God’s Means of Grace: His Word

Bible Open

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him  of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear  without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written,  “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)

The central concern of the Bible is God’s reconciliation of man to himself. When sin polluted all of mankind through Adam’s transgression, God immediately promised a reversal of the fall through the work of the Seed of the Woman (Cf. Gen. 3:15). Since that time God, in his grace, has been sharing that message of reconciliation with his people through his word. To that end, the early New Testament church devoted itself to the apostolic teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Cf. Acts 2:42). Each of these four elements participate in God’s continuing work of communicating the benefits of redemption to his people. This post will specifically consider the continuation of the apostolic teaching within the church.

The apostolic teaching continues today through reading and preaching of God’s word. This post assumes the apostolic office ceased. To make the case for this assumption which would require a different post, which may be written another time. In this post we will simply assume it and in doing so recognize the centrality of Scripture to the church.

The reason the reading and preaching of the word is so central in the life of the church is because it is a continuation of that commitment to the apostles’ teaching. As the elders of a congregation read and/or preach this means of grace, God’s benefits of redemption are set before his people. The effect of preaching is guaranteed. In Isaiah 55:11, God promises that just as rain water the earth to grow crops, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but  it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” In other words, God’s word cannot be thwarted, either in awakening a soul, or hardening it. Acts 2:37-41 demonstrates this truth by showing the reaction of the crowd to Peter’s Pentecost sermon. There is an instant turning and crying out from the crowd, and a conversion of 3,000 souls.

Therefore, when we read God’s word we should approach it with the appropriate level of respect and reverence. It is God’s instrument to bring about conversion in the unregenerate, and work spiritual maturity in those he has already called to himself. Therefore, Christian, do not read it flippantly, but prayerfully. Seek to understand it, do not manipulate it. Apply it to your life, and do not disregard it.

The apostolic teaching is God’s gift to his people. It is an essential part of the conversion of sinners and spiritual growth of God’s people.

Questions to consider:

  1. In what way is the apostolic teaching continuing today?
  2. How does Isaiah 55:11 show the certainty of the effect of God’s word? What is it based on?
  3. Are you giving God’s word the attention it deserves as one of God’s ordinary means of grace?

God’s Ordinary Means of Grace

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation. (Westminster Larger Catechism #154)

The quote above is well worth considering. It seeks to address how the grace of God is conveyed to his people. In other words, how does God usually make his gifts in Christ stick for his people. In the first place, notice the emphasis on two things: outward and ordinary. The former indicates that, whatever is about to be described, the discussion is focused on the external workings. Faith and repentance are worked in the heart of a man, but those cannot be observed. These outward means are the tools God’s Spirit uses externally to effect the inward change only he can. The latter qualifies our observations to the vast majority of cases. God can, and at times has, used unusual ways to show his people the benefits of being in Christ, but the discussion in WLC #154 centers around the most common outward methods, or means.

In the second place, these external ways that God uses in the majority of cases to convey the benefits of Christ’s mediation to his people are his ordinances. The word “ordinances” is not commonly used in conversation today, but it simply means religious rites, ceremonies, or practices. So all the religious practices assigned by God are used by him to accomplish his purposes of making plain the benefits of our salvation. However, there are three particular ones that are singled out for emphasis. The reason this is done is based on Acts 2:42 which describes the religious practice of the apostolic church in its earliest formation: the apostolic teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. In other words, the apostles focussed on the Word, sacraments, and prayer.

In the third place, that early practice should not lead anyone to suppose there is some superstitious benefit given by simply listening to sermons, participating in the sacraments, and saying rote prayers. These are only the outward means God uses to impart the benefits of Christ’s work. The emphasis must be on God and his internal work. He is the One who makes these external practices effectual, or causes them to have an effect in the heart of man. God regenerates his elect, chosen people giving them a new heart. He converts them giving faith in Christ and repentance over sin. And these changes and gifts make the proper receipt of these ordinances possible. God uses Word, sacrament and prayer with real effect…for those in whom he works faith.

To think preaching, the discipline of prayer, or the administration of the sacraments will effect change on their own is superstitious. However, to fail to recognize God’s work through these external means is to minimize the significance Scripture assigns to them.

Questions to consider:

  1. In your own words define the following terms: outward means, ordinary means, and ordinances.
  2. How is God’s internal work necessary for the effectualness of the outward means?
  3. Do you hold the ordinary means of grace (the Word, sacraments and prayer) in high esteem?

The Worship of God’s People

bell tower

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Worship at Home

father-son-1

This mini-series began by taking exception with the prevalent understanding of worship as that part of the church service in which we sing, or hear, moving and inspiring songs. But worship is the humbling of the creature before his Maker and Redeemer through faithful service to him as the only One deserving of such adoration. Because our worship is about the glory of God rather than our emotional experiences, worship is central in all of life. Last installment we looked at worship as it relates to the workplace. Today we will consider worship in our homes.

Family worship, is more complicated than workplace worship. We are usually not charged with the spiritual oversight of our co-workers or employees. Our worship in the workplace deals primarily with our expression of thanks to God in our daily employment. However, in our homes we are responsible for others. Parents are to raise their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4, ESV). Husbands are to sacrificially lead their wives toward purity “by the washing of water with the word,” (Eph. 5:26, ESV). Family worship is not an individual matter, but includes a corporate element.

This corporate aspect can create additional challenges, because man cannot change the heart of another person. Putting our confidence in a methodology shows a trusting of men to do the work he cannot do. Instead fathers must cultivate in themselves a trust and faithfulness toward God’s plan for family worship. He has not called you to profundity, and yet this is usually the cause of stumbling. Men often want to make spiritual leadership profound, and when they fail to do so, abandon the project in disappointment. But God does not call you to be profound. He simply calls you to be faithful.

That means that, in your role as father and husband, your most important task is to read and teach God’s word. Some rarely gifted individuals can make these lessons profound every time. However, what is more important is that your children hear the instruction of the Lord, which is found in the Bible. You are the prophet of your home, declaring: “Thus says the Lord…” and trusting that as the rain comes down from heaven, so shall God’s word not return void (Isaiah 55:10-11) but accomplish all that God purposes either for judgement or for mercy. The more you practice this discipline, the more familiar you will become with God’s promises and requirements, and the easier it will be to make applications to your own family. However, priority number one is to establish a habit of reading God’s word in your home.

Outside the home, attendance at the corporate worship services of your local congregation will also lead the souls in your family. Leading your family in sitting under the faithful preaching of the word will make a strong statement to your children. It says to your children, “The worship on God and the preaching of his word is the one thing our family will never neglect, no matter what everyone else may be doing.”

The reading of the word at home and the preaching of the word at church are not innovations given to us by man. They are instructions given by God to his people. To lead our families in worship, we must always be grounded not in our own profundity, but on the omniscient and good instructions that come to us from God himself in the Bible.

Worship at Work

wrench

The contemporary use of the word “worship” often refers exclusively to the time of singing during the corporate gathering of the church. The emotions that the words and music provoke cause the person participating to feel like they have worshiped. However, the question is whether that is really worship as defined in Scripture. Worship is properly considered not primarily from man’s perspective but from God’s. Our opinions about what we have done are far less significant than God’s. The question for the validity of worship should be approached around whether God would recognize what we are doing as worship.

Worship, rather than a feeling we get through music, is a humble serving of God in all of life. In worship, a person defers to the Lord and ascribes glory to him. This deference is seen in Abraham going to Mt. Mariah with Isaac to offer him as a sacrifice at the Lord’s command. Worship is an external expression by the creature of the glory, majesty, and rightful dominion of the Creator. It is a joyful rehearsal of his covenant promise of redemption. It is a recognition of the insignificance of our desires and a training ground in which we are conformed by the Spirit to the image of Christ. And it is not only reserved for the hour of corporate worship at your church. Worship is for all of life: work, home and church.

So how is worship expressed at work? In Romans 12:1-2 the apostle Paul commands the brothers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, which is their spiritual act of worship. This act of worship involves a lack of conformity to the world, and a transformation of the mind to know the will of God.

In its simplest paraphrase, Romans 12:1-2 commands the surrender of all we do to God by discerning and implementing his will through Spirit renewed minds. In other words, to worship at work is to live according to the first commandment. There are to be no other gods before the Lord in the Christian’s workplace. What the Christian does at work is what God, in his providence, called him to do. Behavior at work should be determined by the extent to which it honors God. According to God’s Moral Law, summarized in the 10 Commandments, workplace behavior should include:

  • Honoring authorities and treating subordinates with respect and fairness.
  • Refraining from sinful anger and hostility toward anyone at work.
  • Promoting proper propriety between those of the opposite sex.
  • Dealing with complete honesty with clients, employees, bosses, or suppliers.
  • Speaking the truth about our products, services and actions we have taken.
  • Being content with what God has provided and rejoice at the blessings given to others.

God says these things honor him. So if they are carried out in a spirit of love toward God and gratitude over the salvation he has purchased, then these will truly show the love of the Christ and be seen by God as a spiritual act of worship.

What Is Worship?

folded-hands-in-prayer

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.

Love from God, Love to Man

holding hands

“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.

Responding to God’s Love

Heart Tree

“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.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Heart Tree

“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because  God is love.” – 1 John 4:8

Love is one of the great mysteries of this life. Songs and poems have been penned to try to explain its powerful sway. Plays, movies and books have been written around its theme. Philosophers and religious leaders have struggled to define it. Yet according to the apostle John, love is the Christian obligation. So we better understand what love is if we are obligated to practice it. The pope and his ilk are traversing the globe defining love as social justice, environmentalism, and other such things. But is that the biblical understanding of love? Let us take a moment to examine whether that is true.

Before we get to define what love is, we must first understand how we can get it. 1 John 4:7 tells us that love comes from God and that our love is an evidence of being born from God. That is an important boundary marker. It means that those who are not born of God cannot actually truly love, in the biblical sense of the word anyway. The apostle is saying that love is a uniquely Christian behavior. This opens up a host of rabbit-trails for us to potentially chase, but let us stay focussed on the task of understanding what love is.

The Apple Dictionary on my computer defines love as “an intense feeling of deep affection.” Certainly this definition contains part of the truth. Love is a feeling, but it is not only a feeling. Love is a feeling that requires expression. That is one of the reasons we buy presents and perform acts of kindness for each other. We must express our affections for one another in action, otherwise love is of no use. And yet there must be some overriding principle that helps us understand what action should govern our feelings of affection. Again the apostle John helps us: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” (1 John 5:3a). So what the Bible is teaching us is that love is a three-fold thing: first, it is a fond affection; second, it requires expression; third, this expression is governed by the commandments of God.

Think of love as it finds its expression in God’s work of redemption. The Father loves the world. But he does not love it as an exercise of feeling. He expresses this love in the sending of his Son to accomplish this redemption for us. Then the Son and the Father together send the Holy Spirit to strengthen and sustain his people as they wait for the final consummation of the kingdom of God. God does that sacrificially and for the good of his people. When God expresses love to the world he does so according to the following definition:

Love is an expression our feelings of affection according to God’s law with the other’s best interest at heart. 

So when John says that love is from God, he is not kidding. Love is from God and it ought not surprise us to find its perfect expression in his work of redemption. Next installment we will consider man’s expression of love following the definition above.

The Creator and His Creatures

the Creator seen in creation

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” Psalm 24:1-2 (ESV).

There is a reason the Bible begins with creation. Genesis 1:1 tells us that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God is the creator of our world. Everything we see in nature has been created by God. More than that, from Colossians 1:16 we know God’s creative work extends beyond the visible into the realms of the invisible too. In short, God made all things and continues to hold them together. Because God is the creator and sustainer of all things, all things belong to him and are obligated to him. Understanding this to be true about God, there are several observations we can make about how we should then relate to our Creator with our time, treasure and talents:

  1. Time. So often we treat time as a commodity to be distributed as we please. However, in our work environments we do not behave this way. We do not check into work and decide to have some “me-time” in the middle of the board meeting or construction project. Our bosses ensure we accomplish our tasks for the good of the company. However, the doctrine of vocation stemming from the protestant reformation teaches that all our work should be done with God in view. Our time should not be spent with a horizontal orientation, thinking primarily about men. Rather, our time should be spent with a vertical orientation, thinking primarily about God. He made us and our work. So we ought to honor God with our time.
  2. Treasure. Since God made all things he is the owner of all things. Whatever we have we received from God’s hand. We live in a materialistic culture and our tendency can be to treat the blessings of this life as ours and to enjoy them exclusively for our own benefits. Yet Proverbs 3:9 charges us to honor God with our wealth. The question is not what we would want to do with our treasure, but what God would have us do with his treasure. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus charges us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. That should be our orientation in the use of our money as well.
  3. Talent. Talents do not only describe the people who are gifted singers and musicians. Talents of all stripes are needed to strengthen the church. All church members have a talent which can be used to strengthen her. Some will be talented in ways completely conspicuous to others. Some have been given gifts to be used in very public ways. The talent given is less significant than the way it is used. We should use our talents wisely, to the glory of the One who gave them: our Creator.

God as creator is a significant theological truth. Our Creator is not our peer, but he is Lord of the universe. Since we also are part of his creation, we must recognize our obligation to him. He has given us time, treasure and talents to be used joyfully as we serve him. Yet our joy is not the primary objective in our living. Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. That statement, my dear friends, is not a suggestion. As his creatures, it is our obligation.