The Aesthetics of Worship

In my last post, I set out a series of questions–including the following–regarding the content of music in worship:

Is there (or should there be) a palpable difference between the aesthetics of worship and other opportunities for singing together? Does the context of a coffee house, campfire, concert hall, stadium, living room, or sanctuary change our expectations and practice of making music?

At the heart of these questions lies the issue of purpose. Why do we sing in church, in our living room, at a concert, etc.? How is this singing led?

For example, if you are a popular music artist on tour in front of 15,000 people in a stadium you will necessarily lead/perform/sing differently than in the intimate setting of a coffeehouse or house concert. The environment of the venue and the purpose of the music serve different functions in different settings. Imagine a country or pop artist jumping up and down around your living room in front of a dozen people—it’s a little incongruent.

I once went to a Christmas concert starring several well-known artists. This was the first year that the concert had moved from a smaller setting to a large arena. However, the artists had not made the mental shift in their own heads as to what that meant for the show. The intimacy of interacting with the audience was lost when you have thousands of people in a large space on multiple levels. Also a bit unusual were the vendors walking up and down the stairs in the nosebleed sections selling beer during a Christmas concert. The arena treated the event as a concert; the artists were in the frame of mind of a hometown Christmas concert/sing-a-long. The venue won and the audience was perplexed.

The same idea about the difference of purpose holds true in the type of music that one uses. Matching bands do not play lullabies at pep rallies; mothers do not put babies to sleep with heavy metal; grocery stores do not encourage shopping by playing show tunes. Particular settings are more suited to certain types of music.

I believe that in the Christian life and in the Christian community there are appropriate times for campfires, concert halls, coffee houses, living rooms, and sanctuaries. One area in which we are deficient in the Church is not providing these occasions as a regular part of our life together. Because we do not have these communal opportunities, we tend to blur the lines and bring music appropriate for some of these other settings into the sanctuary instead of the venues and purposes that best suit that particular music.

Remember, the question is about the palpable difference between the aesthetics of worship and the aesthetics of other times of singing. The primary focus of worship is God, the Three-in-One, Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos. The primary focus of a musical artist in a concert setting (coffeehouse, arena or symphonic concert hall) is too often themselves (or their art, their fans having a good time, the music, etc. = themselves). Before we borrow too many of the forms and feel of an antithetical aesthetic and bring them into worship, we should first make sure that it fits the purpose of worship in the context of a worship space and the reflected beauty of our transcendent God.

Gregory Wilbur is Chief Musician at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Franklin, TN where he also serves as a Ruling Elder. In addition to his work at the church, Greg serves as Dean and Senior Fellow of New College Franklin—a Christian liberal arts college that he helped to start. You can find many of his compositions at

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The Scent of the Gospel

I’ve often heard that the sense of smell is the sense most closely related to the memory. A particular smell has a powerful way of effecting our recollection of a vivid memory. Every now and then, I’ll smell something and in my mind I’m instantly sitting at the round table in my grandmother’s kitchen. I’m not a doctor–nor do I play one on TV–but, I have read that the olfactory bulb (i.e. the part of the brain that processes smells) is closely connected to the amygdala and the hippocampus (i.e. the parts of the brain that handle memories). So there is a physiological reason why our sense of smell is so powerful.

Perhaps there is something more than just physiology that makes our sense of smell so powerful. Perhaps our sense of smell is so powerful because it is something we see described frequently in God. There are scents that God finds to be pleasing. And there are scents that God finds to be displeasing. We who are made in the image of God then reflect that quality in our bodies. Put simply, a pleasing aroma has the ability to transport us back to a pleasant memory. It can delight our minds. It can make our mouths water. It can bring joy. The scent of my wife’s pillow brings comfort to me when she is traveling. A fragrant aroma is a delight.

A foul stench, however, can have the equal but opposite reaction. One of my general life rules is that if someone says, “Smell this,” the answer is always, “No.” After Hurricane Katrina, I took teams of college students to Mississippi and Louisiana for recovery work. At one house we had to remove a fridge full of shrimp. Mind you, this was 6 weeks after the hurricane. In the summer heat. And there had been no electricity since the storm. We had to move that fridge out of the house and to the street. When that fridge door got jarred a little loose, the putrid odor hit us and made us all retch and gag. A foul stench is odious.

What are some of the odors that God finds pleasing? When the Flood had subsided and everyone and everything exited the ark, Noah built an altar. He made a sacrifice on that altar. And “when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man” (Gen 8:21). The proper sacrifice of Noah was a pleasing aroma. In fact, all the proper sacrifices and offerings of God’s people were a pleasing aroma to God (Exod 29:18, 25, 41; Lev 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9; 3:5, 16; 4:31; 6:15, 21; 8:21, 28; 17:6; 23:13, Num 15:3, 7, 10, 13, 14, 24; 18:17; 28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27; 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36). The proper worship of God’s people results in a pleasing aroma and God delights in it.

While these proper sacrifices are pleasing aromas to God, not all sacrifices and offerings will be received that way. In Isaiah 2:22-4:1, the city of Jerusalem had rejected God by worshiping idols. Part of the judgment that came was that “instead of perfume there will be rottenness” (Isa 3:24). What was previously a pleasing scent became a putrid one. The prophet Ezekiel warns that sacrifices made to idols may produce an aroma that is pleasing to the worshiper, but it will be rejected by God (Ezek 6:13; 20:28). We should take note that our enjoyment of worship seems to have little bearing on the appropriateness of worship. Leviticus, likewise, makes clear that the result of covenantal disobedience is that God “will not smell your pleasing aromas” (Lev 26:31). A rejection of that fragrance was a rejection of their apostate worship. A sacrifice in and of itself is not pleasing to God, but rather the pleasure of the aroma comes in a sacrifice properly made to cleanse and remove the defilement of the people. A form of worship without the presence of God leads to estrangement from God, alienation, and eventually death. And death stinks (Exod 7:18, 21; Eccl 10:1; Isa 50:2; Amos 4:10; John 11:39).

Jesus Christ, as the perfect sacrifice (Heb 10:14), is able to make the ultimate offering. Paul notes that Jesus “gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). Jesus was the perfect sacrifice and offering for our sins, and one of the signs that God received it was that it was a pleasing aroma, a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Jesus was the proper sacrifice made to cleanse and remove the defilement of the people. And now those who are in Christ carry that same aroma. “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one the fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor 2:15, 16). To the elect of God, the smell is delightful and calls them to joy and life in Christ. To the reprobate, the smell is putrid and calls them to a life of judgment, wrath, and death.

There are a number of ways for us to apply this truth. The first and simplest way is that we should thank God for things that smell good. A pleasing aroma is a reason to delight in the Lord and a call us to thankfulness for his blessings. But beyond the blessings of common grace in our sense of smell, it should also remind us of the sacrifice of Christ. The most perfect and pleasing of all aromas is the fragrance of the accepted sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins. But we should be careful. There is such a thing as olfactory fatigue. This is the condition where we become accustomed to certain odors and forget them. When you visit a friend’s home, there is a smell to it. But your friend doesn’t smell it because they have gotten used to it. There is a danger that we’ll experience fatigue with respect to the pleasing aroma of Christ. We can forget or assume Christ without being delighted by the fragrant aroma. We have to fight this olfactory fatigue in our spiritual lives and keep that pleasing aroma fresh. We must remind ourselves anew of the pleasures of Christ through God’s Word. We should delight in the grace he has given us. And we should rejoice that the aroma of Christ is one of life and not death.

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The Extra Ministry Mile

In his outstanding series of talks to young men preparing for ministry, Charles Spurgeon cited a theologian who famously said, “Study yourself to death and then pray yourself alive again.” One can take this sentiment, reshape and reform it into a dozen others, in order to encourage young men who are about to enter into the ministry. For instance, we could just as easily say, “Preach yourself to death and then pray yourself alive again,” “Write yourself to death and then pray yourself alive again,” and “Evangelize yourself to death and then pray yourself alive again.” Each of these statements carry with them the idea that ministry is an exhausting calling. Anyone who is seeking to be faithful in Gospel ministry should first prepare himself with a mindset of diligence and a willingness to “be spent” (to borrow words from the Apostle Paul) for the sake of the Gospel. This, however, is sadly not often the case with numbers of men who enlist in full-time Gospel ministry. In seeking to address this important subject, I want to consider some of the reasons why many are unwilling to pour themselves out in the service of Christ. Then, I want to encourage all who God has called to be ministers of the Gospel to go the extra ministry mile. 

One of the primary reasons why more ministers do not give themselves wholly to Gospel-ministry is that they have a divided sense of priorities in life. The Apostle Paul told Timothy, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Tim. 2:4). The prevalence of a divided heart among men in ministry is also discovered in Paul’s commendation of Timothy in Philippians 2:19-21: “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” This is a scathing indictment against men in ministry who have a divded heart. All of us, if we were honest, would have to say that we have loved this world too much. We have loved pleasure too much. We have loved comfort too much. We have loved adulation too much. We have loved ourselves too much. A divided heart is a great detriment to the minister’s need to be striving for the sake of the Gospel. 

Someone will object at this point by asking, “Are you suggesting that a minister is supposed to neglect his family for the sake of the Gospel?” Who would not acknowledge that there is an enormous danger here against which we must all be on guard? Many have turned their ministries into their mistress, so to speak. I had a wise mentor who told me many years ago, “You can lose the church and keep your family; but, you can’t lose your family and keep the church.” His point was simple: If we neglect our family on the alter of ministerial success we will inevitably find that we lose true ministerial success in both the sight of God and men. Our ministry must begin with our wives and children. God has entrusted them to our care so that we would wash our wives with the water of the word and bring up our children in the training and admonition of the Lord. One of the qualifications for a man to hold office in the church is that he must “manage his own household well.” Neglecting the spiritual, emotional, physical and financial needs of our families is ungodly. To do so in the name of ministerial commitment is a great danger against which we must vigorously guard. 

However, I have observed many young men, newly inducted into public ministry, who sequester themselves in the home with their wives and children. They are not out with the people of God very often. They are not in the community seeking opportunities for the spread of the Gospel. They treat ministry like a 9 to 5 job–clocking in and clocking out without being willing to give an extra minute to the needs of the congregants. If their lives were broadcast on a movie screen, no one would be tempted to say that they had given themselves, in a self-sacrificial sense, to Gospel ministry. Spending inordinate amounts of time with the family–to the neglect of ministerial responsibilities–in the name of fidelity may actually be nothing other than a smokescreen for ministerial laziness and an idol of comfort. 

A thing that has always peaked my interest in this regard is the way in which we hear almost nothing about the family life of the Apostle Peter in Scripture. The Scriptures tell us, in several places, that Peter had a wife. The Gospels detail for us the fact that Jesus healed Peter’s wife’s mother. Additionally, the Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:5 writes, “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other Apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” The only thing that the Holy Spirit has seen fit to leave for us in the Scriptures is a record of Peter’s diligent labors in the evangelistic ministry to which God had called him–together with two letters that he wrote to the early church. Of course, there are important elements of his letters that deal with how a husband is to love and care for his wife (1 Peter 3:7). However, what we clearly see in Scripture is the way in which he gave himself to diligent labors for the sake of the Kingdom of God. 

Another reason why many ministers do not give themselves to a diligent outpouring of their lives in the service of the church is because they have entered ministry for the wrong reason. They didn’t have a burning desire to preach the Word, shepherd the flock and evangelize the lost. They didn’t have a pastor tell them that they had unique gifts from God for Gospel ministry. They thought that they might find a sense of fulfillment in ministry. After all, the experience that they had in campus ministry in college left them with a sense that helping young adults through difficult coming-of-age challenges seemed to be richly rewarding. Or, perhaps, they reveled in the thought of setting their own hours. Many have viewed the ministry like a business. Being a pastor to them is like being a business owner. You don’t have someone breathing down your neck to get work done. Still, for others, ministry is a way to have a public platform. The longing to be noticed drives them to pursue a call to the ministry. People would finally listen to them when they stand in front of them week by week to preach and teach. Whatever the case, of this much we can be sure–many will never be diligent in Gospel ministry because they haven’t been called by God to be in full-time pastoral ministry. 

There are a number of tests by which a pastor can discern whether a young man is sincerely zealous in his pursuit of Gospel ministry or if he is pursuing it for wrong motives. One such test has to do with his commitment to the life and ministries of the local church prior to heading off to seminary. If a man is not committed, in a superlative way, to the regularly scheduled worship services, Bible studies, outreach events, etc. why in the world would a pastor assume that he will be a diligent minister of the Gospel once he makes it through seminary? Seminary doesn’t give a man a heart for the ministry–it simply gives men the requisite tools for ministry. 

Having said all of this, I recognize that there are men who have been called by God to enter the ministry, who have a zeal for the spread of the Gospel and the care of the people of God but who struggle at times to be diligent in their labors. There have been many times when I have been weary or worn to the point that I have not wanted to go the extra ministry mile. When those times come, I remind myself of the example of the Savior. Jesus was often weary and worn; and yet, he pressed on in seeking to fulfill the ministry for which he was sent by his Father by giving himself to prayer (Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12). There was the time when he was exhausted from ministry and so he sat at a well (John 4:6), where he then engaged the Samaritan woman with great evangelistic love and diligence. There were also times when the disciples needed rest from the weariness of ministry (Mark 6:30-32); however, no sooner had Jesus pulled away with them for that purpose that a multitude found them and Jesus sent them back to ministerial labors (Mark 6:33-44). 

This is not to say that we do not need times of rest and refreshment. As I write this, I am on the tail end of a short Sabbatical. Spurgeon himself would often retreat to the English oceanside in order to regain spiritual and physical strength after being weighed down by the burdens of ministry. So, while we should emphasize that it is imperative for ministers to get adequate rest and refreshment, we must equally emphasize the dire need that ministers have to pour themselves out in the service of Christ in the ministry. After all, the Scriptures tell us, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Eccl. 9:10). With that sobering reminder, let’s be ministers who are willing to go the extra ministry mile.

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Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

A Spiritual Barometer Check

True knowledge of God manifests itself in love for all the saints. Growing maturity in Christ evidences itself in growing love for His people. Does an individual possess a lot of knowledge regarding doctrine and theology? Great, we can never gain enough knowledge of doctrine and theology. Let us pursue knowing God with all our minds. The man who stops growing in knowledge of God ceases seeking God. But here is the essential question, has that knowledge heightened our love for the saints? What does our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ look like? Christians love Christians. And the more we grow in Christ, the more we will love His bride.

In Colossians 1, Paul thanks God for the love that the Colossian Christians have for all the saints (1:4). Agape love—that over-analyzed and still misunderstood word in our Evangelical circles—contains the idea of pro-active care or concern for another. A concern so great that a person willingly sacrifices their own interests for another. This kind of love marks the Colossian Christians.

Such love only flows from union with Christ (Colossians 1:4). If a person is not in union with Christ, they will never have this kind of love. But if a person is in union with Christ, they will be marked by this kind of love. If we asked, “What is that black and white striped animal?” Most would know the answer instantly. If we asked, “What is that animal that has a mane and a loud roar?” Most would reply instantly. A zebra and a lion are known by their respective attributes. They are identifiable. The Christian is identified by his or her love for the saints. “They will know you by your love for one another,” said the Lord Jesus (John 13:35).

If we claim to know Christ but do not love the people He died for, we are simply deluding ourselves. If we claim to love God but harbor disdain for the Church, our proclamation proves vacuous. Paul links love for God and love for His people together. “We thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus AND of the love that you have for all the saints” (Colossians 1:3-4). Christ links love for God and love for His people together, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

If a person is a Christian, they love Christians. And that love grows as we mature in the faith. Despite all the trials we may endure in relationship with other believers, we fall more in love with them because they are Christ’s. He died for them and we are united with them for all of eternity. We love our Lord, so we love His Church.

It is not always easy to discern where we are at in the Christian faith. Am I more mature today than I was yesterday, last week, or last year? Do I cherish Christ more? Am I storing treasures in heaven? Or is my heart set upon the things of earth and my love for Christ is waning? One of the easiest ways to assess ourselves is to examine our love for all the saints. Do I love God’s people more today? If so, it is assuredly true that I also love Christ more. It is a good barometer of our spiritual health. One that I must seek to employ regularly for it does not lie. If I love God, I will love His people.

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Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Do They Know You By Your Suit?

Speaking on the matter of Christian freedom John Calvin said, “This is a slippery place, and there is great danger of falling on either side.”1 Too true! Christians face the duel temptation of excessive rule-making and inappropriate freedom-flaunting when it comes to matters that the Bible doesn’t explicitly address. Of course, neither is a biblical solution. Neither option promotes the freely-rendered, loving obedience for which the cross of Christ aims. For believers to flourish—especially those with differing convictions within the same congregation—there has to be a better way.

Rather than evaluate this matter in the abstract, let’s consider the sometimes “slippery” issue of convictions and practices related to how Christians dress for worship.

Christian A takes this approach: “Our God is a consuming fire whom we must worship with majesty and awe (Heb. 12:28–29). For those who meet with the king of Kings the proper worship attire is formal. After all, if I were going to meet the president I would wear my very best. I don’t want to convey to God or others that this meeting is casual or insignificant.”

Christian B sees it this way: “Our God is a Father to the fatherless (Ps. 68:5) who, in Christ, gathers his children as a hen gathers her chicks (Matt. 23:37). I meet with God saying, “Naked, [I] come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for help,” so formal attire might actually get in the way. I’m thankful that God imposes no dress code upon his children. After all, I never feel obligated to dress up for a family meal.”

Which attitude is right?

Or is that the wrong question?

As you read those two approaches to worship you might have sympathized with one more than the other. At the same time you recognized that both attitudes appeal to Scripture and seem to reflect a complementary rather than contradictory understanding of meeting with God. God is transcendent; he is also close. He is a King; he is also a Father. He is majestic; he is also loving. One of the last things we should want to do as God’s people is to ramrod into a single, uniform approach to God the abundant and diverse motifs God uses to help us understand him. Of course how we dress for worship can be a reflection of our hearts. But it is too simplistic to say that the more formal our dress the more we value worship or, conversely, the more casual our dress the more intimate we are with God.

Instead, what we should desire are houses of worship where people in “fine apparel” and those in “filthy clothes” (James 2:1–4)—and those in between—feel welcome meeting around the table of grace with their Father-King. Should it not be possible, in the same congregation, for some people to worship God with the modern equivalent of sackcloth and ashes while others honor him with their best robes? Each of us choose our Sunday clothes, if even subconsciously, based on how we process biblical metaphors for relating to God. We might be guests at a wedding, or children on Jesus’ knee, or courtiers in a palace, or a bride entering a bridegroom’s chamber. But as these metaphors take on garb, the threads need not be discordant. Instead, they can form a beautiful tapestry of Christian experience externally displayed in our dress.

To get to this point believers will need to learn to distinguish those actions that might have biblical warrant with those that are biblically required. I hope I have briefly demonstrated that a biblical case could be argued for both a more-formal and less-formal dress for worship. Both models might not equally resonate with every believer. But that fact is insufficient for attempting to squeeze others into our mold.

We also will have to learn to be comfortable expressing our faith differently on matters of moral indifference. Writing on Christian liberty Paul says, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). He’s reminding us that in amoral matters we have to respect our consciences without imposing them on others. “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God” (v. 22; NAS). If a woman feels bound by her faith to wear a dress to church, then she ought to do so. If a man feels better able to express his faith in worship wearing jeans, then he should do so. On indifferent matters our personal faith can form guidelines for ourselves but not for others. As Calvin says, “The liberty of the Christian in external matters is not to be tied down to a strict rule” that everyone must follow.2 It would be wrong to say that God demands men to wear ties and jackets or that women must wear blouses, skirts, and dresses, and that shorts and informal clothing are inappropriate for worship. Most churches cannot avoid having a culture where a majority dresses either formally or informally. And, of course, these cultural mores vary between societies. But a culture is different than a code. The simple reality is, God doesn’t provide marks of a well-dressed man or woman.

While facilitating a culture of thoughtfulness, gratitude, simplicity, and modesty in our dress, let’s avoid making rules based on one facet of Scripture while ignoring others. Let’s be candid: Hypocrites can be found in “long robes” (Luke 20:46) and “old garments” (Josh. 9:5); the opposite can also be true. Let’s gladly recognize that the variety of worship attitudes recorded in Scripture are like a mosaic depicting the riches of restored worshiping humanity. Let’s appreciate why Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and their heirs so strongly promoted Christian liberty as a biblical tonic for the enslaving, demoralizing manmade regulations of the medieval church. Let’s pursue the shared quest of worshiping God with love and trust, and reverence and awe, without imposing on others what we should wear while doing so. Let’s learn to look past what others are wearing on the Lord’s Day and gaze instead on the beauty of Christ, rejoicing that he clothes his children with the garments of salvation and with robes of righteousness (Is. 61:10).

1. Institutes 3.10.1

2. Institutes 3.10.4

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The Bittersweet Parting

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” This is one of William Shakespeare’s most oft-quoted lines. What few realize is that it was uttered in the context of Juliet saying goodnight to Romeo “till it be tomorrow.” The sorrow of that parting was sweetened by the knowledge that it was only for a few hours.

But what about those partings from loved-ones that will be for years and years? There is nothing sweet and plenty bitter about such partings. What unmixed sorrow when a dying husband has to kiss his wife and children goodbye for the last time! What bitterness when soldiers on the way to Afghanistan have to say goodbye to their family and friends! What agony when a pastor and his beloved flock have to part, in response to God’s providential call, and sever the bond of love built up over years! Such partings are not “sweet sorrow,” but usually bitter, bitter, bitter.

The Lord Jesus also knew the deep sorrow of parting from His beloved family and flock on this earth. Time and again, He cautioned them that he had to “go away” (John 16:7). This was not easy for them; but neither was it easy for him.

The pain of missing them

For Jesus, there was a double sorrow in this parting. First, there was the pain of missing the disciples’ company. Over the years, he had come to love them, and even to need and to depend upon them. As a man, he enjoyed their friendship. He took pleasure in their conversation and delighted in their varied characters and personalities. He loved seeing their faces with their ever-changing expressions. When he heard their familiar voices, he could tell what mood they were in. He delighted to see any hints of spiritual growth and appreciated their unique spiritual gifts. He wanted them with him on earth (Matt. 26:37) and he wanted them with him in heaven (John 17:24). But now there was the pain of parting from them for a time. How he would miss them, and what pain this caused him, even in anticipation.

This bitter thought of missing his disciples, though, was partially sweetened for Christ by the knowledge that he was going to heaven, where all his pain and sorrow would be over. He was going to be with his glorified people, where the friendships and fellowship would be perfect and permanent. This, for Christ, somewhat sweetened the sorrow of parting.

The pain of paining them

Second, there was the pain of causing his flock pain. Jesus was not selfish. He was not thoughtless about those he was to leave behind. He cared deeply for his disciples and would have done anything, apart from disobeying his Father, in order to make them happy. The thought of his disciples feeling the aching void of his absence and shedding even one tear over it affected him deeply and troubled his sensitive soul. “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart” (John 16:6). As a perfectly sympathetic High Priest, he felt their painful feelings even more acutely than they did!

How he wished he could be in two places at once!

But wait … He could!

Not physically, but spiritually! Not in his body, but by his Spirit! Not a localized bodily presence, but a worldwide spiritual presence! This would be even better than being with his disciples one by one! “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

Here, Jesus promises his sorrowing disciples that by his Spirit he would come to them, fellowship with them, and comfort them. The dying husband, the departing soldier, and the called pastor may wish they could do the same. They may wish that they could leave their spirit behind to continue the relationship and so sweeten the sorrow of physical parting. They can’t.

But Christ can, and did, and does.

If you are a lonely, sorrowing Christian, Christ promises, “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:18). Even in dread-filled anticipation of life’s partings, such plain words moderate our sadness: “I will come to you.”

Take all the bitter sorrow of this world’s partings – both present painful reality and future feared possibilities – to the Lord Jesus and seek his comforting, sweetening presence in your empty and bitter soul. Then, and only then, will this world’s partings begin to become “such sweet sorrow.”

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Sons and Servants

Martin Luther, the great Reformer, said, “A Christian is free and independent in every respect, a bondservant to none.” In the very next sentence he stated, “A Christian is a dutiful servant in every respect, owing a duty to everyone.”

We see this reality throughout the Scriptures. Christians have been set free and yet that freedom leads the Christian to duty. As an example, Paul emphasizes this truth to Philemon as he appeals for him to receive Onesimus back. Onesimus is a runaway slave, who has apparently also stolen from Philemon (v. 18). How does Paul appeal to Philemon? He emphasizes the gospel. Paul reminds Philemon multiple times in the first seven verses that he is a child of God, a recipient of grace (v. 1, 3, 5, 6, 7). He will remind Philemon multiple times again before the letter closes (v. 9, 16, 17, 19, 20, 25). Philemon received abundant love, forgiveness, and grace in Christ. Paul implies that this truth matters as we live with others. “Remember the gospel” is Paul’s charge to Philemon.

In fact, Paul will make this appeal directly in verse eight. He tells Philemon that he could command him to do “what is required.” Paul is clearly pointing to Philemon’s duty in Christ. Yet, Paul chooses not to demand based upon his authority as an Apostle, rather he gently appeals to Philemon as he calls to his remembrance the gospel. “What is required” pertains to every recipient of grace.

A Christian husband and wife have hurt one another deeply. There is pain, anger, and even bitterness. Neither is happy. One spouse desires to walk away, believing it is time to start over. This is an all-too-common-scene. As a pastor, I have been in many of these conversations over the years. In those situations, I am bold enough to demand, as Paul said (v. 8), that they remain together, but that accomplishes little. Rather, I have found that when we begin to remember the gospel together and all that this individual received in Christ, what was hard ground begins to soften. Remembering the gospel allows the door of iron that has come upon their heart as result of pain, sorrow, and injury, sometimes through little to no fault of their own, to begin to swing open a little on its hinges. Maybe it is but a crack, but that crack allows gospel grace, love, and forgiveness to find their way in and even to flow out.

“Remember the gospel Philemon.” It frees us, but it also binds us. That is one of the paradoxes of the Christian life. We are free by God’s grace and are bound to act because of God’s grace. We are a slave to none, but then we are a slave to all. We have been set free from duty and yet now all duty is required of us. “Oh, Philemon, Christ has purchased you, do what is required of you for love’s sake, for Christ’s sake.” Remember the gospel.

The Christian needs this reminder daily. The beauty of the gospel delights our minds and sustains our souls; and it also provides drive, energy, and vision for the will. As it affects our persons, it informs our actions. Never underestimate the power of the gospel to claim lives from death and give them purpose in the present.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Suffering, Love and Glory

Many have experienced the kind of hard providences that have brought them near to the end of their faith. Seemingly Earth-shattering events are common to all men, and are heightened in the life of the believer by the trials that we uniquely face (e.g. persecution for the sake of the Gospel). The default reaction of believers (as well as for many unbelievers) is immediate prayer for an end to the trial. Yet what happens when our suffering continues and when God delays an answer? What are we to make of hardships which make God’s providence and God’s promise appear to collide? How will our faith survive in such times? There are precious lessons to be learned regarding this important issue from John’s account of the raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11).

  • You cannot have your “best life now”. That is to say, if we are united to our Saviour by faith, we must tread the path he trod while on this earth. Not only are we united to his blessings, but also the trials he faced. “A servant is not greater than his master” (Jn. 15:20) applies both to persecution for the faith, and the general struggles of this life. If Jesus wept and sorrowed over Lazarus’ death, ought we to think we will be exempt from such troubles in this life?
  • God’s greatest priority is not to remove hardship from your life. Notice how, in John 11, our Lord receives the news of Lazarus’ serious sickness and delays attending to him. In that time of delay, Lazarus dies. Jesus, indirectly, is the cause of Lazarus death – he could have stopped it, but he chose not to. In other words, God’s greatest priority for your life, may well not be the very thing you are praying for. Learn this lesson, that because “God’s ways are not our ways”, we might need to realign what we think is important in life, to that which God reveals is needful and necessary for us.
  • Your desires are not necessarily your needs. Both Martha and Mary send word to Christ hoping for healing. They both approach him, heart-broken, saying “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died” (Jn: 11:21, 32). Indeed, that is the case. But Jesus chose not to come to them, because his goal was bigger than a simple healing. What we want is frequently not what we need from a wise and loving divine hand. But why would God leave us in our suffering?
  • God loves us enough to lead us through and leave us in suffering. We might think that if God loved us, he would answer our prayers and remove the trouble we face. But Jesus’ actions to Mary and Martha reveal the contrary. Jn 11:5 “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Notice the cause of Christ’s delay: his love. His love for his dear friend Lazarus and his sisters, played a pivotal role in the crisis his friends faced. To put it another way, God loves us enough to let our loved ones die. Yes! You read that correctly. But why would he do that?
  • God has a design in suffering (which is not always an immediate removal of suffering). That is to say, God wants to reveal, teach or instruct us in some way. To be precise, with Martha and Mary, Jesus’ design was “[the sickness] is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Could it be our greatest need in times of trial is not the removal of the trial, but rather to see more of the glory, grace, power, love, compassion, sympathy and kindness of our Father in heaven and our Saviour?
  • The removal of a trial may be an insufficient act. Have you ever wondered why Jesus did not heal Lazarus? Probably because he had done many healings before, and at this stage in his ministry (not long before his death) he wanted to reveal more of his power than simply a healing. He was, as it were, holding out for the great sign of John’s gospel – a resurrection. Lazarus’ own death and resurrection prefigured his own death and resurrection. Could it be that in your suffering, God is not only teaching us to look at him, but is going to reveal more grace and glory than we could ever imagine, or see in times of plenty? As the Scottish divine, Samuel Rutherford stated “when I am in the cellar of affliction, I look for the Lord’s choicest wines”. Or, as Spurgeon said “but if I am made to go down to the deep well of affliction, I look up and see the stars visible above my head. I see what others cannot see”.
  • Your sufferings will cease one day. All of our enemies will certainly be vanquished by the Lord Jesus. This includes sickness and death. The Lazarus narrative is so encouraging: it provides a picture of the Warrior-King Jesus, filled with rage at sin, death and the devil. He is described as “deeply moved in spirit and greatly troubled” (Jn 11:33). An examination of the Greek will show these emotions are more to do with anger, than sorrow. (Indeed, the sorrow of Christ “Jesus wept” (v 35) is a reflection of a self-controlled anger.) Anger at Satan, anger at sin and its terrible effects – death. All of which would be manifested in Christ’s own experience shortly.

“Jesus,” wrote BB Warfield in The Emotional Life of Our Lord, “approached the grave of Lazarus, not in a state of uncontrollable grief, but of irrepressible anger.” He continues, “His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words, “as a champion who prepares for conflict”. The raising of Lazarus thus becomes not an isolated marvel, but – as indeed it is present through the whole narrative – a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus’ conquest over death and hell. What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as he wins salvation for us. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against our foe, Jesus smites in our behalf. He has not only saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression and under the impulse of these feelings, has wrought out our redemption”.

Are you beginning to see this biblical perspective on suffering? The suffering that we endure in this life is not in spite of God’s love, but because of it. It is not out of God’s control, but firmly part of His plan. He is giving us all that we need, rather than giving us what we desire in order that we might see our Savior in all His glorious rage, vanquishing our enemies one by one, even death itself. May God grant us grace to see the “the Glory of God,”  in order that “the Son of God may be glorified” in and through our sufferings.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Beyond Hymnals and Screens

There has been a recent series of posts, blogs, and articles about the use of hymnals, the loss of hymnals, what we gain with screens, what we lose with screens, etc. Behind these posts is an assumption that whether it is printed or pixelated on a screen denotes two different types of music. As such, this becomes more a discussion of style. However, at the heart of the matter is what is the purpose of singing in worship and how does that influence what we sing.

Understanding the role of music in worship is more than a simple blog can handle. However, if I may, allow me to introduce the following questions for further reflection:

What is the purpose of singing in corporate worship? It is to express truth, reach emotions, or instruct? Is it to get people ready for the sermon? Is it an entryway for people to get comfortable who would otherwise be uneasy in church? Is the singing for the benefit of God or the congregation or both?

Is there (or should there be) a palpable difference between the aesthetics of worship and other opportunities for singing together? Does the context of a coffee house, campfire, concert hall, stadium, living room, or sanctuary change our expectations and practice of making music?

How is music presented? What instruments are useful for leading worship—in terms of type and how they are played? Is there a difference in what is helpful in leading congregational singing versus what is effective on a stage?

How do we choose what to sing? If we only hear and sing things with which we are comfortable, will we grow spiritually or just reinforce our own prejudices? Do we ever present music in worship because “it is good for us” or only because we like it? As C.S. Lewis talks about in An Experiment in Criticism, do we “receive” what we sing or do we simply “use” it?

Are we willing to let musical ideas be less important than leading the congregation so that they intuitively know when and what to sing? (I’ve been in contemporary services in which it was so loud that there was no reason for me to sing, and I’ve been in traditional services with organ and brass ensembles with arrangements so long and confusing that I did not know when to sing. Both experiences ostracize the congregation as participants.)

Do we plan worship to reflect the time and place in which God has placed our particular congregation? Do we plan worship to connect us with the saints of old in a continuity of worship?

These questions are not rhetorical in nature but rather conversation starters and potential evaluators of the significance and responsibility of leading in worship and shepherding a congregation by thoughtful choices and decisions. What an incredible blessing and calling!

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

What if I’m Not Elect?

Some opponents of Reformed theology argue that the doctrine of election produces unfeeling and fatalistic preachers: “If God has already chosen who will believe, what’s the point in preaching passionate and persuasive evangelistic sermons?” However, although that’s (usually) an unfair caricature of Reformed truth, there’s no question that Reformed pastors sometimes have to counsel people who will say something like, “But if I’m not in the elect, there’s no point in believing in Christ. If my name’s not written in the Book of Life, then all my believing is in vain.” Some of those will be simply using election to excuse their inaction. However, others are genuinely concerned and confused.

Ralph Erskine deals with this pastoral challenge in his sermon on Isaiah 53:6: “I will give you for a covenant to the people” [Works, Vol 1, 128]. After some words on the covenant in general, Erskine shows how Christ is the covenant of the people, and then asks: “For whose benefit is He a covenant?”

Erskine is at pains to emphasize that “whosoever of all the people will subscribe to this covenant, and go into it by faith, shall have the everlasting benefit of it.” Then, as was commonly done in his day, he imagines a hearer asking, “But if I am not among the elect whose names are in that covenant, then surely my subscribing of it will be in vain.”

It’s here that Erskine provides wise and helpful guidelines for pastors to follow in counseling such anxious souls. In summary:

  1. There are two copies of this covenant, two writs of this charter: the original and an extract.
  2. The original is in heaven and contains all the names of all the elect that ever were, are, or shall be (Eph. 1:4). This original is locked up in the cabinet of God’s secret purpose and is marked “For God’s eyes only” (Deut. 29:29).
  3. The extract is in the Bible, which God has revealed and put in your hands. “This copy of the covenant is sent open to you all to sign and subscribe, by giving faith’s assent and consent to the covenant of the people, Christ, as he is offered in the Gospel.”
  4. In order to gather in the elect and to leave all others inexcusable, this faithful extract is “directed to all, and every one of you, giving you full and sufficient warrant to sign and subscribe for yourselves.” Christ is “a covenant of the people” as it is put in the verse.
  5. You cannot possibly “see” your name in the original, till you have signed your consent to the copy which has been let down to earth.
  6. If you sign the extract, then you may lay claim to the original, and “see” your name there (by “seeing” Erskine is referring to assurance of faith).
  7. Although some who, by faith, subscribe the extract copy, are kept in the dark about their names being in the original, yet none shall “see” their names there (the original), but those who subscribe their names here (the extract).

Erskine does a great job here of balancing God’s sovereignty with human responsibility, and also of illustrating a difficult concept with a memorable image. I especially like the way that he leaves hearers without excuse, yet also inspires and motivates faith in Christ. May his counsel make us better counselors.

The Works of Ralph Erskine, Vol. 1, (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1991), 128-197. See especially pages 142-143.

If you can substitute “s” for “f” you’ll enjoy reading the sermon online here. See especially pages 189-191.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.