Thursday, May 30, 2019

Principles of Worship: The Sabbath Principle

Here I continue the series on worship, looking at a second of five principles that govern Christian worship, according to a Presbyterian understanding of Scripture (see this link for the first principle). This second principle is that of the Sabbath - the day of corporate worship.

The Sabbath is the weekly day of rest, and is a day of holy convocation. God calls His people to assemble to worship Him on this day. We find this stated in Leviticus 23:3.
“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places.” (Lev. 23:3)
The sabbath day in the Old Testament was based on God’s works of creation and redemption on the seventh day (Exod. 20:11; Deut. 5:15). But the day of the new creation and the day of redemption in the New Testament is the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead. Thus, our observance of the Sabbath and its “holy convocation” also shifts to the first day. The fourth commandment was not abrogated, but its old covenant form was replaced by its new covenant form, explicitly connected to the work of Christ.

This shift was taught by the example of our Lord - it was not a mere invention of the church. Jesus met with his disciples on the day of His resurrection and broke bread with some of them (Luke 24, John 20:19-23). A week later, on the first day of the week, they were gathered again and He met with them again (John 20:26-29). Seven weeks later, on the first day of the week, was the day of Pentecost (Lev. 23:15-16), when the disciples were gathered again in one place and the Spirit descended upon them in the morning (Acts 2:1ff). They spoke in foreign tongues and Peter preached.

Following this, we find the apostles following this example and gathering on the first day of the week. Later in Acts 20:7 we find that “on the first day of the week” they “were gathered together to break bread” and “Paul talked with them…and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” In 1 Corinthians 11 we find that the Corinthian church gathered together as a church to eat the Lord’s Supper (11:18, 20, 33), and in 1 Corinthians 16 we find that this day that they met together was the first day of the week, since Paul tells them to collect supplies for the Jerusalem church on “the first day of every week” (16:2). Finally, we find that the Apostle John received God’s word on the “Lord’s Day” in Revelation 1:10, a reference to the first day of the week, the day of the Lord’s resurrection.

The early church continued to gather on this day, as Justin Martyr records in A.D. 155: “We all make our assembly in common on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God changed the darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead on the same day” (Justin Martyr, First Apology).

While there is more to the Christian Sabbath than worship, we can see that worship is a very important part of it, even central. It is a day of rest and worship, a feast day in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection. It is a day of convocation, a day to worship with God’s people, a day to partake of the Lord’s Supper and to meet with the triune God.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Principles of Worship: The Regulative Principle

Over the next three weeks, I will cover five principles that govern Christian worship. These are principles that are held and practiced particularly by Reformed and Presbyterian churches, although some of them we hold in common with the church at large. The first one I will cover here is what has been called the "regulative principle of worship" and it seeks to answer the question: what determines our worship practices? Why do we worship the way we worship?

The regulative principle argues that our worship should be regulated by holy Scripture. As the Westminster Confession of Faith explains,
“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).
In other words, God - not us - decides and reveals what is pleasing to Him. He calls us to worship and to worship on His terms. Therefore we can only do in worship what God tells us to do. Leviticus 10:1-3 gives a gripping example of this principle:
“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD has said: “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.”’ And Aaron held his peace.”
This principle does allow that
“there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God … common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.” (WCF 1.6)
In other words, God tells us what to do in worship, but some of the details of how we do them is left to the general rules He gave us like “Let all things be done unto edifying” and “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:26, 40).

This principle ensures that we are worshipping God as He wants, making Him the center, rather than putting ourselves at the center - focusing on our felt needs and preferences. It also ensures that we are worshipping the God revealed in Scripture, not some figment of our imagination.
“Only when the elements of worship are those appointed in God’s Word, and the circumstances and forms of worship are consonant with God’s Word, is there true freedom to know God as he is and to worship him as he desires to be worshiped." (OPC Directory of Worship)
So here are a few case studies to show how this works:

- Would a vow of perpetual celibacy be proper worship of God? No, it is without biblical warrant.
- Would kissing or bowing to images be proper worship of God? No, not only is it not prescribed, but it is also explicitly forbidden by the second commandment.
- Would a play or skit be a proper element of worship? No, even though preaching and participatory worship is “dramatic,” this is different than adding a play or skit, which is not used or commended in Scripture as an element of worship.
- Would singing with instruments be proper worship of God? Yes, even though the New Testament warrant for the use of instruments is debatable, we can draw instruction from Old Testament worship, especially from those aspects which were not symbols of Christ.
- Would worshipping without singing be proper worship of God? On occasion perhaps, but not as a common practice; the regulative principle does not only exclude things, but also requires things.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Beating Swords into Plowshares

Tomorrow I will be preaching on Isaiah 2:1-5 and the vision of the nations flowing to the house of the Lord. As the nations learn God's ways and submit to His rule, the result is that of peace. John Calvin's comments on this passage are quite good, and they can be read online at this link. Here I want to share some of his comments on verse 4, where the peace that flows from God's reign is described.
"And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares He next mentions the beneficial result which will follow, when Christ shall have brought the Gentiles and the nations under his dominion. Nothing is more desirable than peace; but while all imagine that they desire it, every one disturbs it by the madness of his lusts; for pride, and covetousness, and ambition, lead men to rise up in cruelty against each other. Since, therefore, men are naturally led away by their evil passions to disturb society, Isaiah here promises the correction of this evil; for, as the gospel is the doctrine of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18) which removes the enmity between us and God, so it brings men into peace and harmony with each other. The meaning amounts to this, that Christ’s people will be meek, and, laying aside fierceness, will be devoted to the pursuit of peace.... 
"Besides, Isaiah promises that, when the gospel shall be published, it will be an excellent remedy for putting an end to quarrels; and not only so, but that, when resentments have been laid aside, men will be disposed to assist each other. For he does not merely say, swords shall be broken in pieces, but they shall be turned into mattocks; by which he shows that there will be so great a change that, instead of annoying one another, and committing various acts of injustice, as they had formerly done, they will henceforth cultivate peace and friendship, and will employ their exertions for the common advantage of all; for mattocks and pruning-hooks are instruments adapted to agriculture, and are profitable and necessary for the life of man. He therefore shows that, when Christ shall reign, those who formerly were hurried along by the love of doing mischief, will afterwards contend with each other, in every possible way, by acts of kindness."

Friday, May 17, 2019

A Few Points on the Current Abortion Debate

The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City
As Alabama and Missouri have recently passed relatively strong laws against abortion, there has been an escalation of the already strong debate in our society on the subject of abortion and the state. I have posted here in the past on the case against abortion from the Bible and the church fathers. Here I want to make a few points on the current debate on anti-abortion legislation.

1. The point of anti-abortion laws is the same as existing laws against murder. The pro-life position argues that abortion is murder, the unjust taking of innocent human life.

This is why exceptions for rape and incest make no sense to someone who is pro-life. Rape should be strongly punished, but it does not justify the killing of an innocent party.

This is also why the argument for "safe, legal" abortions as opposed to "unsafe, illegal" abortions makes no sense - the fact that robbery and murder are illegal do make those actions more dangerous, but this is not an argument to make them legal (in this vein, see this satire article). It is the job of the civil government to protect and vindicate innocent life and punish those who take it unjustly.

2. Anti-abortion legislation, like all legislation against crime, is a moral issue, so it is no surprise that religion is involved. This is why the argument against imposing my religious views on others does not hold weight. If you asked me why murder, stealing, or perjury is wrong and unjust, I would also appeal to my religious beliefs. Non-Christians still have some god-like authoritative source for their moral judgments, which they then seek to impose by law in society. (And few object to the imposition of religious beliefs when they are invoked to support the fair treatment of minorities and immigrants.)
"Law is in every culture religious in origin. Because law governs man and society, because it establishes and declares the meaning of justice and righteousness, law is inescapably religious, in that it establishes in practical fashion the ultimate concerns of a culture. Accordingly, a fundamental and necessary premise in any and every study of law must be, first, a recognition of this religious nature of law. Second, it must be recognized that in any culture the source of law is the god of that society" (Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 4). 
3. This is not a "war against women," but a certain type of feminism is waging a war against the unborn. In line with my first point, the focus of anti-abortion laws and the pro-life position is on the life of the unborn child. Its goal is not to punish or suppress women - in fact, the pro-life movement has resulted in many charitable efforts to help pregnant women and their children in difficult circumstances. With that said, egalitarian feminism does come into conflict with nature. With its insistence that men and women must have identical options, abilities, and positions, it runs into the fact that men and women are created with different bodies.

In general, we are created to naturally desire sex, which naturally leads to pregnancy, which naturally leads to distinctions between men and women and their abilities. All this naturally leads to traditional marriage as the best arrangement for these factors, all of this being designed by God. The conservative and biblical approach is to strengthen marriage, passing laws such as those that limit divorce (Matt. 19:3-9), hold men accountable for premarital sex (Ex. 22:16-17), and punish rapists (Deut. 22:25-27). But egalitarian and individualist theories have sought to get rid of all distinctions between men and women, even if it means killing the unborn.

Now some feminists, including many of the founders of feminism, have not taken their position to this extreme and have opposed abortion, pointing to other solutions such as birth control, adoption, and accommodations in the work place. But a certain type of feminism believes that women need the ability to have their unborn children killed so they can be free and equal. But it is a sorry version of freedom and equality that requires women to betray their own unborn offspring and have the innocent murdered. So yes, the pro-life position does conflict with a certain type of feminism, but this is because this type of feminism is waging a war on unborn children.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Thoughts on the Vision of Daniel 7

Daniel's Vision of the Four Beasts, by Matthew Merian (1630)
This Lord's Day, I will be preaching on Daniel 7. This is a complicated and often debated passage. Some interpret this vision to be about Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabees, others interpret to be about the Antichrist and the second coming, and others interpret it as partly about Christ's ascension and partly about the Antichrist and the second coming. I do not think this passage has anything to do with the antichrists mentioned in 1 and 2 John, nor do I think that its focus is on Antiochus Epiphanes (although Daniel 8 will focus on him). While I am not equally certain of all the details of the chapter, here are a few points on this vision that begin to lay out my approach.

1. The vision of "one like a son of man" coming with the clouds to the "Ancient of Days" portrays the exaltation and ascension of Jesus Christ.  "The Son of Man" was the name that Jesus most used for Himself, identifying Himself with this figure in Daniel's vision. This is not a vision of Jesus' second coming, since it portrays Him coming, not to earth, but to the Ancient of Days in heaven. This same scene is portrayed in Revelation 4-5.

2. The "one like a son of man" is interpreted in Daniel 7 to symbolize the saints (7:18). Just as a given figure in Daniel's visions can symbolize both an earthly king and his kingdom, so also the "one like a son of man" symbolizes both Christ and the saints. Thus, just as Christ is exalted and receives the kingdom, so the saints (by virtue of their union with Christ) are exalted and receive the kingdom (Luke 22:29, Rev. 5:10, Eph. 2:6). Likewise, the suffering under the "little horn" that precedes this exaltation applies to both Christ and His people. As Jesus said, "it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things" (Mark 9:12).

3. The four beasts refer to four world kingdoms, the same as the four world kingdoms of the statue in Daniel 2, which are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece (under Alexander and his successors), and Rome. The first empire is identified as Babylon in chapter 2:37-38. The empire to conquer Babylon was the that of the Medes and Persians. The third empire, which conquered the Medes and Persians, was the Greek empire of Alexander the Great, which continued to exist in a divided state under his four successors (see 7:6 and 8:8). The fourth empire, which conquered these divided kingdoms, was Rome. I think the best explanation of the horns of the fourth beast that I have read is the one given by John Calvin. He argued that the ten horns symbolized the multiplicity of rulers under the Roman Republic, and the little horn symbolized the rule by one man in the line of Roman emperors.

4. The son of man/saints are delivered over to the little horn of the fourth beast. Jesus is crucified and the saints are persecuted under Rome. But the Father makes His judgment in their favor. The beast/little horn looses its dominion and is destroyed (7:11-12, 26). The rebellious kingdom of man lost authority over Christ when He rose from the dead, and all the kingdoms under heaven were given to Christ as His royal inheritance (7:11-14). Although the Roman emperors sought to persecute the saints, their opposition was overcome by the gospel (7:24-27). Universal authority was given to Christ so that "all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him" (7:14), and ever since then, He has been exercising His dominion, bringing all nations into His service as the saints carry out His great commission.

Update: the sermon on Daniel 7 is now available online at this link

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Building Community in Christ

Coming out of our recent Men's Advance, which focused on the theme of Christian community, I am reminded that Christian community is supernatural community. It is rooted in the work of God's grace which produces love for God and one another. It is not founded on narrowly-defined special interests or the natural affinity one might have with people that are the same age, race, or class as you. It is founded on our shared union with Christ which makes us one body and produces the fruit of love. If this union and love is lacking, then no amount of techniques will be able to salvage Christian community.

Yet, this does not mean there is nothing for us to do. We must believe in Christ, repent of our sins, and embrace the the normal means of grace that God uses for our growth, which are the Word of God (preached, read, studied, discussed, applied, etc.), the sacraments, and prayer. We find community by depending upon the same source - Jesus Christ as He is offered to us in the gospel. This fellowship that we have then manifests itself in love, forgiveness, brotherly affection, service of one another and with one another, hospitality, generosity, mutual edification, and shared worship.
"Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace" (1 Peter 4:8–10). 
The church is a creation of God's grace, but we have a duty to make it visible. The communion of saints is a gift, given to us freely in Christ, but it then obliges us to act accordingly. We are stewards of God's varied grace, responsible to use it to serve one another.

Our Westminster Confession of Faith lays out this biblical framework for Christian community in its chapter, "Of the Communion of Saints." It declares that since those who are united in Christ are "united to one another in love," they "have communion in each other's gifts and graces" and are therefore "bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities" (WCF 26.1-2).

If this still seems too theoretical, then consider how this week you might sing with one another, encourage and exhort one another, share with one another, forgive one another, and pray for (and with) one another. Consider how you might more faithfully practice family worship, hospitality, and Sabbath observance. Consider how you might stir yourself and others to love and good works. And consider the love and forgiveness God has shown you, remembering that "if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:11).

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Freedom, Fruitfulness, and Apostasy in 2 Peter

One theme of 2 Peter is that those who have been cleansed from their sins ought not go back to live in them. At the beginning of the letter, Peter stresses that believers have "escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire" (1:4), and that therefore they ought to build on this foundation with divine qualities like virtue, self-control, and love (1:5-7). The one who neglects to cultivate such qualities "is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins" (1:9). It is folly to return to the enslaving dominion of sinful desire if Jesus has set you free from it.

In Peter's day, just as in ours, there were those who promoted a different view. In chapter 2, Peter gives attention to false teachers and treats them as a very serious threat. Not only will they lead people astray, but the immorality these false teachers produce will cause the way of truth to be blasphemed by unbelievers (2:2). How do these false teachers operate? They "they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error" (2:18). They target those who are not firm and steady, but who are "barely escaping" from the fallen ways of the world (2:18), "unsteady souls" (2:14). The false teachers entice them by using the appeal of sinful pleasures. Even as it happens today, these false teachers "promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption" (2:19). Those who "indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority" (2:10) might feel that they are free and independent, but they are in fact subject to a harsh master, "for whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved" (2:19). And this way leads to death: "For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved" (2:17).

What makes this even worse is that these false teachers, and the unsteady souls they targeted, had once professed the truth. Some of the strongest descriptions of apostasy can be found in this chapter. It says that these false teachers "will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction" (2:1). They feasted with the church (2:13), but forsaking the right way, they went astray (2:15). They sought to lead others back into the corruption they had once escaped from, and Peter says this would be a worse condition than the condition of regular unbelievers. "For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first" (2:20). They were dogs returning to their vomit, and washed pigs returning to wallow in their mire (2:22).

We know from the apostle John that such apostates never truly belonged to the church (1 John 2:19). Jesus will not lose any of those whom the Father has given Him to save (John 6:37-39). But John also records Jesus' teaching about those people who are connected to Christ like dead branches are connected to a vine - because they do not receive life from the vine, they are unfruitful, and therefore they are cut off and thrown into the fire (John 15:1-11). Their covenantal connection to Christ is real enough that they can be described as "cleansed" (1:9, 2:22), "bought" by Jesus (2:1), and those who "have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior" (2:20). Nevertheless, they were predestined for condemnation rather than predestined for salvation (compare 2:3 with Jude 4) and unregenerate, and this was manifested by their unfruitfulness and apostasy (1:9, 2:15).

On the other hand, true believers manifest their regeneration by their fruitfulness and perseverance. If you have escaped the defiling passions of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, then avoid entangling yourself in them again and "be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election" (1:10). How? This is how:
"...make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ .... for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (1:5–8, 10-11)
These qualities are graciously granted to us by God through the knowledge of Christ (1:3-4), so let us therefore "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen" (3:18).