Friday, May 26, 2006

The Tragedy of Virtual Worship

Virtual worship has become the norm in the evangelical church. The fact that reality has been forfeited for illusory good feelings should be obvious to anyone. Where is the reality in seeking to conduct church services with the slick patter of a Master of Ceremonies, punctuated by empty songs that mimic a worldly, easy style of rock music? And when all this is achieved by the pragmatics of applied marketing and business growth strategy rather than biblical principle where again is the reality?

Should we be surprised when religion is characterised in the media by a lack of reality and when in popular culture in general, Christian words have become empty words? The idea of the sacred seems to have vanished. The church thinks that it can broaden its appeal by mimicing the virtuality of the world. Why should folk want a mediocre version from the church of what they can already have from the world? In the same way that popular culture (particularly the sinister world of club culture) offers and manufactures brief ecstatic emotional experiences, the church has invented virtual worship (some, horrifically, have gone the whole way and developed 'rave' services). It is all of course, commercially driven with the latest worship fad also neatly manifesting itself as the leading marketing edge.

As Peter Masters shows this is the current point to which the sixties development of a popular culture version of worship has taken us. This revolution produced "a form of worship fashioned and conceived in the womb of the hippie meditational mysticism, in which hippies in their hundreds and thousands would sit on California hillsides with eyes closed, swaying themselves into an ecstatic state of experience. Former hippies carried into their new Christian allegiance the method of seeking the emotional release or sensations to which they were accustomed, and no one showed them a better way." Peter Masters, "Worship in the Melting Pot: Is New Worship Compatible with Traditional Worship?" in Sword and Trowel (no. 3, 1998), p. 13.

The apostle Paul speaks of the spiritual reality that should obtain in the worship of the Church, the unbeliever should come into the church service and be so convicted by God's Word that "falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth" (1Cor 14:25). Virtual worship creates 'virtual religion', and virtual religion creates virtual Christians. And sadly evangelicals have long been too effective at producing virtual Christians through the virtual conversions of high-pressure evangelistic technique.

Thus we hear of "post-modern" evangelical worship developing in the United States as the next stage beyond the blandness of so-called contemporary worship music and "seeker-sensitive/user-friendly" services. This can be a heady cocktail of any of the following: orthodox icons, rock music, candles, Gregorian chant, snippets stolen from Roman Catholic liturgies not forgetting some charismatic elements (see article by Daniel Harrell, Leadership Journal, Spring 1999, Vol.XX, No. 2, p.37). Youth For Christ in the UK have likewise developed in past years something called Labyrinth a multi-media "spiritual" journey experience that involves meditation, candles and music Anything is permitted as long as it feels "authentic." But what feels authentic is no standard of what is authentic, no longer is the standard spoken words that conform to Scripture. There may be a show of humility (and that word "show" is vitally significant) in these things but they are "will-worship".

But where carnal pretence reigns we find nothing better than the "novel spirituality" that was generated through manufacturing a golden calf which could be worshipped as the gods who had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. As John Calvin notes, man's mind, "so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols," so that "it dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God." (Institutes 1.11.8). Virtual worship brings God down to the conceptions of man and squeezes God into human capacities: human preferences and thoughts. The LORD has made it clear that He will not be worshipped according to the mind and will of man. "Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men" (Isaiah 29:13).

It is a conflict between carnal pretence and divine precept. The same conflict was apparent at the time of the Reformation (read "War Against the Idols", Carlos M. Eire). In fact, the Roman Catholic Church with its refusal to be instructed and directed by the Word of God alone has always mastered its own virtual worship of a man-made syncretistic type that focuses on the visual. Evangelicalism with its fashion-driven will-worship has taken the same route. We must remember, however, that the great tragedy of virtual worship is not just its fictitious nature but that it transgresses the second commandment and strikes at the glory of God.

Friday, May 19, 2006

mistaken assumptions about the Church

In the current climate of evangelical indifferentism there is a vital necessity of regulating our doctrine of the Church and its government by Scripture alone or establishing what is of divine right and authority. We must be clear that we have been provided with the revealed will of God
concerning the Church in the Scriptures. We are confined to express statement and command, approved example, or to what these entail, "The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture" (WCF I.6, 2 Tim. 3:16). We are not permitted
to govern the Church in our own wisdom, instituting that which is right in our own eyes for this would deny Christ His headship over His own Church. In matters of "ordinances" in the Church, there is a single definite will of God (1 Cor. 11:2, 16 &23).

What is meant by "good and necessary consequence" is not human wisdom but "reason captivated and subdued to the obedience of Christ" (George Gillespie). The consequence must be necessary, that is to say it must be demanded by a relevant Scripture passage. This means taking premises stated in the Scripture and using sanctified reason in order to draw their
inexorable conclusions which although not expressly stated in a particular verse are nevertheless entirely warranted as the conclusions of such a process. The doctrine of the Trinity (besides others) belongs to this method of using the Scriptures.

Some in our day will deny this application of the regulative principle. In fact they do not wish to apply the principle much at all except perhaps in the area of doctrinal teaching in order to maintain some sort of deference to the doctrine of the sufficiency of the Scriptures. Most evangelical doctrinal statements claim to regard the Bible as the final authority in all matters of belief and practice, which actually entails a wider application of that doctrine whether they acknowledge this or not. The attitude has prevailed for a lengthy period in evangelicalism that there is a simple gospel to be safeguarded in the Scriptures but nothing else much matters. We
now live in a day when that "simple gospel" is, however, no longer purely scriptural in the mainstream of evangelical proclamation. Evangelicalism as David Wells has shown in No Place for Truth no longer has a theology: "Being evangelical has come to mean simply that one has had a certain kind of religious experience that gives colour to the private aspects of daily life,
but in which few identifiable theological elements can be discerned or, as it turns out, are necessary...It is enough for them to know that Christ somehow died for people" (p.131).

In a day of pragmatism and simply doing what works rather than what has Scriptural authority, it is anathema to the secularised ideology of evangelicalism to suggest that we should be bound by Scripture and its principles. Scripture is to bind us as little as possible. This is in fact an old battle that had to be faced squarely at the Westminster Assembly and during the whole post-reformation era. There were members of the Assembly that sought to defend the old Anglican view that gave "indifferent things" such as Church government to the monarch so that they could control the church, this is sometimes called Erastianism after Erastus who articulated the theoretical basis. Thomas Coleman was one of the Erastian Westminster divines, although their views were not prevalent in the eventual documents of the Assembly, they made themselves heard, as when Coleman preached to Parliament (July 1645) that the Assembly's agenda ought to be "Establish as few things by divine right, as well can be".

Divine right or jus divinum meant scriptural warrant. But if we do not give the authority to the Divine scriptures we give it instead to men, the king or individuals, human reason or prejudice or mere pragmatism and cultural influence. Although Coleman's principle may seem plausible it was crafted to serve his own agenda: he made it clear in the same sermon that the only thing that he wanted to establish by divine right was the King's/Parliament's authority by divine right. The attitude of the Scots commissioners to the Assembly on the other hand was "establish as much as possible by divine warrant" - it is in fact a stark choice, God's or man's authority.

It is necessary to be keenly aware of the other false assumptions that are most powerful and prevalent in the midst of these issues. Biblical studies has been under the influence of what are basically evolutionary assumptions for the last century and a half. The assumption of nineteenth-century liberalism, most notably represented by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Adolf Harnack was that religion evolved from polytheism through to monotheism and was becoming ever more rational. Schleiermacher's development was to make God simply a principle rather than a person, and to replace the Scriptures with "religious consciousness" as divine revelation. Thus the whole of religion became essentially subjective:the attributes of God were merely a
symbolical way of expressing aspects of "religious consciousness" such as the feeling of dependence. An individualistic religion like this, deemed the Church to be not strictly necessary, except as a "mere social centre, a human institution rather than the planting of God" (Louis Berkhof, p.561 -summarising the liberal position).

This was in fact quite similar to the Quaker view of each man inspired by the Spirit which bypassed all need for the Church, ordinances, sacraments, and even the Scriptures. It was
customary for quite a while therefore to deny that Jesus had ever intended to set up any kind of institution such as a Church, or even a community. All that he was concerned with, according to this view, was the more "pure", rational and evolved religion of liberalism: the Kingdom of God was merely a spiritual relation between the individual and his God. Developments of this view claim that Jesus expected an immediate apocalypse which would have made a new community a futile idea. Some evangelicals have taken on this higher critical idea: J.D. Allan in The Evangelicals: An illustrated version (Paternoster/Baker 1989) writes that, "when Jesus died, he seems to have made no provision for a continuing organization which would keep his ideas
alive" (p.5).

More prevalent is the idea that the disciples were something like a charismatic (or Quaker) sect who were immediately inspired by the Spirit and that there was no office or government in the early Church, but that the Holy Spirit governed alone and that this became quickly institutionalised with monarchical bishops in place by the end of the first century in a fixed
hierarchy. This is not only an academic notion but loosely corresponds to popular evangelical assumptions. Too often we read back our own reflection on to the New Testament Early Church and our own experience and ideal of charismatic chaotic spontaneity which has far more to do with a tradition of Evangelical pietism of the last century or so with its subjective, individualist fads than authentic apostolic experience. Millenarian or apocalyptic sects such as the Quakers and the Plymouth Brethren have often assumed that they are restoring a preinstitutionalist church where the Holy Spirit governs alone, and in doing so have exalted a particular interpretation of the Book of Acts above the other material in the New Testament. Restorationist charismatics do this in the same way that Edward Irving in the 19th century did, aiming to restore apostles as a prelude to Christ's second coming or other eschatological events. Such groups do not really use the book of Acts as an exact blueprint anyway, but rather their
interpretation. As Edward Donnelly points out: "Constitutions of Restoration churches do not, as far as we know, make provision for discipline by supernatural capital punishment (5:1-1)...Some who insist on a weekly Lord's Supper as the only scriptural pattern, for example, are not noted for a willingness to sell their possessions and hold all property in common (2:44,45)". (p.7, RTJ, 1998). We must seek to understand the full sweep of Biblical material and take especial note of the commands of Scripture rather than adopt assumptions and slogans that do not do justice
to the Scriptures.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

How considering Christ restrains sin

“...let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us...Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” Hebrews 12:1-4

There is enough provision in the person and work of Christ to escape and mortify every and any sin (Phil. 4:13; Rom. 13:4). Help has been laid upon this Mighty One so that He is able to give all needed grace to those that are in Him and that abide in Him (Jn. 15:3; Is. 40: 27-31; 2 Cor. 12:9). This is received and strengthened by acting faith upon the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:16-17). The consideration of Christ assists and enables us to act faith upon Him in order that we may find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). Faith acted upon Christ cannot change sin in its nature but it can take away its efficacy or power to work. We ought then to consider each of the aspects of the person and work of Christ the Mediator in order to seek strengthening in the restraint of sin in the affections and conscience.
  1. Consider Christ in eternity, when His delights were with the sons of men (Prov. 8:31). His delights were in His own people, not in their sins but rather in their justification, sanctification and glorification from sin. Sin is therefore averse to that which was Christ's eternal delight, the joy that was set before Him – that He might present to Himself a sinless, pure Bride with exceeding great joy. He loved you believer, with an everlasting loved and do you think that He loved you so in order that you might despise such love by continuing in sin?
  2. Consider Christ in His covenanting with the Father in eternity to lay down His life for the sheep, to be a Surety for His people. His soul would be an offering for sin. Did he covenant His blood with God against sin and will you covenant with sin against God and against such a provision? Did He consider you from all eternity and will you not consider Him aright? Did He esteem you in the loathsomeness of your sin and will you then esteem your loathsome sins more highly than Him?
  3. Consider His humbling of Himself by coming into a world of sin for you, and will you not forsake the world of sin for Him?
  4. Consider Him taking a sinless human nature into union with His own Divine Person in order that He might be like unto His brethren in all things apart from sin. Scripture even says that he came in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3), such was the humiliation though He was yet holy, undefiled and separate from sinners. If the soul of righteous Lot was vexed each day by the sin that he witnessed in Sodom, how much greater was the trial for the holy soul of Christ to witness sin on every hand. Shall we delight in that which must have vexed His soul so grievously? He that was rich became exceeding poor that we through His poverty might become rich and not so that we might yet long after the destitute poverty and disgrace of sin.
  5. Consider Him being circumcised as symbolic of putting away sin that He did not have, promising that He would perform all righteousness and as humbled by being made under the Law (Gal. 4:4; 5:3). This was His voluntary obedience – shall we match it with our wilful disobedience?
  6. Consider Him in the temptations that He experienced at the hands of Satan and will you not seek strength and help from Him in the day of temptation?
  7. Consider His betrayal at the hands of one of His friends, and will you, as it were, covenant with sin to betray Him?
  8. Consider His exceeding sorrow and anguish in Gethsemane because of the nature of the sacrifice that was required for sin. Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow – will you despise such sorrow and go on in sin and not rather grieve over your past sins and the corruption of your heart?
  9. Consider His denial by Peter and how he was forsaken by all His disciples, are you going to deny and forsake your Master out of love to sin and this present evil world?
  10. Consider the cruel mocking and scourging that He faced at the hands of wicked men, being set at nought by the men of war. Will you yourself turn enemy to your Beloved and Friend by warring with sin against Him and despising His sufferings for sin as a thing of nought?
  11. Consider the people's choice of Barrabas in preference to Christ. Will you choose sin above Christ, which is a murderer of men's souls, of Christ Himself and a thief of God's glory?
  12. Consider His prayer for those that crucified Him. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. Will you go on in sin with these words in the ears of your conscience, knowing what YOU do in sinning against Him? Surely it is true that if apostasy can be described as crucifying Christ afresh and putting Him to an open shame, sin lapsed into by the professing Christian wounds Him afresh in some way.
  13. Consider His sufferings in His body, painfully and shamefully bleeding to death. Read Psalm 22 in order to have a sense of the physical agonies that He experienced in every part of His body to the utmost (Ps. 22:14). Will you despise such sufferings in embracing the sin that caused your Saviour such agonies?
  14. Consider what it means when Scripture declares that He “condemned sin in the flesh” and “suffered in the flesh”. He came to condemn that which condemned us. Let Christ be the ruin of sin in you.
  15. Consider the railing and blasphemy He endured upon the cross and will you revile Him to the face by joining company with sin and so standing in the way of sinners and sitting in the seat of the scornful?
  16. Consider the depth of His soul sufferings. Forsaken of God that you should never be forsaken of God eternally. Passing through the overwhelming consuming fire of the wrath of God and drinking the sup of damnation to the uttermost. Will you love the sin that poured Hell intensively into the soul of the Saviour, all for your sake that this should not be your eternal portion?
  17. Consider His continuing under the power of death for a time. The sting of death is sin. Your sin meant death for Christ – will you not put it to death?
  18. Consider His resurrection and that it is the same exceeding greatness of His power to usward who believe according to the working of His mighty power which He wrought in Christ when He raised Him from the dead (Eph. 2:19-20). How then with such power at work in you through the Spirit of Him that raised Christ from the dead are you not able to mortify the deeds of the body and live unto righteousness?
  19. Consider His exaltation to the right hand of the Father. It was when He had by Himself purged our sins that He sat down. We are seated with Him there. “ If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry”
  20. Consider His kingly rule, the purpose of which is to subdue all His and our enemies. What a rebellious enemy sin is – and will you join with an enemy of the King of Kings and your own self? Will you not rather plead the promise: “he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).
  21. Consider His prophetic office which is to teach us the will of God for our salvation. “This is the will of God even your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3). “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven” (Heb. 12:25).
  22. Consider His high priestly intercession for us: “I have prayed for thee”. His wounds and blood intercede on behalf of His people. “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Yet we are told of this in order that “ye sin not”.
  23. Consider the second coming of Christ. “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry...But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Col. 3:4-5, 8-10). “it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3).
    O that you and I would be without offence until the day of Christ (Phil 1:10). “the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.”