The Covenant of Grace and the Style of Reformed Worship

When a Reformed church takes the covenant of grace seriously, what impact does that have on our public worship?  That question gets addressed at length in a forthcoming book, “I Will Be Your God”: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace.  If all goes well, this book should appear in early-mid 2015.  In the meantime, here is an excerpt that deals with the style of Reformed worship and how the covenant of grace speaks to that.

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Seeing God as having the prime place in the covenant of grace is also going to dramatically impact and distinguish the style of Reformed worship. By “style,” I mean things like our attitude towards worship, our dress and deportment, our church architecture, the way our music is played and sung, and so on. These are not trivial or indifferent matters. How we come into God’s presence and how we conduct ourselves in God’s presence matters tremendously.

We can learn that from Malachi 1, especially these words from verses 6-8:

“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts.

In many of the prophets, we find God pressing a covenant lawsuit against his people. He has this relationship with them and they have violated the relationship. They have not believed the LORD and followed him and so he goes after them with his prophets and confronts them with their covenant breaking. In Malachi 1, he speaks about their worship. On a superficial level, it looked like the people were worshipping God faithfully, as he commanded. However, God saw what was really happening.

What was really happening was that the people were bringing sacrifices that were second-rate and thinking that God would not notice. After all, other people did not notice. So, for example, verse 8 says that the people were bringing blind animals for sacrifices. It would not be obvious to anyone else that the animal was blind. Yet God’s law had expressly commanded that only the best sacrifices be brought to him (e.g. Lev. 22:22). God wanted only the best and healthiest animals. Yet here the Israelites were trying to cut corners, offering God the weak and sick animals, thinking he would not notice. He noticed. Then he says in verse 8, “Try and do that with a human ruler. Bring your human ruler your weak and sick animals as a gift; try bringing him your second or third best. See if he would accept that!”

That teaches us an important principle about worship. Since God is exalted, because he has the number one place in the covenant relationship, because he is our God, we want to bring him only our absolute best. He is worthy of that. That applies to external things like how we dress when we come to church. Do we really believe that we are meeting in a special way with the most exalted King in the universe? Then that should be reflected in the way we dress. We do not want to draw up a dress code for the church, and we should not be looking at others. Each of us should ourselves be conscientious about this. Should we not offer our level best as we meet with the King of kings? That applies to everything. It applies also to our singing, to the playing of musical accompaniment, to the preparation of sermons, to the way we treat our church building, our attention to the sermon – in everything we want to offer our covenant God the absolute best when we worship. He deserves it. He is worthy of it.

Yet let us be clear: it is not just about the external things. The external things are not even the most important thing. The most important thing is what is going on in your heart, your attitude as you approach the Holy One of Israel. The first and foremost thing he desires is your heart, a heart that loves him and wants to glorify him. When our hearts have been made alive by the grace of God, when we see how much we have been loved by this exalted God, when we see what a treasure the covenant relationship is, that is going to inevitably have an impact on how we come to meet with this covenant God. That will shape our attitude: do we come into God’s presence because we have to, or because we really want to?

To say it as clearly as possible: the style of our worship is going to reflect our understanding of whom this God is who has covenanted with us. Is he high and exalted, a majestic and transcendent God? Or do we think of him as a distant observer and not really present in our services? Or worse, do we think of him as a low-brow god who will always just take what he can get from us, even if it is second or third-best? Basically, do we accept and believe what God’s Word says about himself and let that impact the manner and style of our meeting with him?


Raising Covenant Children

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What difference does it make if the children of believers belong to the covenant of grace?  Chapter four of my forthcoming book “I will be your God”:  An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace addresses this question.  What follows here is an excerpt:

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These spiritual truths must have an impact on how we concretely raise our children. Let us look at some of the ways. At home, as we talk to our children, we must teach them that they have been given rich gospel promises by our God. We must explain those promises, how beautiful they are, how rich, and how much good news. As soon as they can understand, we begin telling them about their baptism and what it means. From their youngest days, we tell them that baptism means that they have been claimed by God to be his child. We teach them to understand that claim, accept it, believe it, and then live accordingly. In other words, we disciple our children, we shepherd them. We raise them in the ways of the Lord; we raise them to be Christians.

In many churches, they have special youth pastors. So do confessionally Reformed churches like ours. We actually have a whole army of youth pastors in our churches. They are called parents. Parents are the front-line youth pastors in a Reformed church. Parents, your calling is to do what you promised to do at the baptism of your children: “instruct your child in this doctrine, as soon as he or she is able to understand and have him or her instructed therein to the utmost of your power.” Dear reader, if you are a parent, I want to urge you to take that calling seriously. It is your calling first and foremost, not the church through catechism classes or the teachers at the Christian school.  It is your calling to disciple and shepherd the children God has entrusted to you.

Yet, having made that point, no one should think that Christian education is optional for Reformed believers. We find this emphasized in article 58 of our Church Order:

The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where the instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the church has summarized it in her confessions.

Here our churches have agreed that consistories shall pay attention to what is happening with the education of our covenant children. The elders have a responsibility to ensure that, as much as possible, the covenant children of each congregation are being taught in a way that not only does not conflict with what the church teaches, but which actually harmonizes with what the church teaches. This article in our Church Order follows article 57 about baptism. There is a good and biblical reason for that. Christian education follows from the covenant status of our children. Let me be clear: that does not begin with the consistory breathing down your neck about it. That begins with you being convinced in your heart as a Christian parent that your child has a special covenant status from which necessarily follows a Christian education. At our Christian schools, your child is educated in a way that fits with their position in the covenant of grace. That is just not going to happen in a public school. While there might be individual Christians teaching within the public system, it is a system dominated by a worldly and anti-Christian philosophy of education from the earliest levels to the highest. We want our children to honour God and acknowledge him in all their ways from their youngest years. Therefore, faithful parents of covenant children will always place enormous value on Christian education and even make great sacrifices to make it happen.

There is another important impact of our children’s place in the covenant and that has to do with the church. As participants in the covenant of grace, we believe that all our children are members of the church of Christ. They are not potential members or “members-in-training.” All our children, even the very youngest, they are all members of our churches. Sometimes there is this mistaken notion that our children become members when they do public profession of faith. This is simply not true. Our children become members when they come into the covenant of grace, which is to say, from the moment they are conceived in their mother’s womb. What happens at public profession of faith is not membership in the church, but a shift from being a non-communicant member to being a communicant member. At public profession of faith, our children take responsibility for their church membership. Yet they have always been members of the church. That is an important point of difference with so many around us. So many Christians today do not look at their children as being members of the church. This is not a theoretical question — it has a practical bearing.

One crucial place the practical bearing comes into play is public worship. If the kids are not members, then they do not really belong in public worship. They do not understand anything anyway; they are not going to get anything out of it. Therefore, instead of meeting with God along with the adults, the kids can and should go to some program designed especially for them. This is what inevitably follows from restricting the covenant and church membership to believers only.

We take a different approach and we always have. Children belong to the church, therefore they belong in public worship as soon as possible. They belong in that covenant meeting between God and his people, because they are part of God’s people. To leave them out would be to say that the call to worship for God’s people does not apply to them. If we are consistent with following through on our covenant theology, that would be unthinkable.

There was that occasion in Mark 10 where the disciples tried to keep those covenant children away from Jesus. The disciples thought that Jesus was way too important for these little kids. Scripture says in Mark 10:14 that when Jesus saw this he became indignant. It infuriated him that his disciples would restrict these little covenant people from having access to him. Then he took these little people in his arms, he hugged them and blessed them. Our Lord Jesus is not here today on earth to hug the little brothers and sisters, but he is still here to bless them too whenever we worship. It would make Jesus indignant for anyone to keep them away. Our covenant children belong in the church and they belong in our worship services. Indeed, still today we can say, “Let the little children come to Jesus, do not hinder them!”

As soon as they are able, we want to see our covenant children meeting with their God. “As soon as they are able” means that there is going to be some variation and we cannot set a hard and fast rule about it. Some children are squirmier than others. I get that — I have kids too. Some kids come into this world naturally more docile and they can sit in church when they are two. Other kids are going to take a little while longer and that is perfectly okay. Yet they all belong there eventually. There are going to be some challenges that come along with that. Sometimes kids learning to come to church are going to make some noise and be a bit restless. The rest of us in the covenant community have to cut parents and kids some slack, be patient, and just rejoice that these kids are there. Let the little children come! They belong with us in God’s presence, all of them. God is present to bless them as well as us.

As parents, there are some things we need to do to make that happen. From as soon as they able to understand, we start teaching them about what church is and what we are doing when we gather for worship. This is part of discipleship. We teach them to be respectful and reverent in church. When they are able to read, we make sure they have a Bible and a Book of Praise. We make sure they start following along and that they are singing with the rest of the congregation. We teach them to do these things from when they are young. We do not tell them it is optional, that you can sing if you feel like it. No, we are all part of God’s covenant people and so we all sing together, young and old, good singers and not-so-good singers. When the collection comes, we have to make sure that our kids are actively participating in that element of our worship too. They can put money in the collection. That is part of worship too, something they can easily do to worship the LORD. Moreover, what about the sermon? Many times, the minister will work the kids into the sermon. Parents of covenant children should follow up on that and make sure their kids understand. God’s Word is for them too. You can often be surprised what kids pick up and we should encourage them to be listening to God’s Word as it is preached. It is for them too, as part of God’s covenant people they are also being addressed.


Now Available: God Did Say!

God Did Say Cover

Now available from Reformed Perspective Books.

“Did God really say?” To Eve it may have seemed the Serpent was trying to clarify what God had said, but his purpose was something else entirely. This, here, was a challenge to God’s Truth; this was the Devil trying to raise doubt. Today some within the Church are asking this same question for the same reason: these are people who have embraced a worldly form of wisdom. They ask this question not to seek Truth, but to obscure the wisdom of God’s Word. In God did say! Dr. Bredenhof clears away the confusion by taking us straight to Scripture. He lays out the answers God has given to life’s biggest questions, like: “What is Truth?” and “How did we come to be?” He explains what the Bible says about sin, about Satan, and about the Bible itself. And he exposes the foolishness of the world’s wisdom by contrasting it with the wisdom of God’s Word. Dr. Bredenhof wants us to understand that there is no need for uncertainty, because God did say!

Paperback available here.

E-book available here.

 


Reflecting On and Improving Classroom Devotions

Bible-classroom

Last week I was invited to lead a workshop at the 2014 Canadian Reformed Teachers Association convention here in Hamilton.  The topic of my workshop was classroom devotions.  As I was preparing for it, I looked around for what others have written in terms of reflection on it.  There are lots of “classroom devotions” and such materials, but I could find very little on the principles and purpose, etc.  There is a chapter in John Van Dyk’s book Letters to Lisa: Conversations with a Christian Teacher.  There’s also an article in the Spring/Summer 2009 issue of the CRTA magazine Compass.  Aside from that, I didn’t find anything else and that was with the help of some of the faculty at the Covenant Canadian Reformed Teachers College.   By sharing my notes from last week’s workshop, I hope to offer a small contribution to help address this gap in the literature.  You can find it here.  


CanRC Interim Report on Relations with Churches in the Netherlands

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Recently, an important report was released by the CanRC synodically appointed subcommittee tasked with relations with our Dutch sister churches (and others).  The report is available online here.  From the report, it’s quite evident that the concerns of the Canadian Reformed Churches are not being taken seriously by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  The last CanRC synod sent a letter to Synod Ede of the RCN.  The Dutch Synod did not deal with many of the specific concerns raised by our synod.  The report states:  “We can only conclude that Synod Ede’s response did not show much real consideration for the deep disquiet expressed by our churches.”  Further, the report notes the discussion about women in office at Synod Ede.  While the report proposing opening the offices to women was not accepted, the doors were not completely closed either.  In fact, the report goes on to note the decision of Synod Ede regarding their relationship with the Netherlands Reformed Churches, churches where women in office is a done deal.  Here’s what our committee says about that:

Two of the decisions of Synod Ede concerning the contact with the NRC are as follows (our translation):

  • to declare that due to the agreement in discussions concerning hermeneutics the hindrance which existed because of the opening of the offices to women in the NRC has been removed;
  •  to continue the contact with the NRC and to proceed from talks to discussions with an eye to church unity.

What these decisions clearly showed us is that the hermeneutic utilized by the NRC to open all church offices to women has in principle been already accepted as valid by Synod Ede. Thus, we could say, the matter of women in office has already entered the RCN via the “Trojan horse” of decisions concerning unity talks with the NRC.

The report concludes the section on the RCN in a understated way, noting that all of this does not bode well for our relationship with them.  Indeed!  And reason to keep on praying for our sister churches.


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