Saturday, July 28, 2012

Why We Sing 

Some thoughts from this Sunday's bulletin:

We come to church in order to praise God and to learn about who He is.  When Jesus commissioned His church, He said that their work was to "make disciples", which means teaching. 

People learn a lot of different ways, and church done right provides a lot of different ways to learn.  There's reading, there's listening to sermons, there's reciting creeds and Scriptures, there's discussion about the meaning of things.  The Sacraments provide a lesson to our sight, taste and touch about the nature of God's grace to us.  Active, passive, aural, even visual and tactile learning are all present. 

Any teacher of children will tell you that singing is one of the best ways to teach.  When people learn something in a song it often sticks with them in a way that nothing else does.  People remember songs their whole lives.  I have seen Alzheimer's patients that can't recognize their own children, but remember hymns they learned when they were children themselves.

Paul says the same thing in Colossians 3:16- "teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."

Songs in worship therefore need to have content, and good content.  The Psalms are a great example of what worship music should be like.  They are artistically beautiful, doctrinally rich and have some repetition but not a great deal.  Music should be simple enough that the congregation can all participate in singing.  Novelty should take a back seat; songs should be sung often enough that they can be learned.

This Sunday we sing "O For a Thousand Tongues", a hymn of praise to God.  The writer expresses his great joy at knowing God, knowing that one tongue alone is not nearly enough to properly express the magnitude of God's worth.  So he asks for God's assistance to give him strength to praise God in a way worthy of His great name.  He focuses on all the things God has done and is doing for him, especially through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

We also sing "God is our Refuge and our Strength", from Psalm 46.  That hymn concentrates on God's might and preserving power.  The psalm uses the image of a river that brings life and prosperity to a city; the life-bringing Spirit of God is often described in Scriptures as a river, a river that brings life.  Jesus said that all who come to Him would receive living waters, that all who drank of that water would never again thirst.  God's power is such that all His enemies will be cast down and God's people will dwell in peace and prosperity.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Israel is the apple of God's Eye 

 Zechariah 2:7 "Up, Zion! Escape, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon."
 8 For thus says the LORD of hosts: "He sent Me after glory, to the nations which plunder you; for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye."

If we understand the true nature of Israel, and what role Israel plays in God's redemptive history, we will be a lot less concerned with Middle Eastern politics and a lot more concerned with how we treat the local church and the believers in that church.  The church is Zion, the Israel of God, the seed of Abraham by faith. He who attacks or neglects the church does it to Christ, to the apple of God's eye.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Covenant Theology 

Some thoughts about covenant theology from a recent presentation I gave:

Early in the Reformation, there was a difference within the Reformed camp about how to think about the Old Covenant.  Turretin outlines this disagreement well in Vol II, Twelfth topic, Q. 8 of his Elenctic Theology.  To summarize his argument, some Reformers (Calvin and Olevianus, among others) take the term “old covenant” in a broad sense, to mean everything that God did with His people from the fall to Christ.  They speak of this covenant as being one in substance, though different in accident, from the New Covenant in Christ.  Others (Turretin names Rollock, Piscator and Trelcatius among others) took the term “covenant” narrowly and strictly, to refer only to the legal covenant under Moses.  They speak of this covenant as a covenant of works, entirely different in substance from the New Covenant.  That covenant was given as a hypothetical offer of salvation on the condition of perfect obedience, in order to show men their hopelessness on their own and point them to Christ.  Turretin maintains that the difference between these two camps was only in terminology, in the way they used the term “covenant”- either broadly (the first group) or strictly (the second group).  Both agreed that the promises of the Messiah were taught in the Old Testament, though not as clearly as in the New. 

Both camps also agreed that there was a pure legal principle in the covenant with Moses that was opposed to grace and was there in order to convict the Jews of sin and show them their need for a savior.  Calvin says (ICR 2:7:2) that Paul in Galatians 3, in his statements about “law”, was referring to the law in its narrow and strictly legal sense in order to refute the Judaizing legalists of his day.  He therefore is agreeing that there is such a strict legal conception in the Mosaic Covenant, which was opposed to grace.  The difference is whether they were comfortable speaking of this as a separate “covenant of works” or not.  Turretin takes a position much like Calvin’s, speaking of the Mosaic covenant as a whole as of the substance of the covenant of grace, though it promulgates the law in order to convict the people.  Turretin’s handling of the subject is a wonderful presentation of Reformed consensus of the day.

In substance then the early Reformers were all largely agreed that there were two principles at work in the Mosaic economy.  There was a works principle, a hypothetical offer of salvation predicated on perfect obedience.  That legal element was placed there not because the Israelites would ever be able to fulfill it, but because they needed to be shown their need for a savior and convicted under the law.  It was, as Paul says, to make sin “exceedingly sinful.”  Because God knew they would not be able to keep these commandments, God also placed within the Mosaic economy gracious foreshadowings of Christ, the sacrificial system, and commanded them to make use of this sacrificial system whenever they fell into sin.  The Mosaic economy as a whole functioned within the broad plan of redemptive history.  But it did so by highlighting the requirements of God’s law and holding their guilt out to them.  Thus Peter speaks of it as a burden which “neither we nor our fathers could bear.” (Acts 15:10)  The Mosaic economy was also presented according to a particular form suited to the Israelite nation in order to enclose them and preserve them as a distinct people until the time of the coming of Christ and in preparation for that coming.

Turretin clearly acknowledges the existence of this legal principle in the Mosaic Covenant and has no major objection to calling it a “covenant of works”.  However, he insists that one cannot properly understand this legal principle outside of the scope of redemptive history and the gracious purpose for which it was given, and for this reason prefers to deal with it as just an element within the larger covenant of grace, rather than speaking of it as a covenant of works contrasted to the covenant of grace.  One difficulty with this insistence is that as Turretin and Calvin both admit, Paul does precisely this in Galatians 3-4, considering the “bare law in a narrow sense” (Institutes 2.7.2) in order to refute legalists. 

A big part of the reason for the insistence on the language of covenantal unity, according to Turretin (12th topic, q. 8, VIII), is because the Lutherans of the day taught that “the promise of grace is to be excluded from the Old Testament.”  (This came from later Lutherans, not Luther himself who clearly grounded pre-Christ salvation in faith in the promise of the Messiah.)  That is, they described the Old Testament, the entire dealings of God with His people from fall to Christ as being a covenant of works, and devoid of the promise of grace.  Many Reformers appear to have adopted a stronger monocovenantal language perhaps in part to sharpen the distinction between their theology and theology such as the Lutherans’ which denied the promise of grace entirely in the Old Testament.  One sees this same dynamic sometimes today in those who are intent on discriminating the Reformed view from the dispensational view which likewise denies that the promise of grace was present in the Old Testament period entirely. 

I believe the two-covenant language is to be preferred, as long as the proper caveats are made, because that two-covenant language is the language the Bible uses- Jeremiah 31:31-34, Galatians 4:24, “new covenant” language of the institution of the Lord’s Supper.  If you use that language, it is of crucial importance however to distinguish, to say that by the “Old Covenant” or “Covenant of Works” you are not referring to all of God’s dealings with His people before the coming of Christ, but only to the strict legal principle of the Mosaic economy, the Sinaitic covenant which said, “If you do this, you will be to me a people.”  The promise of the Messiah was clearly seen in the Old Testament throughout, and salvation in the Old Testament was by faith in the promise of God just as in the New. 

One advantage of speaking in this manner is that it allows you more clearly to separate the specific legal relation of the law from the moral principles contained therein.  Then we can say clearly that the law, as covenant, does not apply to the life of the believer in any sense, while still making clear that all of the moral principles taught in the law are just as valid today as they ever were.

It appears that speaking of the Mosaic covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace is the majority language, however, in the Reformed tradition.  The Westminster Confession in particular more strongly uses this language.  If the one-covenant language of Calvin is used, one must be careful (as Calvin is) to ensure that the works-principle present in the Mosaic economy is distinguished and separated from the overall promise of grace.  God’s people do not become God’s people by obedience to law, whether moral or ceremonial.  They do not “live” by the works of the law (Leviticus 18:5) but they live by faith in Christ.  The great risk is that in identifying the Mosaic covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace, one has unwittingly smuggled into the gospel a great deal of language speaking of blessings conditioned on obedience.

We ought not wrangle over words.  We should not present essentially terminological differences as being differences in core doctrines.  But whenever possible, Bibilical language is to be preferred, and the Bible speaks of the covenant of Moses and the covenant of grace in sharply antithetical terms in a number of places, most prominently Galatians 4, Jeremiah 31 and 2 Corinthians 3.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Coveted Youth Demographic 

When discussing the ratings of various TV shows, you'll sometimes hear the expression "the coveted youth demographic" (Google it!).  I don't know a ton about marketing, but I understand that all TV show ratings are not equal for marketing purposes.  Shows like "Matlock" or "Murder She Wrote" were tremendously popular, but never pulled in the huge marketing dollars, because their ratings skewed to an older demographic.  The "coveted" demographic is 18-34, or around there.  Why do advertisers "covet" this demographic?  Is it because advertisers want to be cool kids?  No, of course it's because they want to make money.  But people in this demographic do not typically have more money- people in their 40s and 50s typically are at the peak of their earning potential, and further have already set up their households and tend to have a lot more disposable income.  But here's the difference- the youth demographic is impressionable.  Their spending habits are not all formed in stone already.  A sixty year old man is unlikely to have his spending habits affected much by commercials he sees on TV.  So TV which is advertiser-supported is not really for him.  It's for the youth.

Now connect this to the way so many churches do business.  It is the youth that they are also targeting.  So much of the emphasis is put on youth groups, youth programs, Vacation Bible School, music which is appealing to young people, and so forth.  When I compare this to the behavior of money-oriented advertisers, I find myself very disturbed.  Is the church just chasing after the impressionable dollars and commitment of young people just like the advertisers are?  Are they taking for granted the financial support of the older saints, and tailor the church therefore to the young?  Young people often crave immediate gratification; the ability to work hard and suffer now for a future payoff is usually associated with a more mature attitude.  So much of the worship of the modern church is geared precisely toward this desire for immediate gratification- worship services are geared toward emotional experiences rather than rich content; messages are short and focused on immediate ways to have "your best life now" rather than the long-term deep relationship with God and with God's people that the Scriptures call us to have.

The prosperity gospel itself suffers not so much from a desire for good things, but from their inability to defer gratification.  God has promised us great riches, pleasure, joy and satisfaction- just not necessarily in this life. The prosperity gospel promises us a raise at work and a mortgage at a good rate.  God promises us streets of gold and the wealth of the world.

One really fundamental aspect of the Christian life is deferred gratification- laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven and not on earth.  Are we undercutting that in our churches?  In our desire to capture that "coveted youth demographic" through pandering to their immature desires, are we undercutting the very virtues that make the Christian life work?  Are we encouraging young people to mature and grow, to defer gratification, to work hard for the long-term payoff, or are we encouraging them to stay immature children by pandering to them as children?

Ecclesiology, what we do as church, how we "do church", is too often seen as an afterthought, a purely pragmatic question.  But the reality is, that the nature of the covenant community and the way it functions lies at the heart of the gospel and will affect every other aspect of our theology.  We need to be careful to ensure that the way we approach the business of the church doesn't undercut, but instead supports, everything else we say about the gospel and the Christian life.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Google Analytics Alternative