Modalism and Modern Worship (Horton)

 One of the many blessings of a liturgy shaped by biblical truths and phrases is that it gets in you.  If a liturgy is full of biblical truth, it teaches the truth.  Both kids and adults learn good theology from a good liturgy.  On the other hand, if a liturgy doesn’t closely follow Scripture or biblical truths, the opposite happens: people absorb not-so-good theology or even unbiblical theology that is very man-centered.  And, of course, every church has a liturgy!  The only question is: how biblical is it?  Michael Horton explains one aspect of liturgy in the following section of his 2017 publication, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit.

It is in the public service – the weekly gathering of the communion of saints – where this [Trinitarian] faith is won or lost.  Whatever is received, done, or said there shapes our personal relationship with the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit.  In the fourth century Basil of Caesarea revised the liturgy then in widespread use to more intentionally inculcate a full Trinitarianism, calling pastors ‘to keep the Spirit undivided from the Father and the Son, preserving, both in confession of faith and in the doxology, the doctrine taught them at their baptism.’  One example was Basil’s introduction of what we know as the Gloria Patri: ‘Glory be to the Father, and do the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,’ which stirred no small controversy among those who denied the appropriateness of worshiping the Spirit.  It is not only a creedal rule that the Holy Spirit is to be ‘worshiped and glorified’ together with the Father and the Son; these liturgies lead us to invoke the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit.

However, in many churches today prayers and songs have been stripped of Trinitarian references that had in earlier generations been woven into the warp and woof of worship.  Not surprisingly, the result is often extemporaneous prayers that reflect our default setting of modalism.  Even in doctrinally orthodox circles, one hears prayers that are confusing, as if the persons of the Trinity were interchangeable – perhaps even the same person.  At least it seems that the person being addressed shifts back and forth without any specification.  Sometimes the Father is thanked for coming into the world to save us, for dying for our sins, for indwelling us, or as the one who will return again.  Very frequently, prayers conclude with ‘in your name, amen.’  In whose name?  Scripture teaches us to pray to the Father in the name of Christ: it is not the Father or the Spirit but the Son who is our mediator.

Some contemporary praise choruses reflect and reinforce this confusion of the persons, with praises directed to the Father for specific acts of the Son or to the Son for specific acts that the Scripture attributes to the Spirit, and so forth.  For example. in the popular chorus, ‘You Alone,’ believers are led to pray as if they were Arians: ‘You alone are Father / and You alone are good / You alone are Savior / and You alone are God.’

[However], worship songs are intended not merely to facilitate personal expression of one’s feelings, but to sing the truth deeply into our hearts: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,’ Paul exhorts, ‘teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God’ (Col 3:16)….

Michael Horton, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit, p. 23-24.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Idols, Significance, and Security

 If you’re looking for a helpful biblical resource on idolatry, I very much recommend Richard Lints’ Identity and Idolatry.  I’ve read a few other good resources on idolatry, but in my view, this one is the best.  In this book, Lints talks about the various angles of idolatry, including image, identity, worship, purpose, significance, and security.  Speaking of significance and security, here’s an excerpt I appreciated:

At the heart of worship is a sense of ‘giving yourself away’ to another.  Key to worship then are the questions ‘To whom are you giving yourself away and in what manner are you giving yourself?’ Genuine worship is giving yourself to the living God in whom and for whom you ave been created.  Idolatry by contrast is substituting the true object of worship (God) for an imitation (idol) and reorienting the relationship from worship to possession.  One who worships the living God does not possess him for one’s own purposes.  But those who create an idol seek to possess it for their own purpose….

An idol is desired as a means to an end, and the end is significance and security on the individual’s own terms.  Since significance and security cannot be fulfilled by the idol, the idol creates a deeper longing for significance and security for that which it cannot provide.  This results in a chasing after the idol, driven by the conviction that eventually the idol will somehow provide the promised significance and security.  The cycle repeats itself.  Longing provides the opportunity to chase, and chasing creates a deeper longing.  Effectively the idol possesses the one who fashioned it.  The yearning for significance and security that initiated the dynamic of idolatry has in fact led to a deeper dissatisfaction and a greater frustration – a dissatisfaction and frustration caused by the inability of the idol to fulfil that which it appeared to promise.

That’s worth reading again – and it helps us as God’s people fight against the idols in our own hearts and lives.

Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry, p. 156-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

American Revivalist Hymns (Marsden)

(This is a repost from February, 2012).

Many aspects of today’s shallow American hymnody are rooted in the 19th-century revivals.   This is a huge topic, of course, but to get a little glimpse I like how George Marsden writes about it in Fundamentalism and American Culture.

“The surge of revivalism associated with the rise of Charles Finney in the 1820s which developed in the ‘New School’ tradition certainly did not forsake intellect, but it did create new channels for emphasis on emotion throughout American evangelicalism.  Sandra Sizer in her analysis of the rise of the gospel song in nineteenth-century America has suggested that Finney’s revivals marked the beginning of the attempt to build a new Christian community united by intense feeling.  The focal point for the emphasis was the ‘social religious meeting,’ small groups gathered for prayer, Bible study, witnessing, and song.  Witnessing, or testifying to one another about how God had transformed their lives, was an important way in which these communities built themselves up and provided emotional support.”

“Finney added emphasis on such meetings to his more-or-less conventional mass-preaching services, but by the time of the remarkable businessmen’s revival of 1857-1858 the awakening itself originated in noon hour prayer meetings which were just such ‘social religious meetings.’  Every new evangelical movement of this entire area, through the rise of fundamentalism and including the holiness, pentecostal, and premillennial movements, had a base in some form of ‘social religious’ gathering.”

“The revivals of Moody and Sanky, Sizer argues persuasively, in a sense applied to the principles of the smaller group meetings on a massive scale.  The use of a song leader, which Sankey made a lasting part of evangelicalism, was a conspicuous means of building emotional ties.  The most common theme was the distress of sin, to be relieved by a passionate surrender to the incredible love of Jesus.  Hymns that told stories of prodigals reclaimed and the like made the song itself a kind of witnessing.”

“In contrast to eighteenth-century hymns like those in the influential collection of Isaac Watts, the focus of revivalist songs shifted from praise of the awful majesty of God and the magnitude of his grace revealed in Christ’s atoning work, to the emotions of those who encounter the Gospel.  Similarly, Moody’s sermons virtually abandoned all pretense of following conventional forms of explicating a text, and were closer to ‘layman’s exhortation’ filled with touching anecdotes with an emotional impact comparable to that of personal testimony.”

There is more to it, but these are some of the theological, historical, and practical reasons why confessional Reformed churches typically do not sing these songs.  In other words, we avoid these songs and worship techniques for several different reasons and not just to be “traditional” or “conservative.”  I recommend Marsden’s book Fundamentalism and American Culture if you want to dig deeper into hymnody and other aspects of American Christianity.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Simplicity of Reformed Worship

Historic Reformed churches worship the Lord in simplicity.  That is, Reformed churches do not include ceremonies, festivals, crucifixes, processions, incense, relics, images, vestments, altars, and so forth in their worship services.  Reformed worship simply consists of the Word (read, preached, sung, confessed, prayed) and the sacraments (the Lord’s supper and baptism).

The main reason for the simplicity of Reformed worship is the teaching of Scripture.  The Bible doesn’t command God’s New Covenant people to worship him with all the images and vestments and ceremonies.  The Reformers believed that the external ceremonies and images didn’t elevate the mind to God, but domesticated God and therefore were idolatrous.  Furthermore, they said that all these non-biblical extras in worship throw a fog over the gospel.  Simple worship, therefore, means the gospel will not be obscured.  In 1560 the Reformer Guillaume Farel explained it like this:

The Church should be decorated and adorned with Jesus Christ and the Word of his gospel and his holy sacraments.  This great Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ, and the light of his gospel, have nothing to do with our burning torches and our candles and candelabras.  God has instead ordained that by true preaching and by the holy sacraments practiced in their simplicity this light might be manifested and illumine us with all glory.

Similarly, Theodore Beza preached the following in 1585:

[God’s house is not a place] that we enter to see the beautiful shapes of vaults and pillars, or to admire the splendor of gold and silver and precious stones.  Nor is it a place that we visit in order to fill our ears with the signing of choirs and the music of organs.  Rather it is a place where the pure Word of God is clearly preached in the presence of each person, with words of exhortation, consolation, warning, and censure necessary for salvation.

In other words, the Reformers wanted worship to be ordered according to the Word and centered on the gospel.  They wanted to keep it simple so God’s word and his gospel would clearly be front and center.  In that way, he alone would receive all the glory, honor, and praise.  ‘Soli Dei Gloria’ goes hand in hand with Reformed worship!

The above discussion and quotes are found on pages 31-37 of Scott Manetsch’s book, Calvin’s Company of Pastors.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Can We Worship God However We Want? (Ames)

A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism (Classic Reformed Theology) Why are the worship services of Reformed churches different from the worship services of most evangelical churches?  Why won’t you find props, balloons, skits, films, lights, projectors,* and rock/pop music at confessional Reformed churches? And why aren’t worship services in Reformed churches a Sunday morning free-for-all where we can just wing it?

It’s not simply because Reformed Christians don’t like film, rock/pop music, or skits.  Instead, it’s because Reformed churches do their best to have God’s Word regulate everything they do in worship.  From the opening prayer to the closing Scripture reading, confessional Reformed worship services are ordered according to clear biblical principles.  This is called the Regulative Principle of Worship and you can find it explained in various places in the Reformed confessions (HC Q/A 96, WLC Q/A 108-9, etc).  The RPW is essentially based on the second commandment and other places in Scripture where it’s clear that God does not accept worship that is contrary to his command (see the stories in Leviticus 10 and Numbers 16 for two examples).  Reformed churches have worship that is reformed according to the Word.

William Ames (d. 1633) defines it this way: “God must be worshiped only for the reason and by the means by which he has personally prescribed that he is to be worshiped in his Word.”

He also wrote the following concerning worship and the second commandment:

“It is taught…that under the names of images, every will-worship introduced by people is condemned, so that no one may approve anything other than what God personally has prescribed.  Also it appears to hint at this doctrine in the phrase, ‘You shall not make for yourself’ – that is, by your own decision (arbitrio) – and you will introduce no worship by your own pleasure.”

Here are the reasons he gives for this Reformed position on worship:

1) God alone knows what is pleasing and suitable to his nature.

2) The blessing and fruit of all our worship that we owe to God depends on God himself.  It is also not for us to prescribe to God the means by which it might be performed and he might be blessed by us.

3) The worship that has not been prescribed does not have in itself the rationale of obedience.  Moreover, God wishes what pertains to his honor, so that by obeying we may worship him and by worshiping him we may obey him.

4) Such is the vanity and futility of the human imaginations in divine things, that if it were left to us to choose for ourselves the means of divine worship, that our entire worship would be converted into ridiculous and inane observances, just as experience teaches that the devil has in this way led humans to inane superstitions throughout almost the whole world.”

I appreciate Ames’ commentary on the second commandment as it applies to worship.  Obviously more can be said, but these are some good thoughts about worship that truly pleases God.  God-pleasing worship isn’t defined by our feelings, emotions, likes, or dislikes, but by God’s own word!

The above quotes are found on pages 161-162 of A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism by William Ames.

*(By “projectors” I mean projectors for showing movie clips.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Worship: What If The Problem Is Me?

Many churches bend over backwards to make their services an exciting and entertaining event.  I don’t have to make a list of worship innovations – most readers are familiar with them.  Basically, in order to fight boredom and to be on the cutting edge of worship experience, churches go all out in thier services.

But as Michael Horton notes well, being bored in worship isn’t the end of the world.  It’s not necessarily a horrible evil.  Horton says,

It is okay to be bored sometimes: ‘no pain, no gain.’  …If we don’t do anything that sometimes bores us, we will miss out on some of the most important things in life!  …Although we like to be entertained, we know that our parents, siblings, or children will render us disillusioned if we thought for one moment that they existed to keep us occupied.  And yet, few of us would suggest that the family institution needs to be radically altered in order to make it more interesting….

“Too often we are impatient with progress and we have come to expect worship to be exciting, so if it isn’t, we are disappointed.  The fault must lie with the service and not with us.  Perhaps we need a new sound system, a new choir, a new pastor.  Radical moves may be necessary, because I’m losing my interest.  But what if the problem is with me?  And what if, by virtue of our continuing struggle with sin and the fact that we do not yet behold God face-to-face, excitement in worship is the excitement rather than the rule?  Many of the most exciting things in life are the ephemeral, bubbles that delight only to disappear when captured, while many of the most enduring and ennobling ventures are driven along by quite ordinary habits – commitments – of mind and body.”

“The most valuable things in life must be won by active struggling, not by passive stimulation.  Whether due to the weaknesses of our finitude or our own sinful hearts (‘prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love’), our boredom must be acknowledged as a real struggle and yet as a doomed foe because we will not surrender the gold for the glitter.”

Michael Horton, A Better Way, 234.

Shane Lems

The Hermit Crab Church (Wells)

Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (This is a re-post from July 2012)

In Losing Our Virtue, David Wells explains how many aspects of modernity and postmodernity have crept into the church to the point where any talk about sin is avoided and talk about self is central.  From watered down emotional praise songs to therapeutic sermons to the loss of reverence and awe in worship, Wells calls out the sins of the modern church.  This book is a sort of trumpet call for churches to repent of their worldliness and reform according to the word (rather than culture).  I appreciated these paragraphs near the end of the book.

“The wisdom common to many of our marketers is that, if it wants to attract customers, the Church should stick to a positive and uplifting message.  It should avoid speaking of negative matters like sin.  Not only so, but what has distinguished the Church in its appearance and functions should now be abandoned.  In order to be attractive to people today, church buildings should not look different from corporate headquarters, malls, or country clubs.  Crosses and robes should go; dress should be casual; hymns should be contemporary and empty of the theological substance by which previous generations lived, because this is incomprehensible today; pews should be replaced by cinema-grade seats, organs by synthesizers and drums, solemnity by levity, reflection by humor, and sermons by light dialogues and catchy readings.  The theory is that people will buy Christianity if they don’t have to deal with what the Church has traditionally been.”

“The best construction that can be put on this is that these market-driven churches have become like hermit crabs, which walk around concealed within a shell.  Hidden beneath the outer shell – the corporate style that disguises the churchly business that is supposed to be going on , the mall-like atmosphere in which faith is bought and sold like any other commodity, the relaxed, country club atmosphere – is the little animal who supposedly is really evangelical.  As it moves from rock pool to rock pool, all we can see are the little legs – the most minimal doctrinal substance – that protrude from under the shell.  Is this substance enough to sustain people amidst life’s fiery trials?  Is it enough to preserve biblical identity in these churches in the decades ahead?  I think not.”

Well said.  As you may have guessed, I highly recommend this book.  If your church is a hermit crab church, or if you’ve left one, or if you want to be sure your church doesn’t become a hermit crab church, get this book today (and give one to your pastor!).  Be prepared to be challenged, prodded, encouraged, and motivated to get back to Scripture and the historic Christian faith.

David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 201.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI