As They Pertain to the Corrupted Elements of Culture
We’ve been thinking about several of the underlying corrupt elements within American society that led IRBC’s founding elders to join their hearts in prayer before the face of the Lord in the sanctuary of the Cornerstone URC one afternoon. These and many of their, as well as our concerns, fall under three general categories: a lack of respect for God, His law, and the three institutions He established to maintain order in the lives of human beings. We have considered these categories under the broad heading of “The Concerns of IRBC’s Founding Should Be Reflective of Our Own” and the subheading, “As They Pertain to the Corrupted Elements of Culture.” As was stated in the opening article, the elders were concerned not only about various corrupted moral elements of culture affecting society at large but also and even more so that these elements are increasingly finding their way into the visible church.
As They Pertain to Corrupted Elements of the Visible Church
Unfortunately all of the aforementioned broad strokes protruding from the contemporary cultural backdrop are being seen in increasing measure on the canvas of the visible church.
If one were to study the strokes of the intruding malevolent artists and boil down the elements of the moral paint that is currently being used to overshadow the work of Jesus Christ in both American society and the visible church, it seems that the data produced in the final report would be summarized under no fewer than three headings: hedonism, liberalism, and humanism.
Let’s spend a little time looking at each of these terms and how they apply to the visible church in the United States today. For we must understand such in order that we might be used as Christ’s instruments to counsel effectively and thereby free those who have been taken captive in one or more of these prisons of the soul.
Four words define the term hedonism: the pursuit of pleasure. Unfortunately, these words also define what has become the purpose for living for many Americans. Tragically, it also reflects what appears to be the purpose for life for many within the visible church of our day. The ultimate purpose for human life which once rang so loud and clear through the work of the framers of the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as well as the authors of all of our wonderful historic Reformed creeds and confessions, is faintly if at all heard in broad evangelical circles, let alone among many of those which identify themselves as Reformed today. Many Christians do not have their hearts in tune with the biblical vision of the thrice-holy God who sits enthroned above the earth (Isa. 40:22) or the purpose for which they have been created, which is to glorify and enjoy Him.
Worship lies at the core of glorifying God. Many communities of faith in the United States, including those that assemble under the banner of Reformed, do not possess a biblically sound understanding of either private or public worship. They do not understand what it means to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). And they do not really comprehend what it means to show proper respect for God via offering to Him reverent worship (Heb. 12:28).
Don Kistler recognized this fact back in the 1980s when he wrote the foreword for a republication of Richard Steele’s (1629–1692) excellent short work, A Remedy for Wandering Thoughts in the Worship of God.1 After sharing the first stanza of Johann Michael Haydn’s famous hymn, “O Worship the King, All-glorious Above,” he wrote: “Tragically, little of what passes for ‘worship’ in our day is worthy of a King Who is ‘pavilioned in splendor,’ or ‘Whose chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form.’ Rather, it is more the worship of a casual friend, a school chum, or a teammate. . . . Since the days of Jonathan Edwards, we are 250 years less reverent, 250 years less conscious of the majesty of God and His infinite right to our reverence.”
If Kistler was troubled about the lack of reverence for God demonstrated in worship in the 1980s, how much more should we be concerned about the irreverent worship that occurs in our day. And what lies at the core of much of the irreverent worship that takes place in our era? Hedonism. Today many professing Christians do not go to church with the intention of gathering before the face of a thrice-holy God in the sanctuary of heaven to worship Him in the splendor of His holiness. They assemble to be entertained. Instead of being enthralled with a great God who is clothed with splendor and majesty and covers Himself with light as a garment,2 they are enthralled by the “lights, action, and camera” philosophy of Hollywood that has been imported into their local church. When this philosophy is adopted by a local congregation the vertical theocentric (God-centered) focus on God in the sanctuary of heaven is replaced with an anthropocentric (man-centered) horizontal focus. The veneration of God which occurs via a Spirit-guided focus in worship is a dimension of the fruit of “self-control” spoken about Galatians 5:23.3 The other focus is produced by man, particularly performers (including pastors performing as storytellers and entertainers) and persons controlling lighting, projectors, and soundboards. The vertical is aimed at pleasing and honoring God by regulating what occurs in public worship4 with the Word (i.e., truth)5 as well as how it occurs in the hearts of the worshipers (in spirit).6 The other aim is about making an experience meaningful and pleasing for an audience by orchestrating control over the environment wherein people have gathered. One of the ways of orchestrating control over a worship environment is by imposing upon it an order wherein the primary means of grace (i.e., the Word and sacraments)7 are not of central importance.
Public worship wherein the worshipers are being led by the Holy Spirit to worship in spirit and in truth is worship that involves a living and active dialogue between God and the body of believers gathered.8 God speaks to the congregation through the passage of Scripture selected for the call to worship; the congregation responds with prayer. God then greets the congregation with a scriptural word of blessing; the congregation responds in song. God speaks by reminding the congregation of His will for their lives via the Ten Commandments (or a passage representative of them); the congregation responds in confession and repentance. God speaks to the congregation a scriptural assurance of His pardon; the congregation responds in prayer and by the giving of tithes and offerings. God speaks to the congregation through the preaching of the Word (and sacrament); the congregation responds with gratitude in song. God then sends the congregation out with a scriptural benediction. Throughout the entire worship service there is a dialogue between God and the congregation.
Worship orchestrated by men is usually imbalanced (i.e., out of proportion), which is in itself problematic when viewed in the light of 1 Corinthians 14:33, 40.9 The “congregation side” in the dialogue in such worship usually dominates and is often filled with songs and practices that befit the environment of a theater or concert rather than that of the sanctuary of heaven wherein God is being worshiped in the splendor of His holiness. The countdown is one example of the trendy methods that effectively eclipse the “God side” of the dialogue at the beginning of many worship services in churches throughout America today. Public worship begins not by God personally calling His people to worship through the mouthpiece of Scripture but by an impersonal countdown on a big screen. After the countdown musicians start leading the congregation in praise songs which are oftentimes geared toward elevating people’s emotions. The “theology” behind the elevation of emotion in many cases is to lift the congregation to God. This theology is completely backwards. Those leading in worship (musicians), and in particular the pastor, should instead be leading the congregation to humble itself in the in sight of the Lord (James 4:10). When we humble ourselves before God’s throne and respond to His call to worship in reliance upon His condescending to meet with us and lead us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, He adjoins our worship to that which is occurring in the sanctuary of heaven. In such a scenario music rightfully functions as a meaningful response to the means of grace as opposed to wrongly functioning as a means of grace in itself.
God is dishonored not only by irreverent and disordered worship but also when His name is not held in high esteem. In the last article we highlighted the sad fact that within America there is a popular trend to demean the name of God. Just last week a flier was circulated in our community that disgraced the name of God. A well-known grocery chain announced in big letters “OM___ We Finally Accept Credit Cards,” which prompted my drafting of a letter of complaint to their headquarters. The mishandling of God’s name in public is one thing, but in the church it is quite another. How many times do we hear professing Christians use His name in vain or refer to Him as “the man in the sky” or some other trivialized title? How many programs wherein God’s name is repeatedly used in vain regularly appear on the screens of televisions, iPads, iPhones, and radios of professing Christians? Furthermore, why do so many of us possess so many electronic devices and watch so many movies and programs anyway? Let’s be honest with ourselves, are we finding more pleasure in the things of the world than we are in God? Could it be that my soul and those of my family and/or congregation have begun to be bound in chains of excessive worldly pleasure within the prison of hedonism?
Mankind was created to glorify God and to enjoy Him. Glorifying God involves willingly revering His name and worshipping Him in the manner that He has commanded in Scripture. Enjoying God involves ultimately finding our pleasure in Him. When people fail to properly glorify and enjoy God, counseling-related types of issues begin to surface in their lives.
Please pray that the Lord will free Christians who are in bondage to their sinful natures within the prison of hedonism. Pray also that the Lord will restore among His people of every background a proper reverence for His name, as well as worship that is more fully conformed to His Word. Pray specifically that the Lord will give His people across the face of the earth an understanding of the regulative and dialogical principles of worship. A proper understanding of these principles involves utilizing them as guidelines as opposed to a legalistic mold for worship. When properly understood and observed, these guidelines give God’s people a wonderful freedom to truly worship and enjoy Him. Finally, pray that those who have been blessed with a proper understanding of these important Scripture-based principles will look with compassion (not pride) upon those who have not yet encountered or embraced them.
Are you concerned about the lack of reverence for God and the general lack of concern over what passes for worship in our day? You may wish to discuss Hebrews 12:28 and see what the historic Reformed confessions say about appropriate worship in the following sections: Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 96–98), Westminster Confession (Article 21), Westminster Larger Catechism (Q&A 108–10), Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q&A 50–52). Be sure to look up proof texts. You are also encouraged review the group discussion section of the last article in relation to properly revering God’s name.
Dialoging about applications of the regulative principle can become intense between Reformed Christians, so it is important that each participant agrees to maintain a charitable disposition before continuing forward in this group discussion.
In the context of a discussion on the regulative principle, Dr. Derek Thomas rightfully asserts that for the Christian all of life should be regulated by Scripture. There is a sense in which everything we do is an act of worship. He wrote, “In everything we do, and in some form or another, we are to be obedient to Scripture.” He continues, “The Reformers (John Calvin especially) and the Westminster Divines (as representative of seventeenth-century puritanism) viewed the matter of corporate worship differently. In this instance, a general principle of obedience to Scripture is insufficient; there must be (and is) a specific prescription governing how God is to be worshiped corporately. In the public worship of God, specific requirements are made, and we are not free either to ignore them or to add to them. Typical by way of formulation are the words of Calvin: ‘God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his Word’ (“The Necessity of Reforming the Church”); and the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689: ‘The acceptable way of worshiping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures’ (22.1).” (Note: LBC 22.1 is essentially the same as WCF 21.1.)
1. What types of counseling-related problems might you expect to encounter in the lives of those who do not properly revere and worship God in association with what He has commanded in His Word? In relation to the regulative principle? In relation to the dialogical principle? (You may wish to refer to footnote 9.)
2. What is the difference between reverential awe created in the hearts of worshippers by the Holy Spirit and an external appearance of reverence displayed by a person who is not truly worshipping God in spirit and in truth?
3. Give some examples of modern worship that is regulated by the “imagination and devices of men” and geared more toward fulfilling the pleasures of man than glorifying God.
A little later in the same discussion about the regulative principle Thomas wrote, “It is important to realize that the regulative principle as applied to public worship frees the church from acts of impropriety and idiocy—we are not free, for example, to advertise that performing clowns will mime the Bible lesson at next week’s Sunday service. Yet it does not commit the church to a ‘cookie-cutter,’ liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is enormous room for variation—in matters that Scripture has not specifically addressed (adiaphora). Thus, the regulative principle as such may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary or traditional songs are employed, whether three verses or three chapters of Scripture are read, whether one long prayer or several short prayers are made, or whether a single cup or individual cups with real wine or grape juice are utilized at the Lord’s Supper. To all of these issues, the principle ‘all things should be done decently and in order’ (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied.”
4. Charitably discuss Thomas’s comment wherein he says that the regulative principle may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary of traditional songs may be employed in worship.
a. What types of counseling-related issues might you encounter between those in a congregation who believe that only traditional hymns should be used and those who believe otherwise? What are ways that you could practically serve as a peacemaker for those who sharply disagree with each other on this matter? What Scripture passages would you use?
b. Regardless of the period of time in which a particular song has been written, build a discussion around some of the non-negotiables to which Reformed Christians should hold themselves accountable in relation to
1) the song’s lyric.
2) the overall feeling or attitude of reverence with awe that is to undergird the singing
3) the rhythm or beat of the music undergirding the singing
4) the “singability” of the song in relation to the aspect of group dynamic for congregational singing
5. How does one discern when legalism10 has been exchanged for a proper adherence to the Reformed principles of worship?
6. Why types of counseling-related issues might you expect to encounter by those who experience spiritual suppression by oppressive legalists in family or church worship?
7. Revering God and worshiping Him in accordance with His Word begins on the first day of the week in more of a formal fashion via public worship. Worship is to continue (informally) throughout the week as we engage in personal and family devotions and live our entire life. What are we telling God in our ongoing dialogue with Him when we do not respond in accordance with His Word as His (decretive or secret) will unfolds via providence?
8. Why is it important to tell those we counsel about the sovereignty of God when they are in the midst of a deep trial?
1. The original version of this book can be obtained free online at https://archive.org/details/remedyforwanderi00stee.
2. “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent” (Ps. 104:1–2 ESV).
3. “Self-control” in Galatians 5:23 comes from the Greek term egkráteia, which conveys the idea of something proceeding out from within oneself but not by oneself. A believer’s spirit is dependent upon the Holy Spirit to posture and lead it in reverential worship.
4. The Reformed tradition holds to the regulative principle of worship based on John 4:24, which says, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (ESV).
5. Jesus defined truth in John 17:17 when He said, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (ESV).
6. Worship in spirit flows from regenerated hearts which are submitted to the Holy Spirit and led by Him in the worship of God in cooperation with Jesus Christ who provides the way into the sanctuary of heaven. Thus, Jesus is called in Scripture the way, truth, and the life (John 14:6).
7. The Westminster Larger Catechism includes prayer along with the Word and sacraments as means of grace. While the Heidelberg Catechism does not call prayer a means of grace, it calls it “the most important part of the thankfulness that God requires from us.”
8. In Reformed circles this is typically called the dialogical principle of worship.
9. The dialogical principle presupposes properly ordered communication which involves observing a balance between listening and responding. “But all things should be done decently and in order [in a fitting and orderly way, NIV]” (1 Cor. 14:40 ESV). “For God is not the author of confusion [disorder, NIV], but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33 KJV).
10. Legalism is defined as “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
Dr. Jeff L. Doll is director at The Institute for Reformed Biblical Counseling, director at The Shepherd’s Way Biblical Counseling Center in Holland, MI, and pastor of Biblical Counseling at Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI.