Tag Archives: Belgic Confession article 32

What About Advent and Lent? Excerpt from Aiming to Please

The following is an excerpt from chapter 17 of Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship (available from Amazon and other retailers). The chapter begins with a consideration of the so-called Days of Commemoration (Christmas, Easter, etc.). I argue that there is liberty for Reformed churches to worship on these days.

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What About Advent and Lent?

Some churches follow not only the practice of commemorating occasions like Christmas and Easter, but also the special seasons of Advent and Lent.  Advent is the four weeks leading up to December 25.  Lent consists of the forty days leading up to Easter – it includes Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday.  This liturgical calendar (which includes far more dates and seasons) is observed in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, but has also made some inroads into Reformed churches as well. 

We noted above that John Calvin did not practice Advent or Lent.  There were services every day in Geneva and, in the week leading up to Easter, Calvin did preach on the suffering of Christ.[1]  However, that is not at all the same as forty days of Lent observance or four weeks of Advent. 

By the time of Abraham Kuyper, there was a diversity of practice in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  Kuyper noted that quite a few ministers in his time did follow the liturgical calendar, including Advent and Lent.[2]  He was opposed to prescribing anything on this score, and himself expressed some reservations about it.       

There are a few objections one could bring to following the liturgical calendar more broadly.  To start, I appreciate what Hughes Oliphant Old wrote about this:

The recent effort to bring back the celebration of the old liturgical calendar has suspicious similarities to a revival of the nature religions, natural theology, a cyclical interpretation of life, and the resurgence of the religions of fortune and fertility.  One does penance in Advent, when winter sets in, and then one rejoices at Easter, when the flowers reappear in the spring.  It is all quite natural, but this fascination with liturgical seasons sometimes seems not much more than a revival of Canaanitism.  The primary emphasis of any Reformed liturgical calendar should be the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day.[3]

 Moreover, the observance of these seasons gives the impression that we are somehow reliving all these events in redemptive history.  It is as if we are spending four weeks waiting for Jesus to be born – when he was already born 2000 years ago.  Or, with Lent, it seems that we are spending forty days preparing ourselves for the crucifixion on Good Friday.  These events have happened and it is one thing to commemorate them, it is quite another to spend several weeks almost pretending we are waiting for them.

Related to this are the practices which usually accompany these seasons and especially Lent.  I am thinking especially of the practice of fasting for Lent.  This is done not only by Roman Catholics, but also by Lutherans and growing numbers of evangelical Christians.  Now there is definitely much to commend fasting from a biblical perspective.[4]  The problem is not with fasting as such.  The problem is connecting fasting to a man-made liturgical season.  Biblical fasting is voluntary and secret.  Lenten fasting is sometimes mandated (as with the Roman Catholic Church) and sometimes merely encouraged.  But it is always with the idea that this fasting is a preparation for observing Christ’s suffering – something he has already endured in our place.  By adopting the practice of observing Lent in our churches, we could be giving the impression that the practices associated with Lent are commended for our use as well.   

There is also another objection – one to which I have alluded several times already.  We have agreed to go each year through the 52 Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism.  As we do that, we are already covering the important events of redemptive history.  If we follow the season of Advent, we spend one Sunday on Lord’s Day 14, one Christmas sermon, plus four more Advent sermons.  Each year, believers in such a church would hear six sermons on Christ’s incarnation.  The situation is similar with Christ’s suffering:  two Lord’s Days (15 and 16) on his suffering, plus a Good Friday sermon, and then six Sundays of Lenten preaching.  Is it necessary or helpful to dedicate this much of the preaching schedule to these topics?  Moreover, if a preacher wishes to follow the model of serial expository preaching, these seasons of Lent and Advent are not going to allow him to make much progress through a book.  After all, 10 of 52 Sundays are dealing with Christ’s incarnation and suffering.

All things considered, a good case can be made for observing the days of commemoration.  But seasons of Lent and Advent are better left to the side.  I will certainly respect the liberty of the church or the colleague who follows this, but it should also work the other way around.  If a minister is not comfortable with the practice, no church ought to force him.  When it comes to Lent and Advent, Kuyper was right:  there should be no prescription.  As the Belgic Confession puts it in article 32, let us be careful about having “laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”            


[1] Elsie Anne McKee, “Reformed Worship in the Sixteenth Century,” 17-18.

[2] Kuyper, Our Worship, 180.

[3] Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture, 164.

[4] See my article “The Value of Fasting,” in Clarion 45.13 (June 28, 1996), 300.


Absurdity

Praying hands

Can we pray to Jesus?  This is a question I’ve answered countless times, both in sermons and here on Yinkahdinay.  It’s a question I have to keep coming back to, because the answer sometimes given to that question is not only wrong, but harmful.  Some say that since Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer for us to pray to the Father, we must therefore only pray to the first Person of the Trinity.  The Lord’s Prayer says “Our Father,” and therefore we may not pray to Jesus.  Case closed.

However, if such voices are wrong, they fly against what we confess in article 32 of the Belgic Confession.  There we confess that we must not deviate from what Christ has commanded for worship.  Then read this carefully: “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  So, if someone says we must not pray to Jesus, and Scripture says we are allowed to pray to Jesus, that person is introducing a human law which illicitly binds and compels our consciences.  There is a lot at stake here.

There are several ways I could address this question.  I could point out the proper explanation of “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (see here).  I could mention the explicit biblical passages where prayer to Jesus is not only observed, but even invited (John 14:14, Acts 7:59, 1 Cor. 16:22, Rev. 22:20).  I could discuss again how the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, answered this question using an essential theological distinction.  I could point out the practice of the early church with church fathers such as Augustine, the practice of the medieval church with Anselm of Canterbury, the practice of the Reformation church with William Farel, or the post-Reformation church with Thomas Watson.  We could note that the Athanasian Creed speaks of worshipping the Trinity in unity, and unity in Trinity, noting how this has been understood throughout the history of the church.  We could note the prayer-like hymns we sing which address Jesus — and to which most people don’t give a second thought.  There are all these different ways of going at this issue.

However, today I want to take an approach I haven’t taken before.  It came to me while I was recently teaching a marriage preparation class for a couple in my church.  We were discussing healthy communication in marriage.  I pointed out what Scripture says in Ephesians 5, where the Holy Spirit draws a parallel between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and his church.  The thing that stood out to me is that Christ is clearly said to have a relationship with his church.  That relationship is spoken of in marital terms.  How absurd it would be for a human marriage to see one spouse being forbidden to speak with the other!  Imagine a human marriage where the husband can speak to the wife, but the wife is not allowed to answer and communicate with her husband.  Yet that’s what we’re left with when we’re told that the church of Jesus Christ may not pray to him.  We have a relationship where the communication can only go one way.  What healthy relationship only has one-way communication?  We realize that healthy relationships see communication going both ways.  If the church really does have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and if that relationship parallels human marriage, shouldn’t it be expected that the church would pray to Jesus?

As mentioned above, it is not only wrong to conclude otherwise, it is also harmful.  Think about it.  If we cannot communicate with him, how can we really have a relationship with him?  How can we live in union with someone with whom we’re not even allowed to speak?  How can we avoid the danger of turning the person of our beloved Saviour into a theological concept to be analyzed or argued rather than someone to be loved and cherished?  I posit that the challenge of real spiritual vitality goes up exponentially in Reformed communities where they are taught (and then believe) they may not pray to Jesus.

So, yes, I do pray to my Lord Jesus from time to time.  I don’t pray to him all the time.  Most of the time I pray to the Triune God as my Father.  But I’m taught in Scripture that prayer to my Saviour is also appropriate at times.  I may pray to him in my personal prayers.  I may sometimes also address him when I lead congregational prayer — this is especially if a sermon has been on a text explicitly unfolding some aspect of his person or work (as an example, see the prayer at the end of this sermon).  Through the Word of God, the Holy Spirit allows me this privilege of being in a relationship with the Son of God where I may freely speak with him.  He allows you that privilege too and don’t let anyone take that away from you.  Don’t let your conscience be bound by human laws.


Reconciling the Regulative Principle with “Feast Days”/”Days of Commemoration”

In its basic form, the regulative principle of worship states that we are only to worship God as he has commanded, not adding or taking away from Scripture. It was some years ago, while I was still in university, that I became convinced that this regulative principle of worship is the Reformed, confessional, position on worship.  It was not difficult to see that the teaching of Heidelberg Catechism QA 96 (we are not to worship God “in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word”) is biblical and exactly in line with other Reformed confessions like the Westminster Standards.  I also came to see that this Reformed principle of worship was not only in the Belgic Confession in article 32, but also in article 7.  I wrote a paper on that, demonstrating that the regulative principle, according to our confession, is simply the liturgical outworking of Sola ScripturaI have also argued that denying the regulative principle of worship has serious consequences and leads to bizarre liturgical innovations.

The principle itself is straightforward.  Application of the principle is where we often encounter differences.  It took some time for me to work through some of these issues too.  For example, there was a time when I struggled with understanding how one could celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 and still hold to the regulative principle.  However, through further research and conversations with others, I came to peace with that.  I still hold to the regulative principle, but I can also in good conscience join with God’s people in commemorating the birth of our Saviour on December 25.  Rather than have me explain in detail how I have reconciled these things, I highly recommend this article by my colleague Daniel Hyde.  This article is being published in the 2015 issue of the Mid-America Journal of Theology.  It helpfully explains how one can both hold to the regulative principle and worship on the “feast days” or “days of commemoration.”


Christ’s Rules for Worship — Excerpt from The Beautiful Bride of Christ

The Beautiful Bride of Christ

The following is from chapter 6 of The Beautiful Bride of Christ: The Doctrine of the Church in the Belgic Confession — you can order it here as a paperback and here as an e-book.  All proceeds go to the John Calvin Institute, the seminary of the Reformed Churches of Brazil.  The book has just been updated with a new cover designed by Márcio Santana Doria.

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Imagine a church where the Bible is seldom opened on Sundays. Imagine a church where there’s usually no sermon, and if there is, it’s not about the gospel, but about how to be better, or about how to do your part for salvation. Imagine a church where the congregation doesn’t sing together. Instead, if there is any singing at all, it’s done by one person or maybe by a group standing at the front of the church. Imagine a church where the order of worship in no way reflects the covenant relationship between God and his people. There’s no back and forth, no dialogue, there’s no evidence of God speaking and his people responding. Instead, it all tends to be a one way street.

That was the story of most of the medieval church before the Reformation. Sadly, it’s still the case for many Protestant churches today. It’s almost as if the Reformation never happened. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that American Christianity is basically Protestantism without the Reformation.[1]  Looking at American churches in the 1930s, he could barely discern any evidence at all that these churches traced their lineage back to the churches of Luther and Calvin. This was true also with regard to worship.

Let’s reflect for a moment on what the Reformation did. The Reformation was first and foremost a rediscovery of the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ was recovered. Men began preaching that salvation comes through grace alone. They began preaching that we can only be saved from our sins through what Christ has done for us. We receive the benefits of Christ, not by doing good works, not by doing our part on this earth or in purgatory, but only through faith in Christ. Furthermore, as we put our trust in Christ alone, as we love this Good Shepherd, we, as his sheep, want to follow him alone. His Word becomes central and all important for our lives. We recognize his authority and we submit to it. He is our Lord, our master, and we will do what he says because we love him, want to thank him, and please him. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone necessarily leads us back to the doctrine of Scripture alone — sola Scriptura.

Sola Scriptura gets applied to our individual lives as Christians. As individual believers, God’s Word holds the ultimate authority for everything we believe and do, for doctrine and ethics. However, this principle needs to be applied to the church as well. It was in the days of the Reformation. A big part of the Reformation involved reforming the worship of the church to bring it into line with what the Bible teaches. Sola Scriptura was applied to worship.[2]  The Bible alone could determine the way in which the church would worship God. This is the Reformed principle of worship, or the regulative principle as it’s sometimes been called.

It’s found in Lord’s Day 35 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Part of what God requires in the second commandment is that we are not “to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.” God alone can determine the manner of his worship. The connection with sola Scriptura becomes even more apparent in article 7 of the Belgic Confession. Article 7 is about the sufficiency of Scripture. The second sentence of that article says, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length.” No one can add or take away from what God requires of us in worship. We aim to follow his Word only.[3]  Article 32 is in the same vein. We must not deviate from what Christ has commanded in his Word. As a consequence, we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel our consciences in any way.

Colossians 2 contrasts human commands and teachings with the way of living in Christ. In the days of the apostles, there were those who tried to introduce all kinds of extra regulations into the worship of God. Paul calls this “self-imposed worship” (NIV), or “self-made religion” (ESV); others have translated that as “will-worship.” You worship the way you want to. You follow your human commands and teachings, rather than following Christ’s Word. Such an approach to worship is condemned by Scripture. Repeatedly, Scripture rebukes those who would put man-made rules and laws either in the place of or in addition to what Scripture teaches. Think of how Jesus rebukes the Jewish religious leaders in Matthew 15. He quotes Isaiah, “They worship me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men.” It’s true that Jesus was not speaking directly about corporate worship in that passage. He was speaking about the making of all kinds of vows and all sorts of additional rules the Jews had devised for the life of an obedient Jew. Now if he would rebuke that, what makes you think that he would be pleased with all kinds of extra rules and regulations for corporate worship? The same can be said for what we read in Colossians 2. If will-worship or self-made religion is condemned for the everyday life of a believer, what do you think would be God’s position on what we do on Sunday as we gather in his holy presence?


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without the Reformation,” in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, ed. Edwin H. Robertson, trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden (London: Collins, 1965), 92-118. Cited by Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, 237-238.

[2] For an excellent book-length study of this, see Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986).

[3] Wes Bredenhof, The Whole Manner of Worship: the Sufficiency of Scripture and Worship in Article 7 of the Belgic Confession (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1997).