“Wiser than God?”–Heidelberg Catechism

goldfish

We live in a culture that has been called a “visual culture.” People my age and younger grew up watching television and it is said that everyone’s attention span is shorter than it used to be. And, now with IPhones and such, one study has shown that a goldfish has a longer attention span than a human (yeah, I know; can such a study really be trusted?). Modern churchmen have latched on to that thought and have postulated that if we are going to teach people about God, we are going to need pictures. The problem with that kind of thinking is that the second of the Ten Commandments states very clearly that “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Any image that we would make to portray God could never capture His worth and glory, and thus pictures of the Godhead must be placed in the category of idolatry.

The idea of using pictures of God to teach is not exactly a new thing. The writer of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, felt that it was needful to discuss it several hundred years ago. I love the way he handled the subject:

Q. May we then not make any image at all?
A. God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Creatures may be portrayed, but God forbids us to make or have any images of them in order to worship them or to serve God through them.

Q. But may images not be tolerated in the churches as ‘books for the laity’?
A. No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants His people to be taught not by means of dumb images but by the living preaching of His Word.

Yesterday, as we were about to share the Lord’s Supper, our pastor said something that bears repeating. He mentioned that although we do not have “pictures” in the place where we worship God to be an aid to worship, God has declared that we, as the church, may use two images to our benefit: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each of them is a “sensible sign” that points us to the truth of the Gospel. They are reminders that Christ took on human flesh, kept God’s Law (something that we could never do) on our behalf, died as a sacrifice for our sins, and if we rest in Him, our sins will be cleansed through His sacrifice.

I think that I will meditate upon what Ursinus said and not try to be “wiser than God.” No matter how short my attention span  is.

 

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“He is risen!”

empty tomb

Easter (or Resurrection Sunday, if you prefer) is not the earth shattering holiday for Old School Presbyterians that it is for so many others. Why, you may ask? It is simply because we celebrate His resurrection fifty-two Sundays a year. Every Sunday we gather to worship Him, confess our sins, be reminded of His sacrifice, and hear His glorious Gospel preached directly from His inerrant Word. For us, contemplating the phrase, “He is risen,” is not a yearly occurrence, it is a weekly occurrence. Three hundred years ago Isaac Watts captured with pen and ink the hallowed good news of the cross/resurrection event when he wrote:

Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain,
Could give the guilty conscience peace,
Or wash away the stain:

But Christ, the heavenly Lamb
Takes all our sins away,
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.

My faith would lay her hand
On that dear head of thine,
While like a penitent I stand,
And there confess my sin.

My soul looks back to see
The burdens thou didst bear,
When hanging on the cursed tree,
And knows her guilt was there.

Believing, we rejoice
To see the curse remove;
We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice,
And sing his bleeding love.

So for the thirteenth time this year we will gather, worship, and praise our Risen Lord this coming Lord’s Day, and look forward to next Sunday when we can do it all over again!

“La vie est dure, mais Dieu est bon”

archibald-campbell-tait-1811-1882-archbishop-of-canterbury-CP3R26

In A. N. Wilson’s, “Victoria: A Life,” he describes the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait: “He looked like a man who had been battered by life—a huge, fleshy face, pitted with line and scarred with grief.” Why might he look this way? During one year, five of his seven children (all daughters), ranging from the age of two to ten years, contracted scarlet fever and died. We think today, “How horrible!” (and it was), but such an ordeal was not that uncommon during the nineteenth century. It was just another reminder that we indeed live in a fallen world.

In our present day, although we may not usually see such loss in one family (at least in the United States), we still “know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” (Romans 8:22) Our world is filled with heartache, trouble, trial, sickness, sin, and death; and, as I sit here on this rainy Saturday night pondering my own problems, I am so grateful that tomorrow (Deo Volente) I can go and gather with God’s people and be reminded of God and His grace for me.

As the old French saying goes, “La vie est dure, mais Dieu est bon” (Life is hard, but God is good). And, because of that truth, I need to be with God’s people; I need to confess my sins; I need to join my brothers and sisters in prayer; I need to sing songs of praise to God; and I need to hear God’s Law, and the Gospel of His grace preached in my hearing. And, even if my face is “pitted with line and scarred with grief,” God’s grace is sufficient for me.

 

“Let the little children come to me…”

children-in-pew-300x199

Today at worship I sat in the next to the last row of our worship center, which meant that I was surrounded by young families on three sides. As a sixty-three year old my days of corralling a small child during a worship service are in my rear view mirror. Actually, they are in my wife’s rear view mirror, because as a pastor, I was always on the podium or in the pulpit during this time of struggle. She carries the battle scars of those difficult days, but I digress.

These young couples did a masterful job of working with their children. Yes, there was some noise. Yes, they had to go out with a child once (okay, maybe twice). But, they were doing something very important. They were teaching their children how very important worship is. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad don’t go to soccer games (or other places) on the Lord’s Day, but to church. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad pick up hymnals and sing songs of praise to God. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad confess their sins. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad pick up their Bibles and read along as God’s Word is read. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad put their tithe and offerings into the offering plate when it is passed. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad close their eyes and pray at the proper time (okay, maybe they peak to make sure no one escapes, but they work at it). Worship is so important that Mom and Dad are quiet and listen to the pastor open up God’s Word. Worship is so important that Mom and Dad do this Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year, and that lesson is not lost on a child no matter how small. It is a lesson that can never be learned in a children’s church or youth service. It can only be learned up close and personal by observing Mom and Dad on God’s day in God’s house.

Is it easy? No, but it is important. It is called parenting, and it is one of the most important things that we will ever do. So to all of those young families who are afraid that they are bothering the old guy with a gray beard and thinning, gray hair I say, “Thank you. Thank you for loving your children enough to accept the responsibility to teach them about the importance of gathering with God’s people and worshiping Him. And, by the way, I heard the sermon from 1 Peter about loving those around us with the overflow of God’s love, because of the foundation of God’s love, and the nature of God’s love. You didn’t bother me a bit. I heard every word.”

May the Lord bless the faithfulness of young parents!

“There’s no business, like soul business.”

I have always been a fan of the Rev. Will B. Dunn and the comic strip “Kudzu.” Sadly the reason that the strip is so entertaining is because the writer has his finger on the pulse on what is called Christianity in the twenty-first century. This may be why the modern worship center looks alarmingly like a theater or a recording studio. Maybe there is “no business like soul business.” It is comfortable, it is entertaining, maybe it is even exciting; but I am not convinced that “comfortable, entertaining, and exciting” are necessarily prerequisites to Gospel worship.

In that context I think back to what I experienced yesterday when I gathered with God’s people. We sang hymns of praise that contained Biblical depth. We confessed our sins and heard the promise of forgiveness from God’s Word. The Bible was read publicly (more than just a snippet) because that is how God speaks to His people. A child was baptized and we were reminded of the grace of God that is ours through what Jesus Christ did for us through His obedient life and sacrificial death. We called out to God in prayer. We heard the Word of God proclaimed. We shared the Lord’s Supper together which again reminded us of God’s grace. Christ was pointed to as our hope again and again.

It wasn’t comfortable, but it brought comfort. It wasn’t entertaining, but it was focused on God, both who He is and what He has done. It wasn’t necessarily exciting, but it fed more than just the emotion; it fed the soul. I am grateful that God Sunday after Sunday reveals Himself to us through simple things like prayer, Word, and sacrament. Maybe it is “soul business” after all.

“Old Truth in Old Forms”

Givens Brown Strickler lived quite a life. He was born on April 25, 1840 in northern Virginia. While a student at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion in the South. Promptly, many in the student body formed themselves into “The Liberty Hall Volunteers,” and became a part of the Stonewall Brigade to protect their beloved Virginia against an invasion by their own countrymen. Strickler fought bravely until he was captured at the top of Cemetery Hill during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. While a prisoner of war he “prayed, conducted religious meetings, made religious addresses; and in every practicable way sought to exert the best moral and religious influence on his fellow sufferers in prison,” according to John Miller Wells.

After the war he returned to Washington College (where Robert E. Lee was president at the time) to finish his degree and then on to Union Seminary to prepare for the ministry. As a pastor and seminary professor he touched many lives for the Gospel of Christ. But, his friend and colleague, Thomas Cary Johnson, said something about him which spoke volumes to me about what a pastor should be:

Dr. Strickler was a pre-eminently great teacher of the Reformed Theology. He gave himself to inventing no new statement of any old truth; but accepting the old truth in its old forms he exhibited unrivalled skill in expounding, defending, and impressing this theology as set forth in the Westminster Standards—that rugged and massive system of Christian truth which so perfectly matched his own character, which had moulded his own character.”

Pastors don’t have to “cast visions,” be clever, entertain, come up with new and imaginative ideas, etc., they just need to “expound, defend, and impress” the truth of Scripture to their congregations. God’s flock needs to be fed with the green pastures of God’s Word, not the spirit of a shallow and callous culture. Thank you, Dr. Givens Strickler, for showing us a better way.

Tuesday Hymns: “Christ Shall Have Dominion”

christ shall have dominion

We sang a Hymn last Sunday morning that I had never sung before (I have seldom been able to write those words) and because of that it is our Tuesday Hymn of the Week. It was entitled, “Christ Shall Have Dominion” and it is sung to the same tune as, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Like so many of the hymns in our Trinity Hymnal, it comes from The Psalter of 1912. It is a metrical version of a segment of the 72nd Psalm which reminds us of the good news that Our God Reigns.

In this troubled world in which we live it is good for us to remember that Satan is bound (yes, the chain sometimes seems very long), and he cannot hinder the purposes of God being fulfilled. His (Christ’s) Gospel is going out to “men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and [Christ] hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10) We need not fear that Christ and His Church will be defeated for not even the “gates of hell shall overpower” them.

“For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36)

Christ shall have dominion, over land and sea,
Earth’s remotest regions shall His empire be;
They that wilds inhabit shall their worship bring,
Kings shall render tribute, nations serve our King.

Refrain

Christ shall have dominion, over land and sea,
Earth’s remotest regions shall His empire be.

When the needy seek Him, He will mercy show;
Yea, the weak and helpless shall His pity know;
He will surely save them from oppression’s might,
For their lives are precious in His holy sight.

Refrain

Ever and forever shall His Name endure;
Long as suns continue it shall stand secure;
And in Him forever all men shall be blest,
And all nations hail Him King of kings confessed.

Refrain

Unto God Almighty joyful Zion sings;
He alone is glorious, doing wondrous things.
Evermore, ye people, bless His glorious Name,
His eternal glory through the earth proclaim.

Refrain

“As was His [Jesus] custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath.”

Sunday

Oh, that with yonder sacred throng
We at His feet may fall!
We’ll join the everlasting song,
And crown Him Lord of all!
We’ll join the everlasting song,
And crown Him Lord of all!

Immediately before the Benediction during this morning’s worship we sang Edward Perronet’s 1779 hymn, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” The last verse in the Red Trinity Hymnal was written nine years later by John Rippon and added to Perronet’s version, and it is printed above. As we sang that verse I was almost moved to tears. There was nothing “miraculous” about it. It was just God’s Hand of Providence at work.

We had sung praise to God. We had confessed our sin. We had heard God’s Word read. We had given God’s Tithe and our Offerings. We had heard a message from God’s Written Word, and now as we were about to leave, we were singing of the joys of eternity that will be ours all because of the manifold grace of our Jesus Christ.

I suppose the emotion came because the preceding week had been trying. We had faced challenges and struggles; many of which were those continuing kind of struggles that may not disappear until the new heavens and the new earth. Yet, in gathering with God’s people and focusing on and worshiping the One who is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, I found a hope that was at best feeble before I arrived at 4220 Crow Road this morning.

It reminded me of a verse from a hymn by Christopher Wordsworth that speaks of this weekly opportunity to grow in God’s grace:

New graces ever gaining
from this our day of rest,
we reach the rest remaining
to spirits of the blest.
We sing to You our praises,
O Father, Spirit, Son;
the church its voice upraises
to You, blest Three in One
.”

Ordinary Actions

new-and-improved

We live in a world where “new and improved” is the rage. We need excitement! We need thrills! We need bells! We need whistles! As one church advertised: “No more boring church!” However, all of that reminds me of something that R. C. Sproul once said, “There is one thing that I never find in the Bible when a person comes into the presence of the living God: ‘He is never bored.’” We don’t need a “new and improved” way to come into the presence of God, we have the “tried and true” way.

Way back in 1640s the men at the Westminster Assembly restated the Biblical proviso of how to draw near to God as His people that we might grow in grace:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

We recoil at the word, “ordinary,” yet Christ has ordained the simple actions of “reading and preaching the Word; administering water, bread, and wine; and calling out to God in praise and supplication” as the means to discover Him anew, when we as His people gather in His name week in and week out. It is sufficient whether you are in a cathedral in London, a storefront in New York, or a grass hut in the jungle of deepest Africa. Word. Sacraments. Prayer. It is sufficient, and never boring (at least it isn’t if you are one of His children).

 

Tomorrow is the Lord’s Day

patriotic worship

The story is told (although I have never seen other than anecdotal evidence that this event actually happened) that during the Revolutionary War a group of British soldiers entered a Long Island church on a Sunday morning and ordered the congregation to sing, God Save Our Gracious King which was the British national anthem (sort of, not officially until the 19th century). The congregation responded by singing a hymn which (at that time) was sung to the same tune:

Come, thou Almighty King,
Help us thy name to sing,
Help us to praise:
Father, all glorious,
O’er all victorious,
Come, and reign over us,
Ancient of days.

Come, thou Incarnate Word,
Gird on thy mighty sword,
Our prayer attend:
Come and thy people bless,
And give thy Word success;
Spirit of holiness,
On us descend.

Come, Holy Comforter,
Thy sacred witness bear
In this glad hour:
Thou who almighty art,
Now rule in every heart,
And ne’er from us depart,
Spirit of power.

To the great One in Three
Eternal praises be,
Hence evermore.
His sovereign majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore.

I have never read what the supposed response of the British soldiers was to this declaration that there are higher allegiances in existence than just earthly political allegiances, but it does make for a good story. It also makes an important point: When we gather together as the church of God on His Day, we are there for the worship of the living God, not to espouse any political or national agenda.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I love the country in which I live. I appreciate the sacrifice that has been made by those who have fought and died to protect her. I pray regularly for President Trump (although I didn’t vote for him), and for all those that God has placed in governmental authority over me. However, when we gather on the Lord’s Day, it is not to salute the flag, sing songs about our country, or recite the pledge of allegiance (although I have no problem doing that in other places); it is to worship the Triune God and to focus on Him. The first two paragraphs of Chapter Twenty-one of the Westminster Confession of Faith speak directly as to how God should be worshipped by His gathered church:

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.

So, if a group of soldiers were to ever enter our worship service and demand that we sing “The Star Spangled Banner” (or any other anthem), I hope that we would respond as did that supposed Long Island Church, by singing of our primary allegiance to the Triune God.

 

 

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