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A Note for Preachers (and the rest of us as well!)

“Expound the law truly, and open the veil of Moses, to condemn all flesh, and prove all men sinners, and all deeds under the law, before mercy have taken away the condemnation thereof, to be sin, and damnable; and then as a faithful minister, set abroach the mercy of our Lord Jesus, and let the wounded consciences drink of the water of him. And then shall your preaching be with power, and not as the hypocrites. And the Spirit of God shall work with you; and all consciences shall bear record unto you, and feel that it is so. And all doctrine that casteth a mist on these two, to shadow and hide them, I mean the law of God, and mercy of Christ, that resist you with all your power.”

I recently came across this quote from the English Reformer William Tyndale, and I was moved by the clear and convicting thesis: we must teach the law of God fully (to expose the sinful) and we must teach the mercy of Christ fully (to heal the repentent).

Inevitably, when I hear a sermon or a testimony that omits or dilutes one or the other of these two doctrines, heresy follows close behind. And, no, that is not too strong a word. If the grace of God is offered to or “accepted” by a person with no real sense of their sinfulness and enmity against a holy God, it is cheap grace only, and cheap grace does not save. If the law of God is proclaimed to the exclusion of the grace available for all who thirst for it, the convicted hearer will depart shamed into believing that God’s forgiveness must be earned through penitential deeds. Both extremes are heresy indeed. Cheap grace denies the weight of the Cross; legalism denies its power.

So, whether from a pulpit or over a water-cooler, remember that the Gospel is not just, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!” Nor is it, “Thou shalt not…” The Gospel is the presentation of both the law of God and the grace of God. The one drives us to our knees; the other drives us to our Savior.

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Who invites whom to worship?

I was struck recently by a prayer in a worship service where God was “invited” into the assembly. I suddenly had in my head bizarre imagery of the nation of Israel gathering together in the courts of the Temple and then “inviting” God to join them. It is His house! They were the guests, entering in at His invitation. Though the veil of separation was torn and we may now freely enter His presence, we must remember that it is, in fact, His presence that we are entering. He is, by definition, there.

If He is not “in” the worship service, in fact, then the worshippers are in the wrong place. I am not speaking spatially –and we should not, when speaking of the presence of God. God is, of course, omnipresent. Even more specific to the concept of worship, Jesus promised that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He is there. Yet He is not there because they are gathered in His name; rather, when they are gathered in His name, they are, by that act, drawing near to His presence.

Gathering in His name is, in fact, an act of worship. If we are gathering in His name in our home, we are drawing nigh unto His presence. If we are gathering in His name is a field, on a boat, or in a cave, we are drawing nigh unto His presence. And, if we are gathering in His name in a church building, we are, again, drawing nigh unto His presence. Our gathering is not an invitation to God; our gathering is a worshipful acknowledgment that He is God.

God does not wait to see if we are worshipping Him properly, and then “show up” after we sing the third or fourth song. Much of the evangelical church has turned the very concept of worship on its ear. It is not about man; it is about God. Its purpose is not to make us feel better, or give us an emotional charge that will help us to rise above the challenges in our life. Its purpose is to bring glory and honor and praise to a holy God.

When we gather to worship, we are entering His gates with thanksgiving! We are entering His courts with praise! I think the classic worship song gets it precisely right: we have come into His house, and gathered in His name to worship Him. There is no need to invite Him. There is no need to wait for Him to “show up.” He’s already there; in fact, it was He who extended the amazing, gracious invitation to us, that we might come into His presence and offer sacrifices of praise and worship for who He is and for what He has done for us.

When you enter your worship service next Sunday, remember that it is He who issues the “call to worship.” He is there, awaiting your response. Will you acknowledge that you are on holy ground before the face of God? Or will you simply go through the rituals and motions, and hope that He drops by?

Seeker-Sensitive Churches: A Brief Biblical Critique

There are now many, many churches that have adopted the “seeker-sensitive” model of church growth; that is, they adapt their music, their “look,” their delivery, and even their content so that the unchurched will feel comfortable in the service and not feel as though they had entered into a strange new world fixated upon sin, death, blood, and other such uncomfortable notions. These churches claim that they do present all of those historic truths of the biblical faith – they just tend to put them in other venues, such as discipleship classes and small groups. The Sunday morning service, however, is intended to target those who are “seeking” something. But what are they seeking?

 

Are they seeking a good time? Then “hip” contemporary music, casual styling, free coffee and pastries, and state-of-the-art drama, dance, and multimedia exhibits may provide that.

 

Are they seeking answers to questions concerning “life issues,” such as marital trouble, ill-behaved children, financial woes, or low self-esteem? Then pop psychology, couched in the comfortable pseudo-religious language of love, peace, and positive thinking may provide that.  

 

Are they seeking to validate their spirituality by engaging in something mildly religious? Then the Christian trappings – however vague and innocuous they may be – may provide that.

 

But are they seeking God? Paul would have thought this idea preposterous. He wrote specifically, in fact, that “there is none who seeks for God” (Romans 3:11; cf. Psalm 53). This he explains in the same letter by saying that the natural man suppresses the innate knowledge of God because natural man has a reprobate mind and is at enmity with God (Romans 1; 8:7).

 

The seeker-sensitive church, then, cannot be sensitive to a seeker of God, for there are none. Unregenerate man has no interest in the truths of God, no interest whatsoever. In fact, the unregenerate man hates God. Why would he then be seeking God? Only those whose hearts of stone are being replaced with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26); only those who are being quickened from death to life (Ephesians 2:1-5); only those who are being translated from the darkness into the light (1 Peter 2:9) have any interest in the truths of God. But will they find that for which they hunger and thirst in a seeker-sensitive church?

 

Will they hear the call to repentance? Will they hear of the insufficiency of their own righteousness? Or of Christ who washed us from our sins in his own blood (Revelation 1:5)? Or of the atonement made once for all to those who are being saved, that they may be reconciled to God (Hebrew 7:27; Colossians 1:21)? In short, will they hear the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16)? Or will they only hear that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives? Many who hear that and take comfort from it ought rather to be told that His plan for their lives may well be anything but wonderful, for they, in their wickedness and sinful rebellion against the righteousness and holiness of God, may be subject to the imminent onslaught of His dreadful wrath (Romans 1:18; Hebrew 10:31).

 

The seeker-sensitive church, then, is only sensitive to those who are seeking everything but God. For those who are seeking for God, those who are to receive the inward call from God, such churches are not sensitive at all. This is to their shame. Whenever the church tries to model herself after the world, so that the world will feel at home there, she has abandoned her calling. There is no conversion where there is no conviction, and there is no conviction without sound exposition of the Word of God. There is no redemption where there is no repentance, and there is no repentance where there is no presentation of the law of God. Paul again: “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The words of Christ are both convicting and restoring, and both must be preached. Anything less is another gospel.

Why I Don’t Sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

 As the nation gears up to celebrate our independence, many churches will take the opportunity to do so as well in their worship services – particularly as the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday this year. In addition to other patriotic standards such as the Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and others, many of those churches will be singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. As I have reflected lately upon this song – which I confess I have sung heartily for most of my life (in church, no less) – I have become convinced that the theology contained therein is not biblical, nor does the song’s history commend it to be sung by the Christian church.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe after she visited a war camp of the Union Army. Mrs. Howe was a Unitarian and an adherent of Transcendentalism. She wrote this song (for which she was paid five dollars when it was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly) from her unique theological perspective.

The first two verses set the stage for the song’s theology:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.

His truth is marching on.

 

I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps;

They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.

His day is marching on.

Among the assumptions that Mrs. Howe incorporated into these lyrics are:

  • The Civil War was to be viewed apocalyptically
  • The Union Army was God’s army, dispensing His wrath on the Confederacy
  • God dwelt in the midst of the Union camps and their fires were alters to Him
  • The Union Army is even to be equated with God’s Word (“His sword”)

 

Though the version sung in many churches (and printed in many church hymnals) leaves out the third verse, it specifically equates the Gospel with the Union Army’s bayonets and swords:

I have read the fiery gospel writ in the burnished rows of steel.

As ye deal with My contempters, so with you My grace shall deal;

Let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel.

Since God is marching on.

In this verse, the Messianic promise in Genesis 3:15 is connected – not with the victory of Christ over sin and death – but with the “hero” (the Union Army) crushing the “serpent” (the Confederacy). Also extremely problematic is that God’s grace is intricately tied to the way in which one responds to His “contempters” in the particular context of the Civil War.

In the fourth verse, Mrs. Howe wrote:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.

O be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!

Our God is marching on.

Here, we see a picture of God weighing the hearts of men and judging them accordingly on the basis of the war. We are thus enjoined to be “swift” and “jubilant” as we fulfill His judgment against His enemies – in context, of course, killing Southerners.

The final verse declares:

In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.

As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on.

Apart from the obvious error of saying that Christ was “born among the lilies,” these lyrics betray the fundamental rejection of the deity of Christ common to Unitarians. Christ died “to make men holy”; that is, He lived and died nobly, that we might follow His example. Yet it remains for man (through government and social action) to “make them free” through the death associated with war. Even changing “die” to “live” (as some hymnals do) does not avoid the blatant social element of the “gospel” being presented.

This song, then, has little to commend it to the Christian who takes seriously the Word of God and the orthodox doctrines derived from it. Further, the song has nothing to do with the historic event of America’s independence from England; it is uniquely addressing the war that rent our nation in two. While the underlying issue of slavery in that war was indeed a moral one, and while the morally right position won the day, The Battle Hymn of the Republic interjects the grace of God, the judgment of God, and the Gospel of God into the conflict in such a way as to significantly blur the theological import of each of these into the internecine struggles among sinful humanity.

As Christians in this great nation, we may indeed celebrate our freedoms and honor those by whom such freedoms were purchased. However, as Christians, our greatest freedom does not yet await another’s living or dying, but was purchased for us by Jesus Christ once for all. Amidst the celebratory events surrounding our nation’s independence, perhaps the best use of the time we gather to worship corporately would be to remember the deliverance won for us – not on the battlefield – but on the cross of Calvary.

The Crucifixion Transformed Evil into Good

 

Meditate upon the work of the Savior on the Cross…

Such were the evil things connected with the cross, which by the work done by the Son of God have all turned into good. All our evils He took upon Him that He might secure for us all the good belonging to Himself. For condemnation, He gives us pardon; for shame, honour and glory; for weakness, strength; for pain, ease and comfort; for the curse, the blessing; for rejection, acceptance; for hatred, love; for death, life everlasting. He that believeth hath all these things. All the evil passes to Him, and all the good to us, on our crediting the testimony of the Holy Ghost to the cross and the things done there.

This cross, where so many evil things meet, is the place where all good things are to be found. God gathered all the evil to that spot, that He might utterly make away with it, through Him who took all the evil on Himself, that He might bring out of it only good. At the cross it was consumed by fire: it was buried out of sight. The crucifixion transformed evil into good.

— Horatius Bonar

ERFM outreach to Myanmar

ERF is engaged in ministry with the Reformed Churches of Myanmar. RCM is a small group of Christians located in the isolated Chin Hills region. They presently have seven churches scattered among the neighboring villages. The founding pastor, Ken (name changed for his safety) is a godly man wholly committed to the cause of Christ. Ken has translated The Glory of His Grace into the local dialect (Kaang), as is also translating it into Burmese (the national language). In January, he travelled nearly 1000 miles to the capital city of Yangon to have 1000 copies of the booklet printed. After his return, he began distributing them throughout the region. He has also translated and distributed An Examined Life, as well as various theological treatises.
To learn more about these publications, visit our Resource page:
http://evangelicalreformedfellowship.org/resources.aspx

Ken has told me that what RCM needs most is a Bible school to train pastors so that they can plant churches throughout Myanmar and even into neighboring countries (such as Bangladesh, China, and Thailand). The nearest theological school, where Ken was trained, is in Yangon. ERF is committed to aiding RCM as the Lord provides.

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