“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
Those words form part of the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and they have been quoted as the beginning of the Christian life ever since. Christian joy is a mark of the work of the Spirit in the believer, and manifests itself as a response to a saving knowledge of God and includes the following expressions:
Contentment. When the work of the Lord and His salvation is the ultimate anchor of your joy, the circumstances you face, although possibly difficult, will not rob you of your joy. A grumbling spirit will be replaced by a contented one.
Worship. Joy is not something you can simply hold, turn over, and examine as if it were a math problem, or a philosophical notion. Joy overflows out of the heart into an expression. When joy is expressed to God it always takes the form of worship: proclaiming His goodness in the presence of the saints.
Selfless Service. Joy is not only expressed to God, but also to man. Our joy in the Lord is also seen in how we care for each other. We love God’s people because He loves God’s people. The care we show to each other is not primarily an activity of doing good things, but rather living out the joy we have in Christ.
I pray that our joy in the Lord would increase. That as we learn to love Him together, we would grow in our love for each other too.
If you are in the presbyterian and reformed world, it is the season of General Assemblies and Synods. In my view it often turns into silly season. Never do I see as many people who profess faith in the doctrine of God’s sovereignty wring their hands over the condition of the church. Chicken Little has nothing on us. However, at the same time there are significant issues that face the church of the Lord, and also my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. It can be argued that much reform must take place in the Western Church as a whole. It is overrun with the entertainment culture of the world and the philosophies of man found in the world’s approach to social justice and a host of other issues ranging from marriage to sexual purity. What, then, is the balance between genuine concern for the purity of the church and a sinful worry? Certainly this is not the first time the church finds itself in need of reform.
In Revelation 2-3 the Spirit writes His letters to the seven churches. These churches, in most cases, have issues they need to address. The Ephesians had lost their first love (Rev. 2:4). Pergamum and Thyatira are tolerating aberrant theology (Rev. 2:14; 20). Sardis is dead (Rev. 3:1), Laodicea is lukewarm (Rev. 3:16). Those descriptions are certainly not confidence inspiring. Further, in the Pauline epistles we read of churches which have most definitely lost their way. The Galatian church is in danger of being overtaken by legalists who advocate a return to the Mosaic ceremonial laws (Gal. 3:3). The Corinthians… they’ve taken it to a whole new level. They tolerate sexual immorality not even accepted in the world (1 Cor. 5:1). There is drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:21). Likewise in James’ letter, the church is overcome with favoritism (Jam. 2:6). Surely this cannot be the same church that Christ said would withstand the very gates of hell! (Matt. 16:18). And yet it is. It is the church filled with people acting out their sinsful nature which is, as yet, not removed. So how are we to build up this church?
Address Error in humility. I had a good talk with a friend of mine who was critical of conservative reformed Christians over their tone. And he is right. To some extent, the conservative Christian world has taken on the error of the Ephesian church (Rev. 2:1-7) who was theologically correct, but lacked love for the Lord. It is true that the Lord preserves His church through people who stand for the truth. It is right for Christians to desire to be those people, but they must be realistic about their own faults as well. Recognizing personal sin is crucial in being able to reprove with gentleness an humility. Among the seven things that God hates in Prov. 6:16-19 are haughty eyes, and sowing discord among brothers. The right theology argued from a position of pride, mocking and ridiculing other Christians does this very thing. Therefore it is important to deal gently with the flaws of others, as long as is possible, remembering that all theologians hold their convictions as sinful men.
Speak the truth. On the flip-side, in church history men have been silent about the truth when they should have spoken because of the fear of man. Why is it that Paul was the only one who spoke to Peter in Gal. 2:11-14? Barnabas was there, and he could have spoken, but it says there that they were silent because they were “fearing the circumcision party.” How many could have spoken before Martin Luther et. al did in the early 16th century? There were many. And yet the fear of man or the love of position and influence kept mouths shut. That is not how the church is served. It is the task of all Christians, and church leaders especially, to be faithful to the word of God and not show favoritism (Gal. 2:11-14). The preoccupation of the church should be with the purity of the bride of Christ, purchased with His blood, whose faithfulness He desires.
Pray. The bride of Christ may be oppressed from without or corrupted from within. But Christ bought her with His own blood. He loves her far better than any man could. And besides, He is the Almighty One. So interceding for His bride in prayer should really be step one. In John’s gospel, prayer to God through Christ is the right method of prayer (John 14:13; 15:16; 16:23, 24, 26). This is the church of Christ. The gates of hell will not prevail against it because they cannot prevail against Him.
While living in this world it is right to fight for the purity of the church in this world (the church militant). This article represents some guiding principles as we engage in this struggle. The Lord is sovereign, also over today’s church which is so very flawed. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, and make Your bride into the church triumphant!
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2, ESV)
There are few theological conversations that give me more heartburn than those in which the word “legalism” is tossed around with great liberality. Within the context of a discussion on obedience to God’s law, an objector may claim legalism on the part of the one asserting the need for obedience. It is certainly possible that the person calling for obedience is engaged in legalism, but it is not necessarily so. I’m convinced a right understanding of the meaning of this word will keep me from reaching for my bottle of chewy Tums.
Assuming that in the scenario describe above, the word “legalism” is being used to describe meticulous obedience to God’s law, it is important to begin by saying that meticulous obedience is not legalism. Meticulous obedience can be legalism, but it can also be a glorious expression of love to God for the work of Christ on behalf of the sinner. Jesus himself calls for meticulous obedience to the Lord in His Sermon on the Mount:
“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)
Even the least of the commandments should not be relaxed, according the Jesus. That principle is seen in action in many places in the Bible. For example, Adam plunges the whole human race into sin and misery by something as simple as eating a piece of fruit. In Num. 15:32-36, a man is stoned to death for the harmless act of collecting sticks on the Sabbath. Why? Because taking these actions was in direct opposition to the explicit commandment and instruction from God. So a narrow assessment of the duties of a law is not sufficient to indicate legalism. Laws and commandments are by definition narrow, also the ones given by the Lord. So what is legalism?
Using the word “legalism” is valid in one of two scenarios. First, it is when something, anything is added to the doctrine of justification by faith. That was the sin of the Galatian Judaizers. Their claim was that you were saved by faith in Jesus plus observance of the ceremonial laws. Derek Thomas has referred to this addition as the “damnable plus.” This distortion of the gospel adds a human element to the innocence of the Christian. Law keeping plays a contributing role in salvation. But as it says in Gal. 3:11 (above), man is not justified in such a way. Christ’s perfect obedience to all of God’s commandments and His righteousness only, are credited to the believer through faith. Anyone who changes that gospel is a legalist and, according to Paul, should be accursed (Gal. 1:8,9).
Second, it is to assert that an application of God’s word that you find particularly helpful is binding on everyone else. In a sense you are elevating your preference to the same status as God’s Law and in so doing practice idolatry. The bedtime for young Gleason children is 7 p.m., rain or shine, and therefore all others must do the same. Or, perhaps a more contemporary example would be around mask wearing. I think wearing masks is a good idea, so therefore everyone must wear a mask. Or I think mask wearing is a bad idea, therefore no one should wear them. Anyone who differs from me in practice is either sinning (worst case) or lacks the wisdom that I have (still not good). That also is the work of the legalist.
To recognize the right use of the word “legalism” helps give the Christian balance in his use of the word. Law keeping, even detailed law keeping, is not an indication of legalism. As Paul says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Rom. 2:13). Or James says, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The point is not that law keeping makes you righteous. Rather, when you have been made righteous through Christ, you will desire and be careful to keep His commandments. When charges of legalism are flippantly used to silence calls for obedience, God’s authority is denied and the Christian’s expression of love to his Savior is silenced. If a Christian finds keeping God’s specific commandments a burden, then something has gone wrong. In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” That is not legalism. Legalism is rule keeping with the hope of earning salvation. It is to load a burden on a brother that God never set on him. But if God has given a commandment, it is incumbent on the Christian to obey it totally, carefully, and perfectly. That is not a burden to the redeemed Christian. In fact it is his delight.
Throughout the COVID crisis, the church has faced pressures from without and within. From without there has been an unfair restriction placed on the church. As has been seen in Nevada, casinos and the gambling industry have been granted greater leniency than churches, and the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Nevada’s law with a 5-4 decision. And that is just one example. Others, such as liquor stores, home improvement stores, and grocery stores, continue servicing their clientele, having been deemed necessities, while the church has been denied that status. The church has largely acquiesced to the executive orders of the civil magistrate based on the Biblical injunction to honor the civil magistrate and to extend love to our fellow man by protecting them from COVID. And yet, is the prevailing wisdom truly the best way to honor God and love our neighbor?
Especially at the beginning of the COVID scare back in March and April, many churches were willing to temporarily suspend in-person worship, opting for live-streamed services instead. The nation, and the world really, wrestled to understand what COVID was. Over time, as information has been gathered, and the “curve” seemed to flatten, doors were cautiously re-opened. Some members still have stayed away from in-person worship. But is it really wise and God-honoring to neglect gathering together to worship of the Lord?
The foundation of my concern rests on the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). Here God claims the preeminent place in the hearts of His people. That unique place is reinforced in the summaries of the 10 commandments given in the gospels: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39). Currently the church has focused on the commandments that help it love its neighbor, at the expense of the commandments that direct it to love God.
The church is failing to examine the Scriptures to see if the church is ever described as forfeiting gathering there. Perhaps there are examples in Scripture where the church ceased meeting to avoid a particular danger. COVID is not the only danger in the world. Surely there must be some instance where the New Testament church closed its doors. An examination of Acts shows this did not happen even when the church was under a danger far graver than COVID-19.
Perhaps the most pressing danger facing the apostolic church at its formation was persecution. The church was small, and people were being killed for their profession of faith in Christ. And yet Scripture testifies that persecution did not have the intended effect of suppressing the worship of God’s people.
In John 20:19, even though the disciples were afraid of the Jews, they were still gathering.
In Acts 4:31, after Peter and John were released from being arrested for preaching the gospel, they “went to their friends.” (v. 23), who were all “gathered together.”
In Acts 8:4, after the disciples are scattered because of the death of Stephen and subsequent persecution, they continue to preach the word of God wherever they go. There is an identifiable group that forms in Samaria, to which the apostles send Peter and John (Act 8:15).
In Acts 12:12, Peter’s arrest and subsequent unjust imprisonment prompts the church to “gather together” to pray for him.
In other words, even the danger of persecution does not cause the early church to forfeit meeting together. That is because the worship of God is paramount. It should supersede all other earthly activity, because it is the one activity that anticipates heaven. When a church, or members of a church, do not meet together to avoid COVID, a statement is made. Implicitly or explicitly the church, or a part of it, is saying that it is more important to avoid contracting COVID than it is to worship the Lord. And yet in Hebrews 10:24-25, it is the gathering of the saints that is seen as essential to the sanctification of the believer, and not to be neglected: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
I will say it as strongly as this. When the church forsakes worship for a disease like COVID, it is showing love for self, not for God. It is recreating God in its own image, preferring the temporary physical health that isolating may provide, to the praise of the God who made and redeemed His people. This is not saying anything about modified worship, worship out of doors, the use of masks in worship. I have opinions about all those things, but they are not the focus of what is being said here. The point today is that Christians are not loving God by staying away from church because He commands the assembly of His people, and to show love for God is to walk according to His commandments (John 14:15, 1 John 5:3, 2 John 6). God must be loved more that anything in this life. But there is a second principle that flows from this central point.
One of the reasons given for suspending in-person worship is that the church must love its neighbor. However, right now the world is constantly coming face-to-face with death, the very reminder of the coming judgment. They are constantly being told that their death is just around the corner and it is terrifying the world. And yet when the church ceases to meet, these hopeless and lost souls have only the equivalent of a TV show to sustain and comfort them. No doubt they may hear truth, but they will not experience it in the context that God designed: a living, communing body of believers. It is neither loving, nor caring to close the doors of the very place where hope in times of panic can be found, where fellowship can be experience, and where the splendor of heaven is anticipated each Lord’s Day.
My dear friends, the church must consider carefully what it does today. Its actions are making a statement. The next generation of the church is watching the decisions of today. And they are seeing a church that prefers temporary, physical health over the worship of the Lord. And they are learning. The church is folding on an issue that does not pose a significant risk. And if it folds today, what will it do when a real crisis comes along.
In my county, there are 202,403 people. In this county, there has definitely been an increase of reported cases in recent weeks. As of today (August 3, 2020), the total number of people infected with COVID as reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health is 3,719, of which 1,485 (40%) were diagnosed in the last 2 weeks. And yet the number of deaths remains relatively low at 83. The church has to consider the math. A Richmond County resident has a 1.84% chance of contracting COVID. That means 98 out of 100 people will never get this disease. Even more staggering, only 4 out of 10,000 will die of this disease. That means a Richmond County resident has a 99.96% chance of living through COVID. That is not to minimize the tragedy of death, but rather to show just how low the risk is. The risk of dying from COVID is lower that many elective surgeries!
The church of Christ has been purchased for worship. It has been set apart to worship the Lord. And it is never free to cease to be what it was created by God to be: the body of Christ established on earth to sanctify the saints and call sinners to repentance. To change or deny that work is to have other gods before the Lord.
Having considered worship through our work and family worship, I want to conclude with some brief thoughts about corporate worship. In our worship at work we, as individual members of Christ’s body, live out our faith before a watching world. In our worship at home we, as parents, are responsible to lead our families in worshiping God. Yet when we worship corporately, in church, we are called to gather by God as his body to express our joyful praise and be fed spiritually.
Now some may expect a presbyterian pastor to begin a discussion about the Regulative Principle of Worship at this time. This doctrine teaches that God’s specific commands regarding worship forms our understanding of what should be included in corporate worship. I certainly agree with that theological statement, but I should prefer to take another angle in discussing corporate worship today. I want to consider several reasons corporate worship is significant.
God commands it. In a day where individualistic worship on a deer stand is seen as a viable alternative to church, it is important to reiterate that God’s people gather for worship. Hebrews 10:25 commands us not to neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some”. The book of Acts is replete with examples of believers coming together for worship (Cf. Acts 2:42; 20:7). This pattern serves as a stark contrast to today’s view where church attendance is one of the optional activities of our week, rather than that around which we build our week.
It is the delight of God’s people. The believer’s relationship with God flows from God’s pre-existing relationship with them. The Christian knows of God’s love for him and is therefore glad to come together with his new family, filled with adopted sons and daughters of the Lord, in order to praise and thank him for his precious gift to them. That is why David sings, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Ps. 122:1). But what do our children see in us? Is corporate worship a joyful event for you, or is it something we simply do, or even worse, endure? The gathered worship of God’s people should be a joyful time when we come to delight ourselves in drawing near to God with the rest of the body of Christ.
It is for our good. In corporate worship the ways that God shares his gracious gifts with his people are all present. Romans 10:14 stresses the importance of preaching, the central element of the worship service of any church worth its salt. Hebrews 10:24 describes links corporate assembly as one of the ways we stir each other up “to love and good works”.
With the Bible’s emphasis on corporate worship grounded in God’s command and the joy and upbuilding of his people, I would like to humbly suggest a change in our view of church. First, recognize corporate worship as the gift it is. God has given you a time to express your thanks to him and will feed your soul in the process. Second, if your church has morning and evening worship services, attend both. Do not satisfy yourself with worshiping God in his church 50% of the time. If you knew there was an ATM that dispensed $10,000 two times per day I am guessing you would make sure you were there on time each time.
To neglect the attendance of corporate worship makes a statement about how much you value it. So as God’s people, let us join with David’s joyful procession to the Lord’s house and take our families with us.
What is worship? We have many arguments in the church over what worship should look like, but what is worship actually? For many in contemporary evangelicalism, it seems that worship has become the time during the church service when we sing together. From my conversations with people across a broad spectrum of Christian churches, it seems to me people now associate worship with an emotional experience brought on as they are moved by the music and/or words of a song. But does this recent conception of worship accurately reflect what the Bible says about worship? To find the answer let us look at Scripture together.
The first instance of the word “worship” in the ESV translation of the Bible is found in Genesis 22:5 where Abraham takes Isaac to Mt. Moriah at God’s command in order to offer him as a sacrifice. He tells his servants to wait for him at a certain location while he and Isaac go further to worship. In this particular instance it seems unlikely the servants were expecting Abraham to walk a little further and sing some songs with Isaac and return refreshed after an emotional encounter. In fact, the whole trip was based around sacrifice. This is why Isaac asks about the details of the sacrifice in v. 7. So worship is at least not exclusively singing during church services.
Though 22:5 is the first instance where the English word for worship is recorded in the ESV, the Hebrew word translated as such is used much earlier. In Genesis 18 and 19 the Lord appears to Abraham and Lot accompanied by two angels. Both men meet these messengers by bowing before them (Cf. Gen. 18:2; 19:1). The Hebrew word translated “bowed” in the ESV is the same word translated “worship” in Gen. 22:5. Certainly Abraham and Lot were not singing a moving song to the angels in their tents. Instead, this act of deference was intended by these men to honor their guests. So worship is an expression of humility in the presence of God.
God was careful to define the exclusivity of worship to the people of Israel. He commanded his people to destroy the idols of the land of Canaan when they took possession of it. He does so because he requires worship to be show to him alone (Cf. Ex. 34:14). Worship is then described as sacrifice in the following verses. Sacrifice was an acknowledgment of the deity’s power over his worshipers. It had nothing to do with singing, or an emotional response.
So what is worship? The apostle Paul clarifies this term for us in Romans 12:1-2. There he commands the brothers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, which is their spiritual act of worship. Unless you are always singing, worship cannot be exclusively viewed as our corporate singing at church. Worship, rather, is a humble serving the Lord in all of life because he is the only one deserving of honor. The worshiper defers to the Lord and ascribes glory to him. Worship, then, is not primarily about the person but about the Lord. This word should not be reserved only for singing during our services, but should be applied in all of life. We will worship the Lord at work, in our homes, and in our churches.
In the next few weeks we want to consider how worship in each of those domains is properly expressed.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” – Luke 10:27
The proper expression of love starts with an understanding of God’s love for his people. Love, properly understood, is always expressed in relation to God. It is by understanding the love of Christ at the cross that the depth of man’s love for God finds its proper mooring.
Loving people is not arbitrary self-expression based on a fluttering heart. It is constrained by God’s affirmation of proper and good interaction between people. His guide is given in the Decalogue with the last six commandments forming God’s prescriptions for human relationships.
Honor your father and your mother. Beyond family relationships, this commandment addresses any authority relationships. Those in authority are honored because all authority is from God. Respect for men is actually a secondary result flowing from respect for God. For those in authority, there is also a recognition that any authority is given by God in trust. Human authority does not act autonomously because it is a position of stewardship.
You shall not murder. Angry passions may never rule over a man. That does not mean they never do, but it does mean that when they do, man sins. Jesus taught that “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matt. 5:21, ESV). By despising God’s creatures made in his image, passions of unrighteous anger actually dishonor God.
You shall not commit adultery. Adultery is the violation of the covenant made between a man and a woman. The lusts of the flesh may not reign in relationships between neighbors. Beyond physical violations of this commandment, Jesus again teaches us that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:28, ESV). God has reserved physical intimacy for marriage covenants. To disregard God’s design is to dishonor him.
You shall not steal. Passions over another man’s possessions should never direct men. When men are led to the point of thievery, they blame God for not giving them what they want. But God has given us his Son, our Savior, a far greater gift than any material possession.
You shall not bear false witness. The Bible teaches that God does not lie, neither is it possible for him to do so (Heb. 6:18). His character assures his people of the certainty of his promise of salvation. As the Savior does, so should his people.
You shall not covet. God is the giver of all things. Man’s heart quickly shows in what way he receives his gifts. If he longs he covets his neighbor’s house, he show himself to be like Israel in the desert, wanting what he does not have. To covet is to charge God with neglect. And yet man’s contentment toward him is so often expressed through his thoughts his neighbor’s possessions.
Love always requires an object. In fact, love is an expression of feelings of affection according to God’s law with the other’s best interest at heart. They originate in our understanding of his love for us, apart from which we would be dead in our sins. But he has given us life. Now we must go and serve him and our fellow man according to his desires.
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” – 1 John 4:10
Well, after a length hiatus from the blog, we pick up just where we left off. Last year we were in the middle of looking at what love is in light of who God is. God is love, therefore our understanding of love must be derived from him. The love of God for his people is most clearly expressed in sending his Son to suffer and die in our place. In his work, Christ was completely pure, without sin or thought of himself. He came exclusively to do the will of the Father for his glory. When this act of pure love is applied to one of God’s creatures and his or her heart is renewed, love for God is a necessary result. From this newly awakened love toward God flows our love for our fellow man as well.
In the last post love was defined as follows: an expression of feelings of affection according to God’s law with the other’s best interest at heart. The goal of this definition is to keep love from being a nebulous fuzzy feeling. Love is an expression, and as such can be expressed well or poorly. To properly consider love, we first have to think about how man might properly express his love for his Savior. Since love is expressed according to God’s law, we can easily define proper love from man to his Savior by considering the first table of the law, or the first four commandments:
Having no other gods before him. The first commandment is not dealing with ranking, but geography. There are to be no other gods in the Lord’s presence. Since God is omnipresent, or present everywhere, there are to be no other gods, period. That means that to love God is to hold him as pre-eminent in every part of our lives. Anything that pushes God to the background is an act of hatred toward him.
Not making an idol. The second commandment deals with how we serve God. To love God is to serve him as he has commanded. If God says no drunkenness, that is how we will serve him. If God says keep the marriage bed pure, that is what we will do. We do it because God has loved us first, and our gratitude is expressed in our total obedience.
Not taking his name in vain. To love God is to acknowledge him as high and exalted by honoring his name. To make God’s name common, or even a curse word, is to insult him. But we can insult God with our actions as well. When we cause others to speak ill of God because of our actions, we cheapen his work as Redeemer.
Honoring the Sabbath. To love God is to recognize him as your Creator, and the One who led you out of your enslavement to sin. These are the things the Sabbath points to, as well as the future rest that will be ours in heaven. To treat the Lord’s Day as another day for recreation is to slight the picture of the eternal rest we will enjoy in heaven.
So love, originating from God is expressed properly by his people in following his commandments. And all the people who are saved will inevitably love their Savior.