Why do we worship as we do?

Our Liturgy

We share in worship forms used by the earliest Christians and which developed over time and were revised during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Even after the changes of nearly two thousand years of use, however, Christian liturgy is organized around two basic poles: the public reading and preaching of Scripture (the ‘Service of the Word’), and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in memory of his death and resurrection (the ‘Service of Holy Communion’). In both of these sacred acts, we worship God by preparing ourselves to receive his gracious presence and work in our lives. At Grace and Peace Presbyterian, our worship is shaped in accord with the Directory for the Public Worship of God of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church while drawing on the faithful heritage of the church’s worship that precedes and follows the Protestant Reformation.

Some frequently asked questions about our worship:

How do I participate? Throughout the worship folder you will see parts for the “All.” That’s you, of course! The liturgy involves you in the worship of God. You are not a spectator but a participant. In fact, the literal meaning of the word liturgy is the work of the people. A helpful way to realize this in your own experience of the liturgy is to treat the entire service as one giant prayer to God. If you’re new to a liturgical way of worship, it may take a few times to catch on. That’s okay!

Why are some of the prayers scripted? Some of our prayers are prayed in common with thousands of other worship gatherings worldwide and teach us that we are not a schism or sect, but share with faithful believers everywhere. Written prayers put our affirmations of God’s character together with our Scripture-based confessions of sin, requests and hopes. They lend us words to pray when we have trouble articulating what is in our hearts. We pray them with the same sincerity and urgency as when we pray extemporaneously.

Why does the minister lead Worship from the Communion Table and preach from the Pulpit? Our minister follows the example of the reformer John Calvin who led worship from the Table but went up to the Pulpit to preach. The practice of reserving the pulpit for exclusively preaching (not singing or making announcements etc.) emphasizes the importance of preaching. The communion table, like the family table in your home is better suited for family communication and sharing.  During the Lord’s Supper liturgy the minister represents Christ through word and action as all gathered together around to share together.
Why is there so much singing? Music has a unique way of helping us express the deepest parts of ourselves. That’s why nearly every culture on earth uses singing to mark special moments. Our encounter with the living God in worship is the most profound of moments, so we cannot help but sing our praises to God!

Why do you use the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed? Why do they refer to the “catholic” church? These Creeds were developed by the leadership of the early church. They prayerfully studied Scripture and formulated them as faithful summaries of the core beliefs of Christianity, and most Christians have been using them ever since. In these we profess belief in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The term “catholic” simply means universal, single, or worldwide. The churches that do not use these creeds often believe what they affirm, but may prefer to give the impression that they have discovered the faith independent of other Christians with whom they differ in some ways.

Is the minister forgiving my sins during the Declaration of Pardon? Is that right? No, that’s not our practice. Only God can forgive sin. And God charges his ministers with pronouncing the forgiveness that he eagerly extends through Christ Jesus. The Bible promises “if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That’s what the minister proclaims aloud to assure anyone who has confessed their sins that they are indeed forgiven by the one death and resurrection of Jesus.

What Bonhoeffer knew

Disclaimer: The Christian Century is not a periodical I would normally quote.

Jul 17, 2015 by Samuel Wells in The Christian Century

After I’d given a talk to mark the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution, I got a letter complaining that Bonhoeffer had been drained dry of meaning and was of no more use to the church. Here’s what I replied.

Bonhoeffer was theological. We don’t all have to write two doctoral theses by the age of 24. But we do have to approach every challenge as fundamentally a question about God. The German Christians were seduced into treating the führer as God. Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church saw that the problem with the Nazis was first a theological problem.

Bonhoeffer was about Jesus. The Bonhoeffer of popular theology is the one who talks from prison about the “world come of age” and “religionless Christianity.” But what put him in prison was Jesus. The church fears that when it says the word Jesus it’s assuming an imperialistic oppressive voice that dominates, excludes, or devalues other voices. The church has too often assumed such a voice. But Jesus doesn’t assume such a voice. Bonhoeffer knew that when the church stops talking about Jesus, it has nothing to say. And when it assumes dominance, it’s not talking about Jesus.

Bonhoeffer was ecumenical. The vital conversation that convinced Bonhoeffer to return to Germany in 1939 was with George Bell, Anglican bishop of Chichester. They became friends in the 1920s ecumenical movement, when denominations really mattered. They matter less now. The days when we could forget about the world and concentrate on our arguments with other Christians are passing. Ecumenical discord is a luxury of the complacent church. We need each other. If we feel the church is weak, it’s because we’ve limited what we’re looking at when we use the word church.

Bonhoeffer was international. He understood that Germany and the church weren’t the same thing. Western Christians are slowly realizing that they aren’t the majority of the church or the part that matters most. Christianity doesn’t fundamentally belong to them. Bonhoeffer may be a dead white Western male, but his legacy points us in global directions. When people say Christianity is in decline, you have to ask which map they’re looking at.

Bonhoeffer was politically engaged. There were Christians in 1930s Germany who thought salvation was about saving souls and it wasn’t their business to get involved in politics. That reasoning left 6 million Jews dead and ten times that number dead globally. Politics is the name we give to resolving differences short of violence. If you don’t do politics, you end up doing violence.

Bonhoeffer was rooted in an accountable community. He saw that for his Confessing Church to have any backbone, it needed to be led by pastors who took for granted the simple, straightforward practices of daily prayer, the confession of sin, the studying of scripture, and the sharing of communion. His book Life Together describes that uncompromising, uncluttered set of priorities. Community is easier to theorize about than to practice, but it’s still the center of the church’s renewal.

Bonhoeffer was prepared to face danger. One of the assumptions I find bewildering yet widespread in the church is that if one is a good Christian, one’s days will be long and one shall multiply and one’s valleys will grow rich with corn. Most of the people in the Bible face danger, hardship, crisis, tragedy, and fear. Those are the places God most often shows up. God is close to the poor, not because there’s anything holy about poverty, but because those in poverty face such things all the time, and that’s what brings them face to face with God. Bonhoeffer wrestled with this in 1939. He could do so much good from the safe distance of America, but he was called to be in the place of danger. We face the same choices.

Bonhoeffer did not expect his life to be a tidy edifice of perfection. The great quandary of his life was whether he was right to join the plot to kill Hitler. It’s a mistake, I believe, to assume that faithful Christians always make the right decisions, or that a person venerated after his death must have made only good decisions. Returning to Germany put Bonhoeffer in a position few of us could imagine or emulate, and none of us have the right to judge. He was both in an impossible situation and exactly where God wanted him to be. I once faced an impossible choice and shared my quandary with a friend. He said, “The point isn’t the conclusion you come to: the point is, you’re in there.” Bonhoeffer was in there, in that sense. Are we?

Bonhoeffer did not expect immediate results. He died probably assuming his life had been a failure. We don’t see it like that. The distinction between being faithful and being effective isn’t an absolute one; they’re actually the same thing in different time scales.

He assumed that the shape of renewal is death and resurrection. The future of the church is not simply a matter of using social media or singing attractive music or getting our message right. Bonhoeffer knew the way that Christ renewed Israel: through incarnation, sharing joys and sorrows, facing the passion, being crucified, and being raised. He allowed his life to follow the same trajectory. That’s the way God renewed creation 2,000 years ago. That’s the way God renews the church today.

The Power of One

The Church today would be a different kind of place if it were not for a short, dark-skinned, red-bearded, half hermit who single-handedly fought an empire for the truth of the Gospel. For much of the fourth century, A.D., it was Athanasius contra mundum—“Athanasius against the world”—and Athanasius won. One letter. To some historians his was a battle not worth fighting. His argument hung on the stroke of a pen, a single letter, one iota—the Greek letter “i.” But embedded in that slender distinction was the essence of the Christian faith, and Athanasius would defend it with his life. “We are contending,” he wrote, “for our all.” Up to this point, the Church’s major threats had all come from outside—Roman emperors who sought to work their will on Christians who steadfastly maintained that Jesus is Lord and not Caesar, and Greek philosophers who presented questions that the Church, in time, developed the ability to answer. Bishops, who led God’s people after the death of the apostles, and whose chief duty is to guard the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, shed much ink—and much blood—defending the ideals and ideas of Christian faith against the heavy tide of a hostile and haughty world. But by the early 300s, egos and ambitions had begun drawing battle lines within the Church. Christians were fighting Christians over theological positions. Most of the differences formed around explanations of the Trinity: Did Christians worship one God, or three? Was the Father greater than the Son and Spirit, or equal? Then around 318 came an upstart church leader named Arius, asking the question to rattle all questions: Was Jesus even God at all? One word. The distinction boiled down to a single word, distinguished by the single Greek iota we have just mentioned. Was the Son of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father, or was he merely of a similar substance (homoiousios) as the Father? It was a controversy that not only occupied the minds of scholars but also the marketplace banter of everyday folk. It demanded the attention of the Emperor Constantine, who summoned bishops from East and West to an unprecedented gathering in the city of Nicea, in A.D. 325. When their two month meeting had ended, the resulting creed accurately declared Jesus Christ to be “very God of very God, begotten not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father. Arius was declared a heretic, deposed and disgraced, and everyone assumed that the matter was closed. Yet the matter continued to confuse and divide. Constantine, who, like many leaders, valued unity of their institutions over the truth of the Gospel, ordered the new bishop of Alexandria to reinstate Arius as a member in good standing, a sharer in the Church’s communion. One man. But the new bishop was a man named Athanasius, who promptly told the Emperor that he could forget it. According to one story, Athanasius stopped the Emperor’s procession through the streets one day, grabbing the horses of the Emperor’s carriage by the reins—an act that could have gotten him instantly killed by the Emperor’s guards—in order to warn the great Constantine that these matters of the Christian faith were even greater than he was. ] The consequences were that important, and this is why: If the Son is a created being, not of the same substance as God, then the Son is not God. If the Son is not God, then his birth in the person of Jesus is not the incarnation of God. If God is not truly incarnate in the person of Jesus, then his atoning death is worthless. “For he alone,” Athanasius wrote, “being Word of the Father and above all, was able to re-create all, and was worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father. For this purpose the incorruptible word of God entered our world. The Word is God from God; for ‘the Word was God’” (John 1:1). In other words, if Jesus is anything less than God—whether angel, or exalted teacher, or new age cosmic avatar, his death and resurrection cannot be the atoning sacrifice that breaks the curse of human sin. We can say that Jesus is our Savior, but if the reality of Jesus as God incarnate does not undergird our faith, we are just engaging in wishful thinking. Naturally, Athansius’ defiance did not win him any friends at the imperial palace. Constantine’s opinion of the young bishop took such a turn for the worse that he banished him to the uttermost western part of the Empire, sending him from Egypt to Gaul (modern France) in the dead of winter. It was the first of five exiles he would endure throughout his 45 years as bishop, as he resisted imperial pressure for the sake of the Gospel. Several emperors came and went during Athanasius’ lifetime, and he would be allowed to return—always to the delight of the people of Alexandria. But then imperial pressure would heat up again, Athanasius would take his place in the fire, and no one who flinched from the truth of the Gospel would be allowed a moment’s rest in his presence. Athanasius recognized that the Incarnation is a mystery. No one could fully understand it. But there are those whose pride, arrogance, and self-interest would not allow them to believe. And Athanasius would not keep silent while they robbed God of his power and the Gospel of its truth. “We take divine Scripture and set it up as a light upon its candlestick, saying: ‘very Son of the Father, natural and genuine, proper to His essence, very and only Word of God is He…’ But let them learn that ‘the Word became flesh;’ and let us, retaining the general scope of the faith, acknowledge that what they interpret wrongly has a right interpretation.” Other bishops, fearing a church split on their hands, pressed the compromise of the homoiousios—that Christ was of similar, and not the same, substance as the Father. The change in the Greek word was so small—just one letter—that one would hardly notice it, a change in pronunciation so small that those reciting the creed could ignore it. But to Athanasius it was the difference between life and death. “God Himself made the decision to take on flesh and to become man and to undergo the death of the Cross, that by faith in Him, all who believe may obtain salvation…. Only so is our salvation fully realized and guaranteed.” He would die, in 373, before the fruit of his labor could be seen. But, in 381, bishops at the Council of Constantinople would uphold the doctrine of the deity of Christ that Athanasius taught. The Nicene Creed would survive as the accepted understanding of the Trinity and of the Person of Christ. The Church would go on, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to proclaim a pure Gospel to this day—because of the power of one letter, one word, and one man to demonstrate that the truth matters.


Good Friday at Grace and Peace

Good Friday marks the death of Jesus Christ. It’s called ‘good’ because of what Jesus’ death means for the redemption of the world. Worship this evening focuses on three aims: (1) to narrate and remember the events of Jesus’ death, (2) to open up the meaning of these events for our understanding of God and the redemption accomplished by the cross, and (3) to invite worshipers to renewed prayer and dedication.

Please enter humbly, worship deeply, and leave quietly this evening with your heart centered on the suffering of Christ for you and your salvation. You will observe a diminishing of light through the service in the pattern of tenebrae worship. Tenebrae means shadows, and so our worship will include an experience of some of the shadows that Christ endured. At the close of the service the bell will toll seven times to represent the fullness of Christ’s sacrifice for us.

The Challenge of Ecclesiology: Some Advice for Seminarians

It is almost a truism among thinking Christians today that the doctrine of the church, known among theologians as “ecclesiology,” has fallen on hard times.  When I was a student at a reasonably well-known conservative Reformed seminary it seemed that students would much rather argue about apologetics or eschatology or predestination than the doctrine of the church.  And though that situation has changed somewhat in the intervening years as many in our culture sense the loss of community, and some in the church have sought out theological responses to it, an ecclesiological crisis remains.

Interestingly, this eclipse of ecclesiology is common to both the liberal-leaning mainline churches and the more conservative evangelical churches.  We are going to explore both some of the reasons for this decline in various church circles, and some ways that we can recover and strengthen a vibrant doctrine of the church.  This should, I would think, be a matter of existential concern for seminary students such as yourselves.  After all, many of you are planning to become ministers or other church workers.  Some of you may sense a call to the mission field, and the job of the missionary is ultimately to plant and strengthen the church.  So, ecclesiology matters.

We are going to look first at the situation in mainline church circles, and then at the situation among Evangelicals.  Reasons for the decline of ecclesiology in many mainline churches are not difficult to discern.  Much of this can ultimately be traced to the fact that many in these churches bought wholesale into the optimistic Enlightenment notion of the autonomous individual human being.  People are basically pretty good, it is thought, and any tendency toward dysfunctional behavior (i.e., what used to be called “sin”) is attributed to the environment.  Moreover, these human beings are not answerable to any authority, such as Holy Scripture, higher than themselves.  Needless to say, this quickly resulted in the erosion of the Scriptural basis and confessional moorings for church life.

Since human beings are basically OK, the great need is not salvation in the life to come (whatever that may be), but the amelioration of social ills in this present life and the maximizing of individual freedom in every sphere of life, whether or not expressions of that freedom conflict with biblical morality.  Historically the church had sought to maintain biblical moral standards for its members, but now there is widespread disagreement as to what even constitutes moral or immoral behavior—hence the current front-page controversies among mainline Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians over homosexuality.

Further erosion of the traditional foundations for church life has resulted from the trendy religious pluralism so common even in church circles today.  If people are basically good and there is no such thing as divine wrath against sinners, then they don’t need Jesus to save them from the penalty of sin.  On this way of thinking, Jesus is certainly not the only way to God. Thus it makes little sense to view the church as the mystical “body of Christ” and the covenant community of those united by faith and baptism with Him.  Certainly Cyprian’s dictum, extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church), as echoed in Westminster Confession of Faith 25:2 makes little sense either.

As we know, ideas have consequences, and the consequences of these ideas have been particularly deadly.  With the loss of biblical truth and the confessional explication of that truth, all that was left was power (i.e., church polity), and increasingly disputes had to be settled on the arid basis of technical rules of church law rather than the great and abiding principles of the faith.  Some other reason for the church’s existence had to be found, and many found it in social action.

The ecclesiological crisis in the mainline churches is illustrated by an incident at a major university divinity school some years back.  Near the end of the semester in a “Theology of the Church” course, a perplexed student asked a noted feminist theologian, “Given what you’ve said during this semester, why do we need the church?”  After pondering the question for a moment, the theologian replied, “Well, the church has resources that we need in the struggle against racism, sexism, and homophobia.”  But there is more to the story—apparently none of the theologians at the school really wanted to teach the ecclesiology course, and so it was passed along to each in turn as a sort of distraction from what were deemed the more important tasks of theology.  You can imagine the impact that such thinking has had on many students preparing for ministry!  And that has been the story across a wide range of denominations, as money, property, and resources originally given by sincere Christians for the support of their beloved Bible-believing churches have been diverted to very different purposes.   The late Presbyterian theologian John Leith made quite a few enemies a number of years back when he insistently pointed out this breach of faith in his 1997 book Crisis in the Church.

All of this has inspired neither confidence in nor a love for the church in mainline circles, and massive membership hemorrhaging has been the inevitable result.  Studies show that some of these departures have gone in the direction of more conservative churches, but many more have moved from mainline churches to a thoroughly secular “none of the above.”  This should not surprise us—if the major task of the church is deemed to be advancing the feminist agenda or environmental activism, it makes more sense to become active in the National Organization of Women or the Sierra Club than to waste one’s time in church.

So, we might summarize the problem thus:  The loss of the Scriptural basis and confessional moorings for the church has left some denominations and congregations rudderless in the face of the winds of prevailing culture, and that religious pluralism has undercut classic notions of the church as the sphere of salvation.  The result of all this has been cynicism and massive loss of membership.   Now, I’m not saying this to gloat in some unseemly display of conservative triumphalism; in fact, I grieve over this situation, for I myself have deep roots in the mainline.  But we need to be realistic in our assessment of the situation.  And lest we conservatives become too smug, there are problems closer to home as well.

While the broader situation is somewhat better in evangelical churches, there is an ecclesiological crisis there as well.  To be sure, many American Evangelicals have retained a high view of the Bible’s authority, and of the saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ.  For that we must give thanks!  But the news is not all good, for various factors have conspired to undercut a vibrant doctrine of the church.  A major problem here is that many American Evangelicals have bought into aspects of the broader culture that corrode a biblical doctrine of the church.

Much of this has to do with the reflexive individualism and voluntarism of North American culture generally.  Our national consciousness was historically shaped by the frontier experience and by the keen desire to be free from the external constraint of king and Pope.  Individual rights are of paramount importance.  We begin our thinking with individual rights rather than our responsibilities to the community, an impulse given a great boost by the Enlightenment.  All this is no great secret, and was extensively explored by sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues in their book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985).

If the individual is paramount, then the church will inevitably be viewed as a “voluntary society,” as the sum total of individuals who have chosen to identify with it.  For many, the “church” is simply the aggregate of those who have voluntarily decided to accept Jesus as their personal Savior.  All this stands in some tension with the prevailing New Testament images of the church as the “body of Christ,” the “family of God,” the “new Israel,” and the “people of God”—themes that emphasize the corporate body and the way that people becomes Christians by being united with a glorious corporate reality greater than themselves.

This individualism also informs the way many Evangelicals view the grace of God and process of salvation.  It is thought that we come to God directly as individuals, and that the ministry of the church with its means of grace is perhaps helpful for some but not really necessary.  Of paramount importance is the individual’s conversion experience, and for many the ongoing life of faith and the Christian nurture through Word and sacrament that take place in the church fade into insignificance.

It is not difficult to see how these ways of thinking have undermined the rich ecclesiology affirmed by earlier generations.  Although many more examples could be cited, let’s briefly examine the impact on the church’s worship and organization.  If the individual is supreme, then the worship of the church will almost inevitably be judged in terms of what the individual gets out of it.  Rather than a profound corporate act of doxology to the triune God and Lord of all creation, worship now becomes a pragmatic and contextual exercise designed to evoke certain responses from us.

Likewise, if the church is but a voluntary society of those who share similar experiences or concerns, then there is nothing particularly sacrosanct about the structure and work of the church.  And so the trend has been to offload many of the traditional functions of the church onto so-called “parachurch” organizations.  In the evangelical world, the tasks of evangelism, missions, relief, and Christian education on the primary, secondary, collegiate, and seminary levels have been largely outsourced to these other organizations.  Thus, American Evangelicalism has been better known for its “para-ecclesiology” (views of parachurch ministry) than for its ecclesiology.  Little wonder, then, that many are uncertain about the nature, purpose and mission of the church!

While it is true that not all churches calling themselves “evangelical” have fallen headlong into these patterns, and some Reformed groups have been rather resistant to them, I would like to suggest four areas where we can draw on the best of our Reformed and Evangelical heritage in order to strengthen our understanding of the church.

First, we must work to recover a healthy Reformational sense of the church as “catholic” or universal.  The church of Jesus Christ is not just the local congregation or a particular denomination.  It is a glorious “body of Christ” that unites believers from all places on earth and throughout all time.  This view of the church comes to pointed expression in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where the Apostle tells us that Christ has been “made the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23, RSV).  Such a recognition of the true catholicity of the church serves as an antidote to clannishness and to the natural tendency to identify the “church” with a particular culture or group’s way of doing things.  This insight is exceedingly helpful in churches that tend toward the traditional in worship and organization.  In some Reformed churches, the inertia of traditionalism is strong indeed.  We often do things a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been done . . . since dirt was young.  Perhaps that is why we like to sing those lines in the “Gloria Patri”: “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”  But the catholicity of the church reminds us that there are other options, and that is tremendously liberating.

Second, we must recognize anew the importance of the means of grace.  In Scripture we see that God works among his people through appointed means—the preaching of the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments, the ministry of prayer and praise, and so forth.  This truth helps us to keep both our congregational lives and our personal spiritual walks on track.   Here we recognize that the primary task of the church is to minister in God’s appointed ways to His people.  Here we also recognize that we as individual Christians are to find our spiritual food at the banquet table of the church rather than at the spiritual fast-food vendors of religious television or worse.

Third, we must strengthen our appreciation of the church’s act of corporate worship in service to God.  What a solemn and yet splendid and joyous privilege it is to come into the presence of a holy and righteous God in worship!  As we come to realize that the character of our worship must be shaped by the object of that worship (namely God Himself), we have the antidote to all those persistent temptations to trivialize worship by making worship about us instead.   The purpose and goal of worship is not to provide us with a positive experience (although that often happens).  The purpose of worship is not to evangelize (though we rejoice when sinners come to faith in the context of a worship service).  Rather, the purpose of worship is to “glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

Finally, we must enhance our understanding of the mission to which the church is called.  Particularly in times like today when the church is rightly concerned about its own integrity, there is the temptation to turn inward and to lose sight of the church’s mission.  When Jesus prepared to leave his disciples, he gave them a task to accomplish: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, RSV).

How can you as seminary student take the doctrine of the church seriously?  Well, here are some suggestions:

First, be seriously involved in a local congregation.  Remember to be charitable and keep in mind that no congregation is perfect.  Our ecclesiology, no matter how well considered, is only an abstraction without ongoing involvement in the church.

Second, take your studies seriously, especially your church history and systematics courses.  If you love the church, you will want to learn her history and her system of belief.  The current lack of interest in church history and systematics that so many display is evidence of an ecclesiological problem.

Third, take the catholicity and connectionalism of the church seriously.  If you are under care or licensed to preach, attend your presbytery’s meetings.  Become familiar with the work of the agencies of the church.  Be aware of what is going on in sister denominations.

And finally, strive for balance.  A friend in ministry likes to say that if the devil can’t make us heretics, he tries to make us weird, and such quirkiness generally manifests itself as a lack of balance.  When Presbyterian ministers are ordained, they vow to uphold the peace, the purity, and the prosperity of the church.  Without balance these three can stand in tension with each other.  For example, for those who value the peace of the church above all, any effort to preserve purity is divisive.  Some are so focused on purity that they forget about peace.  The church today desperately needs as leaders balanced and centered individuals who have a clear sense of what is important and vital, and who passionately love the church.

William B. Evans is a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and serves as the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina, where he teaches courses in theology, American religion, and religion and culture. This article first appeared on his blog, The Ecclesial Calvinist.

Discipleship, the Grace and Peace Budget and your First Things

Discipleship, the Grace and Peace Budget and your First Things

At Grace and Peace we do not write, speak or preach often about money or giving. And yet what we do in this matter of giving is an important part of our Christian discipleship, i.e. our walk with God. The following teaching is helpful:

What you do first with whatever is entrusted to you indicates where you are in your relationship with God.  

That’s why the Israelites were instructed in Deuteronomy 26 to take some of the first-fruits of all that they produced from the territory God gave them, put it in a basket and bring it to the tabernacle where God dwells. Then they were to affirm their devotion to God by giving it to Him as an offering. In this act of giving their first-fruits they were to declare their appreciation for all God had done in bringing them to their present state and express their devotion to Him. 


When we give God our leftovers we will always find it hard to come up with sufficient to adequately express our appreciation. We also will find that whatever is given is likely given grudgingly. When first-fruits are given we find it easier to rejoice in the giving, confident that God will be pleased and will enable us to live adequately on what is left. It thus sets a tone for all of life. 


That might also be why there are many encouragements in the Bible to seek God when you first get up in the morning. When He is the focus of our attention first, He will put everything else we encounter the rest of the day in its proper place and enable us to handle it joyfully and responsibly. This no doubt is why Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 


Someone has rightfully challenged us with the words: Always keep first things first.

Rev. L. Goltz

Redeemer Broadcasting Network in St. Mary’s County

There is a wonderful new radio station here in St. Mary’s County!

WXMD 89.7 FM features excellent teaching programs and edifying music. Grace and Peace is a supporter of WXMD and encourages everyone to listen! Tune your home and automobile radios.

My soul complete, in Jesus stands- 1865 Grace W. Hinsdale

My soul complete, in Jesus stands!

It fears no more the law’s demands;

The smile of God is sweet within,

Where all before was guilt and sin.


My soul at rest, in Jesus lives;

Accepts the peace his pardon gives;

Receives the grace His death secured,

And pleads the anguish He endured.


My soul its every foe defies,

And cries—‘Tis God that justifies!

Who charges God’s elect with sin?

Shall Christ who died their peace to win?


A song of praise my soul shall sing,

To our eternal, glorious King!

Shall worship humbly at His feet,

In whom alone it stands complete.

GREAT DEVOTIONAL POETRY (from various public sources)



If you are not familiar with this poem, you need to be. Donne composed this piece near the end of his life when he was facing death (circa 1631). John Donne (pronounced ‘dun’) lived a contemporary of Shakespeare in London England between 1570 and 1640. He was renowned in his time as a ‘wit,’ a brilliant university educated member of the lower gentry classes. He was a cut above Shakespeare who had no university education and whose father was a glove maker.

John Donne had expectations as a young man and attached himself to James I royal court in the hope of ‘advancement’. He blew any prospects he might have had when he married, against her parents’ wills, a lady called Ann Moore. She was his darling dear and sweetheart, whereas in those days a person of any pretension married always by stratagem to enhanced the family fortunes, but not for love.

Donne had been a profligate in his earlier youth; a playboy, we might have called him these days. His poetry of his youth reflects this amorous and lascivious character. His attachment to Ann Moore brought him into line; but ruined his finances and outlook.

Ann died quite early in life, and Donne was devastated. Now a widower his attachment to Ann began to mature into a devout devotion to God. His career picked up again a little and over time he rose in the Anglican Church to occupy the position of Dean of St Pauls’ Cathedral in London (not the Wren building but the previous building before it was destroyed by fire).

During this development and elevation to Dean, his poetry moves rapidly away from his early rakish lasciviousness and heads towards the devotional poetry of his later years. This ‘Hymn to God the Father’ is thus a late poem of his; one of his final few. As he contemplates his demise, he is overcome with a sense of his own sinfulness, and he wonders how he will stand at the judgment. Donne evokes all the anguish of the “wretched man” in Romans 7:24 before he sounds a final note of hope that Jesus will rescue him at the last day. There is a wonderful play on the word “done” in this poem, and you may note that it can either mean “done” (sins committed, sins forgiven, or “Donne” (as in John Donne). It really is beautiful, and you can read the full text below.

Hymn to God the Father

Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sins their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore:
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

The Church Visible and Invisible

Is Membership in a local church really necessary?

What shall we think of someone who refuses to join a church or is removed from the membership of the church without joining another congregation?

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey K. Boer, Pastor of Sharon OPC in Miami Lakes, Florida, addresses these questions in the following sermon.

Formal church membership is a covenantal obligation for the Christian, as Dr. Boer notes in the following message.

Today and next Sunday I want to speak about why it’s important to join the visible church of Jesus Christ.  Many people are confused as to how they should view the church of Jesus Christ.  Our creeds, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Westminster Larger Catechism, speak about a distinction between the visible and the invisible church.  This doctrine of the distinction between the visible and invisible church is a helpful doctrine if we understand what’s intended by those terms, “visible church” and “invisible church.”  Unfortunately, this doctrine has been so misunderstood and so abused that many ministers and theologians prefer not to even use those terms anymore.

You see, a lot of people think this way: “There are basically two ways of looking at the church.  There’s the visible church, which is denominations and congregations and having your name written down on the membership rolls of a congregation.  And then there’s the invisible church which is composed of all true believers who are really saved.  The visible church,” they reason, “is composed of some true believers and some hypocrites and people who are either purposely ‘faking’ belief in Christ, or who think they’re true believers but they’re not.”

Having those two definitions in mind, some of these same people then take the next logical step and say, “Now, what’s most important after all?  That I have my name on the membership rolls of a church, or that I really believe?  Why, the important thing is that I’m really a Christian, that I’m really a true believer.  So who cares about membership?”

Now, given that understanding of things, being a member of the visible church is then pretty much optional, isn’t it?  And so what’s happened is that there are many people today who say they’re believers, but who, for one reason or another, aren’t members of the visible church.  Either they’ve never joined the church in the first place, or they were members once, but they just let things slide so that they’re members no longer.  Or perhaps they’ve moved away and never joined another church in their new location.  Or maybe the church they joined did something they didn’t like, so they left and started attending another church and never joined that church.  Or possibly they no longer even attend church any more, thinking to themselves, “Well, as long as I’m a true believer, I’m a member of the invisible church and that’s what counts, after all.”

Well, I want to make sure that you understand: that’s not what the framers of our confession and catechisms had in mind when they talked about the visible and invisible church!  And that’s not the concept of the church that the Scriptures teach us!

Nowhere do the Scriptures give us the impression that membership in the visible church is optional, or that it’s unnecessary.  Nowhere do the Scriptures teach us that as long as a person believes the Gospel, he’s saved, regardless of whether or not he joins the visible church.  That may be what you’ve heard in a Billy Graham Crusade or in some other evangelistic ministry, but that’s not the Biblical view!

The only reason the distinction between the visible and the invisible church needs to be made is to teach people that visible church membership alone can’t save them.  That’s what the Roman Catholic Church was teaching during the time of the Reformation.  Many people believed that as long as they were members of the visible church and partook of the sacraments, they were automatically saved.

But the Scriptures clearly teach that being a member of a church and partaking of the sacraments, by themselves, saves no one.

You must also be a sincere believer.  You must also be one who has true faith in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the Scriptures.  Church membership alone can’t save you!

But never, anywhere in the Scriptures or in our creeds – never are we given the impression that the visible church is optional or unnecessary.  In fact, the Scriptures and our creeds teach us the exact opposite!

I want to take some time today and next Sunday to look at the Scriptures and at our creeds, as well as at some of the writings of our forefathers in the faith on this matter.  I want to show you how clearly God’s Word speaks regarding the importance of membership in Christ’s church.

Let’s start with the Scriptures so that you can see that those positions stated in our creeds and explained by our forefathers are Biblically derived.

I would direct your attention, specifically, to Acts 2:47 which I’ll quote first from the KJV: “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”  (The NIV says And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”)  Either way, we see that those who are called, “saved,” were added to a visible, tangible body, the church.

The text says that “The Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”  The Lord added to the church, His covenant body, those who should be saved, and that’s the way it’s always been.

If you look at Acts 2:37, Peter has just finished preaching his sermon at Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit has been poured out.  Tongues of fire have rested on the apostles, and now Peter is preaching a sermon.  And in summary, he says, “This Jesus Christ that you Jews crucified and put to death on the cross has been raised from the dead, according to the OT prophecies, just as He said, and now this same Jesus has been exalted, and is sitting on the highest throne in heaven, with all power!”

So in other words, you all are in big trouble!”

And the Jews were immediately convicted.  V. 37 says, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”

Now I want you to take careful note as to Peter’s response to that question.  V. 38 tells us, “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized.”

In other words, “Repent and join the visible church.”

He says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and your children [That’s the same covenant promise given in the OT to the Jews and their children, but now he says it’s even…] for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

That meant that now, even the Gentiles, who once were far off from those covenant promises – even those Gentiles are now given those same covenant promises, if they will repent and join Christ’s body, the church.

V. 40 continues, “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’”

And then v. 41 says, “Those who accepted his message…” raised their hands and said, “I’m a believer,” and they were saved?  No, that’s not what it says!

“Those who accepted his message…” walked down the aisle and knelt in front of the altar and they were saved?

No!  That’s not what it says either.

Here’s what the text says:

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

And then a little later, v. 47, the verse we just read, says, “The Lord added to their number [meaning the number of those added to the membership rolls of the visible church”] daily those who were being saved.”

When these people believed, they were baptized.  And when they were baptized, they were added to the number of those who were members of Christ’s covenant body, the church.

A lot of people think being on the membership rolls of a church is not necessary.  A lot of churches don’t even have membership rolls.  But if that’s the case, then they don’t understand the Scriptures.

You find this same process all through the NT Scriptures.  Those who believed joined the visible body of Christ and became part of the “number” of that group.  If they had children, their children were also baptized into Christ’s body, the visible church.

This was nothing new.  In the NT, baptism replaced OT circumcision as the sign and seal of entrance into membership in God’s covenant.  This sign and seal of the covenant was given to the children of believing parents in the OT, in most cases, while they were still infants, only 8 days old.  Baptism, the sign of covenant membership in the NT, is also to be given, therefore, to all the children of believing parents.  If believers in the OT refused to circumcise their infant children, they weren’t allowed to be members of the covenant or to partake of the Passover.  It’s a great sin to refuse the covenant sign of baptism to the children of believers.

If those who are baptized into covenant membership later fail to live as God’s covenant people, once they become “of age” themselves – if they’re found to be living in unrepentant sin, or if they refuse to profess their own faith in Jesus Christ, they’re to be disciplined by the church and exhorted to repent.  And if they fail to repent, those members of the church are to be cut off from the covenant by being put out of the membership of the visible church.  That’s what the Bible teaches!

Duane Spencer, a minister in the OPC who is now dead, wrote a book entitled, Holy Baptism:  Word Keys Which Unlock the Covenant.  It’s one of the best books on the mode of baptism in print.

Spencer shows from the Scripture that sprinkling or pouring, from above, is the proper Biblical mode of baptism, even though we would recognize that those baptized by the improper mode of dunking or immersion have still been truly baptized.  But the mode of baptism that’s taught by Scripture is sprinkling or pouring “from above,” just as the Holy Spirit, Whose cleansing is represented in water baptism, comes down upon men “from above.”

But I want to quote from the introduction of Spencer’s book, since it deals with our topic for today: membership in the visible church (This introduction was written by James B. Jordan):

Holy Baptism is the sign and seal of the covenant.  It is not the sign and seal of eternal election, for God alone looks on the heart.  Man looks on the outward appearance, and we as Christians need to know whom we are to count as and treat as fellow Christians.  Do we count as Christians those who have a flaming testimony?  Or only those who speak in tongues?  Or only those who talk about spiritual things the same way we do, whom we feel at home with?  The answer of the Bible, and of the Church of all ages is this: We count as Christians those to whom God has given the visible sign of baptism, provided they have not been excommunicated from the visible church… Thus we always count our children as Christians and treat them as such…The sprinkling church thus does not presume to read the hearts, but treats only of the visible things, leaving the invisible to God.  [James B. Jordan in Duane E. Spencer, Holy Baptism:  Word Keys Which Unlock the Covenant (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1984), pp. xi-xii.]

That means that we do not treat a person as a Christian, the moment they say they believe in Jesus Christ.  We treat them as a Christian when they identify with Christ, by joining His covenant body, the church.

It was no small thing, in the NT, to be cut off from the visible church.  To be outside the church meant to be outside the covenant.  And the promises of the Gospel are made only to those within God’s covenant.  To be outside the body of Christ means to be outside of Christ.  We don’t want to be outside of Jesus Christ.  In the Bible, the only people who were considered to be in Christ, were those who were members, in good standing, in Christ’s body, the visible church.  And this is so plain on the face of the whole NT, it’s a wonder people have missed it!

Listen very carefully to what the WCF says in summarizing what the Bible teaches about this matter.  You can follow along in the back of your blue, Trinity Hymnals, if you wish, on p. 686.  Either many people don’t read their confession of faith or they’ve simply missed this point:

WCF XXV:II.  The visible Church [Here it gives a brief description of the visible church and then it continues, “The visible Church…”] …consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

There you have it: There is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the visible church!  That’s what the Westminster Assembly found that the Scriptures teach.  That’s what the brightest and most sanctified, theological minds in all of England and Scotland concluded from God’s Word.  And they weren’t alone.

The Belgic Confession, written prior to the WCF, is even more pointed on the matter.  Article XXVIII is entitled, “EVERY ONE IS BOUND TO JOIN HIMSELF TO THE TRUE CHURCH.”  The title kinda gives away the point, I realize!  But here’s what it says:

We believe, since this holy congregation [speaking of the visible church in general, not an individual congregation – JKB] is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it…

And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation [again, that’s not talking about a particular congregation, but the congregated body of Christ’s church in some location – JKB], wheresoever God has established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment.  Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same or do not join themselves to it act contrary to the ordinance of God.

Did you feel the force of that statement?  It says you must join the visible church, even if that means you’ll have to suffer punishment at the hands of the civil government.  Even if it means you’ll be put to death by the magistrate, you must join the visible church of Jesus Christ!

Both of these creeds follow the Biblical teaching of John Calvin, that prince of exegetes, who taught the same thing in numerous places in his writings.  For example, here are two questions and answers from Calvin’s Genevan Catechism:

Master [That’s how Calvin addresses the student – sort of like “Mr.”  The student is asking a question here.].  Why do you subjoin forgiveness of sins to the Church?  [In other words, the student is asking, “Why is it that the forgiveness of sins can be received only in conjunction with the visible church?”]

Scholar.  Because no man obtains it without being previously united to the people of God, maintaining unity with the body of Christ perseveringly to the end, and thereby attesting that he is a true member of the Church.

Master.  In this way you conclude that out of the Church is nought but ruin and damnation?

Scholar.  Certainly.  Those who make a departure from the body of Christ, and rend its unity by faction, are cut off from all hope of salvation during the time they remain in this schism, be it however short.  [John Calvin, “The Genevan Catechism” in Tracts and Treatises vol. II (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1983.  [Vol. 2 is a reproduction of the Calvin Translation Society edition of 1849]), p. 52.]

John Calvin taught, and our creeds agree, that the Scriptures teach this truth: “Outside of the Church is nothing but ruin and damnation.”

I would not be doing my job as a minister of the Word of God if I didn’t point that out to you.  This is information that every person on the face of this earth needs to know!  “Outside of the Church is nothing but ruin and damnation.”

Now of course we know that God is able to save people that never join the church.  God sometimes does some rather extraordinary things that are beyond our comprehension.  That’s why I appreciate the way the WCF puts this truth.  It says that outside the visible church, there is no “ordinary” possibility of salvation.

The thief on the cross was saved, and we know that he wasn’t baptized into the visible church while he hung on the cross next to Jesus.  But that was certainly an extraordinary case.  After all, he couldn’t join the church, since he’d be dead in a few hours.  And when you think about it, he did make a public profession of his faith in Jesus Christ as he hung upon the cross next to Jesus.

And then, Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, personally and publicly, received him into membership in His body when He said to him, in Luke 23:43, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

I’m sure the same would be true of a person today who truly believes in Jesus Christ, and who fully intends to join the church as soon as possible, but who perhaps dies suddenly before that happens.  Or consider a child of believing parents who dies shortly after he’s born, or even before he’s born, and so isn’t baptized.

We would consider such individuals to be saved, nonetheless.  But those are “extraordinary” situations.

And even if we were to allow for the possibility that God, in His sovereign power, could decide, immediately and supernaturally, and apart from any of those outward means of preaching, and church membership, and the sacraments, to zap someone with salvation, we’d still have no basis on which to expect such things.

We have no promise, no revelation on which to hope for such things.  When God lays out before us the only way of salvation in the Scriptures, then that way is the only basis for our sure hope of salvation.  Any other way of salvation is merely wishful thinking on men’s part.

So let’s be perfectly clear.  According to the Scriptures, as understood in the WCF, and as understood in the Belgic Confession, and as understood by John Calvin, (and many, many others could be added), there is no ordinary possibility of salvation for you, if you refuse to join the visible church!  If you refuse to join yourself to the body of Jesus Christ, you don’t have any Scriptural basis on which to hope for salvation.

And it should, of course, go without saying, that that means you must be a member of a true church and not an apostate one.  A person could be a member of the Mormon Church, for instance (if you want to even call that heretical group a church), and still not be a member of Christ’s true body.  The Scriptures command us to join with a church that preaches and teaches the whole counsel of God.  That means that we should join a Reformed and Presbyterian church, because that’s the only kind of church that seeks to proclaim God’s Word in all its fullness.

Now we know that there are no perfect churches, of course, but it’s our duty to join with the most faithful church we can find.  If we would have the true God as our God, then we must have God’s true Word as our guide.

The very first Commandment, in Exodus 20: 3, says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Now what does it mean to “have” a God?  And how do we “have” a God?  Well, think about it, how do you “have” a husband or a wife?  How do you “have” a spouse?  Do you “have” a spouse the moment you say, “I love you?”

“I love you.  There, now you’re my spouse.”

No.  It doesn’t work that way.

Even if you’re really, truly in love with this other person, does that mean you “have” them as your spouse?  No.

What about if you’re living together?  If you’re living with them and you see them every day and every week, does that make them your spouse?  No.

You “have” them as your spouse only when you enter into covenant with them, that is, when you marry them.  Only then are they your spouse, by covenant, not before!

Well in the same way, God says, “Don’t ‘have’ any other gods before me, and that implies the opposite: you must have Him as your God.  And you get Him as your God by entering into covenant with Him.  Apart from that covenant, you see, you have no claims on God.

In fact, John Calvin makes an interesting statement in this regard in his comments on Psalm 24:7.  He says, “…for what is the purpose of the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, of religious gatherings and of the whole external order of the church except to unite us to God?”  [John Calvin, Commentaries, vol. IV, pp. 409-410.  Comment on Psalm 24:7.]

The outward preaching and hearing of the Word of God and the outward visible signs and seals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper – all of these have the purpose of uniting us to God, by joining us to Jesus Christ.  These are the ways and means which God has ordained to bring us into union with Jesus Christ.  Apart from these outward means of the visible church, we’re not joined to Christ.

Therefore, we must let nothing stop us from identifying with Jesus Christ through His body the visible church.  In order to be saved, we must be in covenant with Jesus Christ.  We must be members of His body, the visible church.

This is not simply one man’s opinion.  We’ve seen that this is the consensus of many orthodox teachers throughout church history.  We’ll see even more evidence for this next Sunday, since there’s so much more evidence to present.

The Scriptures teach us this.  Our confessions interpret the Scriptures as teaching this.  Our forefathers in the faith interpret the Scriptures as teaching this.  Our Orthodox Presbyterian leaders interpret the Scriptures as teaching this.  And all of these witnesses agree: Membership in the visible church is not optional.  It is necessary for us to join the church if we are to have any sure hope of salvation.  Because, as our confession says that the visible church is that body, “outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”