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Articles posts of '2016' 'March'

Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal

What do you think of the OPC and URCNA’s proposed Psalter Hymnal? As the URCNA synod faces the final vote on a nearly twenty-year-long project, across our federation it seems as though the jury is still out. Many ministers, musicians, and members are optimistic that a new book will bring new life to singing in the URCNA. Equally forceful are the opinions of others who fear that the project will wreak havoc on the musical heritage of our churches. How can the debate move forward?

I’d like to provide five reasons why I believe the new Psalter Hymnal should receive a favorable vote. Readers may be skeptical of my perspective as a young lay member of the URCNA. They may be even more skeptical when I admit that there are things about the new Psalter Hymnal I don’t like. Nevertheless, I hope the following arguments will adequately explain my position.

It Will Help Our Federation Establish Its Identity

In order to explain this point I need to back up—behind the Psalter Hymnal, behind the Reformed tradition, behind even Christianity—to the fundamental nature of singing.

Music, in general, is an art. But singing is more than art; it is also speech. Do you ever stop to marvel that the human voice can produce both music and words simultaneously—and in such a way as to be understood? Good singing appeals to the ear, communicates rational ideas, and stirs our deepest emotions. As such it is a powerful means of persuasion.

There is another dimension too. Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45 ESV). The words that issue from our mouths, both spoken and sung, reveal who we are and what we value. Do we sing often or rarely? Willingly or hesitantly? Joyfully or indifferently? Do we sing pure words or foul ones? The answers to these questions provide observers—believers and unbelievers alike—with clues about the orientation of our hearts.

Here is a third observation: Our Sunday singing proclaims our identity as God’s redeemed people. This gains expression as we sing together to glorify God and build up one another. We gather freely and joyfully in His name, eager to praise Him, confess our sins, offer thanksgiving, and present our requests. For the Christian, singing should be a natural, even irrepressible activity. A redeemed soul is a singing soul.

Finally, it is worth noting that congregational singing bears substantial similarities to prayer, Scripture reading, and even preaching, particularly when we sing psalms or other Bible passages. Not only does singing fill its own divinely ordained role in Christian worship, it reinforces other elements of the service as well.

Congregational singing is a rhetorical tool, a window into the human heart, a response to redemption, and a means of glorifying God and edifying the saints. As such it should be an integral part of what defines us as Christians and, more specifically, as the URCNA. The tradition of combining the Psalter Hymnal with the denominational doctrinal standards and liturgy was based on more than practicality. Rather, it testified that what we sing is part and parcel with who we are and what we believe.

It Will Correct Several Problems with the Current Blue Psalter Hymnal

Having grown up with the “old blue,” I make this claim reluctantly. Nevertheless, I can identify at least three significant deficiencies in our de facto songbook.

The psalter section is incomplete. The 1959/1976 blue Psalter Hymnal published by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and generally used in the URCNA inherited a tradition of psalm singing that preferred “lite” hymn-like versions of the psalms to denser, more literal renditions. In most cases this merely meant the verses of a psalm were slightly telescoped and sanitized of particularly vehement expressions (see Ps. 88; 137). A more glaring example is the book’s only setting of Psalm 9 (#14), which omits verses 3–8 and 15–20 of the Scripture text, yet adds a refrain strangely reminiscent of a Fanny Crosby hymn. Can this really be called psalm singing?

The hymnal section is inadequate. Granted, the “old blue” includes a decent number of songs, both common and hard to find, that have endeared themselves to multiple generations and are still sung frequently today. But hymns many would call standards, like “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” and “How Great Thou Art,” are conspicuously absent. As to the hymns it does contain, how useful are songs like “Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned” and “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”? Given the limited hymn repertoire of the blue Psalter Hymnal, it should be no surprise that so many United Reformed congregations have purchased or compiled supplemental songbooks.

The language is inaccessible. Let me be clear: I am firmly opposed to altering the original wording of hymns, which is an insult to the poetic efforts of centuries of hymn writers. But when considering psalm settings, I believe it is appropriate to ask whether the lyrics clearly communicate the content of the passage being versified. When the text under consideration is “Ride out in full regalia, and richest panoply” (#82), I believe this is not only a fair question but a necessary one. If our churches have adopted contemporary English translations of the Bible for reading, why are we so reluctant to apply the same principle to singing?

Space does not permit me to demonstrate that the proposed Psalter Hymnal adequately addresses these problems. Nevertheless, I trust that anyone who thoroughly examines the psalm and hymn sections online (available at psalterhymnal.org) will be satisfied with what they find.

It Will Help Our Young Churches

Right now, musical practices across the URCNA are a hodge-podge. Most churches that emerged from the CRC in the 1990s and 2000s sing from the 1959/1976 edition of the Psalter Hymnal, as mentioned above. A few of these have held onto the gray 1987 edition, despite its dubious reputation (even in the CRC). Meanwhile, congregations that join the URCNA from other backgrounds often keep their own particular hymnals.

What are our church plants to do in this situation? Should they save up for the steep cost of purchasing new blue books for their congregations (which means paying for the shortcomings mentioned above)? Do they pursue the ever-shortening supply of used copies in circulation, many of which should have been laid to rest forty years ago (and smell like it, too)? Or do they resort to photocopying psalms and hymns directly into each week’s bulletin, making it impossible for members to familiarize themselves with the songbook they sing from?

Having no Psalter Hymnal of our own is a liability to our whole federation, but the URCNA’s start-up congregations suffer the most. In addition to their frequent geographical isolation from the rest of the federation, these young churches find themselves isolated with respect to their worship as well. I suspect that many of these congregations would willingly save up and sacrifice toward the cost of a new songbook if they knew it would serve them for many years to come and unite them with the rest of the federation.

It Will Put the Motto semper reformanda into Action

I despise the motto semper reformanda (“always reforming”) when it is twisted to justify socially motivated agendas and attacks on the inerrancy of Scripture. In the sense in which it was originally coined, however, semper reformanda means a calling back to God’s Word, along with a return to a biblical model for life, faith, and worship. It means progress, but progress in the direction of Christlikeness.

The new Psalter Hymnal exemplifies this kind of reforming progress. It is no wholesale desertion of the old in favor of the new; the Songbook Committees have made that clear by including such an array of “classic” hymns, many with unaltered language. Nor does it manifest the gender neutralization and politically correct obsessiveness of today’s liberal hymnals. But it is a step forward from the blue book, one that recognizes the full scope of the psalms, incorporates a broad range of Christian hymnody, and takes the role of congregational singing in worship seriously. The process of adapting to a new songbook will be a long and difficult one, for me as much as anyone. But it is a process that will prove whether or not we really mean it when we claim to be “always reforming.”

It Will Proclaim Our Unity as the Body of Christ

One of the most frequent objections to a new Psalter Hymnal is that it will rob older church members of the songs of their youth. It will hinder their worship (so the argument goes) by forcing them to learn different words and music in their old age. I can sympathize with this argument, and with the saints and pillars of the church who raise it. But I would respectfully pose this question: Why do you say the blue Psalter Hymnal is better? Is it because of a conviction embedded in your mind and heart that its psalm settings are more faithful to Scripture and its hymns are a superior expression of praise to God? Or might it be that you love it for its significance to you, for the emotions and memories it conjures up in your own mind?

Hear me out: If the answer is the latter, we will have already lost every battle about church music we could face. If the issue boils down to personal preference, we will have no grounds to argue for or against anything that might go into a new songbook, from J. S. Bach to Chris Tomlin to Lecrae. Church will be nothing more than a group of individuals who happen to like the same things, and if a denominational songbook exists at all, it will exist because (by some miracle) an entire denomination of individuals happen to like the same songs. But why bother? Indeed, why not ditch the hymnal idea and let the pastor pick which songs to print in the bulletin?

“Have it your way” may be the (former) motto of Burger King and the rest of our culture, but it is not—and must not be—the motto of the church. More and more the culture rejects the idea of a common sphere that requires the sacrifice of personal preference. In so doing it creates a world where common causes are impossible.

In direct defiance to this worldview, the church exists as a community of believers united in Christ—believers who deny themselves and look to the interests of others for the sake of the kingdom of Jesus. A Psalter Hymnal is tangible proof that we love each other enough to come to a common agreement about what music glorifies God most and serves the church best, even at the cost of our personal favorites. That is how I can say that I wholeheartedly support this project whether or not I like every song it contains.

What concerns me most, then, is not what I think of the new songbook. It is this: If the United Reformed Churches in North America cannot agree on a Psalter Hymnal, in what sense of the word are we united?

 

Mr. Michael Kearney  
is a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, NY, and studies communication and music at
Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at mrkearney@optonline.net

 

 

Are Roman Catholic Baptisms Valid?

Introduction

A few years ago a young woman named Sarah wanted to become a member of the congregation I pastored. She grew up in a Roman Catholic family. We sat down together with a couple of others and studied the Heidelberg Catechism as part of a new members’ class. When we got to the section dealing with the sacraments, she asked if she would have to be baptized again to become a member of a United Reformed Church. After further inquiry, I told her no, she did not have to be rebaptized. But why that conclusion? The question we must answer as we think about this subject is this: Is a Roman Catholic baptism a true, Christian baptism? The answer is yes.

A Definition

What constitutes a Christian baptism? In summarizing the Scriptures, Article 34 of the Belgic Confession of Faith mentions three things which must be present: the recipient is to be baptized with “pure water,” “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” and by a minister (WCF XXVIII; WLC Q&A 165–67; HC Q&A 71). Theologically, the three elements which make up baptism involve its matter (must be water), form (using the trinitarian formula), and design (it is a sacrament which signifies and seals and is done by a minister of Christ). That all seems simple enough, but there is a problem.

The Problem

There have been some objections to the validity of Roman Catholic baptisms. In the middle of the nineteenth century, American Presbyterians were having this discussion. The prominent figures were J. H. Thornwell (d. 1862) and Charles Hodge (d. 1878). Thornwell, and those who sided with him, argued against the validity of Roman Catholic baptism. Hodge, and those who walked in his theological footsteps, argued the opposing side. Though a number of arguments were offered by Thornwell (including the impurity of the water used by Roman Catholics, and other wrong views they had of the sacrament), the main hinge of the argument was centered on the question of whether a priest is a minister of Christ. After all, if the Roman Catholic Church is a synagogue of Satan, how can its ministers be true ministers of Christ? The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) in Chapter 28.2 says, “The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water . . . by a minister of the gospel, lawfully called thereunto.”

In more recent history, the Presbyterian Church in America wrote a study report on the subject. The majority sided with Thornwell, and the minority sided with Hodge. Historically, the Reformed have accepted Roman Catholic baptisms. What we must ask at this point is, “Should we continue to accept their baptisms?”

An Answer

Yes, we should continue our practice of accepting Roman Catholic baptisms. This is not in any way an endorsement of their unbiblical views of baptism. For example, they believe baptism is necessary for salvation, that it has an efficacy unto salvation, that holy water must be used, and so on. The reason we should accept their baptisms is because the three necessary elements to a proper baptism are present: the matter, the form, and the design.

As to the matter, water is used. It might be water blessed by the pope and sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, but it is water. It is not oil, wine, sawdust, or ash; it is water. The matter is correct.

As to the form, the trinitarian formula is used. In Matthew 28, Jesus sent out the disciples to go and make disciples. Part of that work of disciple making was to baptize them into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Roman Catholic Church uses the same formula in its baptisms as Reformed churches use.

As to the design, the Roman Catholic Church does view baptism as a sacrament. They also view it, in a similar way, as a sign and seal applying the benefits of salvation. Their view of the efficacy of baptism (that grace is automatically given, and the recipient is placed into a state of grace because of the baptism) is the real issue. Closely connected with this is the person administering the sacrament. Does baptism depend upon the merit of the one performing it?

Those who followed Thornwell argued that a Catholic priest is not a lawfully called minister of God. Hodge argued that priests are true ministers. It is the hierarchical structure, and ultimately the papacy, that shows the Roman Catholic Church to be a synagogue of Satan, Hodge argued. However, locally, the priest is called by a particular community of those professing faith in Christ. What this means is that a Catholic priest performing a baptism is different from your older brother baptizing you in a bathtub when you were children. Something official is taking place.

John Calvin deals with this question in chapter 15 of the third book of the Institutes. There is a reason why Calvin was not rebaptized after the Reformation took place, and the reason is our defense as well today. In baptism, it is the Lord who places His seal upon the baptism, regardless in that sense whose hand performs it.

Calvin gives the illustration of reformation under King Josiah and King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18; 22; 23). Though wicked hands performed the circumcision of thousands, these faithful kings did not call for a second circumcision. The same is true for us. Whether it is a priest or a female pastor performing the baptism, the beauty of the sacrament is in the person speaking. That person is God.

The nature of the sacrament itself keeps us from seeking to rebaptize those who become Reformed after having come from the Roman Catholic Church. In baptism, it is God who makes a promise to the child. The promise given in the sacraments is “to forgive our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross” (HC A 66). That promise is the same whether someone was baptized by the pope or by your pastor. Baptism is a covenantal claim of a child to be identified with God and to be a member of His church and people.

Conclusion

The acceptance of Roman Catholic baptisms has been less of a debate for those from the Three Forms of Unity tradition than it has for the Presbyterian (WCF) tradition. Nevertheless, it is important to know where we stand on the issue because it ought to be our prayer that we will be faced with this scenario very often. When Sarah, the young woman who was baptized Roman Catholic, became a member of our congregation, she made profession of faith. She was not rebaptized, and the reason why is because she had already received a water baptism, in the name of the Trinity and performed by a priest. The promise of God was given to her in her baptism, and when she confessed her love for the Lord, that promise was publicly realized by the congregation. As a congregation, we rejoiced with her and praised God for His gracious sacramental promise, which was given to her and to us all in our baptisms.

For Further Reading

http://www.hornes.org/theologia/charles-hodge/do-rc-clergy-count-as-gospel-ministers.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2:1303–23 [3.xv]. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. 2 vols. Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.

http://www.pcahistory.org/pca/2–078.html.

https://archive.org/stream/churchandpolity00hodguoft#page/214/mode/2up.

 

Rev. Steve Swets
is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON.

 
The Certainty of Scripture

I remember the first time I sprained my ankle playing basketball. I had been free of injury and flying high until it happened. Initially the pain of a first ankle sprain was excruciating. But what was worse was the aftereffect. Not knowing what I was supposed to do, I tried to put weight on it, only to feel even worse pain. Without my feet under me I was left with a feeling of uncertainty.

In a similar way, without a foundation for our faith we will have nothing more than uncertainty. And the Scriptures are that foundation. Not only do we find in Scripture beautiful literature and glorious descriptions of God, but also we find them to be the foundation that gives our faith, hope, and love certainty in this life. You need to know why you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God to the world, as I showed in our last article; you need to know why they are authoritative for doctrine and living.

To demonstrate how the biblical authors themselves saw their message and writings as the foundation for certainty, I’d like to explore 2 Peter 1:16–21 with you. In these verses we learn this fact: The most certain thing we have in this life is the Word of God. This is in direct contradiction to the claim of Pope Paul VI, who decreed at the Second Vatican Council in 1965:

. . . it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.1

Note the context of 2 Peter 1 that leads to the conclusion that Scripture alone is our foundation. Peter opens by saying that God’s power has granted to us all we need for life and godliness (v. 3). He has granted what we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of Jesus Christ, who calls us to His own glory and excellence (v. 3). By this glory and excellence He grants to us His precious and very great promises (v. 4). Through these promises we become partakers of God’s divine nature (v. 4), which means becoming creaturely partakers of the Creator’s holiness. We see this as Peter goes on to say that we have escaped from the corruption of the world (v. 4). This is why he exhorts us to all the godly virtues (vv. 5–9), saying if we do not grow in them, we have forgotten that we were cleansed from our former sins (v. 9). And this is why we must make our calling and election sure (vv. 10–11). Verses 12–15 bring this all to a summary: as his time on earth draws to a close, Peter says he writes to give the assurance that we have received the truth. Second Peter 1:3–15, then, is Peter’s final assurance that those who read his final letter have been established in the truth of God’s precious and great promises. He then goes on prove that having been established in the truth, we can be certain of God’s promised truth (vv. 16–21).

The Certainty of Peter’s Eyewitness

Peter first describes the certainty of his eyewitness to Jesus Christ: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (v. 16). The certainty that he can offer is the certainty of one who lived with Jesus for the three years of His public ministry. Peter was chosen by Jesus. Peter walked with Jesus. Peter ate with Jesus. Peter heard Jesus teach as one with authority. Peter was there for Jesus’ astonishing signs and wonders. Peter was there when Jesus was betrayed. Peter sadly was there denying the Lord even as the Lord was on trial. Peter saw the Lord risen from the dead (1 Cor. 15). Peter saw the wounds in His hands, feet, and side. Peter ate with the Lord after the resurrection. Peter was taught by Jesus for forty days before the ascension. In verse 16, Peter particularly points out that he was there at the Mount of Transfiguration, when Jesus’ glory was revealed and Moses and Elijah appeared (Matt. 17): “he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory” (v. 17a).

Peter could not have been any more certain for himself that he was not following “cleverly devised myths” but was established in the truth of God’s precious and great promises because he saw the “majesty” of Jesus Christ revealed before his very eyes. And he wants us to have that same assurance.

The Certainty of Peter’s Ear Witness

We don’t doubt that those who saw Julius Caesar or George Washington and then wrote down what they saw were telling the truth. But Peter goes on to write of another source of his certainty: his ear witness. He not only saw Jesus from a distance but also heard Him as a close friend. And not only did he see Jesus transfigured in glory, but also he heard the voice of God the Father from heaven, testifying about the truth of who Jesus was: “‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (vv. 17b–18). Peter’s fellow disciple, John, described the firsthand knowledge of Jesus in similar terms: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).

Peter heard God. He heard a distinct voice. He heard distinct words. He heard a distinct testimony about the Jesus he was following, listening to, and believing in. And he wanted his hearers—us—to know this certain sound of the voice of our heavenly Father.

The Supracertainty of the Prophets’ Fulfilled Witness

The objection to this could obviously be, “But that’s what Peter experienced or thought he experienced.” And if that was all there was, we would be left uncertain and wondering how we could distinguish Peter’s experience from Siddhartha Gautama’s (the Buddha), Muhammad’s, or Joseph Smith’s. Why should I trust what Peter experienced?

And so Peter adds a climactic reason for certainty that is not subjective but objective. After all that Peter says so certainly about his certain experience and peculiar experience as an apostle, there was something “more sure” (v. 19) that gives us total confidence that we have been established in the truth of God’s promises: the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets.

This term, “more fully confirmed” or “more sure” (bebaioteron), is vivid. The New International Version and the New American Standard Bible translate it as “made more sure,” but “made” is not in the Greek text. The point Peter is making is that the Old Testament Scriptures are more certain, more sure; they are not made so.2 This word is used in several places in the New Testament. In Hebrews 6:19 it is used of an anchor for our souls. In 2 Corinthians 1:7 it is used of our hope. In Romans 4:16 it is used of the promise to Abraham that he was justified by faith. In Hebrews 3:6 and Hebrews 3:14 it is used of our confidence. And here in 2 Peter 1:10 it is used of making our calling and election sure.

Notice what Peter is saying. The prophetic Scriptures of the Old Testament that pointed forward to Jesus Christ hundreds and thousands of years before His birth are more certain than the “cleverly devised myths,” Peter’s apostolic eyewitness, and even the testimony of God Himself on the Mount of Transfiguration. What Peter is saying is that in comparison with the prophetic word in the Old Testament as it was promised, we now have the total certainty and confidence that those prophecies have been fulfilled in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let me give an example of the narrative of how these promises have come true in Jesus Christ. In the midst of humanity’s sin and the Lord’s pronounced curse, the Lord promised the advent of a coming Savior who would be born of woman and would crush the head of the serpent who introduced sin and death (Gen. 3:8–15). Then, after subsequent generations the Lord was then pleased to choose one of Shem’s descendants—Abram—through whom to bring this one promised seed of the woman, who would bless the families of the all the peoples on the face of the earth (Gen. 22:15–18). Hundreds of years later a promise was given that this son would be born of a virgin and called Immanuel, “God with us” (Isa. 7:10–14). The offspring of Eve, of Sarah, and of the virgin would be a king (Isa. 9:2–7). This promised king would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2–5a). And the list goes on and on!

We have “something more sure”—the prophetic word in its fulfillment and confirmation. This is why Martin Luther said of this passage: “A prophet eminently should be he who preaches Jesus Christ. Therefore, although many prophets in the Old Testament have foretold things to come, yet they came and were sent by God for this reason especially: that they should foretell of Christ.”3

What is said of the prophets in particular is true of the Word of God in general, as a part of the whole. The Old Testament prophesied the coming of the Lord, and the New Testament is the chronicle of the coming of the Lord. This is why one writer said, “The written Word, believed to be the Lord’s mind, is the surest ground for faith to rest upon of any that ever has been or can be given to sinners who are subject to forgetfulness, jealousies and mistakes.”4

What certainty! What confidence! What assurance we have that God has spoken! God has spoken in the prophecies, poems, and epistles of our Old and New Testaments. Put this in the context of the aforementioned quote from the Roman pope. Rome says that Peter was the first pope. And popes have said Scripture plus tradition are equal sources of authority for believers. If so, why does Peter say that the Scriptures are the surest foundation that we have been established in the truth? Why does he not say we should believe his personal eyewitness to Jesus’ transfiguration is all that is needed? Why does he not say his word as pope is all that we need?

Because of certainty of the Word taught here, Peter tells us to “pay attention” to these words “as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (v. 19). For how long? Until the coming of Jesus Christ again: “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (v. 19). As John Calvin said, “All are immersed in darkness who do not look to the light of the Word. Therefore unless you want to cast yourself of your own accord into a labyrinth, you must take the utmost care not to deviate even a hair’s breadth from the direction of the Word.”5

Conclusion

Are you feeling confident as a believer at this moment? There is obviously a lot of uncertainty politically, morally, economically, and in every other way in the world. Yet in the midst of it all we can know for certain that God has spoken. And the Word He has spoken through prophets and apostles is sure. Since this Word is sure, your faith should and must continue to be sure.

___________ 

1. Dei Verbum, 2.9, found at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html.

2. See Simon J. Kistemaker, Peter and Jude, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 269.

3. Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter and Jude, ed. John N. Lenker (1904; repr., Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990), 247.

4. Alexander Nisbet, 1 and 2 Peter (1982; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1995), 239.

5. John Calvin, Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St Peter, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 12:342.

 

Rev. Daniel Hyde    
is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA.

 

 
The Log of Familiarism

Introduction

Pastor and author Kevin De Young has compared the danger of familiarity within worship to watching a flight attendant give the pre-flight instructions. You know the routine: how to properly buckle your seatbelt and what to do in the slim chance that something goes terribly wrong in flight.

I clearly remember the first time I flew. When the attendant started doing her pre-flight routine, I was all ears. Of course, it helped that these were the days before iPhones and earbuds. If I wanted to listen to music, it meant taking out the portable CD player and remembering to take headphones that didn’t fit neatly into my pocket.

Regardless, I listened to her every word as if my life depended on it (because it might). In case the plane goes down, take the oxygen mask and secure it over my own mouth before helping someone else. Got it. No problem, I thought. Except that I knew, deep down inside, that if the plane really were to take a nose dive, I was quite certain it wouldn’t matter whether I helped myself first or not.

That was many years ago. Now, whenever I fly, my electronic device is up and running long before the flight attendant gets around to her routine. And unless I’m sitting in one of the first few rows, I flat-out ignore her.

Why? Because of familiarity. I’ve heard it all before.

Identifying the Log

It’s not that different when it comes to church. Most of you who are reading this article have been there, done that. Sunday morning and Sunday evening. Week in, week out. Month after month, year after year, decade after decade.

But could it be that we’re so familiar with attending church and gathering for worship that we tune it out, like I tend to do with the flight attendant?

One of the beautiful things about Reformed worship is the biblical liturgy. There is a reason we do what we do. Yet there is where the danger lies. Its predictable nature makes it easy to check out.

For example, how often don’t we let the call to worship go in one ear and out the other? Trust me, I see it every week. God is kindly and graciously gathering us into His holy presence by His Word as His covenant people, yet all we can think about is where the lady in front of us got her coat, or what a rotten morning we had just to get to church, or how we’re going to get anything out of the service sitting in front of that family.

Or take the greeting. How often are we left unfazed that the creator of the universe meets with us sinners in a stance of mercy, peace, and grace? Ho-hum. On to the next.

And we’ve all been there when it comes to singing. The same words that may have led us to tears years ago now leave us unmoved. All we can think about is how slowly the pianist is playing or how loudly the organist is pounding.

We are so familiar with Exodus 20 that we could literally say it in our sleep. We know the pastor’s cadence. We could mimic his every pause and intonation. We check our watch. Then he says something about Jesus, reads a Bible verse that is supposed to be assuring, and we’re on to the prayer.

And we Reformed pastors love to pray long prayers! We’re all encouraged to listen, but it’s hard not to daydream. Occasionally we’re jolted when we hear our name mentioned, but usually we’re hearing words without listening.

We haven’t even got to the sermon yet. But if we’re being totally honest, even a great sermon sometimes leaves us uninspired. In part, because we think we’ve heard it all before. Or at least most of it.

Element by element, with each new passing week, we drift away (some of you literally) into our little semi-comatose kingdoms of self. While God is speaking directly to us, all we hear is white noise. Like Charlie Brown, blah-blah-blah.

 

Getting to the Root

We have to honestly assess ourselves. Why are we often numb to that which is familiar? Is it a case of been there, done that, heard it all before?

Speaking as a pastor, some of the blame rests squarely on us. If we rush through the elements of worship without challenging people as to why we do what we do, no wonder they have a tendency to be distracted. If our preaching lacks passion, how can we expect our people to be passionate?

Part of the reason I’ve given up listening to the flight attendants is that the vast majority of them go through their routine with about as much passion as a stump. I can understand how this happens. Maybe at first they were young and optimistic. “I’m going to be different. I’m going to be funny. Whatever happens, they can’t blame me for not trying!”

But then reality sets in. People aren’t looking. Some are even sleeping. No one seems to care. After a while, you lose the passion. Is it even worth trying? What’s the point? So the flight attendant does what she does because she has to. And some pastors are there. All duty, no delight. If he’s not amazed, why would I be?

But there is a deeper problem that affects both speaker and listener alike, and it is this: we are bored with God.

Bored with God? How is that even possible? God is a lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them!

But it’s true. Think of your reaction to seeing new Christians show up at your church. They’re excited, on fire, full of questions. Their enthusiasm exposes the darkness of our boredom. Or worse yet, we quietly congregate and criticize their newfound joy as either emotionalism or naive.

Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36–50 was like that. He invited Jesus to his house (because he thought he was pretty important). Everybody who was anybody was there. And then she walked in.

A notorious sinner (probably a prostitute). How embarrassing. She obviously wasn’t invited, but then it got even worse. She started making a scene. Talk about inappropriate! She was weeping and pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. And oh, how she carried on!

Yet her love for Jesus contrasted sharply with Simon’s lackluster pride. “Whoever is forgiven much, loves much. And whoever is forgiven little, loves little.” The point was clear.

Could it be that we in the Reformed community love God and others poorly because we aren’t all that amazed (at least anymore) that God has sent Jesus to forgive us?

And so the grace that used to amaze us bores us now. We still sing the song. We still talk the talk. But deep down in the recesses of our hearts, we’ve lost our sense of wonder, our sense of awe, our sense of surprise in the gospel of grace.

I wonder if that’s what happened to the older generation mentioned in Judges 2. We’re told these sober words: “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judg. 2:10).

Kids, these days. Will they ever grow up? But wait. The question that begs to be answered is this: How did the younger generation suddenly not know the Lord or the work that He had performed? Were they not listening?

Or could it be that their parents lost the wonder of the exodus, just like some of us have lost the wonder of the cross?

How the Gospel Addresses Familiarism

Familiarity is not the problem. We are. The answer is not to abandon the same old story and catechisms and liturgies and traditions and forms but to see that the doctrine, to use a line from the English playwright Dorothy Sayers, is the drama.

The gospel story that runs through the pages of the Bible is the most exciting, exhilarating, passion-producing story ever written. The problem is not God. He is amazing. His story of redemption is stunning. No, the problem is us.

Not only do we tend to take familiar things for granted, but also our hearts are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.

It hardly ever happens overnight. We usually don’t wake up one day and decide that we’re now unfazed by Jesus.

It’s more like the proverbial frog in the kettle. Slowly, over time, the temperature rises, and we don’t realize that we’re being lulled to sleep.

What’s the answer? How do we keep ourselves amazed? Not by turning to a different story or to different methods or to different means. The solution is found in being amazed again and again by the same old story—of Jesus and His love.

To be touched by the flames of the gospel, we have to get close to the blazing center. We must go to the cross daily. We must expect and long for preaching that brings Christ to us and us to Him. We must let the gospel be good news to these sinners’ ears.

And we must tell the next generation. Not merely out of duty, as if this is part of our job description. But out of the glorious duty of delight!

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,

and his greatness is unsearchable!

One generation shall commend your works to another,

and shall declare your mighty acts.

On the glorious splendor of your majesty,

and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.

They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,

and I will declare your greatness.

They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness

and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 

—Ps. 145: 3–8

Man of sorrows! what a name

For the Son of God, who came

Ruined sinners to reclaim

Hallelujah! What a Savior!

 

Rev. Michael J. Schout
is the pastor og Grace in Alto, MI. He welcomes your feedback at: mikeschout@gmail.com

 

Current Issue: November/December 2018
Volume 68 Issue 6

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Listen to a 42-minute audio lecture by Dr. Carl Trueman
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This lecture was given at the annual meeting of Reformed Fellowship held November 7, 2008, at Trinity United Reformed Church, 7350 Kalamazoo Ave SE, Caledonia MI.

 

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