Packer on the Puritans on Preparation

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Below are the last few paragraphs from a chapter entitled “The Puritan Approach to Worship” in J. I. Packer’s book A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.

But still one question remains. How do we begin to get from where we are to where the Puritans show us that we ought to be in our own practice of worship? How can we, cold-hearted and formal as we so often are — to our shame — in church services, advance closer to the Puritan ideals? The Puritans would have met our question by asking us another. How do we prepare for worship?

Here, perhaps, is our own chief weakness. The Puritans inculcated specific preparation for worship — not merely for the Lord’s Supper, but for all services — as a regular part of the Christian’s inner discipline of prayer and communion with God. Says the Westminster Directory: “When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having before prepared their hearts thereunto) ought all to come….” But we neglect to prepare our hearts; for, as the Puritans would have been the first to tell us, thirty seconds of private prayer upon taking our seat in the church building is not time enough in which to do it. It is here that we need to take ourselves in hand. What we need at the present time to deepen our worship is not new liturgical forms or formulae, nor new hymns and tunes, but more preparatory “heart-work” before we use the old ones. There is nothing wrong with new hymns, tunes, and worship styles — there may be very good reasons for them — but without “heart-work” they will not make our worship more fruitful and God-honoring; they will only strengthen the syndrome that C.S. Lewis called “the liturgical fidgets.” “Heart-works” must have priority or spiritually our worship will get nowhere. So I close with an admonition from George Swinnock on preparation for the service of the Lord’s Day, which for all its seeming quaintedness is, I think, a word in season for very many of us:

“Prepare to meet thy God, O Christian! Betake thyself to thy chamber on the Saturday night, confess and bewail thine unfaithfulness under the ordinances of God; ashamed and condemn thyself for thy sins, entreat God to prepare they heart for, and assist it in, thy religious performances; spend some time in consideration of the infinite majesty, holiness, jealously, and goodness, of that God, with whom thouart to have to do in sacred duties; ponder the weight and importance of his holy ordinances…; meditate on the shortness of the time thou hast to enjoy Sabbaths in; and continue musing…till the fire burneth; thou canst not think the good thou mayest gain by such forethoughts, how pleasant and profitable a Lord’s day would be to thee after such a preparation. The oven of thine heart thus baked in, as it were overnight, would be easily heated the next morning; the fire so well raked up when thou wentest to bed, would be the sooner kindled when thou shouldst rise. If thou wouldst thus leave thy heart with God on the Saturday night, thou shouldst find it with him in the Lord’s Day morning.”

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How to Hear the Word Well

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A few of you have asked about some of the quotations cited in our recent sermons on Mark 4, so here they are. “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you” (Mark 4:24): how much we get out of hearing a sermon depends in large part on how much we put into hearing it. Let us hear well: below is some wisdom on how to do so.

The degree of benefit which men receive from all the means of grace depends entirely on the way in which they use them. Private prayer lies at the very foundation of religion; yet the mere formal repetition of a set of words, when “the heart is far away,” does good to no man’s soul. — Reading the Bible is essential to the attainment of sound Christian knowledge; yet the mere formal reading of so many chapters as a task and duty, without a humble desire to be taught of God, is little better than a waste of time. — Just as it is with praying and Bible reading, so it is with hearing. It is not enough that we go to Church and hear sermons. We may do so for fifty years, and “be nothing bettered, but rather worse.” “Take heed,” says our Lord, “how ye hear.”

Would any one know how to hear aright? Then let him lay to heart three simple rules. For one thing, we must hear with faith, believing implicitly that every word of God is true, and shall stand. The word in old time did not profit the Jews, “not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.” (Heb. vi. 2.) — For another thing, we must hear with reverence, remembering constantly that the Bible is the book of God. This was the habit of  the Thessalonians. They received Paul’s message, “not as the word of men, but the word of God.” (I Thess. ii. 13) — Above all, we must hear with prayer, praying for God’s blessing before the sermon is preached, praying for God’s blessing again when the sermon is over. Here lies the grand defect of the hearing of many. They ask no blessing, and so they have none. The sermon passes through their minds like water through a leaky vessel, and leaves nothing behind.

Let us bear these rules in mind every Sunday morning, before we go to hear the Word of God preached. Let us not rush into God’s presence careless, reckless, and unprepared, as if it mattered not in what way such work was done. Let us carry with us faith, reverence, and prayer. If these three are our companions, we shall hear with profit, and return with praise.

— J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, vol. 2: Luke (on Luke 8:16-21, emphasis added)

The quotation from Phil Ryken came from an article on Reformation 21 entitled “How to Listen to a Sermon” which can be found here.

A Puritan Perspective on Christian Thanksgiving

John Flavel (c. 1630-1691)

The giving of thanks is a very important part of the Christian life, but true Christian thanksgiving is something quite different from what is depicted on the annual TV Thanksgiving specials. John Flavel, a seventeenth-century English Presbyterian minister, once preached a very helpful sermon on the giving of true thanks, and the following are a few excerpts from it (the full text can be found in publically available editions of his collected works under the title “The Seaman’s Return”).

Flavel begins by reminding us that it is the duty of all men to give thanks to God for His mercies to them and of how terrible an offense it is not to do so: “Why, how is it imaginable they should not? He hath the heart of a beast, not of a man, that would not. Did I say the heart of a beast? Give me that word again. There is a kind of gratitude even in beasts to their benefactors.” He then goes on to give six characteristics of the nature of true thanksgiving, which is, he maintains, much more “than a customary, formal, cold, ‘God be thanked.’”

Whoever would give thanks to God aright, Flavel argues, must first of all “be a heedful observer of the mercies he receives. This is fundamental to the duty. Where no observations of mercies have been made, no praises for them can be returned . . . . It is God’s charge against Israel, ‘She did not know that I gave her corn, and wine, and oil, and multiplied her silver’ (Hos. 2:8), i.e., she did not observe and take notice of these mercies as coming from My hand . . . .”

“Secondly, the thankful man . . . must particularly consider [those mercies] in their natures, degrees, seasons, and manner of conveyance.” In other words, we must meditate on God’s mercies in order to appreciate just how good they are in all of their details; for, as Flavel writes, “He hath little pleasure in his meat that swallows it whole without chewing.”

“Thirdly, the thankful person must duly estimate and value his mercies.” This is especially necessary with everyday blessings, for “the commonness or long-continuance of mercies with us, which should endear them the more and every day increase our obligation to God, causes them to seem but cheap and small things.”

“Fourthly, the thankful person must faithfully record His mercies . . . . Forgotten mercies bear no fruit; a bad memory in this case makes a barren heart and life.” He admits “that the mercies of God are such a multitude, that a memory of brass cannot retain them”: it is as “impossible to recount all of our mercies” as it would be “to number the drops of rain that fall in a shower.” But that is no excuse, and Flavel urges us to use “all the helps to memory” that we can find to help us in this endeavor.

“Fifthly, the thankful person must be suitably affected with the mercies he receives.” True Christian thanksgiving is not just an intellectual “but an affectionate remembrance” of God’s blessings. “Then God hath His glory, when the sense of His mercies melts our hearts into holy joy, love, and admiration.”

“Sixthly, the thankful person must order his conversation [manner of life] suitably to the engagements that his mercies have put him under. When we have said all, it is the life of the thankful, that is the very life of thankfulness. Obedience and service are the only real manifestations of gratitude.”

Call to Worship: The Divine Summons

“Come into His presence . . . .” ~ Psalm 100:2

As we continue to take a closer look at our worship here at CRBC, we come to the very first thing that is done in every one of our services: the Call to Worship. As was observed in our last post, CRBC’s worship services are consciously structured according to the Dialogical Principle, the idea that worship is fundamentally a dialogue, a conversation, between God and His people. That dialogue of worship is begun by God as He calls us to His worship.

As the first element, the Call to Worship is vitally important, for it sets the tone, so to speak, for the rest of the service. Primarily, it reminds us that our worship is a response to God. This reminder is significant, for it will, if kept in mind, help us to see and perform our worship in a whole new light.

First, this call reminds us that our worship is a response to God’s instruction. Worship is not optional: it is something that God has commanded of us, something that He calls us to do. And it is God who calls us to worship. This is why we at CRBC choose to take our Calls to Worship directly from Scripture, to reinforce in all our minds that we are commanded to worship not just by a pastor and on his authority but by God himself and on His ultimate authority.

Second, this call reminds us that our worship is a response to God’s invitation. We should see God’s call to worship not just as an authoritative command but also as a gracious invitation. We, both as finite creatures and especially as rebellious sinners, do not deserve the awesome privilege of communion with God in worship. We are unworthy even to take His holy name upon our lips and are unable to declare even a fraction of His glory in a worthy manner. And yet, God still graciously invites us into His presence through Christ.

Thirdly, this call reminds us that our worship is a response to God’s initiative. We as sinful humans never could and never would take the first step towards reconciliation with God on our own: God is and God has to be the first to act. He always takes the initiative in His relations with His creatures. It is in recognition of this truth that we at CRBC have chosen to give the Call to Worship the first place in our orders of service. God deserves to have the first word, and we need to remember that our part of the dialogue of worship is always in response to His initiative.

We tend not to think of our worship in this way. We tend to think of our worship primarily as something that we do for God when it is in reality something that we do only in response to what God has already done for us. He has instructed us to worship Him, He has invited us to worship Him, and He has taken the initiative to make our worship possible through His Son. Let’s endeavor, then, to keep these truths in mind the next time we hear God calling us to worship and learn to see our worship as it really is: a response to a Divine summons.

~ Pastor Jason

Dialoguing with God: The Structure of Worship

“But all things should be done decently and in order.” ~ I Corinthians 14:40

In our past two posts, we’ve begun taking a close look at the worship of our church — at what we do in worship, how we do it, and why we do what we do in the way in which we do it. This is all, once again, in an effort to encourage us to be more intentionally and actively engaged in our worship or, in the words of the Directory for Public Worship, to help us “wholly to attend upon it.”

I had intended at this point to include an article on the elements, the basic parts, of our worship; but, in God’s providence, most of that material was dealt with in a recent sermon on Deuteronomy 12:29-32. In a nutshell, the Regulative Principle of Worship outlined in that passage teaches us that we do in worship only those things that God has explicitly commanded us to do in His Word (see LCF 22.1). This means that we worship God in the New Testament age by praying, singing, giving, reading and preaching the Word, baptizing, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

But in what order should we do these things? How many prayers and hymns should there be? Where should the sermon be placed in relation to the other elements? In other words, how should we structure the various elements of our worship service?

It’s important to acknowledge up front that there is no divinely authorized “order of service” laid out for us in the Scriptures, and so there is some freedom in this matter, and different churches will arrange their worship differently. This is one of the “circumstances concerning the worship of God” which, not being directly addressed in Scripture, “are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word” (LCF 1.6). One of those “general rules of the Word” concerning worship is that it is to “be done decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:40). So we are to be thoughtful even about the order of our worship. It ought not to be random or chaotic or confused: it ought to be orderly.

As you look at the elements of worship listed above, it becomes clear that each one falls into one of two categories: it is either something that God says to or does for us, or it is something that we say to or do for God. And that is what worship is at its most fundamental level: a meeting between God and His people, an interaction, a dialogue. God speaks; we respond. In technical terms, this is called the Dialogical Principle: worship is a dialogue between God and His people.

This seems to be a natural (i.e., “ordered by the light of nature”) and logical (i.e., “ordered by . . . Christian prudence”) way to arrange the various elements of worship to ensure that it is orderly. It also has abundant Scriptural precedence, as it is ever the Scriptural pattern that God speaks to His people and they respond to Him.

Having said all of this, now think through our typical order of service and observe the dialogue:

God to Us: Call to Worship

We to God: Prayer of Invocation and Hymn

God to Us: Scripture Reading

We to God: Hymn, Pastoral Prayer, Offering, and Hymn

God to Us: Sermon Text

We to God: Prayer for Illumination

God to Us: Sermon

We to God: Closing Prayer and Hymn

God to Us: Benediction

Recognizing this simple yet profound structure will help us a long way in our effort to engage fully in our worship. Not only does it remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing and when we’re doing it, it also reminds us of the incredible significance of our worship — we are meeting with the almighty Creator of the universe Himself. He is speaking to us, and we are responding to Him. We are dialoguing with God.

~ Pastor Jason

 

“A Sacred Compound”: The Attitude of Worship

“You shall not offer unauthorized incense . . . .” ~ Exodus 30:9

While on a recent vacation, I attended a worship service in which the pastor was laboring fervently to get those of us in the congregation to express how “excited” we were to be there. In his mind, as in the minds of many Christians today, worship ought to be characterized by an atmosphere of visible “excitement” such as one would experience at a sporting event or birthday party.

The second Psalm gives us a quite different yet fascinating description of the attitude of true worship: in v. 11, David admonishes the rebellious rulers of the earth to “worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling” (NAS). The worship of God is to be characterized both by joy and by fear. This might strike us as a rather strange combination of emotions: how can one experience both joy and fear at the same time? Does not fear cancel out the very possibility of true joy?

But this is one of those frequent occasions in which the Biblical conception and the modern cultural conception of the same idea are dramatically at odds with one another. Joy in our world today is often equated with mere levity, reduced to lightheartedness, mistaken for outward “excitement.” It is a shallow, momentary emotion. True, Biblical joy is very different.

In Alexandre Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès, the main character, is rebuked by his father for failing to be light-hearted and merry at his own betrothal feast. “‘The fact is,’ said Dantès, ‘at the present moment I am too happy to be gay.’” Even Dumas recognized that times of deepest joy are often also times of profound gravity, too serious to be trivialized by mere levity. Two of the deepest joys that I have ever experienced — my wedding and the birth of my daughter — were also occasions of deepest solemnity for me.

So it is, Psalm 2:11 teaches us, with the joy of worship. The joy we ought to experience before the very presence of God Himself is too profound to be “light-hearted.” Building off of the original meaning of the Hebrew word for God’s “glory” (literally, “heaviness” or “weightiness”), Dr. Michael Horton argues, “If we are worshiping the God of Abraham and Jesus, the style of that worship will necessarily be ‘weighty’ or ‘heavy.’ And it is not that God’s glory is merely one attribute, or that it is exclusively identified with God’s holiness, justice, majesty, and power. God is glorious in his love, mercy, and tenderness as well. Thus, Biblical worship entails the recognition that even when we are joyfully extolling God’s nearness and kindness to us, it is always a weighty nearness and a heavy kindness that we admire.” This true, reverent joy of worship, Horton concludes, is something far different from and far deeper than the “peculiarly sentimental American view of joy” (A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship, p. 166).

The second psalm itself gives us ample reason both to rejoice and to tremble before the presence of God. When all the nations of the earth muster and unite their armies in a futile attempt to cast off the rule of God once and for all, this mighty God feels so unthreatened that He laughs (vv. 1-4). All this God must do to throw these rebels into sheer panic is speak (v. 5). A mere spark of this God’s righteous anger is all it would take utterly to destroy His enemies (v. 12). And this very same God is the God before whom we come every time we gather for worship. As Hebrews 12:28-29 reminds us, because God is still “a consuming fire,” for our worship of Him to be deemed “acceptable,” it must be offered “with reverence and awe” (ESV).

And yet such holy fear in no way excludes true joy in His worship; for, as Psalm 2 also informs us, the one who kisses God’s Son, submitting to His rule and taking refuge from God’s wrath in Him, is truly and supremely “blessed” (v. 12). So far are joy and fear from being incompatible with one another, it is only those who first learn to tremble at God’s wrath who can truly rejoice in His love. God is both just and merciful, both great and good, both transcendent and immanent; and He is therefore both to be feared and to be rejoiced in. The attitude that is required of us in worship is a joyful reverence and a reverent joy, a joy far deeper and far more lasting than the shallow, momentary, glib “excitement” that our culture and many of our churches often confuse with joy. And it is not something that can be manufactured or manipulated out of people: it arises only in response to an awareness of the character of the God we are worshiping. Alluding to the special mixture used for the incense offered in the Tabernacle, Charles Spurgeon described this combination of joy and fear in worship as “a sacred compound, yielding a sweet smell, and,” he adds, “we must see to it that we burn no other upon the altar” (The Treasury of David, on Psalm 12:11).

~ Pastor Jason

Attending Wholly upon the Worship of God

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“The publick worship being begun, the people are wholly to attend upon it . . . .”

[This and the next several posts were previously published in CRBC’s newsletter. This series on worship will be continued here on our pastors’ blog.]

Worship is the primary duty of every man toward God. Think about that statement for a moment: “Worship is the primary duty of every man toward God.” Do you agree? Probably you do. But do you live your life consistently with such a claim? Is this priority of worship reflected in your everyday life? Is it reflected in the way that you approach the public worship of God every Lord’s Day?

As Dr. David VanDrunen has pointed out in his book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, many Christians today view the public worship of the church as if it were a huddle in the middle of a football game or like a gas station stop on a road trip: it is a time to regroup or refuel for the “real action” which occurs elsewhere. Worship is seen as a means to another end, a mere preparation for the “real action” of the Christian life that occurs out in the world during the rest of the week. But as Dr. VanDrunen argues, “The church’s worship and fellowship are ends in themselves. Nothing that we do in this world is more important than participation in these activities” (p. 133).

John Calvin made the same point in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He observes that in the summary of God’s absolute, unchanging moral law, the Ten Commandments, the first four Commandments all have to do with worship. That the duty of man to worship God is stated first is no accident: God was revealing by that order that “the first foundation of righteousness is the worship of God” (II. viii. 11).

But worship is not just the primary duty of all men; it is also the highest privilege of all believers. Standing as they do in Christ’s perfect righteousness, Christians have access to God’s holy presence in which they can even now rejoice (Rom. 5:1-11). And the best part about worshiping God under the New Covenant is that we can enter into that presence of God directly and with confidence, with no need for any mediator, any priest (Israelite or Roman Catholic), other than Jesus Christ Himself (Heb. 10:11-25).

But if all of this is true – that worship is both our primary duty and our highest privilege – then we need to ask ourselves, “Do we take our worship of God as seriously and engage in it as whole-heartedly as we should?” The Puritan “Directory for Public Worship” states that it is the responsibility of every person present, once the public worship of the church has begun, “wholly to attend upon it,” that is, to give it his undivided attention and to participate in it fully. Pastors are not priests: they cannot worship God for us. They can only lead us in worship: it is the duty of each one, then, to follow and to worship God for himself.

With these things in mind, our newsletters in the following months will contain a series of articles on the worship of CRBC, highlighting especially each part of our regular order of service, explaining why we do what we do in the way in which we do it. The goal in these articles is to help us all to be more intentional and more engaged in every aspect of our worship of God, in other words, to help us “wholly to attend upon it.” So I urge you all to read these articles thoughtfully, to discuss them as families, and to pray that God will draw out from our church and from each one of us true and heartfelt worship; for such worship is indeed our primary duty and our highest privilege.

~ Pastor Jason