Reformed Worship

Dear Church Family,

This coming Sunday, we will resume our normal Sunday School classes for all ages at 9:30 am. In the adult Sunday School class, we will be examining what it means to support the work and worship of the church. Specifically, we will be examining what makes the worship of a Reformed church distinct – as she seeks to order her worship according God’s Word.

Along the lines of this topic – what makes the worship of Reformed churches distinct – I commend to you a short article by W. Robert Godfrey published earlier this year called “Worship: Evangelical or Reformed.” Dr. Godfrey is the president of Westminster Theological Seminary in California and a minister in the United Reformed Churches (URC). The article may be found online here: http://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=193.

In his article, Godfrey makes two points:

1. God doesn’t just observe, but speaks in public worship.

Often, a well-meaning description is applied to God’s involvement in the corporate worship of the church: “In worship, there is an audience of one: God.” While this does help to remind us of the dangers of an overemphasis on the vertical aspects of worship (between God’s people) to the detriment of the horizontal aspects of worship (between God and His people), there is a danger in thinking of God as the audience of our worship.

Those who sit in an audience are typically passive observers. All is done on stage with or without the audience. The audience may weep, the audience may cheer, but the audience has very little to say about the performance. In contrast, God is not merely the audience of our worship. God is the director and recipient of our worship! When the calls to worship are given, Scriptures are read, assurances of pardon pronounced, sermons preached, sacraments administered, and benedictions pronounced – God is speaking to His people! He is very much engaged in our corporate worship.

2. God speaks to His people through the ordained minister in public worship.

Connected to this idea of God’s personal directing and leading in worship, is the principle that God does so through ordained ministers of the gospel, called by God through the congregation. In the Old Testament, God directed and lead His people in worship through priests, kings, and prophets. In the New Testament, God directed and lead His people in worship through the Apostles, pastors, elders, and teachers. Today, God continues to direct and lead His people in worship through pastors and elders – men who have been trained, examined, set apart, and ordained for these tasks. These men sometimes even speak on behalf of the congregation to God, as in the pastoral prayer.

This basic principle is described in the “Introduction” of the New Trinity Hymnal which we use in our congregation. The Introduction gives instructions for worship to the three main roles in worship: the pastor, the accompanist, and the congregation. Here is just the first paragraph from the section entitled “To the Pastor” from the Introduction to the New Trinity Hymnal:

“God has called you to be a worship leader. You are a preacher, administrator, educator and counselor. But all of those tasks merge into one when you stand before your flock to lead them into God’s presence. Worship is the highest calling, and guiding a congregation through worship is one of your greatest privileges. What happens in corporate worship is a foretaste of and preparation for eternity as we join with all the saints surrounding the Lamb’s throne to sing his glory!”

3. God regulates how He is to be worshipped in the Scriptures.

In his article, Godfrey limits his description of what makes worship in Reformed churches distinct from the worship of evangelical churches to the two previous points. Of course, there may be many others that we could add, but one foundational one that deserves mention is the regulative principle of worship (RPW). The RPW is summarized in our confession: “…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” (WCF 21:1).

The RPW states that the acceptable way of worshipping God is limited by His own will as prescribed in the Holy Scripture. It stand in stark contrast to the “normative principle of worship” which states that God may be worshipped in any way not proscribed (or forbidden) in the Holy Scripture (all is allowed unless it is expressly forbidden). The Reformed doctrine of worship (the RPW) finds its roots in God’s command concerning not only who may be worshipped (the first commandment, Exodus 20:3), but also His command concerning how He may be worshipped (the second commandment, Exodus 20:4-6).

More could be added with regard to the biblical basis for the RPW, but the maintenance of this RPW is important for several reasons. First, we are seeking to be obedient to our Creator and Redeemer as we seek to worship Him as He has commanded us in His Word. Second, we are guarded against following the imaginations and devices of men which inevitably lead us to idolatry. Third, we are freed from having our consciences bound to the whims and opinions of those who lead us in worship.

Conclusion

These are just some of the major elements which make the worship of Reformed churches distinct from that of many evangelical churches; however, these distinctions ought not to be thought of as merely distinctions of preference or of history. Rather, these distinctions are biblical – rooted in God’s word. It is ironic that many evangelical churches often look to the Scriptures for how to vote or how to reflect or influence the culture around them (something which God’s Word does not do) and yet do not look to the Scriptures for how to worship Him (something which God’s Word does do).

Though there are major distinctions between the worship of Reformed and evangelical churches, let us not become arrogant or critical. Let us first seek to worship Him sincerely (from a heart of thankfulness) and obediently (according to His Word). Then as we interact and converse with our brothers and sisters in Christ from other churches, let us explain why we worship the way we do. And, let us do so with humility and gratitude to our Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the One who calls us to ascribe glory to His name and to worship Him in holy array! (Psalm 29:2)

I look forward to worshipping with you again this coming Lord’s Day – the first of the New Year!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

A Glorious Kingdom

Dear Church Family,

There are some words and concepts that are distinct to the Christian faith. Words and concepts that are important and even essential to the proper understanding of what we believe at followers of Christ. Words like justification, propitiation, gospel, covenant, kingdom, etc. Unfortunately, though there may actually be a distinct and proper definition of such words and concepts, quite often the Biblical definition is lost over time. This usually happens in one of two very different ways: neglect or over-use.

In less deliberate, more liberal theological circles, words and concepts (proper theology) are often confused through neglect. In more deliberate, more conservative theological circles, words and concepts (proper theology) are often confused through over-use. Both dangers must be guarded against.

Take for instance, the use of the word ‘covenant.’ PCA pastor and author, Richard Phillips writes:

“There is a fine line between the use and the overuse of a word. The same is true with public figures. When someone is getting exposure, we are excited for them. But when they are over-exposed we are embarrassed for them. In my view, the word covenant has crossed that line in Christian circles. As such, one often hears it applied in dubious ways. We have gone from covenant people and covenant children to covenant schools and covenant businesses. I recently was given a bag of covenant coffee beans, which, by the way, I received as an effectual means of grace. Today, if you want to express a zeal to be distinctively Christian, and especially if you are Reformed-leaning, you are very likely to apply the word covenant to your activity or group or product. In the process, the word has begun to lose definition and take on little more than a vague nimbus.”

Obviously, Phillips is being sarcastic when he says that he received a bag of covenant coffee beans as an effectual means of grace. But, his sarcasm is not unfounded. Many are confused by the misuse and over-application of the term covenant.

‘Kingdom’ Confusion

However, I want to use Phillips’ observation concerning the dubious use of the word ‘covenant’ as a stepping off point to consider the often dubious use of the word ‘kingdom’ in Christian circles. We have gone from ‘the kingdom of God/Heaven’ and ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ to ‘kingdom values’ and ‘a kingdom work-ethic.’ I once heard a religious leader speaking at a YMCA event rip Jesus’ words from Luke 10:9 out of context and declare that the “kingdom of God is in the heart of all people.” Christians rightfully pray for God’s kingdom and the work of God’s kingdom. After all, in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” But what do we really mean?

I suspect that many of us have a very nebulous understanding of kingdom. Personally, I tend to think that this is an historically recent confusion. Centuries ago, if you were to ask someone living under the rule of king what was meant by the term ‘kingdom,’ they would have simply responded, “It’s the realm where our king rules.” And by that, they would have meant a real group of people (subjects of the king) and a real parcel of land (owned by the king).

Of course, to confuse an earthly kingdom with the kingdom of God would be wrong. Jesus made this clear when He declared to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36).

But if the kingdom of God is not to be equated with any military power or political kingdom of this world, how are we to understand this term?

The Visible Church

The simple answer is this: the visible church is the present manifestation of the kingdom of God on this earth. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (WCF 25:2, emphasis added)

The Church is that institution to which Christ has given the keys of the Kingdom (Matthew 16:19). The Church is that institution to which Christ has given the offices for the work of service and building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:8-16). The Church is that institution to which Christ has entrusted the preaching of His Word (Romans 10:14-17) where His sheep hear His voice (John 10:16). The Church is that institution where the Good Shepherd cares for His flock through the shepherding of the elders (1 Peter 5:1-5). The Church is that institution where God pours out His grace upon His people through the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer (Acts 2:42). And, the Church is that institution where God works powerfully to get glory for Himself and for His Son, Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Conclusion

As we look to the final verse in our series this coming Sunday, we will be examining the glorious kingdom of God – the Church: “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:7). Isaiah prophesies that the kingdom of God – the Church – will be marked by a never-ending increase, a David reign, the pillars of justice and righteousness, and divine jealousy. We who were once strangers to the covenants of promise have been brought near by the blood of Christ! (Ephesians 2:11-13).

Jesus began His earthly ministry with these words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Those who heed the words of Christ, repent of their sins and trust in Him alone as Savior and King, have Him as their covenant head – the head of the body, the church (Colossians 1:18). At Christmas, we rejoice – not simply because Jesus was born, but because He was born a king: the King of kings, and Lord of lords. We rejoice at Christmas because Jesus’ birth is the sign that “the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come”! (Revelation 12:10).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

A Glorious Child

Dear Church Family,

Like most everyone else, I was shocked and saddened by the news of a young man who shot and killed twenty school children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut and then took his own life last week. It’s truly horrifying. And, like most everyone else, I have been inundated by the opinions of pundits, journalists, government officials, religious leaders, and friends. It seems that there is no end to the speculation concerning the reasons behind this despicable evil, and then speculation as to how to prevent it in the future.

Remembering our Creatureliness

A host of reasons have been put forth as to why a young man murdered so many people. Some of these reasons put forth include: lack of gun control laws, lack of help for people struggling with mental or emotional illness, God or prayer not allowed in the schools, lack of security in our schools, the proliferation of violence in mass media and video games, judgment upon our nation, and the list goes on.

Personally, I’m convinced that the truth of the matter is this: we cannot know the ultimate reason as to why these murders took place. As Christians who believe that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God, we have some general answers as to why men commit evil and sin: through Adam, sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned (Romans 5:12); the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9); men are naturally blinded by their own sin and worship the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:18-25); apart from the mercy, love, and saving grace of God, we all naturally follow the course of this world, the enticements of Satan, and the lusts of our own flesh (Ephesians 2:1-3).

So, yes, we have a general answer as to why men commit sinful acts: our own depravity and rebellion against God and His law. At the same time, however, to speculate as to why a specific wicked event or sinful act was committed is usually just that: speculation. I have to remember that I am not the eternal, omniscient, sovereign Creator; I am a creature, bound in space and time, with a limited capacity of understanding. I cannot know the mind of God who works all things after the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11).

Mourning With Those Who Mourn

I do not deny that there are practical lessons that may be drawn from this tragedy with regard to law enforcement, protecting the innocent, etc. My point is simply this: because we are finite, we cannot know the ultimate reasons for specific evil and sinful acts. But because God is infinite and He has revealed His counsel to us, we do have the ultimate answer to the punishment, power, and pain of sin: Jesus, Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed (1 Peter 2:14).

When we experience the pain of loss, the horrific effects of sin in this world, our most immediate and pressing need is compassion, commiseration, and empathy. In the book of Job, his three friends bring all sorts of advice (mostly bad advice) as they try and explain the whys and the wherefores of Job’s personal loss. Each one thinks that he’s figured out the reason why it is that Job has suffered. In the end, they are all proven wrong and finally, Job is confronted by God’s omnipotence and omniscience and has to confess: Job answered the Lord and said, “I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ “Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” One of the lessons of the book of Job is this: God is the Creator, and we are the creatures, therefore we cannot know the specific and ultimate reasons for everything that happens.

Despite their folly, though, I’ve often thought that in the immediate aftermath of Job learning that he had lost all of his property and that all ten of his children had been killed, Job’s friends did show some wisdom and compassion. When Job’s friends first approach him, “they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.” (Job 2:12-13).

In the same way, we weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. And so we should. It is what is needed, and it is what is right. Silence and presence are the need of the hour in the midst of pain and suffering. Then, without attempting to provide specific reasons for specific tragedies, we as Christians can provide the good news of the gospel: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” (Romans 5:8-9)

A Wonder of a Counselor

I have been thinking on these things this week as I have been preparing for the sermon for this Sunday on Isaiah 9:6 – “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” This verse is, of course, a prophecy concerning our Savior, Jesus Christ – whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. The first in this list of four names which are attributed this child who is born to us is ‘Wonderful Counselor.’ That is to say, He is a wonder of a counselor. Jesus’ counsel – His will, His plans – are too wonderful for us to comprehend.

According to His wonderful counsel (His incomprehensible plan), the Son of God “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11). Now, everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and Jesus, Himself, will raise him up on the last day (John 6:40).

If that’s not a wondrous, incomprehensible plan, I don’t know what is! I would have never come up with such a plan to save and redeem condemned men and women. First of all, I don’t think I love that much to be able to sacrifice my own son for the sake of something that I made – even if that thing was made in my image. Second of all, even if I did want to redeem something that I had made, I probably would have tried to find a way that didn’t require any sacrifice or pain on my part. But, the Scriptures tell us that ‘without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness’ (Hebrews 9:22). So, Jesus had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:17).

Conclusion

The Scriptures tell us that “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Indeed, there are secret things (wondrous counsels) which belong to the Lord – things which He has not revealed to us. We cannot know the ultimate cause of specific events unless the Lord has revealed them to us in His Word. At the same time, the Lord has revealed much to us in the pages of Scripture. So, let us mourn with those who mourn, as we share the love of God in the good news of the gospel and His wondrous plan of salvation through His only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

A Glorious Battle

Dear Church Family,

My daughter is in charge of maintaining our “Christmas countdown” calendar in our home. Beginning at the end of November, each day she dutifully turns the manual wheel, counting down the days until Christmas. This week, she excitedly called to me, “Dad, guess what? There’s less than two weeks until Christmas!” She’s very excited.

Christmas is an exciting time as we remember God’s sending His Son to take on human flesh, born in weakness in a cattle stall, the Savior of sinners – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This time of year is filled with Christmas music and carols praising God for His love to mankind which was proclaimed through the host of heaven, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14). Indeed, Christmas is often marked by warm thoughts and feelings – for God and for our fellow man. When we think about God in the flesh, wrapped in ‘swaddling cloths,’ it seems only natural.

A Glorious Battle

At the same time, there is a harsh reality that is also attached to Christmas. The work of Jesus Christ in His incarnation is also described in Scripture as the victory of a holy war – the holy war of God against the enemies of God’s people: sin, death, and the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15). The prophet Isaiah tells us that one of the things that will mark the coming of the Messiah is a great battle. A battle which he describes with the language of violence, of breaking, of blood-letting, and of burning: the ‘child who will be born to us’ will break the rod of the one who oppresses His glorious people (Isaiah 9:4-5).

In the sermon this coming Sunday, we will be examining this “glorious battle” as we continue in our series from Isaiah 9:

(Dec. 9)  A Glorious People (Isaiah 9:1-3)
(Dec. 16)  A Glorious Battle (Isaiah 9:4-5)
(Dec. 23)  A Glorious Child (Isaiah 9:6)
(Dec. 30)  A Glorious Kingdom (Isaiah 9:7)

At the heart of Isaiah 9:4-5, Isaiah says that this glorious battle in which the Messiah shall be victorious will be like the “day of Midian” (Isaiah 9:4). In my mind, this phrase is the key to understanding what Isaiah is talking about. To the original recipients of Isaiah’s prophecies, they most likely would have immediately understood and connected the dots. For us today, describing the glorious battle in which Christ is victorious over His and our enemies as being like the “day of Midian” may not be so apparent.

The “day of Midian” is a reference to the time in Israel’s history when the Lord raised up a judge and deliverer by the name of Gideon to defeat the Midianites. So, in preparation for the sermon this coming Sunday, I encourage you read about the “day of Midian” from the book of Judges, chapters 6-8. There, you will read of Gideon and his exploits as the Lord used him to put an end to the oppression of the Midianites. Gideon’s victory over in the “day of Midian” is a paradigm by which we may better understand the victory of God in the work of Jesus Christ.

The Day of the Lord

Another concept which is helpful in understanding how the “day of Midian” is a paradigm for the redemptive work of Christ is the concept of the “day of the Lord.” This is a technical phrase which several of the prophets employ to speak of the coming of the Lord – the coming of the Lord in salvation for His people and judgment for His enemies (see, for example: Ezekiel 30:3; Joel 2:31; Amos 5:18-20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:14; Malachi 4:5).

In the New Testament, this “day of the Lord” is described as being fulfilled in three ways: the first coming of Christ, the second coming of Christ, and all the time in-between. For example, the Apostle Peter explains on the day of Pentecost how the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is a fulfillment of what Joel had written concerning the “day of the Lord” (Acts 2:17-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32a). In another place, Peter also spoke of the “day of the Lord” as being fulfilled in the future second coming of Christ (2 Peter 3:10). And, according to the Apostle Paul, the day of salvation which would come through the work of the Suffering Servant and Prince of Peace is now! (Isaiah 49:8; 2 Corinthians 6:2)

Thus the “day of the Lord” as foretold in the prophets is fulfilled in three phases: (1) the inauguration of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ first coming, (2) the continuation of the kingdom of God as Jesus’ builds His Church today, and (3) the consummation of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ second coming.

I look forward to this coming Sunday as we explore the “day of Midian” and the “day of the Lord” together. Indeed, it is a glorious battle! That is what we celebrate at Christmas: the good news as prophesied through Isaiah – through His only begotten Son, God has been victorious: “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7). All those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ are blessed and privileged to share in the victory of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch