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.

The Dangers of Liturgical Hypocrisy


The Prophet Jeremiah

I love our liturgy and worship service. We sing the Psalms. We kneel to confess our sins. We read several portions of Scripture. We eat at the Lord’s table every week. We bring our tithes and offerings to the front while we sing. We sit under God’s Word. Perhaps nothing has changed more in the last ten years of my life than my approach to worship.

But men and women love to hide in a liturgy They love to have rituals that say, “I am holy” without actually striving for holiness. It works like this. We go the Lord’s house every week. We hear his word preached. We sing and pray with his people. We eat at his table. We fellowship with his people. But our lives do not change.We do not amend our ways. Sin is not put to death. Righteousness is not growing in homes and hearts. The liturgy becomes a way of pretending, a way of hiding from God, instead of a way of drawing near to Him and becoming more like Christ.  Worship, not matter how high, beautiful, or Biblical, becomes a sham. The prophet Jeremiah spoke to this problem in Jeremiah 7:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD.

Israel thought that the temple, the sacrifices, the priesthood, and her worship were enough. She thought that she could come to the feasts, worship at the temple, and still live in sin. She praised God. She sang the Psalms. She talked about the priesthood. But she did not “amend her ways.” So it was in Jeremiah’s day so it is in our day. Continue reading

We Need Theologians Devoted to Worship Music

Martin Luther 4

In a previous blog post I listed Dr. T. David Gordon’s musical preferences for worship. He listed these in an article title “Coral Ridge Reply.”  Below I have quoted the final paragraph in that article.  Dr. Gordon lists three harmful effects that come from the assertion that worship music preferences are trivial.  Bold is mine.

 I am very disappointed, however, to hear that Coral Ridge regards music, and the various preferences associated with it, as “trivial.”  To regard it as such will inevitably have three effects, each harmful:  First, it will continue to marginalize those of us who regard music (and the sociology of music) as an extremely significant humane consideration.  We have apparently wasted our time attempting to develop informed preferences, since all such preferences are, apparently, “trivial.”  Second, this will continue to embolden those who have not studied music, music history, aesthetic theory, theology, etc., because their uninformed preference is, apparently, to be regarded as neither more nor less “trivial” than the preference of those of us who are informed.  Third, this determination will continue to foster some degree of division because Pastor Tchividjian assumes, as a given, one answer to the very question that needs to be resolved, to wit:  Is the matter of how we sing praise to God in corporate worship a serious matter, worthy of the attention of our best theologians (Luther and Calvin wrote about the matter, and Luther and Charles Wesley wrote about hymnody and hymns themselves), or is it merely a “trivial” matter, about which we should not really have any firm opinions?  Pastor Tchividjian’s post begs the very question that needs an answer.

I want to make one point about Dr. Gordon’s list. The church needs men, pastors and teachers, who are trained in theology, Bible, pastoral care, church history, and music. Too much of modern church music is rooted in the romantic and sentimental idea that love for God, the ability to play an instrument and/0r sing make one fit to produce church music. Like most evangelicals, church musicians are weak on theology, church history, and Bible. Thus much modern church music is empty. It is telling that the best worship music today is either putting the Psalms to new tunes or taking old hymns and putting them to new tunes. The original stuff is not that great. The worship of God demands our best theologians, professors, and pastors to carefully think through worship music and build on our fathers in the faith so that moving forward we can have music that ministers to God’s people, present and future, resists the current cultural trends, and is pleasing to the Lord. Without this our generation will contribute very little to the church’s musical heritage.

Dr. T. David Gordon on Musical Preferences

Church Organ

Dr. Gordon is best known for writing two books: Why Johnny Can’t Preach and Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. Apparently he has written some other stuff too, which can be found at this rather archaic website.  While the website is not very modern, the articles have been helpful as I continue to look at worship music. In an article titled “Coral Ridge Reply” Dr. Gordon explains why musical preferences in worship are not trivial. He is responding to the ex-pastor of Coral Ridge Tullian Tchividjian when he said it was wrong “when we separate people according to something as trivial as musical preferences…”  In this article Dr. Gordon lists his musical preferences, which I found rather interesting.

I prefer theologically orthodox lyrics to those that are heterodox.

I prefer theologically significant lyrics to those that are theologically insignificant, even if true (e.g. hymns that touch upon the significant moments in the humiliation or exaltation of Christ are preferred to hymns that ambiguously refer to God’s “salvation” or “grace,” amazing or otherwise).

I prefer in corporate worship lyrics that celebrate the objective work of redemption to those that recount our/my subjective experience of redemption (e.g. I prefer “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out” to “the hour I first believed” or even a “sweet hour of prayer”).

I prefer literarily apt and thoughtful lyrics to those that are not (the language should correspond more to the imaginative language of poetry than to the clinical language of a textbook; “Crown him with many crowns” is preferable to “I affirm his sovereignty”).

I prefer lyrics and music appropriate to a meeting between God and His visible people to lyrics and music that are common to run-of-the-mill meetings with other humans that we experience every day.

I prefer music that makes it easier for the congregation to participate (e.g. the key signature should keep everything at an e-flat or lower) to music that makes it more difficult for the congregation to participate (such as printing lyrics but not the musical score).

I prefer well-written music with regard to melody, harmony, rhythm, and form to music that is less well-written with regard to the same considerations (e.g., formally, music should resolve; we shouldn’t repeat the last stanza several times simply because it doesn’t resolve and we don’t know what to do with it, as with Sandra McCracken’s musical setting to “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go”).

I prefer that the musical setting be appropriate to the lyrical content (e.g. that celebratory lyrics be accompanied by celebratory musical settings; that contrite or pensive lyrics be accompanied by pensive musical settings).

He is closing paragraph of this section of the article.

Each of these preferences is debatable; each could be challenged, and I am perfectly willing to entertain a discussion of why each or all is wrong-headed or mistaken.  But not one of these preferences is a consumerist preference, and not one of them is a merely personal preference.  I do not own any CDs with traditional hymns on them; and I do not listen to traditional hymns in my leisure time, so I am not saying that I “prefer” the church’s liturgical choices to be dictated by (or even informed by) my consumerist choices.

Tullian was essentially saying, “One man likes country, one likes hip-hop, one likes hymns, and one likes choruses. Let’s not divide the church over trivial musical preferences that arise from our individual likes and dislikes.”

Dr. Gordon does not agree. His preferences do not arise from what music he likes or doesn’t like. He is not for hymns because he likes to listen to hymns throughout the week and this his is preference as a consumer. He does not go to church to sing what he likes. He goes to church to sing church songs. And his study has led him to determine that there are certain songs and music fit for worship and certain ones that are not. He is willing to argue about what criteria should be used to judge whether a song is fit for worship or not. But such criteria must exist. He is unwilling to concede that worship music should be left up to the consumerist preferences of the pastor, congregation, or worship team.

Song Notes: February 1st, 2015

Brothers and Sisters, here are the four songs we will be singing in worship on Sunday, along with a brief note about each one.

Entrance Hymn: Psalm 29, p. 52-53
God’s word is powerful. When we hear this we think of God’s written word, which is all we have access to. But this Psalm celebrates God’s spoken word.  In the version we use stanzas, 2, 3, 4, and 5 all begin with “the voice of Jehovah” or the “voice of the Lord.” In addition to this God’s voice is mentioned in last line of the 2nd stanza and the 3rd line of the 4th stanza. Lining all these up gives quite an impression:

-The voice of Jehovah resounds on the waters
-The Lord’s voice in splendor the Lord’s voice in might
-The voice of Jehovah is breaking the cedars
-The voice of Jehovah divides flames of lightning
-The voice of the Lord makes the wilderness tremble
-The voice of the Lord makes the deer twist in labor

The overall impression is an OT precursor to Hebrews 1:3 where we are told that Jesus upholds all things by the word of power. The universe runs on the Word of God. He tells all things when to be born, what to do, where to go, and when to die. He tells the seas when to overflow their banks and when they have gone too far. He tells the animals to give birth. He tears down. He builds up. The Psalm emphasizes God’s power over the world and all the natural forces in it. King David ends by reminding us that God sat on his throne even during the Flood. Psalm 29:10 is only use of this word outside of Genesis 6-11.

So what should be our response to God’s voice governing all things, even something as mighty and terrible as the Flood? We are to give him glory. In verses 1-2 the “mighty ones” are called upon to give God glory. In verse 9, all who are in temple declare “glory.” And so too must we. As we consider God’s greatness and power we are to offer him praise and glory.

Hymn of Thanksgiving: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, p. 267
This is one of classic hymns from the pen of Isaac Watts. For over 300 years men have sung it. The truths it contains are just as glorious as they were in 1707.  There are two key themes in this hymn.

First, when we survey, that is look at, the cross we are humbled. The longer we stare at Christ, the deeper we look into his work on the cross, the more we consider how unworthy we are of his sacrifice, the more we ponder how little we have to offer, the more humble become. We stop boasting in ourselves and we start boasting in Christ. We “pour contempt” on all our pride.

Second, because of God’s great love for us seen in the cross, we abandon all to follow Christ. Watts casts aside “all the vain things” to follow Christ. He ends the hymn by saying that Christ’s great sacrifice “demands my soul, my life, my all.”  When we look at Christ and His work we do not become lazy in our spiritual walk. The cross is the fire which keeps us pushing forward. If you find that your walk with Christ is lacking zeal maybe you need to go back to the basics. Read something or better yet sing something about Christ’s amazing love.

Worship Song #1: Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word, p. 368
Unlike our previous song, most Christians have never heard of this hymn by Martin Luther. That is a shame. It is a rich prayer offered to Father, Son, and Spirit to defend and keep the Church.

Typical of Luther it is a battle hymn. In the first verse he says that forces of darkness want to destroy us by “craft and sword,” “wrest the kingdom” from Christ, and “set at naught all he has done.” Luther understood the forces that are arrayed against the Church. He knew there were spiritual forces working through physical forces to undermine, deceive, sidetrack, and ultimately destroy God’s people. What was his answer to all this? Prayer and the word. He prays that God would help us stay tethered to God’s Word.  He prays that Christ would make his power known. He prays that the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, would send peace and unity and give us strength as we prepare to die. We are no different from Luther. We are beset on every side by principalities and powers. There are men who want to tear the Church down stone by stone. When we take this prayer of Luther upon our lips we asking Christ to keep His Word, that the gates of Hell will not prevail against us.

Worship Song #2: Psalm 1-Bless Now the Man Who Does Not Walk, p. 2
Our final song is one that we know and love. Psalm 1 stands like a gatekeeper as we prepare to enter the sacred ground of the Psalter. It is a wisdom Psalm that explains the path of blessing and the path of destruction.

According to Psalm 1, there are two things the man who wants to be blessed will do. First, he will avoid entering into fellowship with wicked men. He does not listen their counsel. He does not walk in their ways. He does not spend hours in their company. Second, instead of drinking from the well of wicked men, he drinks from the well of God’s law. God’s law brings him joy and delight. He thinks about God’s Word constantly. He considers how his life should change based on God’s Word. He does not listen to the world and its counsel. But instead he patiently and thoughtfully allows God’s Word to shape his thoughts, words, and deeds. A man who does this will be well-watered. His tree will be strong and mighty. He will bear fruit in God’s time. He is blessed by the Lord in all that he does.

The question this Psalm puts before us is, “Who is influencing us more: the men of this world or Word of God?” Do we want God’s blessing, but do not want to cut off love of the world? Do we try to live with one foot in the world and one foot in the Word?