What Traditions to Avoid

TraditionIn chapter X of his Institutes John Calvin is explaining what types of human traditions and laws should be accepted and which ones should be rejected. In section 16 of that chapter he gives a nice summary of his thought.  He asks, “What are those human traditions of all times that should be repudiated by the church and by all godly men.” He then gives a list.  First, he says,

All laws apart from God’s Word, laws made by men [that]

  • either prescribe the manner of worshiping God
  • Or to bind consciences by scruples
  • As if they were making rules about things necessary for salvation.

In other words, the Bible must dictate our worship and what is necessary to be saved. Men cannot make up a laws about worship and make those mandatory or equate them with God’s Word. Nor can man add to God’s Word what is necessary to be saved. Obviously, there is a lot more that could be said about this. He then goes on to give other practical considerations when implementing traditions in the church. What if the tradition is not doing any of the above? Is it automatically okay? Calvin says no. He encourage us to ask the following questions:

  1. Do these rules “obscure by their multitude the clarity of the gospel?”
  2. Are “they in no sense constructive but are useless and trifling occupations rather than true exercises of piety?”
  3. Are “they calculated for sordid and base gain?”
  4. Are “they too difficult to observe?”
  5. Are “they befouled with shameful superstitions?”

Of course reading this list our mind runs straight to Roman Catholicism or perhaps mega church pastors who twist the Word for financial gain. But I want to apply to the reformed world. There has been a liturgical renewal among reformed folks over the last couple of decades. This has led to a closer examination of liturgical traditions, including the church year, robes, kneeling for communion, processionals, recessionals, etc. Many of these traditions have been implemented to various degrees in reformed churches. Those of us who have adopted or are moving toward a more liturgical worship style would be wise to keep Calvin’s list in mind.   The goal of any man made tradition is to make the gospel clear, to increase piety/holiness, to be functional, to avoid all manner of superstition, and to not line the pockets of the shepherds. Too many ministers do not consider things like this carefully enough.

Here is one example where I think liturgical churches are in danger. Many liturgical churches are too complicated. And they get more complicated as time goes on. In other words, they lack functionality.  Why do we need to keep adding things to our worship service? Since what I am talking about are not Biblical commands, but rather traditions we put in place to help people worship, they are contextually dictated. We don’t live in 500 or 1500 or 1800. Some of the traditions in our worship services need to be jettisoned in order to make our worship services more functional for 21st century Americans. This is not a cry to be relevant at the expense of truth. I am not encouraging polls of unbelievers to determine what we do and don’t do. Nor do I think a modern evangelical should walk into our worship and immediately get it. But I am encouraging to us to make sure our traditions are “not too difficult to observe.”

There are other ways we can encourage superstition with our baptismal or communion practices or simply have traditions that are of little value for holiness. I am grateful for the liturgical renewal of the last few years, but that renewal is not problem free. Without restraint, caution, and wisdom some might find themselves closer to 1450 than 1550 in their approach to tradition and worship.

Biblical Decision Making

decisionThis is a slight revision of an old post from 2012. 

This past Sunday evening I taught on discerning God’s will, specifically discerning God’s will for those areas where there is no biblical guidance. In other words, how do we know what God wants when we are dealing with a non-moral issue?  Perhaps the most important point was that God does not guide us mystically or supernaturally. God generally guides us through people, prayer, circumstances, common sense, wisdom, and our own desires. God does occasionally guide us through a “gut feeling” or a “hunch.”   But these feelings are not infallible nor normative. Below is my pattern for biblical decision making. I am talking here mainly about major decisions, though there is some application to more minor ones.

1.      Read God’s Word a lot. Here we learn godliness, wisdom, and the path of righteousness.

As we become more intimately familiar with God’s Word in Scripture, we become more intimately familiar with God, his ways, his habits, his characteristic reactions. We can pray according to his will, finishing his sentences. This doesn’t come from looking over God’s shoulder, but from diligent study of the Scripture, faithful participation in worship and sacraments, the usual means by which God reveals himself and his will to us.  (Peter Leithart,  From Beyond the Veil, 177)

But do not rely on random Bible verses. Verses must be interpreted in context.  God of course, can use random Bible verses, but that does not mean we should make it our habit to interpret God’s Word this way.

Make sure it is not sin.  This means specific breaking of God’s law.  You can be sure sin is not God’s will.

What if something might be a sin, but you are not sure? Here you should follow Romans 14:23. If your conscience is pricked, that is if you feel guilty, do not do it.

Make sure you are loving God and loving your neighbor. Examine your motives. Why are you doing what you are doing? It is possible to make the right decision for the wrong reason. For example, a certain job could be where the Lord is leading you, but you could be taking it out of greed instead of love for God and neighbor.

2.      Pray over the decision, but do not sit around until an answer comes in the mail. Pray over it and trust that God is going to answer your prayer through normal rational means (see below). Don’t pray over it until you get a lightening strike from Heaven telling you what to do.

3.      Talk it over with your pastor, spouse, parents, elders, and/or friends. Ask those closest to you to help you with the decision. Ask those who have made a similar decision for their advice. But do not blame them for what happens, nor make their advice the equivalent of God’s Word. Collect data and get advice.

4.      Look at your circumstances. What makes the most sense in your situation? Do not be afraid to ask, “What do I want to do?” For example, when choosing a career the two questions you should ask are: “What do I like to do?” and “What am I good at?” Do your research when making a decision. But do not research it to death. In our age, where the floodgates of information have been opened, you can research forever. You will never have enough data to predict the future.

5.      Remember we rarely feel fine with any major decision we make. Every decision involves the cutting out of other decisions, which can leave an uneasy feeling in our gut.  Marrying this girl means I will never marry any other. Taking this career path probably means other career paths will be closed to me. Even decisions which are not as permanent cut us off from other options. If we buy this house, we cannot buy that house. Just because you are uneasy does not make it a wrong decision.

6.     Once you have studied God’s Word, prayed, taken counsel,  and researched your options, make a decision and don’t look back.  Trust God that he will guide you and direct you. If your decision turns out poorly do not assume that you made a mistake. God’s will often leads us through mistakes and failures.