Category Archives: Worship
Although I disagree with a few strands of his overall theology, I appreciate what Ethelbert Stauffer writes about corporate Christian worship in his New Testament Theology [(Macmillan: 1955), 201]:
The worship of the primitive Church at every point took it back to the coming of Christ, the Christ-event. So it is the good news of the gospel that constitutes the real centre of her services of worship. The Word of Jesus Christ must have its course, said Luther, in the German Mass. It must dwell amongst us richly, declared Paul (Col. 3.16; cf. 1.27). So it came about that the prophecies and histories of the OT were read and expounded; the sermon set forth the mighty acts of God in the fulness of time (Acts 13.15 ff.); the correspondence of the apostles, new and old alike, the epistles, which are very much like sermons when read to the congregations, these were read and so, with their message, their thanksgivings and doxologies, helped to bring out the full meaning of Christian worship.
But Christian worship was ‘also’, most certainly, a service to the world. Yet the primitive Church did not serve mankind in solemn rites and cultic practices, in pious instructions and edifying spirituality. Christian worship rooted men out of their self-centred individualism into an extra nos — away from all that is subjective — up to that which is simply objective. This was its service to humanity. It summoned the nations to worship the crucified.
John Jefferson Davis is professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In his new book, Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP Academic, 2010), Davis shares his vision for the local church that is built around a simple mission: (1) worship God well, (2) love one another, and (3) engage in mission. His book focuses on (1), but (1) is set in the context of (2) and (3). According to Davis, the faithful church is:
- Committed to doctrinal orthodoxy and biblical authority.
- Reformed in its soteriology.
- Trinitarian in its theology.
- Charismatic in its practice, affirming the gifts and anticipating the active presence of the Spirit in worship.
- Counter-cultural in its posture, on one hand confronting scientific materialism (modernism), on the other hand confronting digital virtualism (postmodernism). The church is not a place that we control (contra modernism) and it is not a place to be entertained (contra postmodernism).
- Missional in its vision, acting locally and “partnering with its brothers and sisters in the faith in the global church” which will also serve to protect the church from “identifying itself too closely with America and its global economic and military hegemony” (32).
- Neo-monastical in its stress on sexual purity over licentiousness, humble obedience and submission over autonomy, and a life of simplicity in light of consumer-driven materialism.
- It places God-centered doxology as its highest priority. “The fundamental issue is the recovery of the centrality and reality of God in the worship and life of the evangelical church generally: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead; Jesus is still alive today, and is present here with us in the power of the Spirit to enjoy communion with his people” (12).
- It stresses the real presence of Christ when the church gathers and frequently celebrates the Lord’s Supper; “a more meaningful and frequent experience of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the evangelical church involves the rediscovery of a central reality in the worship of the New Testament and the early church: the real personal presence of the risen Christ who meets his people in joyful fellowship around the table” (114).
- It focuses weekly on the main things. “One basic reason why frequent Communion, rightly administered, can be a powerful means of spiritual formation is that it focuses the church’s attention on the core realities of the Christian faith: the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection and the return of Jesus Christ. No Christian doctrines are more fundamental than these for the Christian faith. Week by week the church is reminded in the Eucharist that ‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again’” (166).
Davis cannot focus on all these features and he doesn’t try. The book centers on the final three bullets.
Rarely will you find a more pointed critique of the modern church communicated within such a compelling, full-scale vision for correction. And Davis’s understanding of technology, and the influence of technology on the church, is impressive (note the Google homepage analogy to the real presence on page 162).
Worship and the Reality of God was a rare book that I found hard to put down. Here’s what Douglas Groothuis wrote:
Professor Davis recaptures what has been lost in most contemporary worship: a theologically rich understanding of the presence of God in our midst during congregational worship and of how we should rightly respond to this incomparable Reality. This is a book to reawaken the heart and mind to true worship, and as such, it is desperately needed.
Sunday morning, Rick Gamache delivered an excellent sermon on worship in light of idolatry (Worship God!: The Heart of the Right Response; 10/28/07). His main text was Philippians 1:18-23 (esp. v. 21).
Here are a few scattered highlights from my notebook …
- God does not make worshipers, each of us already worships. If we follow a trail of where we spend our time, money, energy and affection and we will be led to the throne of what we worship.
- “Pleasure is the measure of our treasure” – Jon Bloom
- Tragically here is what we often find enthroned: unworthy idols like money, status, reputation, career, promotions, relationships, children, s-ex, possessions, hobbies, books, leisure, education and even ourselves!
- Evil is forsaking living water for broken cisterns; seeking to be satisfied in something or someone other than God Himself (Jer. 2:12-13).
- Worship is not a Sunday thing, it’s a way of life.
- God and idolatry are at war for our worship.
- Our worship of God is intended to bring us pleasure! “For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant” (Ps. 147:1). God’s demand for our worship is a demand for us to be happy and to experience our greatest pleasures! If we are not worshiping God, it’s to our detriment.
- The essence of worship is to find our deepest satisfaction in Jesus Christ alone — in this life, and even in the face of greatest loss and personal death (Phil. 1:18-23). We can be content in the loss of all things only if we treasure Christ above all else (Phil. 3:8). Further, to say that death is gain — because we long for greater intimacy with Christ — shows that Christ is the supreme object of our hearts. This is worship.
- So if my circumstances never change, can I be satisfied? Even if my child continues in rebellion, my health never improves, I never get married, etc., can I be satisfied in Christ? (This is a question of worship).
- God does not need our worship, nor does our worship add anything to Him (Acts 17:24-25).
- Thinking that our worship gives God something He didn’t already possess is man-centered legalism that kills worship. We come to worship God to receive from Him. “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12-13). This lifting of the cup is a call for God to fill us (see also Heb. 11:6).
- This worship is not man-centered, it’s radically God-centered. In Psalm 73, where did Asaph’s thinking radically shift from saying God has forgotten about His people (vv. 3-13) to where Asaph breaks out in praise of God’s sufficiency (vv. 25-26)? The change came when Asaph met God in worship (v. 17).
- We need to recognize, like Asaph, that “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (v. 26). Our hearts are weak and frail and prone to idolatry.
- In the end we need to pray for the filling of the Holy Spirit to see more of the glory of Christ. A prayer our Father gladly answers (John 16:14; Luke 11:13)!
These are only my scattered notes to whet your appetite for the whole sermon. You can download the mp3 or listen below. Excellent sermon worthy of your precious time!
Related: Rick Gamache sermon jam (audio)
Related: Seeing the glories of the Cross requires a deeper understanding of God’s holiness and the depth of personal sin.
Related: Depression, Worldliness and the Presence of God (sermon on Psalm 73).
“How Great Your Name,” a new song by Will Pavone
HT: Bob Kauflin via Tommy
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived and died in Nazi Germany. You can imagine the delight of the Nazis when, in 1940, Bonhoeffer published a book – Das Gebetbuch der Bibel – calling Christians to recapture the importance of the Psalms. A Christian pastor publishing a German book highlighting the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures was about as welcomed by the Nazis as a swastika flag burning demonstration. They threatened Bonhoeffer with a fine and then retracted it. Three years later he was arrested for his anti-Nazi sentiments and hung in 1945. You know the story.
The English translation of this German book is known to us as The Prayerbook of the Bible. Although his arguments can sometimes be over-stated, this short work presses us to see the importance of the Psalms in the Christian community. Not surprising, it remains one of Bonhoeffer’s beloved classics.
But why, in light of the bubbling anti-Semitism, did Bonhoeffer risk his life to draw Christians to the Psalms?
The Psalms + the Lord’s Prayer
First, Bonhoeffer noticed a parallel between the themes of the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms. And there are striking parallels. He learned this from Martin Luther who wrote of the Psalms “it runs through the Lord’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer runs through it, so that it is possible to understand one on the basis of the other and to being them into joyful harmony.”
Here is what Jesus taught His disciples to pray (Matt. 6:9-13):
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”
Because these parallel themes run through the Psalms, Bonhoeffer concludes the Psalms too find their origin in Christ. If the Lord’s Prayer is from Christ, we can be certain these similar themes in the Psalms are from Christ, too. There is a deeply Christological understanding of the Psalms for Bonhoeffer. The Psalms are the voice of Christ modeling prayer and worship for His people in the presence of the Father.
The inspired prayers
Whether or not we fully embrace his Christological thesis, we are led to an important question about the composition of the Psalms.
“Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words. How then do they come to be in the Bible? Let us make no mistake: the Bible is God’s Word, even in the Psalms. Then are the prayers to God really God’s own Word? That seems difficult for us to understand. We grasp it only when we consider that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father who lives in eternity. Jesus Christ has brought before God every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, and every hope of humankind. In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes again a human word” (5:156-157).
Track his argument here. Are prayers not the spontaneous expressions of a human heart towards God? If so, why are they here written and included in Scripture? If the prayers of David merely originated in the heart of David, why are they preserved in Scripture?
Bonhoeffer responds that the Psalms are preserved in Scripture because these prayer/songs are inspired by God. Or to put it another way, God wrote these prayer/songs to Himself! God – by the inspiration of the Spirit through the pen of the Psalmists – leaves us a pattern of prayer and song that brings us back to the model of Lord’s Prayer. See that? So the Psalms in prayer and praise model the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer.
This leads Bonhoeffer to a further conclusion: prayer is not merely waiting for spontaneous thoughts to emanate from our hearts.
“We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ. Thus it does not matter whether the Psalms express exactly what we feel in our hearts at the moment we pray. Perhaps it is precisely the case that we must pray against our own heart in order to pray rightly. It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray. If we were dependent on ourselves alone, we would probably often pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God’s Word, ought to determine our prayer” (5:157).
The Psalms are God’s prayers as inspired by God. As children learning to talk from the language of their parents, the Psalms are teaching saints the language of prayer (5:155). It does not first matter whether the Psalms seem to be what we would pray for any more than we would naturally pray “hallowed be your name” or “lead us not into temptation.” Our prayers do not rest upon the impulse of our hearts, but the richness of Scripture.
The point is we are not limited in prayer until we feel ready to pray. We can learn to pray.
“Teach us to pray”
This returns to the beginning of the book. Bonhoeffer begins with the disciple’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
“’To learn to pray’ sounds contradictory to us. Either the heart is so overflowing that it begins to pray by itself, we say, or it will never learn to pray. But this is a dangerous error, which is certainly very widespread among Christians today, to imagine that it is natural for the heart to pray. We then confuse wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing – all of which the heart can certainly do on its own – with praying. But in doing so we confuse earth and heaven, human beings and God. Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ” (5:155).
We need to learn how to pray. The disciples request was answered by Jesus showing them how to pray and what to pray. He models for His disciples the very words to speak – a prayer that certainly would not have naturally emanated from our hearts. The Psalms therefore lay a pattern that touches our prayer and worship lives. These are the inspired prayer/songs of God. They are the words God has chosen to be worshipped with and pleaded by.
For Bonhoeffer, encouraging Christians to pray and sing the Psalms was a worthy exchange for his comforts in Nazi Germany. “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “With its recovery will come unexpected power” (5:162).
The above quotes were taken from volume five of the Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Fortress Press has packaged The Prayerbook of the Bible with Life Together – a thought-provoking book on the value of small groups and Christian community.
Among all the books [of Scripture], the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul.
It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.
Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill. Prohibitions of evil-doing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and abstain from sin.
It is quite obvious in Scripture that Psalms are to be sung in the corporate life of the church (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). Scripture assumes continuity between the life of the Psalmist before the Cross, and the life of the Christian after the Cross. Yet, this emphasis on relating to the Psalmist – not to mention the direct singing of the Psalms – seems to be largely missing from the contemporary church. I wonder why?
Let me make my own confession. As a non-denominational reformed Christian, I’ve never sung from a Psalter. In fact I’ve never held a Psalter in my hands. In my circles, I would have a hard time finding people who even know what a Psalter is! (One close friend suggested it must be something like a salt shaker!)
I am thankful that Scripture calls us to sing Psalms, and also opens the door to hymns and various other spiritual songs. I am deeply grateful for the corporate freedom to sing a variety of worship songs.
But a big question in my mind over the past year is, simply, why have the Psalms been disconnected from the corporate expression of the church? In the past I have suggested that perhaps part of the reason Puritan spirituality seems so foreign to us today is because the Puritans used the Psalms to interpret their life experiences. But this does not get us closer to a contemporary answer.
Recently I read Carl Trueman’s collections of essays, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004). These essays provoked stimulating thoughts in a number of areas. Trueman is the Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) of the contemporary church and if you want a great read, Wages of Spin is it. (Catchy title, isn’t it?)
In his chapter “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” Trueman also takes note of the disappearance of the Psalms in corporate worship. While I am no closer to an answer, I have benefited from his insights:
Having experienced — and generally appreciated — worship across the whole evangelical spectrum, from Charismatic to Reformed — I am myself less concerned here with the form of worship than I am with its content. Thus, I would like to make just one observation: the psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, have almost entirely dropped from view in the contemporary Western evangelical scene. I am not certain about why this should be, but I have an instinctive feel that it has more than a little to do with the fact that a high proportion of the psalter is taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented, and broken. In modern Western culture, these are simply not emotions which have much credibility: sure, people still feel these things, but to admit that they are a normal part of one’s everyday life is tantamount to admitting that one has failed in today’s health, wealth, and happiness society. And, of course, if one does admit to them, one must neither accept them nor take any personal responsibility for them: one must blame one’s parents, sue one’s employer, pop a pill, or check into a clinic in order to have such dysfunctional emotions soothed and one’s self-image restored.
Now, one would not expect the world to have much time for the weakness of the psalmists’ cries. It is very disturbing, however, when these cries of lamentation disappear from the language and worship of the church. Perhaps the Western church feels no need to lament — but then it is sadly deluded about how healthy it really is in terms of numbers, influence and spiritual maturity. Perhaps — and this is more likely — it has drunk so deeply at the well of modern Western materialism that it simply does not know what to do with such cries and regards them as little short of embarrassing. Yet the human condition is a poor one — and Christians who are aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and are looking for a better country should know this. A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably I creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience. Indeed, the biblical portraits of believers give no room to such a notion. Look at Abraham, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, and the detailed account of the psalmists’ experiences. Much agony, much lamentation, occasional despair — and joy, when it manifests itself — is very different from the frothy triumphalism that has infected so much of our modern Western Christianity. In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?
I did once suggest at a church meeting that the psalms should take a higher priority in evangelical worship than they generally do — and was told in no uncertain terms by one indignant person that such a view betrayed a heart that had no interest in evangelism. On the contrary, I believe it is the exclusion of the experiences and expectations of the psalmists from our worship — and thus from our horizons of expectation — which has in a large part crippled the evangelistic efforts of the church in the West and turned us all into spiritual pixies. By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church. By so doing, it has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, generated an insipid, trivial and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity, and confirmed its impeccable credentials as a club for the complacent. In the last year, I have asked three very different evangelical audiences what miserable Christians can sing in church. On each occasion my question has elicited uproarious laughter, as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical — and yet I posed the question in all seriousness. Is it any wonder that British evangelicalism, from the Reformed to the Charismatic, is almost entirely a comfortable, middle-class phenomenon?
- Carl R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004) pp. 158-160.