatever. Many do not go beyond this point, however. They refuse to acknowledge that the scope of Scripture is far broader than this, and that all things necessary for our salvation, faith, and life are given to us in it. In his controversy with the great Elizabethan Puritan, Thomas Cartwright, this was essentially Archbishop Whitgift's position. It has lived on long after him, and appears on every side at the present time. Though they would repudiate such leadership in other respects, many in evangelical churches apparently agree with another much more recent Archbishop of Canterbury that 'to burrow in the New Testament for forms of ministry' — and thus presumably of worship as well — 'is archaeological religion'. 3Some may go further and claim that Scripture is our only infallible rule for faith and practice; but what they do often belies what they profess to believe. Where, however, is the disjunction between faith on the one hand, and worship or government on the other? It is a distinction which has been invented; and it is a distinction, moreover, which flies in the face of the most reasonable probability.
One may urge, perhaps, that while doctrine is plainly to be found in the Bible, this is not the case with precepts and principles ruling the life of the church. But surely the very doctrine we profess as evangelicals cannot be said to come from the Scriptures in confessional or catechetical form. The New Testament is not in the formal sense of the word a confession of faith. Rather, it gives us the materials for our confession. We get at doctrine in the way of exegesis, through comparing Scripture with Scripture, and by theological reflection on the church's part. Of this the development of so basic a truth as that of the Trinity provides a striking illustration. The Bible is a trinitarian book; and the New Testament everywhere presupposes the triunity of God. But the Nicene Creed was not written by the apostles John and Paul. In the course of theological reflection on the data of Scripture the church came to the formula which all Christians accept. If this be the case — and there is really no disputing it — then why should one be unwilling to take the same approach and be filled with the same expectations regarding worship and polity? Every rational consideration argues for the applicability of the Scripture principle, not only in the area of doctrine, but in every part of the church's life and walk.
- To be adduced also is what I may call the principle of exemplification. The early church was taught by the apostles, who were themselves taught by Christ. Indeed, the Lord instructed his disciples that they were to teach believers 'to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you' (Matthew 28:20). It is to be expected, therefore, that the primitive church, instructed by the apostles in obedience to the command of Christ, knew his mind with respect to doctrine, government, and worship — the whole life of the people of God. Hence, one may look to the example of the church of the first century for a pattern of church life. It is not only perfectly legitimate, but also — I would think — necessary, to search the history of the early church as it is recoverable from the New Testament, with a view to drawing from it the teaching of Christ which it exemplified. In the course of their debates the members of the Westminster Assembly made it clear that they understood this very well and insisted upon the validity of the principle. 'Some examples', they said, 'show a jus divinum' — that is, a divine right — 'and the will and appointment of God'. They then cited instances to prove this; whereupon the divines concluded by resolving:
In all which examples, as we have cause to believe that the fathers at the first had a command from God for those things whereof we now find only their example for the ground of their posterity's like practice for many generations, so likewise, though we believe that Christ, in the time that He conversed with His disciples before and after his resurrection, did instruct them in all things concerning the kingdom of God, yet nothing is left recorded to show His will and appointment of the things instanced in, but the example and practice of the apostles and the churches in their time.4
- The claim of the Scriptures themselves is to the very same effect. This is said in so many words, in connection with the stated purpose for the inspiration of the Bible. 'All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works' (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). If this be true, then surely we must expect to find in the God-given Scriptures, particularly in the epistles which were written to newly established congregations wrestling with problems of discipline, order, and worship, the will of God for his people in precisely these areas. Otherwise how are the Scriptures what they themselves claim to be: namely, profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness? How else can God's people be completely equipped for all good works?
- Another great consideration which deserves to be raised here is the whole matter of the providence of God. The hand of God is apparent throughout the Scriptures in the care of his people and in bringing about their deliverance and redemption, often in marvellous ways. The providential provision of God for those who belong to him is plainly evident on every page. Are we to think that God has overseen and provided for his church in some respects but not in others; has protected his people from their enemies, preserved them in times of danger, sent them preachers to proclaim his will, but, with all that, has left them adrift regarding the life of the church? Is it not true, furthermore, that the Lord anticipated future exigencies and made provision for them through the Scriptures? The unfolding centuries were to bring about developments of which the leaders of the early church were themselves undoubtedly not aware; but through what he gave the church in the ministry of the apostles who, as we have seen, were taught by Christ himself, the Lord in his gracious providence gave normative guidance for his people to the end of the age. 'What', asks the Larger Catechism, 'are the special privileges of the visible church?' 'The visible church hath the privilege of being under God's special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him' (Question 63).
- Finally, I believe that we must think also in terms of a certain necessity in this connection. I recall again the observation which I quoted at the beginning: the regulative principle is difficult to live with — because of the exegetical and theological problems associated with it and disagreement among the churches regarding its application in particular situations — but it is impossible to live without. The consequences of a denial of the regulative principle of Scripture are entirely unacceptable, not because of any predisposition on my part, or on the part of any defender of the position I am advocating, but in the nature of the case. If the Scriptures do not constitute a normative guide for the church in matters of worship and government, as well as doctrine, we are left in a situation of near chaos.
All Christians will admit that what contradicts the explicit teaching of the Word of God is sinful and unacceptable. But if we assume the lack of a regulative principle for the whole life of the church in the Bible, if we assume that we are not obliged to reject what the Scriptures do not institute or warrant, either by express pronouncement or necessary inference, are we not in that case left with a virtual inability to oppose many forms of error, both in worship and in government, errors which arise and vehemently insist upon their right to a place in the church precisely because the Scriptures are thought to be silent regarding them? Moreover, if the life of the church is not governed by the Word of God, and on that account the teaching of the New Testament is not completely binding upon all subsequent generations of Christians, on what ground and for what reason can we be so confident that the basis for our doctrine is secure? We can be certain, however, that the Lord has not left us in such a predicament. He would not and could not have done so. He did not do so. The evidence is on the side of the regulative principle, not on the side of liturgical and governmental lawlessness. From the apostle Paul himself we have in so many words a clear condemnation of 'self-invented worship' (Colossians 2:23).
All this may be said to undergird the splendid expressions of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
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 (XXI.1).
The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate (XXX.1).
The Reformed church is a church which lives under the authority of the Word of God. We have stated this great truth and examined some of the considerations which lead us to hold it so firmly. Merely to enunciate the principle, however, is not enough. It is important to add at once that the idea of a comprehensive biblical authority is not one which exists somewhere in an exalted theological stratosphere far removed from the level of everyday Christian experience. We are not here on the terrain of the theologian only. This is not a truth which falls within the purview of the specialist in the ideology of the Christian religion but which others can safely ignore. Rather, the principle is one which is to be applied day by day in all we say and do as those who belong to Jesus Christ. The whole life of the people of God is a life under the Word, under the sole normative standard which God in his wisdom and grace has given the church.
If we grant that what has been said is true and that our allegiance to God necessitates at the same time obedient submission to his Word, what must our reaction be to the spectacle presented by the church at the present time? One cannot help but be filled with a sense of dismay as one examines the state of affairs so widely prevalent today — a state of affairs in which the Scripture principle has quite largely been lost to view. Such is the case, moreover, not only in the Christian church at large, but also in the evangelical churches, and even in Reformed churches — those very churches which historically have seen so much of it. What penalties we have suffered, what losses we have sustained, for our failure to adhere to a truth so fundamental to our position as Reformed Christians! From the perspective of the Reformation and subsequent centuries one is justified in concluding that no other Christian tradition has grasped so clearly or applied so consistently this principle of the regulative authority of the Scriptures as the Reformed Churches have done, especially in their English and Scottish branches which converged in the Westminster Assembly. Unquestionably a considerable part of the reason for the widespread and pervasive departure from the confessional posture of our churches in recent times must be traced to the lack of a sense of direction at just this point. Such is the case both on the left hand and on the right.
We need not tarry long with the situation on the left. After all, we would expect to find that those who have qualified or set aside the authority of the Bible no longer fully follow its lead, no longer heartily submit to its teaching. In the United States those denominations which from the settlement of the country have professed to be Reformed — I include here the so-called mainline Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches — in their annual statistical reports have for years now shown an alarming loss of membership.
If one inquires why this is so, then it becomes clear that, though a number of factors must certainly be considered, the basic cause for the serious decline in size and strength is to be sought in a radical loosening of confessional attachment and, with that, a departure from the biblical gospel. Other churches are growing, churches in many cases with an inferior theological tradition and a far weaker grasp of biblical truth than these Reformed churches formerly possessed. The once mighty denominations of Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, and Robert L. Dabney are far from what they used to be. How can this be? How is it possible that in many quarters the doctrines of the historic Confessions can be set aside, indeed the Confessions themselves rendered irrelevant so far as the life of the church is concerned? That the gospel itself can be distorted, corroded, twisted out of all recognizable shape in the hands of so considerable a part of the church's leadership? That worship and polity can be tampered with in so farreaching a manner, with human corruptions obtruded upon divine institutions? That fundamental biblical truths can simply be thrust aside on no better ground than the judgment of a cluster of forsworn theological professors or some wretched group of misguided ecclesiastics? The answer can only be that these things are possible because the Scriptures are no longer regarded as regulative and are not given the obeisance to which they themselves lay claim. Evangelical Christians with one voice condemn and lament the depredations of liberal theology and a lax, doctrinally indifferent ecclesiastical leadership. 5
Of more immediate concern is the danger on the right. While it is true, of course, that evangelicals have been much more faithful to the Word of God than those on the other side, yet evangelicals, too, have by no means been prepared to take with sufficient seriousness the principle of the regulative authority of the Scriptures; or rather, they have been prepared to receive it only in truncated form. Evangelicals have long insisted on the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. The current debate on that very subject has been much publicized, and a sturdy effort is being made to clarify and strengthen the doctrinal position of the churches in this respect. Nevertheless, sound views on the inerrancy of the Scriptures do not necessarily mean sound views on the application of the Scriptures to the life of God's people. And it is just here that the situation is so alarming. The result is that we find ourselves surrounded now by a sea of opinions which have in common the all-dominating notion that the basic criteria for determining the character of the life, worship, and witness of the church are those of apparent effectiveness — success, superficial attractiveness, individual taste, and personal whim. Has whatever innovation men wish to introduce the likelihood of appealing to the people? Will it work? Does it seem promising in terms of church growth? Is it probable that the measure will involve members in the life of the congregation? These are the questions asked. And from here and there and everywhere new programmes are adopted, new methods employed, new ideas brought forward, devices happily laid hold upon, without an inquiry into the biblical warrant for all these things.
Few church leaders ask what elements of worship are appointed in the New Testament. The question of the music appropriate to the worship of God in the light of biblical teaching is never broached. How ministers are to preach is a subject handled, not in the light of the New Testament, but within the framework of an understanding of communication which has not been subjected to the judgment of the Scriptures. Evangelical methodologies are employed without much consideration of their theological implications or the warrant of the Bible. The incredible array of devices, tricks, gimmicks, attention-getters, means of arresting people's attention and attracting them to the church, attests to the seriousness of the problem we face. As we grope our way through the morass in an effort to recover the shape of a Reformed, that is to say, New Testament, church, we shall have to recognize that the accretions of many years of careless thinking and a stupefying indifference to the Scripture principle, must be stripped away. We have to learn again, almost as if for the first time, that the whole life of the people of God is to be subjected to the Scriptures by which 'all controversies of religion are to be determined'.6
It is our own task to submit afresh to the full authority of the Word of God and to summon our generation of believers to follow us in that submission. If we look carefully at our history we shall soon discover that this is a great part of our witness as Reformed Christians. No other Christian tradition, as we have seen, has so carefully and so distinctively borne testimony to this immensely important truth. It is a glorious and priceless part of our heritage. We need to stress again the centrality of the Scriptures in every department of the church's life. What is our weapon in the warfare we have to wage? How are we to strike down corruptions in theology, worship, government, and life? How are we to come to know once more what the face of a New Testament congregation should be like? We have nothing to do here with personal preference or private inclination. We dare not be impressed with merely human traditions or any form of will worship. We are not to be guided by the criterion of success, or frightened off by the want of it, if the truth be at stake. No, we have only one resort, one refuge, one instrument in our hands, one means by which to assert the truth and pull down error. The weapon God has placed in our grasp is the sword of his own Spirit, namely, his mighty Word (Ephesians 6:17).
I do not intimate, of course, that we may be indifferent to success. One of the cavils not infrequently raised against Calvinists is that they are so insistently addicted to principle as almost to glory in stagnation and in the smallness of their numbers. It may be true that from time to time some men have justified their failure to reach out beyond the confines of the minuscule group with which they were associated by appealing to our Lord's Word about his 'little flock' (Luke 12:32), as though true faithfulness to Christ were to be measured by the paucity of tangible results following from a ministry. If only one looks long enough, one can find an amazing variety of peculiarities in almost any denominational family, and the Reformed churches are no exception to this general rule: they are not exempt from the affliction of theological or ministerial idiosyncrasy. The charge itself, however, is entirely frivolous, as a careful examination of the record will clearly show. Any Christian minister longs for success. I would venture to say that he is not much of a servant of Christ if he does not desire to see the cause of his Master flourish in the earth. We must be filled with a holy craving to see people come to Christ. We look forward to the growth of our churches, to the deepening of the spiritual lives of our people, to the extending of the influence of the gospel everywhere, but especially where its power has not been felt before. No believer can be content with the darkness. He wants that darkness to be driven away by the shining of the light.
Nor am I suggesting that with our arsenal stocked with the Word of God we can go forth to do battle against sin and overcome the fortress of men's hearts, confident that we have all we need and require nothing else. Gripping the sword of the Spirit in our hands, we must also recognize the tremendous imperative of prayer, of looking to God, of depending on him whose Word we speak and who himself ultimately wields it. Reformed Christians of all people ought to be persuaded that in themselves they can do nothing. Though we may have the soundest theology, the finest preparation, the most biblical methods, and the clearest views, all these things are useless in the end unless there be something more. Good theology, splendid preparation, biblical methods, and clear views alone are of no avail because all our efforts are ineffectual and impotent without the power of the Spirit of God. It is to the Lord that we look, and it is from him that all power comes.
At the same time, the great truth of God's sovereignty and our utter dependence on him should never be permitted to seduce us into an attitude of passivity or to tempt us to adopt the notion that because our efforts by themselves are unavailing we need not make them. Why do we preach? We preach because God has commanded us to do so! All our work is undertaken, in whatever field, not because we think that we can get somewhere with it, but because of the mandate of the Lord. Whether we succeed or not, whether the people are prepared to listen to us or not, whether the kind of quickening and reform for which we long is accomplished in our lifetime: all these things make no real difference in the end. What matters is that we do what we have been ordered to do, that we stand where others refuse to stand because God has commanded it. If blessing comes, it is only because God sends it. Does it appear that others who have a less certain understanding of the truth are sometimes blessed above us? We hear much about successful congregations, about vibrant and vital evangelistic programmes which are wonderfully effective, about phenomenal church growth through means which appear to us questionable at best. The pressure is on us to make use of methods other than those which God has placed at the church's disposal, and that for what is surely among the worthiest of all goals, to win people for Christ. If we cannot comply, and others get on and go far beyond us, we may find ourselves tempted to question and to doubt, perhaps even to think that the principle is not after all so very important — the Scripture principle, the principle of all sound church growth and reformation. We must remind ourselves that we are not called upon to make assessments of that kind. The end is not yet. Whose is the church? To whom does it belong? Who has promised to build it, in his own time and in his own way? Our first obligation is to be faithful to him, and with that, to be faithful to the Word by which he has spoken once and for ever.
No doubt a caveat ought to be added here, a cautionary word addressed to us all, but perhaps especially to the younger men in the ministry, or aspiring to the ministry. The church itself is more important – inestimably more important – than we ourselves, even if we are right and others wrong. We all need occasionally to hear Cromwell's words in which he pleaded with a group of disputatious Scottish ministers, 'In the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you might be mistaken'.7If, as the Westminster Confession assures us, 'all synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred', then we have also to remember that we ourselves may be in error. 8Moreover, even if we are correct in our views, and others are mistaken, we cannot overlook the fact that all truths are not equally essential. In theological terms, for example, a mediate imputationist – though he certainly deviates from the truth – is not in anything like the same category as an anti-trinitarian. There is a vast difference between the two so far as the degree of departure from biblical teaching is concerned. Similarly, a man may be persuaded in his own mind that exclusive psalmody is the biblical position, as many have been and are persuaded, and yet be perfectly convinced that he has brothers and sisters in the Lord who are one with him in the faith of Scripture but who will consent to the use of 'human hymns.'
Sometimes we have a tendency, we who have come to the biblical principle, to insist upon it at whatever cost – even whatever personal cost – no matter what the consequences may be, as though other considerations were utterly unimportant and as though it made no difference whether or not we were unable to establish good relationships with fellow Christians and by our attitude and example to persuade people to receive the truth as it is in Christ. It is important that we be as attractive and convincing as possible. That is our duty, our solemn obligation, and also our great opportunity. One thinks here of the manner in which the Lord Jesus Christ addressed himself to inquirers, and of what the great apostle Paul was able to say – found himself constrained to say – in his sublime appeal to the Corinthian church:
Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.2 Corinthians 5:20
In this respect, too, we are compelled to acknowledge ourselves as under the duty of obedience to what the Scriptures teach. And our approach to fellow believers who may not understand and who may sometimes appear deliberately to refuse to understand – as well as to those who are still strangers to Christ – is not that of using the bludgeon, but of displaying the utmost winsomeness and love.
Occasionally we have to be very firm and even to administer stern rebukes. Even then, however, those rebukes are to be delivered in the compassion and kindness of the Lord himself. We bear with one another, and love one another, and seek to persuade one another. Faithfulness is not compromised by doing so. After all, part of the requirement of the regulative principle of Scripture is that we bring into subjection to its authority, not only our doctrine, polity, and worship, but also our attitudes and our methods — indeed, our whole life.
In our effort to determine what a Reformed church is, it becomes necessary to speak of the worship of God. I believe that a first-time visitor to the Sunday morning or Sunday evening service of any given congregation, can quite easily tell whether or not that congregation is Reformed from the Spirit and manner of its worship, if he is at all attuned to these things. My perception is that the evangelical part of Christianity is in great trouble at just this point. Conditions in the worship services of the churches are nothing short of chaotic. Many of us have come to love the Puritans and other great Reformed theological and biblical writers. From our study we know that the Puritans paid much attention to worship. A glance at the Directory for the Public Worship of God prepared by the Westminster Assembly will show a sharp contrast between the worship the Puritans thought to be scriptural and the highly liturgical worship of the Church of England it had prevailed since the English Reformation, with its borrowings from medieval catholicism. Puritan worship was plain worship. But Puritan plainness in worship did not in any sense mean indifference to the character of public praise. The reverse was in fact the case. And the truth is that the tradition of plainness in non-liturgical churches has come to sweeping degeneracy.
It is perhaps as well to pause here for the purpose of defining some terms. By 'liturgical' churches in this context I mean those churches in which there is the prescription of worship in a book of common prayer, or something of the sort, with required forms for the services of the Lord's Day, for the observance of the sacraments, and the like. Usually a lectionary of prescribed Scripture passages for the use of the church will be included as well, with the idea that the sermon is to be based on some part of the readings for the day. Much is also made in such quarters of the church year: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost. One may also speak of 'semi-liturgical churches'. Some of the Reformed churches would fall into this category. The Reformed churches which trace their roots to the Reformation in the Netherlands, for example, have prescribed forms for the Lord's Supper, baptism, public profession of faith, excommunication, etc. Ordinarily, however, in these churches there is no imposition of a lectionary; the observance of the church year is customary rather than required; prayers are not generally prescribed; and the course of the preaching in public worship is likewise left in the hands of the ministers in the local congregations.9'Non-liturgical' churches would be those churches which have no prescribed forms of worship at all. Churches with a Scottish background and churches which have stood under the influence of the Puritan tradition are of this character. Thus, in Presbyterian Churches although forms may be available in some sort of service book for the observance of the sacraments, these are only suggested; they are not prescribed. Even the questions put at baptism or on the occasion of a public profession of faith are guides rather than prescriptions. I have one such book before me now in which it is said: 'The Minister shall then address those making a profession, using the following or like form'. The general Presbyterian and Congregationalist tradition has been that of free, or non-liturgical, worship; and this same tradition has likewise passed on into the various Baptist associations and other denominations as well. In the broader sense, of course, every worshipping congregation will have a liturgy, or a liturgical stance, of some sort. Even the absence of any recognizable form or pattern is itself a strongly liturgical statement in one meaning of the word.
It is of the tradition of the non-liturgical churches that we are speaking here, at least in the first instance: that tradition which stresses the need for a biblical warrant and which has aimed at a biblical plainness in the public praise of the congregation. That tradition, I have suggested, has come to sweeping degeneracy. And in its advanced decay it has coalesced with a kind of supercilious and pharisaical disdain for the more liturgical traditions, to produce what in the end can only be said to be a parody of biblical worship. One hears a good deal at the present time about a small minority of evangelical Christians who have taken refuge in some of the older churches with a high liturgical posture, or who have organized themselves into what they hope may be facsimiles of these older and more 'catholic' ecclesiastical bodies. While it is impossible to commend them for this — particularly since the liturgical churches themselves have frequently bidden goodbye to the gospel, and where they still profess the ancient creeds, have little eye for the personal and experimental application of the truth of Christ — at the same time one can readily sympathize with them in their frustration at the wretched conditions which prevail in many quarters with respect to the character and quality of public worship.
It would be quite wrong to make incautious and ill-considered statements regarding the reasons for what has taken place in so many churches. The causes for corruption in Christian worship may be very different depending upon the circumstances. In some instances neglect of biblical worship is undoubtedly due to carelessness. In others it must be put down to ignorance. In still others the problem has its roots in an acceptance of forms of worship — or a high degree of formlessness in worship — inherited without question from this or that alien source. Nevertheless, some factors may be isolated which help us to understand what has happened and why.
- For one thing, the predominant principle in the worship of much evangelical and even Reformed Christianity at the present time is a man-centred one. People often conceive of what they do at church in terms of entering into the presence, not of the living God, but of one another. What matters, then, is the pleasing of ourselves, not of the Lord. Frequently the whole thrust of what we do together as Christians on the Lord's Day is in the direction of satisfying, soothing, appealing to, and gratifying human beings. I have no intention of being excessively severe in what I say; and I find myself easily falling into the same trap as that of others. But the fact remains. Our great desire, even as ministers, can sink to the level of making people feel comfortable, at ease, welcome; we want them to have a good time, to enjoy themselves. We greet them and address them as though they were at mid-stage. That is an easy thing to do. The temptation is so seductive because, after all, the congregation employs the minister. He is paid by them, and unless he is careful his standard is likely to be that which draws the people, not that which honours God. The truth to be remembered here, however, is that worship is addressed to God, not to the people. And while it is perfectly true that people may enjoy worship, and ought to find much satisfaction in worship, at the same time their enjoyment and satisfaction must come not from being catered for and entertained, but from offering up sacrifices of praise to the Lord and from hearing him as he speaks to them from his Word. People are not the focus of worship; and they are not there to be entertained. God is the focus of all true worship; and the people are in his presence to exalt and honour and please him.
- Furthermore, surely it is not too much to say that the spirituality of the church is often of a light and frivolous character. To judge the level of piety among professing Christians is a perilous thing, and the Scriptures caution us against a censorious spirit in these matters. Nevertheless, we must perceive and discern; and as we do so, and as we examine our own hearts, we cannot escape the conclusion that in the whole range of the expression of our faith and its exercise in the worship of God's house the most desperate superficiality is to be ascertained. There is a superficiality and meretriciousness of taste, of course; and one must speak out against that. The extraordinary degeneracy of much of the music employed in the praise of God is a prominent factor here and a striking illustration of what I mean. In a recent review of a book on worship — a volume which I found to be very useful — the reviewer found fault with the author for what he called the author's 'elitism' in his comments on music suitable for worship. 'Elitism' may be a danger in one sense perhaps. One has no right to impose on others his own, as he may think, superior tastes in music simply because he has certain preferences which his fellow believers do not share. But can we deny that the best music is none too good for God? Are we prepared to say that there are no degrees of excellence in the tunes we sing? In this country an appalling vulgarity is to be noted almost on every side in the musical part of worship, a vulgarity which has its counterpart in the utter lack of any fine sensitivity for what is appropriate and what is not. The real problem lies elsewhere, however. I have an idea that the superficiality of much evangelical Christianity in our day may be traceable to a long neglect of the Psalter as an instrument in public praise. When one lives with the Psalms, those wonderful worship poems of Scripture, with all their marvellous variegation, displaying as they do the whole range of the emotions, aspirations, and wrestlings of faith, tend to become formative for one's experience of spiritual reality. On the other hand, when one turns from the Psalms to merely human expressions of religious sentiment, one immediately runs the danger of descending to another level of religious feeling, a level not nearly so much shaped by the Word of God itself. I recognize that the problem is much more complex than this, but I believe that we have here an important component in its solution.
- Again, another reason for the situation which prevails in worship is that we think far too much of ourselves and far too little of God. We are not like the seraphs who cry: 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts!' We cry instead: 'Important, important, important is man his creature!' We think far too much about ourselves. We place ourselves at the heart of things. A glimpse at many a church building will show how much this is the case. Especially in the United States the great stress in ecclesiastical arrangements is on comfort, not to say opulence — often of an abysmally tasteless sort. I remember visiting a sumptuously appointed church building some time ago — it was really a chapel connected with a charitable institution, hence not built by some wealthy congregation — which immediately reminded me of the obtrusive opulence of undertaking establishments of a certain class in some of our great metropolitan areas. Pew cushions, air-conditioning, expertly installed and exceedingly expensive lighting, a deafeningly efficient amplification system, deep pile carpeting, and anything else under the sun that may add to the comfort of worshippers will be introduced into church buildings throughout the land. Now, I have no objections to a fine church building, if it is theologically sound, tasteful, and appropriate. We have biblical precedent for the erection of a fine edifice for the worship of God. But a church building is not an auditorium for the commodious accommodation of those who have come to view some theatrical performance or to listen to a musical concert. It is merely a place where God's people meet, and it is to be suitable to that end. We, however, have made it something more. I have already suggested that the character of the worship itself is also indicative of the same sad reality: namely, that man, not God, is king in the church.
- It can be said as well, I think, that the prevailing disorder in the public worship of God is due to our neglect of the sacred Scriptures. Evangelical Christians make much of the inspiration and authority of the Bible; and they do so justly. After all, fundamental to the meaning of evangelical Christianity is our view of Scripture as God's own Word. We have already had occasion to point out, however, that the authority of the Bible is much more comprehensive than many Christians are prepared to concede. Earlier I tried to show that the regulative character of the Scriptures has a broader application than to matters of doctrine only. As the Reformers and Puritans did not tire of reminding their contemporaries, we have no business offering strange fire in the worship of God or employing the altar of Damascus in the precincts of God's house, when he himself has already told us in no uncertain terms how it is that he should be praised (cf. Leviticus 10:1; 2 Kings 16.10ff.). Of what consequence, then, is the exaltation of the authority of the Bible if that book remains unconsulted in an area where to consult it is so important for the life and health of the people of God?
- The sorry state of public worship is in a measure also to be attributed to our failure to take serious note of its essential nature. No doubt the coming together of believers means many things; and among them the horizontal dimension of the fellowship of believers is of considerable significance. We need to think of each other and to be concerned for one another; it is our duty and our privilege as Christians to care for each other and to tend to each other's necessities (Philippians 2:1ff.). One may recall that in the Apostles' Creed itself we confess 'the communion of saints.' The communion, the fellowship, of the people of God is a very precious reality. But it is not most basic and most significant in the worship of God. Nor is the effect of worship on the worshippers the point at which we must begin in our reflection on these things. Worship is the worship of God. That fact must never be minimized. We do not come to church to see Mr Smith or Mrs Jones. It is a wonderful thing if, in a complementary way, the beauty and joy of the Lord's Day may be augmented with genuine Christian fellowship. But we come to church to meet with God, to offer up our sacrifices of praise to him, and to be refreshed by him, fed by him, addressed by him. That supremely crucial fact must never be minimized or lost to view.
- We ought unquestionably to add here also that we have insufficiently understood the important place given to the public worship of God in the Scriptures. In the United States among those who profess to be evangelical Christians — with whatever degree of intelligent commitment — there is often a marked tendency to view the Christian life as pretty much a private, personal matter. Christianity, many people think, involves God in Christ and the individual 'soul'. This approach is extraordinarily apparent in the refusal to bring private faith and public conduct together in a consistent way. One sees this attitude very strongly, too, in the degree to which people here are attracted to the so-called 'electronic' churches. Not long ago I called on an elderly friend who because of an accident in which he had broken a limb was unable to attend the services of his own church. I saw him early one Sunday afternoon, on my own way home from church, and he told me that he had heard seven sermons during that morning on television! His capacity for endurance and the evident resilience of his mind surely call for some admiring exclamation! I recognize, of course, that for large numbers of hungry Christians in various parts of the world, sound, solid radio broadcasts may be an important means of spiritual nourishment. Such broadcasts are likewise often wonderfully useful in reaching the unconverted. Here, however, I am speaking of a quite different state of affairs. It is perhaps one thing for those disabled — as my friend was temporarily — to ingest the diet afforded by these electronic churches, although in these cases, too, I would think it necessary for everyone to be exceedingly careful in such matters. After all, our Lord himself commanded us to take heed what we hear (Mark 4:24). But the electronic churches are not sustained only by invalids and those caring for them. A large proportion of the people who follow the television preachers must be 'private' Christians. They are drawn by the skill of the preachers, sometimes by the sensational promises and pronouncements of these men who prey upon the craving of those always seeking some new thing, often by the marvellous display of curious and entertaining religious phenomena which such broadcasts offer. One has to be fair in these things. Excellent broadcasts are to be heard; and they are often designed to reach those who would otherwise not hear the gospel. Moreover, no blanket judgment can be given with respect to the worth of these various programmes. Some are useful and faithful to the Scriptures. Others are bad, even outrageously and perniciously bad. The point is that we need to insist on an essential truth: namely, that the biblical demands for the public worship of God are not satisfied by the private viewing of televised worship services in the comfort of one's home. As a matter of fact, however excellent the preacher — and this would be true were we to have at our disposal tape recordings of the preaching of the apostles Peter and Paul — and however faithful his exposition and application of the Scriptures, no hearing of radio, television, or tape recording can take the place of the coming together of God's people for public praise.
In his splendid exposition of Psalm 87:2, the Puritan David Clarkson adduces no less than twelve great considerations to prove that public worship is to be placed above private worship in terms of its importance. The Lord, he says, is more glorified by public worship than private; there is more of the Lord's presence in public worship; there the clearest manifestations of God are to be found; more spiritual advantage is to be derived from it; and, he insists, it is more edifying. 10
I think there can be no question but that he is correct: as correct now as when he wrote in the seventeenth century, long before radio, television, and the tape recorder. When the Psalmist longs for God, what form does that longing take? He longs for God as the Lord manifests his presence and grace in the midst of his people.
How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.Psalms 84:1, 2; see also Psalms 42:1-5; Hebrews 10:25
In defining a Reformed church it is of the greatest importance to inquire into the nature of biblical worship. Later on we shall have to indicate what the principles are on which our worship rests. For the moment, however, we are more interested in a general description of worship. We may state at once that all our reflection on worship must take place under the guidance of two enormously important considerations: first, that our worship is of God, the majestic and holy One who has displayed his grace to us in Jesus Christ; second, that the God whom we worship has carefully instructed us as to the manner in which we are to approach him.
Exceedingly helpful in this connection is a careful examination of the creeds of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We have already seen that the Reformed confessions speak with one voice on the nature of biblical worship. The Westminster Confession may be permitted to speak for them all:
The light of nature sheweth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and doeth 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.11
The primary matter to be noted is that the Reformed confessional statements give clear expression to the principle of the regulative authority of the Scriptures.
At once a problem crops up. What does this unanimous confession mean in terms of the actual practice of worship? Not all the Reformed churches have taken the same ground in putting the regulative principle into effect. Until comparatively recent times the Scottish church, for example, has commonly sung Psalms only in the worship of God, without instrumental accompaniment. In English non-conformity for a long time (even as late as C. H. Spurgeon, d. 1892) the practice was likewise to use no instrumental accompaniment in congregational praise. But in England hymns came to be sung quite early (in the eighteenth century). The Dutch church sang Psalms almost, but not entirely, exclusively; certain other praise passages of Scripture were early set to music in metrical form as well. The principle of exclusive psalmody was not followed in the strict sense, therefore, even though the orthodox part of the church confined itself almost entirely to the Psalter well into the twentieth century. In fact, many of the churches in the Netherlands still restrict themselves to the Psalms in public worship, save for the addition of a few other biblical songs, and have not introduced hymns. Some difference of opinion exists, therefore, as to the manner in which the principle of the regulative authority of Scripture is to function. Along with that it has to be admitted that when the principle is set aside or qualified even in a small measure, the door is obviously opened to developments of all kinds — many of them even on the surface not very happy.
How is one to make determinations with regard to this sort of thing? In this context the question also rises inevitably: What is biblical worship? Various factors of non-biblical or extra-biblical sort enter in and confuse the situation: for example, ecclesiastical or national traditions, divergent tastes, aesthetic considerations, and the like. Indeed, that which very often determines the form of public worship and the inclusion or exclusion of its various constituent parts is the inclination of the minister, eldership, or congregation.
An illustration of the influence of tradition in this sense is to be found in the fact that some Reformed churches occupy what is often called a 'liturgical' or 'semi-liturgical' position, while others have no prescribed liturgy at all. The church of my youth and early ministry is a 'semi-liturgical' church; the church of which I am now part has a 'non-liturgical' heritage, stemming from the Westminster Assembly's influence. It is true, of course, that there will be 'liturgy' in both liturgical and non-liturgical churches. In churches without any kind of liturgical standard, too often each minister becomes the framer of his own liturgy — sometimes with disastrous results. We should remind ourselves, I think, that the early Puritans — of the school of Thomas Cartwright — objected, not to the employment of certain prescribed prayers or the use of a liturgy per se (how could they, standing as close to John Calvin as they did?), but to the rigid imposition of a liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, which in their view contained elements carried over from Roman Catholicism and which dampened the liberty of the minister and the congregation.12It is hard to see how a formless, shapeless worship service, ungoverned by the teaching of Scripture as the church has come to understand it — a service, moreover, utterly dependent on the freedom of the moment and the gifts, tastes, and inclinations of an individual minister — can be said to exhibit any high degree of consistency with the Bible.
As we reflect on the nature of public worship and its practice in the church, several general observations may be made.
- We should remember at once that the Bible is our sole divine authority, our only perfect and infallible rule for faith and life. We must make that assertion at the very outset, in the train of the early church and of the church of the Reformation. The Scriptures are unmistakably clear in what they claim for themselves at this point. One thinks of such passages as 2 Kings 16:1-16; Leviticus 10:1, 2; 2 Chronicles 26:16ff.; Matthew 28:20; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17; Colossians 2:23. We begin here. Our whole heritage as Protestant and Reformed Christians is directed against 'will worship,' or 'self-invented worship'.13Though we acknowledge that in this age of the majority of the church — as opposed to its minority in the Old Testament period — some things of no small importance may be left to the discretion of God's people, we insist with the Scriptures that all we do in the worship of the holy Lord is directed, either specifically or in general principles, by his Word.14
- We must also bear in mind the fact that we do not read the Scriptures in a vacuum, that we are subject to all manner of influences in our interpretation of the teaching of the prophets and apostles. We understand the Scriptures, not only by going to the Hebrew and the Greek and by employing all the linguistic aids at our disposal, but also with the help of history and theology. That is a great benefit to us, but it is also, in one sense at least, a considerable danger. We may be inclined to find in the Scriptures what we wish to find there, rather than what is really present. I am, of course, not seeking to make relative the teaching of the Bible, but only to sound a cautionary note regarding our interpretation of it. We all ought to know how insensitive to the worship demands of Scripture they are who make no use of the Psalms in public praise. There is simply no justification for the widespread failure to sing the Psalms of Scripture. But we have also respectfully to recognize that those who hold to exclusive psalmody are faced with certain problems of an exegetical and historical character in seeking to maintain their position. For the most part those who sing hymns only in the worship of God do not trouble themselves to inquire into the whole matter of a justification for this practice and with that a justification for their neglect of the Psalms. On the other side, it may also be true that some may simply make the assumption that divine warrant exists for the singing of Psalms only, without looking into the question further. For my part, I certainly have no quarrel with those who believe that the Psalms alone should be sung in the church. If put to the choice, I would much prefer to stand with them than with the liturgical antinomians of the fundamentalist and broadly evangelical churches of recent times. I do point to the arguments for and against the position, however, and suggest that our thinking with respect to these things is not infrequently formed by the traditions in which we wish to stand. Great care should be taken to grasp the teaching of Scripture and, insofar as we are able to do so, to understand the traditions in terms of what God has said — not what we may wish he had said.
But where do we go from here? What help do we have if we cannot go to the Bible for the precise instructions regarding some particular aspect of worship we would like to have but cannot find? Are we on that account to compromise or to set aside the principle of its regulative authority?
- We have to say then, too, that the Bible is God's Word to the whole church in every time and place. We cannot expect that all Christians should be required to worship in precisely the same manner as the Scots do, or the French, or the English, or the Americans, or the Chinese, or the Nigerians. Is the music of the Middle Ages, or the sixteenth century, or the seventeenth, or the nineteenth, alone suited to the worship of God? What then about the church of the first or second centuries? Is English music alone suitable for praise? Or French? Or German? Is the music of the white church more appropriate for the adoration of the name of Christ than that of the black church? Must Anglican or Presbyterian taste in music be imposed upon the rest of the Christian community? For that matter, what is Anglican taste? Or Presbyterian? What is Calvinistic music? The last question is more difficult to answer because of the fact that Reformed Christians above all others insist that all the good in the world belongs to God and has its place in the life of his people (Psalms 24:1). My own inclination is to say that our worship should take with great seriousness Calvin's liturgical work. It was his design, after all, to be biblical, and I believe that he largely succeeded in that. From a musicological point of view, too, perhaps no higher pinnacle has been attained, with respect to congregational song, than the Genevan Psalter.15But to insist that others concur in that judgment, I realize very well, would be to run the risk of elevating my own inclination — and perhaps then also my own background and tradition — to the level of the Scriptures. And that I have no right to do.
It is not historical or theological relativism but only faithfulness to the Bible itself which leads us to say that the Scriptures are God's Word to the whole, the universal, church.
- We must always remember, furthermore, that the history of Christian worship is of great value and importance. C. H. Spurgeon once said, in defence of the use of commentaries: 'It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others'. 16The very same thing is certainly true with respect to worship. I suppose that many of those who read this magazine would agree that the Westminster Divines' Directory for the Public Worship of God can be used with much profit still. Indeed, that Directory epitomizes the principal source of the influence that has moulded the liturgical tradition in which most of us stand, whether Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist, or whatever. To some degree the worship of evangelical churches in the English-speaking world continues to live under the power and direction of English Puritanism. In fact, Scottish worship — which stems from an origin closely akin to that of the Calvinists of England — was itself quite markedly influenced by the developments which produced the Westminster Standards. But we should not hesitate to say that other, perhaps equally healthy and biblical, liturgical traditions within the Christian church may be listened to and learned from with much benefit. Why should we enthusiastically endorse Calvin's theology, while at the same time ignoring his views on worship? Why should we admire John Knox as the Reformer of Scotland, but pay no attention whatever to the pattern he set for public praise.17By the same token, why may we not listen with eager ears to what may have taken place in the worship services of the post-apostolic church, as far as that is accessible to us? Have we nothing to learn from Irenaeus, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Augustine? The history of Christian worship is, of course, to be subjected to the searchlight of the alone unerring Word of God; and we may not simply borrow from that history without discrimination. But that is not to say we cannot be helped by it or receive instruction from it.
- It should be understood as well that worship is the meeting of God with his people. Herman N. Ridderbos, after a careful study of Paul's Epistles, had this to say on the subject:
For Paul the meeting of the church ... has a specific and highly important significance. In it the revelation of the church takes place in what distinguishes it from the world; in the common participation in the one bread it is disclosed as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17). Especially in its coming together the church is to be conscious of its priestly and prophetic task in behalf of and, in a certain sense, as substitute for the world: in its intercession for all men (1 Timothy 2:1ff., 8), in being the demonstration for unbelievers and observers that God is with it (1 Corinthians 14:24, 25). For this reason adoration, prophecy, confession, the preaching of God's Word are also to take place. This does not create a new distance between life in the cultus and that of every day, for that is also and precisely to be cultus. But in these meetings the peculiar character of the church in the world is disclosed in an exemplary way, just as the indwelling of Christ in his church becomes manifest through the proclamation of the gospel, the observance of the Lord's Supper, the promise given, and the benediction pronounced in his name (cf., e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:20; Colossians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 13:14, et al.). 18
John Calvin makes some exceedingly useful comments on this point throughout his writings. He says, for example, on Isaiah 60:3, 'The Lord is said to "come," when he gives any token of his presence. He approaches by the preaching of the Word, and he approaches also by various benefits which he bestows on us, and by the tokens which he employs for manifesting his fatherly kindness towards us.' In a comment on Isaiah 55:6, Calvin declares:
The word 'call' may here be taken in a general sense; but I think that it denotes one description of 'seeking' God, which is of more importance than all the others, as if he commanded us to betake ourselves to him by prayers and supplications. He says that he is 'near', when he opens the door and gently invites us to come to him, or when he comes forth publicly, so that we do not need to seek him through long windings. But we must attend to Paul's definition, who tells us that it denotes the preaching of the gospel (Romans 10:8). 'The Lord is nigh' (Philippians 4:5), and exhibits himself to us, when the voice of the gospel cries aloud; and we do not need to seek far, or to make long circuits, as unbelievers do; for he exhibits himself to us in his word, that we, on our part, may draw near to him.19
This great truth about worship is one which must never be forgotten. If it is borne in mind as it should be, it cannot fail to exercise a purifying and ennobling influence on all we do together as the people of God.
- Further, we can never overlook the place of the people in the worship of God. In the Middle Ages, as we know very well, the people were relatively insignificant as far as what took place in church buildings was concerned. It was the event of the altar, the sacrifice of the mass, which loomed largest in terms of importance. And that sacrifice was offered whether a congregation was present or not. It is difficult to conceive of anything more remote from New Testament teaching on the subject of worship. I quote Professor Ridderbos again:
The New Testament knows no holy persons who substitutionally perform the service of God for the whole people of God, nor holy places and seasons or holy acts, which create a distance between the cultus and the life of every day and every place. All members of the church have access to God (Romans 5:2) and a share in the Holy Spirit; all of life is service to God; there is no 'profane' area. 20
Reformed Christians especially should be aware of this profound truth because it is so fundamental a part of what we believe to be the teaching of the Scriptures. How we are to put it into effect in the life of the church is another matter, perhaps, but we need to continue to work very hard at its application. The Reformation brought worship back to the people in various ways: for example, through the re-introduction of congregational song, through the use of the creed and the Lord's Prayer, through the congregational 'Amen' at the close of public prayers, through the sacraments, and — it is all-important to stress this — through the restoration to the church of true preaching. The place of the people in worship does not mean at the same time that every man is equally authorized to lead in public worship, or even every elder. That sort of notion is very much abroad at the present time, and it needs to be rebuked. But neither is it right to deny the people their place: to render them mere spectators in the worship of the living God.
- We can never emphasize too much that worship should be a coherent whole. Indispensable as it is to Christian worship, the sermon is not the only thing that matters. That this is said may present a problem to some among us. The didactic and the intellectual may be so much thrust to the forefront that every other element in public praise comes to be described in a somewhat disparaging way. One hears all that precedes the sermon spoken of as the 'preliminaries'. If this attitude prevails, the view people have of worship will inevitably be radically deficient. The proclamation of the Word of God is an utterly necessary part of worship. We need to insist upon that at the present time and to fight against any compromise of the integrity of gospel preaching. But the appearing before God of his people in holy love, awe-struck reverence, and godly fear, through prayer, song, confession, the reading of Scripture, and the administration of the sacraments is also of the very essence of what the New Testament teaches to be the worship of the Lord.
It is true, of course, that we find much less formal order to be apparent in what we are told of worship in the New Testament than is the case in the Old Testament. That is to be expected, given the transition from minority to majority: the New Testament church is, in a sense, the church come of age, because of the fulfilment of God's redemptive plan in the work of Christ. Nevertheless, order and coherence are much in evidence in the New Testament as well. The apostle Paul, for example, seeks to impose order on the disorderly worship of the congregation at Corinth. 'For,' he says, 'God is not the author of confusion, but of peace' (1 Corinthians 14:33). And we are to understand from what we are taught throughout Scripture that God is not to be approached casually, in a slipshod manner, without proper attention to preparation, form and order. The praise we offer to the Lord of all must be as worthy as possible of the One to whom it is addressed.
I am sure it is not inaccurate to say that coherence and unity are hardly characteristic of much worship at the present time. A typical service on the Lord's Day in many churches is simply a stringing together of more or less disparate elements — singings, readings, 'special music,' prayers, announcements, offerings, and the like — without any thoughtful attention being given to the whole. What goes by the name of worship in countless places has more of the character of entertainment — even a variety show — than of a holy service of praise to the living God. One of the features of modern church life that does not cease to puzzle and irritate me is the manner in which, by their dress, people exhibit their attitude toward making an approach to God. I have no intention of suggesting that dress codes should be imposed on Christian congregations. I believe very strongly, however, that the obtrusive informality of the clothing people wear when they go to church, especially on Sunday evening, is a clear (though perhaps not deliberately intended) expression of careless thinking with respect to what takes place when God's people come together to adore him. We are to come to him as we are, sinful, guilty, convicted, and needy; but we are to come carefully, having prepared ourselves and, in the case of those charged with these things, having prepared the sacrifice of our praise which we bring.
- Finally, we should remind ourselves continually that forms of worship tend to become moribund and lifeless. The history of worship shows that what was living and powerful in the experience of one generation can become dead and ineffectual in that of another. Careful, painstakingly prepared praise to God, if it lacks the animating, vivifying power of the Holy Spirit, is odious in the sight of God.21It is always necessary to pray:
Come, O Creator Spirit blest,
And in our hearts take up thy rest;
Spirit of grace, with heav'nly aid
Come to the souls whom thou hast made.
Thou art the Comforter, we cry,
Sent to the earth from God most High,
Fountain of life and Fire of love,
And our Anointing from above.
Bringing from heav'n our sev'n-fold dow'r,
Sign of our God's right hand of pow'r,
O blessed Spirit, promised long,
Thy coming wakes the heart to song.
Make our dull minds with rapture glow,
Let human hearts with love o'erflow;
And, when our feeble flesh would fail,
May thine immortal strength prevail.
Far from our souls the foe repel,
Grant us in peace henceforth to dwell;
Ill shall not come, nor harm betide,
If only thou wilt be our Guide.
Show us the Father, Holy One,
Help us to know th' Eternal Son;
Spirit Divine, for evermore
Thee will we trust, and thee adore.22
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