Category Archives: Reformed Worship

How to Benefit from the Lord’s Supper

Before a recent Lord’s Supper celebration in my church, I took the opportunity to give a little extra teaching on how Christians can and should benefit from this sacrament.  Here are my notes:

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Before I read the Form, I just want to provide some extra instruction for a moment on how to benefit from the Lord’s Supper.  Have you ever gone to the Lord’s Supper and then walked away from it and wondered, “What was that all about?  What was I supposed to gain from it?”  Have you ever wondered, “What’s supposed to happen to me at the Lord’s Supper?”

Well, the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament designed to strengthen our faith.  It’s easy to think that this is something out of our hands.  We go and sit at the table, and then we just wait and see what happens.  It’s like we’re waiting for a spiritual bolt of lightning to hit us and recharge our spiritual battery.  It might happen and it might not, but it’s out of our hands.  But nothing happens.  We eat the bread, we drink the wine, but nothing changes.  We don’t feel anything.  Our faith isn’t strengthened.

Loved ones, we have to remember how this sacrament works.  It doesn’t work like magic.  It’s not like we’re just passive participants waiting for God to do his thing with us to strengthen our faith.  No, we’re meant to be actively involved.  You have to come to the table with your heart and mind engaged.  When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) he meant for us to be conscientious about what we’re doing.  If you’re going to benefit from the Lord’s Supper, you have to be thinking about what’s happening.  Otherwise it’s just an empty ritual.  And an empty ritual has no benefit – quite the opposite!

Let me make that concrete and practical for you.  Watch me as I break the bread.  That’s an important part of the sacrament.  I’m really breaking that bread, and so Christ’s body was really broken to pay for your sins.  When the bread comes to you, take it in your hand and look at it for a moment.  It’s real.  So Christ’s body that bore your sins is real.  That body was really nailed to the cross for you.  Taste it.  Feel it in your mouth.  It’s real:  tell yourself, this is how real the gospel is.  Do the same thing with the wine.  Watch me as I pour the wine into the cup.  I’m really pouring real wine.  That’s how real the blood of Christ was that was poured out for your sins.  When you take the cup, look at it; smell it if you want.  Think about it.  It’s real – so Christ had a real crown of thorns pushed into his head and it produced real blood.  When you drink the wine, tell yourself:  this is real wine and the blood of Christ that poured from his hands, feet and side is just as real.  That real blood secured my salvation.  It’s all true, it’s all real.

Loved ones, that’s how your faith will be strengthened this morning.  See the real elements of bread and wine and through them, see how the gospel is real.


Pastoral Q & A: Is Catechism Preaching Biblical?

Reformed churches have historically practiced catechism preaching, typically in the afternoon or evening service.  This practice dates back to the Reformation.  However, in today’s milieu the practice is under threat.  Some Reformed churches have long abandoned catechism preaching while others are heading in that direction.  Sadly, even in churches that maintain it (like the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed of Australia), there are members who not only question it, but actively repudiate it.

One of the chief objections often raised against catechism preaching is that it isn’t preaching on the Word of God.  Instead, churches doing this are preaching on a human document.  In so doing they’re actually repudiating the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura.  The infallible Bible alone should be our “text,” and yet Reformed churches are preaching on a fallible Catechism.

Such an objection arises either from a caricature of catechism preaching or a misunderstanding of it.  The caricature portrays a Reformed pastor who dryly exegetes the Catechism, perhaps even referring at length to the original German vocabulary and grammar, but who fails to open the Bible or even mention the Bible.  In this caricature, the Catechism has indeed replaced the Bible.  I say this is a caricature because I’ve never once encountered this type of “catechism preaching,” nor have I heard of it anecdotally.  I doubt it exists.  If it does, may it soon become extinct.

The common misunderstanding relates to the notion of what biblical preaching is.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate that preaching must be on one isolated text, a verse or perhaps a series of verses.  There’s no reason to conclude that preaching can’t exposit or explain the doctrine found in a number of Bible passages.  In expository preaching, the preacher focusses on one isolated passage (naturally taking context into account as well) of Scripture.  In catechism preaching, the preacher teaches the “whole counsel of God” on a doctrine while taking the whole Bible into account.  If there ever is such a thing, catechism preaching that doesn’t work with the Scriptures is not worthy of the name “preaching,” and it isn’t biblical.   However, done properly it too is the preaching of the Word of God.

In a lecture several years ago at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, I heard Dr. Jason Van Vliet suggest we think of the relationship between regular Bible-text preaching and catechism preaching in terms of nouns, verbs, and adverbs:

The nouns are the same — if done properly, in both instances our subject material is the Word of God.

The verbs are the same — if done properly, in both instances we are preaching the Word of God.

The adverbs are different — in the first instance we are preaching from a single text of Scripture (in what I would call an expository manner); in the second instance we are preaching catechetically from a broader range of God’s revelation in Scripture.

When things are put in this manner, no one should have a difficulty in agreeing that catechism preaching can and should be biblical preaching.

Hosea 4:6 says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”  Lack of knowledge, including knowledge of the doctrines of Scripture, is destructive.  Catechism preaching aims to build up God’s people in their knowledge of what his Word teaches.  Catechism preaching is constructive — and so why wouldn’t any Reformed believer cherish it?

(Adapted from chapter 13 of my forthcoming book Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship)


Open Your Bible

Imagine a morning worship service.  The pastor reads the text for his sermon.  Then everyone closes their Bible.  Dangerous – I can think of no other word to describe this situation.  Let me explain why.

The Bible teaches us that the preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word.  Nowhere is this made more explicit than 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  When the Thessalonians heard the preaching of men like Paul, they heard the voice of God speaking to them.

This is implicit in Ephesians 4:17, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”  The Holy Spirit says that Jesus came and preached to the Ephesians.  But we know that the Lord never traveled to Asia Minor to preach.  So, how can it be said that Jesus preached in Ephesus?  He preached through Paul and others.  When they preached, it was as if Christ was preaching through them.  The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word.

However, there is a crucially important biblical qualification.  The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word when it’s done faithfully according to God’s Word.  If the words of the pastor are contradicting God’s Word, they can’t possibly be God’s Word.  The preaching has to be in line with intention and meaning of Scripture.  We see this from the example of the Berean Jews in Acts 17.  Acts 17:11 says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  The Holy Spirit commends these Jews for hearing the preaching of the apostles and comparing it with the written Word.  Because the two lined up, “many of them therefore believed.”

There are three reasons why it’s dangerous for believers to close their Bibles when listening to preaching.

First, it’s dangerous for you.  What if the pastor is just feeding you his own opinion instead of preaching the text to you?  How will you tell if you don’t have your Bible open?  When you have your Bible open, you can better discern whether the pastor is preaching the Scriptures or his own ideas.  You can better discern whether the preaching you’re hearing is God’s Word.

It’s also dangerous for your pastor.  Every human being needs accountability, including pastors.  When pastors face a congregation where everyone has their Bible closed, the likelihood they’ll get away with preaching their own opinions is far greater.  In 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”  In Galatians 1:8, he wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”  Accursed means “damned.”  In other words, damned be the pastor who preaches another gospel.  As a preacher, those words make me tremble and bring me to beg for the accountability of my listeners.  I want them to hold me accountable to preach only God’s Word.  They can do that far better when they listen to me with an open Bible.

Finally, it’s dangerous for the gospel.  All Christians want the gospel to move forward.  We all want the gospel to touch hearts and transform lives.  But if God’s Word is not being preached faithfully, how is that going to happen?  Preaching is a means of grace.  It is a way through which the Holy Spirit graciously brings people to Christ.  Yet it only does that as the preaching is faithful.  If we love the gospel, if we long to see people saved through it and lives transformed through it, then we all have a vested interest in ensuring that the preaching we hear is the preaching of the Word of God.  That’s done best when you have your Bible open in front of you.

It’s not just the responsibility of elders to ensure that the preaching is faithful.  All believers have a calling to hear preaching, but also to think about whether it is faithful, biblical preaching.  When we close our Bibles and blindly trust our pastor to do what’s right, we’re actually not too far off from the medieval church.  In the medieval church, many people just uncritically trusted what the priests were saying.  Look where that led.  The Reformation put preaching front and centre.  But the Reformation also put the Bible in people’s hands.  Regular Christians could again follow the example of the Bereans.  Not only would it be sad, it would also be dangerous if we would dial back the Reformation’s gains by listening to preaching today with a closed Bible.


What’s Wrong With Hillsong?

Hillsong is one of Australia’s most well-known exports.  They’re known not only for their praise and worship music brand, but also for attracting celebrities like Justin Bieber.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently spoke at a Hillsong Conference.  He’s a member of a church that belongs to the Australian Christian Churches, to which Hillsong also belongs.

Hillsong is not just a church – it’s a global phenomenon.  Around the world, over 130,000 people attend Hillsong each week.  That could be a great thing if Hillsong was faithful to the Scriptures.  If they were faithfully preaching the gospel and following the Word of God, Hillsong could have a powerful impact.  But are they?

Last week, the ABC featured a piece on modern Pentecostalism in Australia.  This is how it opens:

It is Sunday morning at Hillsong’s megachurch in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria, and Pastor Natalie Pingel pauses mid-sermon to conduct an impromptu Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson look-a-like contest.

She selects a group of buff parishioners and members of the band to line up on stage. Each takes turns flashing the crowd the actor’s signature raised eyebrow, to approval and gushing laughter.

Pastor Pingel then leads the congregation in prayer, the band plays anthemic rock music and the big screens either side of the stage light up with suggestions for what people can pray for.

The suggestions include financial stability, luck with job applications and visa approvals.

In these few words, there’s plenty indication that things are seriously wrong with Hillsong.  Even though they’re Pentecostal and, as such, claim to give more attention to the Holy Spirit, in reality they’re missing some key things the Spirit says.

Let’s start with the pastor.  The Holy Spirit says in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”  Yet Hillsong flouts the Holy Spirit’s teaching and has a woman delivering a sermon.

What about the “look-a-like” contest?  Search the Spirit’s book to see if any such thing was ever done by the apostles.  In the Bible, did the apostles pursue “approval and gushing laughter”?  Surely not.  Instead, the apostles preached the Word of God and left these sorts of comedic antics for the theatre.  They followed the leading of the Holy Spirit who said, simply, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2) – they didn’t add or take away from that.  They simply preached the Scriptures.

Next, notice the stage and “anthemic rock music.”  What associations do we commonly make with such things?  Entertainment.  Together with the comedy act, this doesn’t portray serious Christian worship in the presence of the Holy God, but an entertainment event.  What is this but “the itching ears” described by the Holy Spirit in 2 Timothy 4:3?

But most concerning of all in the ABC article is the portrayal of Hillsong as a purveyor of prosperity gospel teaching.  This is well-known.  Hillsong teaches that God wants believers to experience prosperity in this life.  This can manifest itself in different ways:  financial, health, relationships.  Becoming a Christian opens up access to all these blessings.  Christ died and rose again victorious to give Christians these blessings.  From time to time, they may still talk about the cross and give something of the true biblical gospel.  However, the emphasis falls on prosperity and success as the good news.

Even though the Spirit says it (Isa. 45:7, Lam. 3:38, Ps. 60:1-4, Ps. 66:10-12, Ps. 119:71), the idea that God would send adversity into the lives of believers because he loves them and wants to shape them is foreign to prosperity gospel churches. The Holy Spirit made most of the Psalms laments, but the prosperity gospel doesn’t know what to do with them.  In the New Testament, the Spirit-filled Jesus told his disciples that they would have to take up their cross and follow him (Matt. 10:38).  In Acts 14:22, Paul and Barnabas told the early Christians, “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  But the idea of bearing the cross before wearing the crown doesn’t register in the prosperity gospel message.  Instead, it’s all about glory here and now.

Moreover, what’s missing is the biblical gospel message which the Spirit gave through Paul:  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).  And what did he come to save us from?  According to Romans 5:9, we are saved by Christ “from the wrath of God.”  That note is rarely, if ever, heard in prosperity gospel churches.

Let me conclude with a question someone is sure to raise:  could someone be genuinely saved at or through Hillsong?  Perhaps.  God can do amazing things despite people.  He does amazing things despite me.  So he could save people through Hillsong too and I sincerely hope he does.  But that’s beside the point.  If a Christian is looking for a more consistently biblical, gospel-preaching church, I’m afraid Hillsong just doesn’t fit the bill.  If a Christian is looking for a church aiming to follow what the Holy Spirit teaches about worship and the offices of the church, one can do far better than Hillsong.


CanRC General Synod Edmonton 2019 (4)

The synod finished last week Thursday evening and all the acts are now available here.  As before, let me just review a few of the highlights from where I’m sitting.

Article 85 dealt with overtures from both regional synods regarding licensure of seminary students.  They both proposed that students be permitted to speak an edifying word after two years of seminary, as opposed to the current three.  The synod decided to give the green light for that under certain conditions.  One of the conditions is that students licensed under these provisions have to preach under the supervision of a mentor for a full summer immediately following.  But another condition is that the Pastoral Training Plan funding is still going to cover only one full summer internship, and usually that’s the internship following completion of the third year at CRTS.  I guess the students will have to sort out how this is going to work in practice.

Remarriage after divorce is often a contentious issue in Reformed churches.  In article 93, the synod considered an appeal from a couple concerning their consistory’s decision to pray for God’s blessing on such a marriage.  The appeal went up through classis and regional synod, and thus landed on Synod 2019’s table.  The appeal was denied.  One of the grounds was that there is exegetical freedom in the CanRC on this matter.  This is the way it should be, in my view.

Another appeal was considered in article 130.  Blessings Christian Church appealed a decision of Regional Synod East regarding article 55 of the CanRC Church Order.  In CO article 55, the churches agree that they will only sing “the metrical psalms adopted by general synod as well as the hymns approved by general synod.”  A proposal was adopted by a Classis Central Ontario to revise article 55 to read as follows:

The 150 psalms shall have the principal place in public worship.  The metrical psalms and hymns adopted by General Synod, as well as songs approved by the consistory that faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity, shall be sung in public worship.

This proposal then went to a Regional Synod East where it was defeated.  But this synod still ended up dealing with it via the appeal of Blessings.  However, the synod decided to deny it.  There are several grounds, some of which deal with the question whether it is a matter for the churches in common.  Synod decided that it remains so.

Article 139 dealt with the perennial topic of the United Reformed Churches.  Synod decided not to reappoint the Committee for Church Unity.  The process towards a merger is now officially on hold from both sides.  However, the CanRC and URNCA will continue as sister churches.

Finally, they left one of the most interesting items almost to the very end.  A Regional Synod West submitted an overture regarding the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) jointly developed by the OPC and URCNA.  The overture asked the TPH be adopted for public worship in the CanRC per Church Order article 55.  This overture was dealt with in article 142 of the Acts.  Essentially the overture was denied — but some of the substance of it was reworked.  The Standing Committee for the Book of Praise was mandated to consider improvements for both the psalm and hymn sections of the Book of Praise:

4.2  Mandate the SCBP:

4.2.1 Concerning the Psalms:

     4.2.1.1  to seek input from the churches as to which non-Genevan renditions of the Psalms could be added to enhance the Psalm section of the BoP.

4.2.1.2  to compile a list of suitable Psalm renditions for possible inclusion in the Book of Praise, using the TPH as a primary resource.

4.2.2 Concerning the Hymns

4.2.2.1  to seek input from the churches concerning replaceable and additional hymns for the 2014 Book of Praise, using the TPH as a primary resource.

4.2.2.2  to compile a list of such hymns keeping mind that at this time the final number of hymns in the Book of Praise should not exceed 100 (as per GS 2004) and being flexible with the structural template (Apostles’ Creed) of the hymn section of the 2014 Book of Praise.

4.2.3  To send, at least 18 months before the next general synod, an explanatory report to the churches together with a provisional list of songs for immediate testing, in the worship services if so desired, so there can be well-considered feedback to the next general synod.

To sum it up, you can be sure that the CanRC Book of Praise will still exist four or five years from now, but it will look quite different to the way it does now.  Additionally, it is going to be quite different to the Aussie Book of Praise which is probably going to appear in the next year or so.  I suppose change is inevitable — as long as it’s change for the better.  I do think that expanding the hymn section is warranted — there are some sections of the Book of Praise hymnary that are thread-bare.  For example, there could definitely be more hymns that are directly about the cross and Christ’s sufferings there in our place.  Expanding the hymnary carefully, looking to the TPH, and with a limit of 100 hymns seems a good way forward.