The “worship wars” are never behind us. They are always with us. Just because your church has settled upon what style of music it is going to use come Sunday does not mean that worship has ceased to be a war for you or your church.
A few weeks ago I finished Rhythms of Grace, a book by Mike Cosper. It is an excellent book that would benefit every pastor (especially those who are primarily responsible for the worship order on Sundays). It speaks to the power of the worship service shaped by the biblical story of the gospel. Here is what he has to say about the “worship wars” in particular.
Whoever dubbed the debate over musical style a “worship war” failed to realize that worship is always a war. The declaration that there is one god, that his name is Jesus, and that he has died, has risen, and will come again is an all-out assault on the saviors extended at every level of culture around us. We’re taught to find a sense of hope in a political party, trusting in our duly elected saviors to make the world right once and for all. We’re taught to find our identity in our friend counts on Twitter and Facebook. We’re taught that a victory at work or good news from a doctor or a bathroom scale will satisfy us. We look longingly into the eyes of other human beings and believe that they can affirm us enough and love us well enough to end our sense of loneliness.
We believe these things because we’ve been taught them again and again. Like the ascending pilgrims of Psalm 121, we’re surround[ed] by clamorous mountains advertising happiness, sex, and power, all available for consumption. Our entertainment in television, film, and literature paints the good life this way, and it grips our heartstrings, calling us away to worship at the feet of these idols.
Worship isn’t merely a yes to the God who saves, but also a resounding and furious no to the lies that echo in the mountains around us. The church gathers like exiles and pilgrims, collected out of a world that isn’t our home, and looks hopefully toward a future. Our songs and prayers are a foretaste of that future, and even as we practice them, they shape us for our future home. (pg. 103-104)
Just before this Cosper quotes Jean-Jaques von Allmen:
Christian worship is the strongest denial that can be hurled in the face of the world’s claim to provide men with an effective and sufficient justification for their life. There is no more emphatic protest against the pride and the despair of the world than that implied in Church worship.
These are powerful words. Gathering for church with the body of Christ is a private protest against sin, satan, and all the false hopes and dreams this world offers and which vie for our affection. It is a public rebellion against the false gods of our culture that tempt us to believe satisfaction, joy, and deliverance can be found in anything other than God through Christ. Worship is war.
The following are my favorite books on worship. What are yours and why?
If we concentrate on the thought of redemption, we shall be able to sense more readily the impossibility of universalizing the atonement. What does redemption mean? It does not mean redeemability, that we are placed in a redeemable position. It means that Christ purchased and procured redemption. This is the triumphant note of the New Testament whenever it plays on the redemptive chord. Christ redeemed us to God by his blood (Rev. 5:9). He obtained eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12). “He gave himself for us in order that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify to himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14). It is to beggar the concept of redemption as an effective securement of release by price and by power to construe it as anything less than the effectual accomplishment which secures the salvation of those who are its objects. Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people. We have the same result when we properly analyse the meaning of expiation, propitiation, and reconciliation. Christ did not come to make sins expiable. He came to expiate sins – “when he made purification of sins, he sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). Christ did not come to make God reconcilable. He reconciled us to God by his own blood.
The very nature of Christ’s mission and accomplishment is involved in this question. Did Christ come to make the salvation of all men possible, to remove obstacles that stood in the way of salvation, and merely to make provision for salvation? Or did he come to save his people? Did he come to put all men in a salvable state? Or did he come to secure the salvation of all those who are ordained to eternal life? Did he come to make men redeemable? Or did he come effectually and infallibly to redeem? The doctrine of atonement must be radically revised if, as atonement, it applies to those who finally perish as well as to those who are the heirs of eternal life. In that event we shall have to dilute the grand categories in terms of which the Scripture defines the atonement and deprive them of their most precious import and glory. This we cannot do….We do well to ponder the words of our Lord himself: “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that of everything which he hath given to me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up in the last day” (John 6:38, 39). Security inheres in Christ’s redemptive accomplishment. And this means that, in respect of the persons contemplated, design and accomplishment and final realization have all the same extent.
…The truth really is that it is only on the basis of such a doctrine that we can have a free and full offer of Christ to lost men. What is offered to men in the gospel? It is not the possibility of salvation, not simply the opportunity of salvation. What is offered is salvation.
Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray, pg. 63- 65. This book resembles one of those expensive deserts at a fancy restaurant: small but rich and extremely satisfying.
There is its significance for a lost world. Christ came to be the Saviour of the world and that meant enduring the cross with all its shame and suffering. That crown of thorns was placed there by God as well as by man. The cross was God’s cross as well as man’s.
If we are to receive the crown of life, Christ must receive the crown of thorns. He cannot be our Saviour any other way….It is in his diadem of thorns that he stoops low in humiliation and shame and sorrow to seek and to save sinners. It is only by the sharp thorn of his suffering that the poisonous thorn of our sin is drawn. In other words, apart from the cross God cannot forgive sin.
There is also the significance of the crown of thorns for the church, for God’s redeemed people. It reminds us that C hrist is a king and that he is victorious even when he seems defeated. However abased Christ may appear to men he is still a king. He accomplishes a regal task at Calvary and gains for us a royal pardon. He ascends a throne as he goes to be crucified, a throne of grace. In this apparent weakness he is the mighty conqueror of Satan and sin and death, the overcomer of this world. The cross appears as foolishness to the world, but to God’s redeemed people that cross is victory, salvation, the power of God.
As D. A. Carson has said it: “The God on whom we rely knows what suffering is all about, not merely in the way that God knows everything, but by experience. In the darkest night of the soul Christians have something to hold onto that Job never knew. We know Christ crucified. Christians have learned that when there seems to be no other evidence of God’s love, they cannot escape the cross. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”(Rom. 8:32) … When we suffer, there will sometimes be mystery. Will there also be faith? Yes, if our attention is focused more on the cross, and on the God of the cross, than on the suffering itself.”
Meditation on Luke 22:43 “And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him.”
Although the entreaties of Christ in the garden met with oppressive silence, it does not follow that the Father was indifferent to the Son’s anguish or that his prayer was unheeded. Christ’s sufferings were an essential part of his satisfaction of divine justice, and the Father was actively involved even when he deprived the Son of the sense of his presence. Finlayson puts it movingly when he says that ‘the finger of the Father was upon the pulse of the lonely Sufferer in Gethsemane, and when the heart-beats of the One in conflict seemed to weaken, Heaven concerned itself about Him, and an angel was commissioned to hasten to His physical aid’. There was an outstretched hand, his Father’s hand – even in the darkness – and Christ knew it….
For one fleeting moment immense joy must have leaped within Christ’s soul as the Father’s hand touched him. This was a message from home. Heaven was behind him. He was forsaken, but not disowned. His Father was there, somewhere in the darkness. His loud cries and tears had not been unnoticed.
Whatever comfort the angel brought the Saviour was transient. The angel’s mission was not to bring relieif to Christ, but to strengthen him for further and even greater anguish – anguish quite beyond human endurance. It was then that our Lord ‘being in an agony . . . prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground’ (Luke 22:44). The angel’s presence served to aggravate his suffering. It was in order that the suffering might not only be maintained, but also that it might be intensified that the angel was sent. The battle must go on. It was too soon to say ‘Finished’. The Lamb of God must have the strength of a lion in this struggle.
Jerry Bridges is an author whose books have touched the minds and hearts of millions – including my own. His writing is theologically grounded, practical and realistic. His writings could not be confused with “feel-good religion” that simply maintains a thin veneer of Christianity. He is a deeply thoughtful man whose writings have led me (and many others) to think and drink more deeply about how the gospel ought to change everything in my life and yours. And I look forward to being brought back once again to the cross as my reference point to all of life in Jerry Bridges’ new book The Transforming Power of the Gospel.
And Amazon has now (for a limited time) made this book available for FREE for Kindle! Remember that you don’t need to actually own a kindle to read this book. You may read this book on your computer or on your iphone or other apple devices.
Where does [Christ] stand? He stands pro me. He stands there in my place, where I should stand, but cannot. He stands on the boundary of my existence, beyond my existence, yet for me. That brings out clearly that I am separated from my ‘I’, which I should be, by a boundary which I am unable to cross. The boundary lies between me and me, the old and the new ‘I’. It is in the encounter with this boundary that I shall be judged. At this place, I cannot stand alone. At this place stands Christ, between me and me, the old and the new existence. Thus Christ is at one and the same time, my boundary and my rediscovered centre. He is the centre, between ‘I’ and ‘I’, and between ‘I’ and God.
If you have been driving long you know that there are people who don’t belong behind the wheel of a car. Driving bus for school has given me a yellow-coated perch from which to observe these pretenders on the road. I would suppose they don’t know they are bad drivers (just as you and I may be bad drivers but don’t know it either). But I wish there was a way to tell them – a kind way, not the unhelpful hand gesture – that would explain to them exactly what they could do to improve as drivers. One such comment would be to simply inform them that the gas pedal is on the right. Too often I get behind drivers (in a bus mind you) doing well below the speed limit. They just coast along without a care in the world – especially not caring about the long line of vehicles gathering in their rear view mirror. And while they lead their own little parade I wish their GPS would kindly tell them in that wonderful British accent (just admit it – you use the voice of the woman with the British accent as well) that their gas pedal is on the right and that now would be the appropriate time to push it.
But I have found that same truth applies in my spiritual life as well. Sometimes I need (and I imagine us all) need to be reminded from time to time to press our spiritual gas pedals. It is too easy to coast through the easy times (or after perceived spiritual success) and begin to just get comfortable. In times like this I turn to the wise words of Jerry Bridges from The Discipline of Grace.
My observation is that most of us who are believers practice what I call a “cruise-control” approach to obedience. Many cars today have a convenient feature called cruise control. When you are driving on the highway you can accelerate to your desired speed, push the cruise-control button, and take your foot from the accelerator pedal. Some mechanism attached to the engine will then maintain your desired speed, and you can ease back and relax a little. You don’t have to watch your speedometer to make sure you’re not going to get a ticket for speeding, and you no longer have to experience the fatigue that comes with constant foot pressure on the accelerator. It’s very convenient and relatively relaxing. It’s a great feature on cars.
However we tend to obey God in the same way. To continue the driving analogy, we press the accelerator pedal of obedience until we have brought our behavior up to a certain level or “speed.” The level of obedience is most often determined by the behavior standard of other Christians around us. We don’t want to lag behind them because we want to be as spiritual as they are. At the same time, we’re not eager to forge ahead of them because we wouldn’t want to be different. We want to just comfortably blend in with the level of obedience of those around us.
Once we have arrived at this comfortable level of obedience, we push the “cruise-control” button in our hearts, ease back, and relax. Our particular Christian culture then takes over and keeps us going at the accepted level of conduct. We don’t have to watch the speed-limit signs in God’s Word, and we certainly don’t have to experience the fatigue that comes with seeking to obey Him with all our heart, soul, and mind.”
Because of the supremacy of Christ in all things (Col. 1:15-24) push the envelope on your obedience (Col. 3) keeping our eyes on Christ who is above in whom we have life through his death (Col. 3:1-4). And as we race we must watch out for the pitfalls that would seem wise and spiritual but leave us disconnected from the Supreme Christ (Col. 2).
I recently read Jim Collins’ (author of Good to Great) book Great by Choice. It is a business book but the principles and ideas it advocates are universal. And besides, Collins is such a joy to read. Great by Choice explores the characteristics of those companies that became great despite weathering fierce and unpredictable storms.
One of the characteristics of these successful companies is what Collins and his team came to call the “20 Mile March.” While other companies exhibited periods of enormous growth and periods of enormous decline reflecting the current markets and opportunities, these “20 Mile March” companies were far more steady and determined. In periods of decline they expected and worked hard so that their companies could maintain their profitability standards and meet their goals. This in and of itself is nothing new. Every company does this. But these companies would also generally limit themselves during periods of boom and growth so as not to overextend themselves or tire their employees out. This cap on both the bottom and the top end of their working and energy became known to Collins and his team as the “20 Mile March.”
No where is this illustrated better than when Collins points to the race for the south pole in 1911 between Roald Amundson and Robert Scott. They both started on the same day (though from different landing areas), with roughly the same weather conditions yet Amundson beat Scott by over a month (Scott and his team died on their way back to their ship). One of the clear differences between the two men that led to Amundson’s success and Scott and his team’s death was the principle of the “20 Mile March.” Amundson put a goal to march each day – and consequently that goal was his cap. This left his team refreshed on the good days and something to work for on the more difficult ones. Scott did the opposite, pushing too hard on the good days and wearing out his team and then going nowhere when the days were difficult.
This means, at least on a personal level, that striving to meet our big goals for the glory of God (like reading 20 books or the Bible in a year, dealing with a particular sin, or developing more meaningful prayer times) are met by meeting small modest goals on a regular basis. That of course is the hard part. But demanding these little goals from ourselves should not be mistaken for legalism. We work hard to meet the small goals by the strength of the Spirit in union with Christ’s death and resurrection for the glory of God the Father (Rom. 6; 8:13; 1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:1-11). We understand that meeting those goals is not the basis of God’s pleasure with us, Christ is. On the flip side it needs to be stated that we do not face God’s judgment when we fail to meet those goals because Christ met those goals for us and took all the wrath of God for all of our sin (not that missing a goal should necessarily be equated with sin). We must work to meet the big goal of enjoying the glory of God and helping others to do the same with the little goals that we set for ourselves daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, etc. out of gratefulness to God for what he has done for us in Christ by the Spirit.
Some suggestions for your journey this year:
Keep in mind the result if you fail (this is particularly helpful with Bible reading, prayer, or dealing with sin goals).
Keep in mind the penultimate goal of whatever it is your have resolved to do.
Keep in mind the ultimate goal – Enjoying and Glorifying God: John Owen writes “Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and your infinite, inconceivable distance from Him.”
Keep in mind the gospel. By keeping ourselves in earshot of the cross we will be reminded that the cry of forsakenness by Christ on the cross was for us and so we will be reminded of the seriousness of our sin, we will be reminded that Christ frees us from Sin’s guilt, and by recalling his resurrection we will be reminded that we are freed from sin’s power.
The scene is a familiar one. A lone mother works her way through the grocery store with her little one(s) in tow. All of a sudden one of the little children sees something that he/she wants and begins to ask for it. The mother answers back with the gentle negative “not this week.” And it seems that no matter how much discipline is administered with as much wisdom as can be at home, the child knows that at the grocery store they are far from whatever form of correction the parents have devised – and so they throw a fit. And while onlookers begin to shake their heads at the helpless parent and unruly child the mother desperately searches for something to pacify her child without giving in to their demands (which would only garner even more contempt from the gallery of witnesses). And then it dawns upon the mother that during this time of year she has been given the ultimate trump card: Santa Clause. And so she bends down and whispers in her child’s ear “you had better be good or Santa won’t come to our house to give you your presents.” And lo and behold the tears dry up and the wailing is silenced and the silent observers nod their heads in approval.
It is Christmas, the most legalistic time of the year.
It has become more clear than ever to me that in Santa Clause our society has constructed a god of consumerism. And for children, this god is legalistic to the core. That he seems to be a god seems indisputable to me. He lives far away, flies in the sky, loves everyone, nobody sees him, he seems to know everything you do, and at least during one time of year he is omnipresent, he gives good gifts once a year, and if you want something in particular you just need to pray (or write him a letter). But while he seems like a pretty good guy this Santa only gives gifts to the good kids who are on his list. And he checks that list twice because he wouldn’t want to make the mistake of giving a good gift to a bad kid now would he?
I think the reason that I am not a big fan of Santa is because he is the embodiment of everything that is false about God. Santa only gives good gifts to those on his “nice” list. God imputes righteousness to bad people who have trusted in the saving death and resurrection work of Jesus. Santa holds his “list” over children’s heads all year long so that they behave. God tirelessly holds grace out to people for them to turn to Jesus in faith. Santa is a legalist. God is not.
This Christmas let’s try not to confuse the two. Our children need to God of grace. And so do we.
A notorious problem that faces much of Christian preaching, Bible study and reading is that it is often no more Christian than the moral encouragements of the local Synagogue or Mormon gathering. There is much talking but very little life. This is so because Jesus is little more than a tag line for most sermons. But when we want to understand the Bible we cannot do so without Christ – and whatever we do understand is to have Christ at its center. This is true because Jesus and the Gospel radically alter the way we are to understand God’s word. Here is how Graeme Goldsworthy says it in his valuable book Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics:
The fact that Jesus is the one mediator between God and people has enormous hermeneutical implications (1 Tim. 2:5). The Christology of mediation brings the major dimensions of communication into contact so that they operate in a way that human sin had rendered inoperable. thus the communicator (God), the message (God’s word) and the receiver (humanity) are all united in the God/Man who is himself the message. If we are united to Christ we are true receivers of the message. To receive a message so that it is not garbled or meaningless or misleading, we must at the same time interpret it aright. Our confusion and our sinfulness conspire to lead us always towards a Christless interpretation. As living a faithful Christian life involves a conscious decision to work at it, so also interpreting the Bible by the gospel involves a conscious decision to work at the relationships of all parts of the Bible to the gospel.
If Jesus is the one mediator between God and man, then he must mediate the meaning of the whole of God’s communication to us. Our understanding of this mediatorial role comes from the unpacking by the New Testament writers of the gospel event and how it works for our salvation. This raises the question of the significance of all the parts of Scripture that are not explicitly expositions of the gospel. We can say that, while not all Scripture is the gospel, all Scripture is related to the gospel that is at its centre…
The Bible makes a very radical idea inescapable: not only is the gospel the interpretative norm for the whole Bible, but there is an important sense in which Jesus Christ is the mediator of the meaning of everything that exists. In other words, the gospel is the hermeneutical norm for the whole reality. All reality was created by Christ, through Christ, and for Christ (Col. 1:15-16). God’s plan is to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:9-10). In him are all the treasures of wisdom and understanding (Col. 2:2-3). As a consequence, the ultimate significance of all non-biblical literature can be summed up in biblical-gospel terms. Only through the gospel can we know what it means for humans to be sinful and for cultures to be godless. The atoning work of Christ has redemptive ramifications for the whole universe. It is God’s means of renewing the universe to be the perfect new creation that was foreshadowed by the perfection of creation before the fall. Hence the ultimate interpretation of the meaning of everything is found only in Christ. This includes every text of the Bible. Eschatology (the doctrine of the end times) and hermeneutics are inseperable.
For the student of the Bible, the gospel becomes the norm by which the whole Old Testament and all the exhortations and other non-gospel aspects of the New Testament are to be understood. To put it another way, Christian conversion should lead to sanctified thinking about reality. While alien philosophies may seek to seduce us into thinking otherwise, we should reckon every fact and event in the universe to be what they in truth are: eloquent of the living God and interpreted by him.