Ordinary Disciple-Making

The Command: Make Disciples

If we are going to study evangelism and discipleship, then we need to be sure it’s actually an obligation. Why study it, if it’s not something required of us? Making disciples is in fact a command.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20

The entire “evangelism & discipleship” course is comprehended in this text.

Notice exactly what is contained in the Great Commission. Jesus doesn’t just tell us a goal. He doesn’t just say “make disciples” and nothing else; he doesn’t give us the goal, and then leave us to decide how to achieve that goal. No. He actually tells us how. So if you want disciple-making according to Jesus, here it is. He says “make disciples.” That’s the goal. And he tells the disciples how to achieve that goal.

  • Goal: make disciples
  • How to achieve it: 1. Baptize 2. Teach everything.

How do you make disciples? Baptizing and teaching everything. That’s it! It’s doesn’t get simpler than that. And we see exactly this in the book of Acts. We see the inspired, inerrant, authoritative record of how the Apostles understood the Great Commission and their obedience to it. And it’s what Jesus said: Word and Sacrament. We see disciple-making in more detail in Acts 2:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Acts 2:41-42

Peter preached the Word, and baptism followed faith and repentance. Then, they devoted themselves to more of the Word, and the other sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. This is obedience to the Great Commission.

Again, not complicated. The picture is simple. Making disciples may be hard work, but it’s not hard to understand. If disciplemaking is complicated, then it’s because we have made it that way. That’s not by Christ’s design.

What does disciple-making look like? What does obedience to the Great Commission look like? It looks like what the Apostle’s did in the book of Acts. It’s ordinary “means of grace” ministry.

To quickly apply this: if our method of making disciples doesn’t look like that [Acts 2:41-42], then we’re doing it wrong.

Hence, our Westminster Shorter Catechism asks:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?

A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.  (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 2:41-42)

Notice the proof texts! The texts we have studied. The Catechism has simply formulated what the Scripture says. This is what making disciples looks like in Scripture. It’s what Jesus commanded, it’s what the Apostles carried out.

You see, God in his Word has not just given us a mission: make disciples. He has also given us the means of making disciples; the instruments to carry out the mission. We don’t need, nor are we at liberty to, invent our own means for making disciples. As if God has left us unequipped to accomplish the mission. We are not at liberty to ignore his means in favor of “new measures.” As if we are wiser than God. “Thanks, Lord Jesus, but we have a better way.” The Lord Jesus has not just given us optional tools, but he has ordained, commanded that we use these outward and ordinary means.

*Side note: this should be really encouraging to you who are studying evangelism and discipleship. If Scripture actually prescribes something, then we are actually limited in what we need to study. The subject has been simplified, for us.

The Lord Jesus has ordained the means to make disciples. And these means are consistent with the theology of Scripture. That should make sense: God will not contradict who he is and what he has said. And so, as we look at and discuss methods of evangelism and discipleship, we must remember that they must never contradict the doctrine and practice of Scripture. That’s why our Standards formulate both doctrine and practice (such as the Shorter Catechism, above). Theology must drive methodology.

God has ordained the means of making disciples. There is a divinely established relationship between the salvation of sinners and the outward means. They are not identical (that’s Rome), but they are distinct. Meaning, God is not dependent on the means. Case in point: the thief on the cross was saved by faith, apart from baptism. They are the ordinary means, but not necessary (i.e. God is not bound by them, grace is not attached to them).

However, if you think the inward grace and the outward means are separate (like most evangelicals), obviously that will result in a different methodology. Evangelicalism has effectively replaced the ordinary means with other rituals.

[A] lack of belief in the divine nature of the Church, the ordinary means of grace, and the pastoral office, lead to the belief that these things could be safely abandoned or ignored when they don’t seem to be working. This led Finney to seek better methods in the form of specially designed meetings and methods that, in Finney’s estimation, were more effective in producing converts and advancing the Gospel. Special revival meetings and other novelties were continually needed to advance the Gospel. Because the Church has so little life and power, and no divine mandate for her traditional methods, new excitements must therefore be continually sought.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 109).  . Kindle Edition.

We’ll look briefly at one of these ordinary and outward means: the Word. This is the primary ordinance, which defines the others.

Again, from our Shorter Catechism:

Q. 89. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.  (Neh 8:8-9; Acts 20:32; Rom 10:14-17; 2 Tim 3:15-17)

Just like Jesus said: teach the Word. And just as the Apostles did: the Word was preached and 3,000 were convinced and converted, then they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching.

What does the catechism mean by “effectual to salvation”? Effectual means it actually gives the effect, it actually achieves the result for which it’s designed: salvation. The instrument will actually work. How then, do the instruments work? How are the outward and ordinary means made effective? The Holy Spirit makes them work. See, they don’t work on their own (as Rome says). Neither does grace ordinarily come apart from them (evangelicalism). The effect comes from the work of the Spirit of God.

It’s God the Holy Spirit that makes the Word work. Without him, there will be no effect, no salvation. The Holy Spirit works by and with the Word, as our Confession says. Notice, that especially the preaching of the Word is made an effectual means of salvation. Preaching has priority over reading. Preaching happens in church, on the Lord’s Day. The vast majority of the emphasis is placed on preaching, in the New Testament. Also, it’s simply a historical fact that the public preaching of the Word has always been a part of the Christian life, while personal Bible reading has not. What percentage of believers throughout history have even possessed a personal copy of God’s Word? When was the printing press invented?

To quickly apply this: an method of discipleship that puts all the emphasis on personal Bible reading and study is not only out of touch with the Westminster Standards (following Scripture), but with church history as well.

The Holy Spirit makes the Word effective in convincing, persuading, changing the minds of the sinner. Of converting them, turning them away from sin and towards Christ. After they have been “evangelized,” the Word is continually made effective to build them up in holiness, sanctifying them. That’s the rest of the Christian life (discipleship). The Holy Spirit makes the Word of God effective as the primary means of making disciples.

That’s just a taste, as we will go more in depth later on.

Another Reformed Creed says the same thing:

In order that people may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends proclaimers of this very joyful message to the people he wishes and at the time he wishes. By this ministry people are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. For how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without someone preaching? And how shall they preach unless they have been sent? (Rom. 10:14-15).

Canons of Dort 1.3

If you want God-given results, you must use the God-given means. As G.I. Williamson says, “What we need, then, is not only to seek eternal life, but to seek it in the right way.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism: For Study Classes, Kindle Location 3184). As I told my high school students: seek God’s grace in God’s way.

And now to you: seek the salvation of sinners, but seek it in the right way. Offer God’s grace to sinners in God’s way. Make disciples of Jesus, and do it Jesus’ way.

As Francis Schaeffer famously said: “we must do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way.”

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Preaching & Dying

I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.

—Richard Baxter

Death is a reality. It’s the one certainty of life. Everybody dies. It’s inevitable. And the certainty of death should affect our life. Having the end in view puts things in perspective, allowing us to evaluate our priorities. Looking toward certain death puts all vocations in perspective. Parents, workers, rulers.

The certainty of death should especially affect the vocation of pastor. Death should put the task of preaching in proper perspective.

Yet, how easily pastors forget this. The cemetery is no longer just outside the church building. You can’t look out the church window and see the resting place of congregants before you, and where you will one day go to join them. Death is not visible on the Lord’s Day. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.”  The congregation would certainly think more seriously about preaching if death was on their mind.

The inevitable event of dying should affect pastoral ministry, especially the primary work of preaching, from two angles. First, the congregation will die. The pastor preaches to dying men. Second, the pastor will die. The preacher is a fellow dying man. Death should shape pastoral ministry from both sides. Particularly, that should affect each time he preaches; every sermon. The pastor must preach as never sure to preach again.

To Dying Men

First, the congregation will die. The flock that has been entrusted to the under-shepherd is headed for eternity. So?

What is the pastor’s job? Management? Social work? Civil service? CEO? Community service? The reality of death can simplify that question. The pastor’s work is to prepare his people to die.

Is your flock of “dying men” and women ready for death? What do they need, in order to prepare? How can you prepare them?

So much of preaching today is concerned with daily life. How to be successful. Family issues. Money issues. Cultural values. Education. Whatever Roman Catholic holiday is next on the calendar. Temporary things. Much of it amounts to the pastor’s personal advice. With all this concern, and desire for “practical” things, one certainty is forgotten. All of that will end, one day.

I fear that with the preoccupation with our daily, practical concerns, nobody is thinking about the end of life. None are asking how to be prepared to meet our Maker. Consequently, the preaching in such an environment is not preaching to dying men.

Imagine your congregation, all of them, on death’s doorstep. Have you prepared them? I know several pastor’s, at least those who love their people, crying out on that day because they still have things to tell their people. But when death comes, it’s too late.

Ask yourself: can you honestly say that you’ve preached God’s Word in such a way, that if your flock died, you can confidently say they are ready? Have you done your part to prepare them for death?

The Gospel, of course, is what you would have been proclaiming. The people must know what God requires that they may escape his wrath and curse, due to them for sin. Does the Gospel characterize your preaching?

The pastor’s job is to prepare people to die well, to die in the Lord. To sleep in Jesus, resting in their graves, as in their beds.

Has your preaching accomplished that? Not if it’s so focused on this world. On the passing things of this life. Like wealth, health, prosperity, education, finances. What of eternal realities? As God said to the rich man in the parable, “You fool! Tonight, your soul will be required of you.”

How terrible if pastors were guilty of developing more fools.

A Dying Man

Here’s the proper perspective:

Preach the gospel. Die. Be forgotten.

—Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf

You, preacher, will not always be here. Does that change your priorities? Just a little?

It should certainly make us think of what the focus of ministry needs to be. More study, more studying your people. Less time on other things, even good things, but aren’t actually part of the pastor’s God-given job description.

But, let’s see how it affects the primary work of the pastor: preaching the Word. In your short amount of time, what needs to be accomplished in the pulpit?

Preach the Gospel. The Gospel will outlive you. It will continue in the minds of the congregants that outlive you.

So many pastors today are concerned with legacy. I cringe just hearing that word. Because usually it means leaving your name. From the perspective of the Kingdom of God, however, your name continuing, your personal legacy, is irrelevant. That’s an earthly perspective, in my mind. Rather, we are to have an eternal perspective. What’s the thing you should leave behind? The faith, given once and for all, passed down from generation to generation of saints.

You being remembered pales in comparison to the Gospel being remembered. Indeed, pastoring is not about you. Preaching is certainly not about you (though we can’t tell, half the time).

The Apostle Paul declared himself free of the blood of any man. How? He preached the whole counsel of God. He warned them daily. Aha! That must be the preacher’s aim. His time is short. So the intention, the goal, and priority is to preach all of God’s Word. That’s your responsibility. You have the whole counsel of God in your possession and it’s your job to preach it before the time is up. Here’s an exercise: imagine the end of your life, and being asked whether you did your duty. You had the whole counsel of God, but did you preach it while you had the time?

You won’t always be around. What do your fellow “dying men” and women need to possess, before you die? The Word of God.

This of course means the preacher himself is ready to die, at any time.

Never Sure to Preach Again

Here we get more particular. We stop looking at the whole of life, and narrow it down to one particular day. Yes, death should even have implications for a single day. More particularly, how does death affect a single sermon? Simply put: this sermon could be your last.

I think a lot of pastors approach preaching thinking, “Oh, another time to talk about stuff.” And I’m left sitting there thinking, “Why did you spend 45 minutes talking about that?”

Rather, they should walk up to the pulpit thinking, “This is it: final words.” Parting words, they may be. I think there would be a whole lot less nonsensetriviality, and (frankly) childishness in our pulpits if pastors realized that this sermon could very well be their last.

That’s assuming, of course, that they care about preaching the Word and being faithful to the text. Most, it seems, are content to merely preach themselves.

This might be a good exercise for preachers: after you preach on Sunday morning, ask yourself, “Was that a satisfying final sermon?”

I ask you, “What if you died before next Sunday?”

That might get your priorities straight. God forbid you failed to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Who wants to finish their race on a note of life-advice or 5 tips for a successful blah-blah-blah? A hireling, maybe. Surely not a true under-shepherd of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

Your people are going to die, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You are going to die, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. So preach in light of that fact. If that was your last sermon, would you be proud of it? As you go to answer directly to your Master, for that stricter judgment James says teacher receive, can you say you did your duty?

As you reflect on your last sermon, perhaps you realize it was shallow. As in, light on Bible. Superficial.

Ask yourself, do you really want to leave your people with your personal stories, anecdotes, and quotes? That’s what you thought needed to be said, before you departed this earth? I don’t think so.

By God’s grace, and if the Lord tarries, you’ll live to see another Sunday. So, go about preparing your next sermon. But, after your sermon preparation is complete, I want you to hear me ask you:

“You want that to be your last sermon?”

I know quite a few preachers that, judging by their sermons, need to think about death a lot.

Think about it.

It may change your preaching.

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Judging a Sermon

“You didn’t like the message?” This question is sometimes asked of me with a tinge of surprise.

How do you determine whether a sermon was “good” or not? Perhaps more to the point, how do you judge whether a preacher did what he was supposed to do in that sermon? What is it, that if left unsaid, would automatically make the sermon a bad sermon? That is the question.

This isn’t just for those listening to sermons, but also for the ones giving them. Preachers: how do you judge your sermons? What questions should you ask to evaluate whether you did your job? What specifically should you preach, have you preached it, and will you preach it?

We have an example in Martin Luther. According to Steven Lawson:

As Luther exposited a biblical passage, he was relentlessly Christ-centered. Above all, he was convinced that his primary duty as a preacher of the gospel was to magnify the glory of God as supremely revealed in His Son, Jesus Christ. To this end, one question determined Luther’s judgment of a sermon: Did it deal with Christ? If it did not, or if it treated Him lightly, then the sermon was better not preached. But if the sermon elevated Christ, it brought glory to God.

—Steve Lawson, The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther loc. 1208

One question to judge a sermon: Did it deal with Christ?

Indeed, if the Bible is what is to be preached, then the central point of the Bible must be proclaimed. And that’s Christ. If a sermon does not center on Christ, then it has fallen short of the Bible’s message. Ask yourself, does a Christless sermon bring glory to God? Luther wasn’t the only one to warn against Christless sermons: Charles Spurgeon famously did, as well.

Now, is this just a personal preference? Is demanding that Christ be preached a manmade criteria? First, think of how ridiculous that sounds. How crazy is it to object to asking that a preacher, preaching a sermon from the Bible, to the church on the Lord’s Day, actually preach Jesus Christ? Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people did object to such a thing.

Secondly, no it’s not. It’s not about preference, it’s not about style. This standard is objective, from Scripture.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

—1 Corinthians 1:22-24

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

—2 Corinthians 4:5-6

What is to be preached? Not autonomous wisdom, not ourselves, but Jesus Christ. Because he is the power and wisdom of God, and the knowledge of the glory of God shines in him. If preachers leave Christ out, then it’s over before it began.

Lawson quotes Luther’s own words:

“The preachers have no other office than to preach the clear sun, Christ. Let them take care that they preach thus, or let them be silent.” Preachers must proclaim Christ or, Luther believed, they must not preach at all.

—Ibid., loc. 1238

Preach Christ, or don’t preach at all. How does that sound? To all of us who listen to preaching, how many of those sermons should never have been preached? How many preachers should have stayed silent? And to those who are doing the preaching: how many of your sermons should never have been preached, and should you be silent?

Think about that, the next time you hear or preach a sermon: if it doesn’t deal with Christ, or only deals with him superficially, it would be better if that sermon was not preached. Without Christ, it’s a poor excuse for a sermon.

If only the kind of commitment to Christ-centered preaching, both of the apostle Paul and Martin Luther, was evident in our context. It’s what I drill into my students whenever possible, in spite of the example of their pastors and teachers. To be honest, just based on what passes for “preaching” around here, I think that pastors believe preaching is just a speech, a time to tell stories, entertain, talk about themselves, and dictate (questionable) life advice. It’s clear as day that Jesus Christ is not a priority in the pulpit.

A primary reason for the sickness of the Presbyterian church in this country is the lack of preaching Christ. If we held strictly to this biblical rule, then there would be a lot less poor “preaching” in this country and a lot more pastors told to keep silent.

What is the preacher’s task? Luther said,

Your task, O preacher, is to make sure that you are faithful to the text, that you are faithful to the proclamation of that gospel, that you are faithful to set forth the whole counsel of God, and then step back and let it happen. I don’t have to try to cajole and persuade people with my techniques to get them to respond. I preach the law, I preach the gospel, and the Holy Ghost attends the ministry of that word to bring forth the fruit.

—Ibid., loc. 1360

I’m pretty sure that preachers want their people to grow spiritually, in maturity. There are so many “techniques” to try to achieve that. But where should you look first? Every time you preach: Are you actually preaching the text of Scripture? Are you proclaiming the Gospel? Are you faithful to preach the whole Bible? If not, then don’t look for some solution to compensate. Don’t look for some supplement. You have yet to actually preach as you should. The Holy Spirit works by and with the Word. If there’s no Word, then there’s no work. It’s the Gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. If you aren’t proclaiming the Gospel every Lord’s Day, then don’t ever wonder why nothing is happening. Our strength is in Christ. If you aren’t setting for Christ, then don’t ask why no one is obeying the Word.

Seriously consider, perhaps for the first time: what exactly makes Christian preaching Christian? What sets a sermon apart as a Christian sermon? As opposed to the preaching in a synagogue, or a mosque, or a Mormon temple, or a kingdom hall?

The next time you hear a sermon, ask: did it deal with Christ?

If you’re a preacher, ask yourself: did I deal with Christ?

If not, it would have been better for that sermon to have never been preached.

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Worship is Participatory

I’ve noticed something interesting: people don’t seem to know how to “do church.” What I mean is, in Sunday morning worship service, they don’t know how to act, behave, what attitude they are to come to church with. They aren’t engaged, they are not active. Rather, I should say, they are active in all the wrong ways.

All the kids literally run around the church and talk loudly. And this continues without correction. No, they are not just “being kids.” You know how I know? Because their parents are just as distracted and just as loud in their personal conversations during all parts of the service. And the older children are playing games on their cellphones, with the volume up!

In short, hardly anyone actively participates in the public worship of God. It’s been going on for years.

How do you go that long without correction, without teaching, without training? This is, in fact, a violation of the 4th Commandment, which implicitly forbids “all careless, negligent, and unprofitable performing” of the duty of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day (WLC Q/A 119).

I wonder if Roman Catholicism is the reason. In Roman Catholic worship, participation isn’t necessary, or even considered. It’s the performance of the priest that matters, regardless of the people’s lack of involvement. The priest worships, the choir sings. The people just have to physically be in the vicinity. A common sight are people gathered in the parking lot, not even mentally present in what’s going on. But they’re there! So check that off. “Check out (mentally), check off (the duty).”

Perhaps no one knows how to behave in church because they brought their Roman Catholic theology with them? Regardless if that’s the direct cause or not, we certainly need Reformation theology to be taught. Then we can lead people into Reformed worship, which is congregational and entirely participatory.

The Reformation and Participatory Worship

Contrary to Rome, the congregation must be active in the public worship of God. Attending worship is far from a passive attendance. Here’s a very brief view of the transition in worship participation because of the theology of the Protestant Reformers. The following quotes are from Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship.

In Roman Catholic worship,

Singers were those involved in church vocation (including cantors) who sang from the “choir,” a space between the congregation and the altar that was often separated from the laypeople by a screen. The congregation did not sing the Introit or any other portion of the service. (loc. 321)

This “choir”, where singing is done without participation of the whole congregation, has it’s place in the Roman Catholic context. It might sound strange that the people would not sing, but it actually fits if the worship is being done by someone else on the people’s behalf. So if that theology changes, the participation must change with it. Martin Luther made some important changes:

Luther did not want his worship to be interpreted as a propitiatory sacrifice offered to God by a priest on behalf of the people. . .

Luther understood worship as God’s gift to the people. Through the liturgy, God’s people could praise him for grace already completed in Christ’s finished work of salvation. This concept of the liturgy being God’s provision for the people to respond to grace, rather than for the priest to obtain their forgiveness, radically changed the way key worship elements were practiced. . .

Luther wanted the worship service to be a participatory experience, in keeping with his understanding of church being a community of faithful people praising God for his salvation. Two key changes resulted that are not obvious from only observing the order of the worship elements. First, the music was no longer the exclusive domain of those in sacred orders. (loc. 448-457)

So, because of Christ’s sufficient work, and consequently the complete removal of a human priesthood, worship becomes congregational. No longer is worship done on behalf of the people. It’s not a work done in their place, vicariously. All believer’s are priests, having access to the throne of grace. And that is why, for Luther, the congregation now participates in the singing! See, there is a theological reason for congregational song in corporate worship. Likewise, John Calvin made changes:

. . . commitment to the priesthood of believers is evident not only in the language Calvin used to involve the laity, but also in his encouragement of their participation in the worship service. The people sing in Calvin’s liturgy. And, as we will see, Calvin fought for their right to do so. Additionally, the people have special access to the privileges of their faith. Before he faced undesired strictures at Geneva, Calvin stood in front of the pulpit—among the people of Strasbourg—for all of the service prior to the reading and proclamation of the Word. During his ministry in Geneva, Calvin’s famous chair—common in size and style—was not used simply to carry him to the pulpit when he was feeble and old. The chair sat beneath the pulpit—among the people and on their level, as a statement of the preacher’s identification with the congregation prior to his acting as God’s representative in leading worship. (loc. 579)

That note about the chair is significant. The pastor was not a “priest” who was elevated from the people. Since all have equal access to God through the true High Priest, Jesus Christ, all are on equal footing. So, all the people join together in singing every part of the service. And John Calvin sat and stood with the people. Perhaps that is something to consider in our context, where certain special chairs are placed up and behind the pulpit, removed from the congregation. Might that contradict our theology?

The point is, with the change in theology came the necessary change in worship practice. Worship was recognized to be participatory. And this Reformation theology and participatory worship is reflected most clearly in the works of the Westminster Assembly.

The Westminster Assembly and Participatory Worship

The Directory for the Public Worship of God, under the heading “Of the Assembling of the Congregation, and their Behaviour in the Publick Worship of God,” says:

The publick worship being begun, the people are wholly to attend upon it, forbearing to read any thing, except what the minister is then reading or citing; and abstaining much more from all private whisperings, conferences, salutations, or doing reverence to any person present, or coming in; as also from all gazing, sleeping, and other indecent behaviour, which may disturb the minister or people, or hinder themselves or others in the service of God.

If any, through necessity, be hindered from being present at the beginning, they ought not, when they come into the congregation, to betake themselves to their private devotions, but reverently to compose themselves to join with the assembly in that ordinance of God which is then in hand.

During corporate worship, what should the be the focus of the people? The worship. And any who arrive late (another chronic problem) are to enter into the worship currently underway, whatever part it may be. What’s ironic is pastors and other “leaders” are just as guilty of not participating in the ordinances along with the people, until it’s “their turn.” Around here, usually it’s because they are in fact “doing reverence to any person present, or coming in.” They are entertaining some special person who happens to be visiting (and therefore keeping them from participating in worship, also), or waiting for them to arrive.

Clearly, the sole focus during corporate worship is to be the worship of God. No reading anything on your own (if only cell phones and Facebook were a thing back then . . .). It’s astonishing what people will do privately during all parts of the worship service. Forget “whisperings.” Most of the children have conversations at full volume, and are rarely corrected, even by their own parents.

All the people, the minister and the congregation, are to be worshiping God, together. And anything that disturbs or hinders the service of God needs to be corrected and avoided.

Indeed, even the parts of worship that appear passive are actually active. Like listening. Of course, that’s a common misunderstanding: talking is active, listening is passive. That’s simply untrue. Our Westminster Larger Catechism says:

Q. 160. What is required of those that hear the word preached?
A. It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.

Our Confession of Faith concisely expresses it as “conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence” (21.5).

Even for the most seemly inactive part of corporate worship, listening to preaching, we can see that’s it’s actually not. The congregation must be actively participating. It takes effort to be engaged.

The Larger Catechism also addresses the time of receiving the Lord’s Supper:

Q. 174. What is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper in the time of the administration of it?
A. It is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, that, during the time of the administration of it, with all holy reverence and attention they wait upon God in that ordinance, diligently observe the sacramental elements and actions, heedfully discern the Lord’s body, and affectionately meditate on his death and sufferings, and thereby stir up themselves to a vigorous exercise of their graces; in judging themselves, and sorrowing for sin; in earnest hungering and thirsting after Christ, feeding on him by faith, receiving of his fullness, trusting in his merits, rejoicing in his love, giving thanks for his grace; in renewing of their covenant with God, and love to all the saints.

The Directory for Worship, under the heading “Of the Singing of Psalms” says:

It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family.

In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.

That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book. . .

Again, participation. The congregation is to sing together, and everyone is to actually understand what they are singing, not merely a mindless recital of words. That requires thinking, and interpreting.

To summarize: worship is participatory. The singing is congregational singing. Even while listening or receiving the sacrament, the whole congregation is to be actively engaged in it. There is no place for performance or vicarious worship. That belongs back in Rome, where it came from. Reformed worship, worship based on the theology of the Protestant Reformation, is participatory.

So if we claim to be Reformed or Presbyterian, and if we subscribe to creeds such as those quoted above, then why is our corporate worship not consistently congregational? Why are so many in attendance actively disengaged, why are distractions abundant, and why do the majority of those in attendance seem to have no problem with it?

A Simple Solution

I know for a fact that we are not doomed to a situation of worship ignorance in the “Presbyterian” church. I know of another local church with a very disciplined congregation. Ironically, it’s about 50 times as large, and so has that much more potential to be unruly and chaotic! But it is not. Distraction is extremely limited. People sing together, people listen together. They are actively engaged in the worship service. They know why they are there. Do you know why they know? It’s quite simple: they were taught. The painful irony is that they aren’t Reformed or Presbyterian. Yet their participatory worship better reflects our theology better than our worship does! How embarrassing. They were simply taught what the purpose for gathering is. They were told how to behave, they were told to be engaged, and to actively listen. They were trained and measures were taken to minimize distraction. It was made explicit what the priority is. Ultimately, whose fault is it if the people don’t know what do to in corporate worship? Yes, you know the answer.

If our theology is not Roman, then neither should our worship practice be. And when we are right smack in the middle of a Roman Catholic country, we might want to point that out. Our worship practice must follow from our theology. Yet, if our worship practice is not that inherited from the Reformation, then perhaps our churches don’t believe what they claim to. Either way, Reformation is needed: a recovery of Reformation theology, and a recovery of acceptable worship.

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Q/A: Worship, Individual and Corporate


 What is “worship”? And is it different for corporate setting—church and individual, daily living?


Excellent question, and so important. In fact, this really makes Reformed/Presbyterianism stand out.

First, let’s define worship. We “worship and glorify [God] accordingly, by thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honoring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him” (WLC Q/A 104). And what is the way in which we worship God? Our Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 21, “Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day” says:

1. . . . the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

First things first: the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is what he says is acceptable. So whatever worship is, it’s not our idea. It’s not what pleases us, but what pleases him. No inventions or innovations. Whatever is not prescribed is forbidden. This rule is called the “Regulative Principle of Worship.”

So, since we know that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the rule for worship, how do we worship? The Confession lists the elements of worship:

3. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.

4. Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.

5. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God . . .

What constitutes worship? What are the essential parts of worship? Prayer, the reading, preaching, hearing of the Word, singing of psalms, and the (2) sacraments instituted by Christ. That’s worship. This is what Scripture says is worship, for the church. There’s overlap. Singing to God certainly is a form of prayer. The rest of the elements could even be categorized as the Word: read, preached, heard, sung, and made visible in the sacraments. Either way, these are what make up the ordinary worship of God.

Notice, worship is not reduced to music! In fact, music is at best an implication. Singing is clearly there. Yet, it is commonly assumed that the “music time” before the sermon is “worship.” Not so. What’s even worse is that label “praise and worship.” I was asked recently if a church had “praise and worship.” You’re probably thinking, “what a question!” However, that phrase was used to mean “contemporary” style music and songs. What a reduction! Music is not worship. The above elements are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God. Hence, the appropriate label of “worship service” to the whole of the church’s gathering on the Lord’s Day, with every stage included.

Now, if you would like an exposition of worship, read the Westminster Larger Catechism: for the Regulative Principle of Worship, read Q/A 107-110; Prayer, Q/A 178-196; the Word, Q/A 154-160 Sacraments, Q/A 161-177.

Second, where does worship take place?

6. Neither prayer, nor any other part of religious worship, is now, under the gospel, either tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed: but God is to be worshiped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by his Word or providence, calleth thereunto.

God is to be worshiped everywhere! Does that mean everything we do is worship? No. It says everywhere, not everything. Remember, God defines what is worship, and we already covered that. But, isn’t all of life worship? I’ve talked like that. The answer is no, if this is the sense you’re taking the term “worship.” I’ll quickly point out that this was a development in the Protestant Reformation: every vocation glorifies God. The Reformers recognized that Scripture doesn’t distinguish between “sacred” and “secular” as the Church of Rome did. The farmer can glorify God in his vocation just as much as the monk living the “separated life.” All service, in whatever sphere, is service to the Lord. All of life, all we do, we do unto the glory of God. However, a common misunderstanding is that there’s therefore no difference between corporate worship and our common affairs. That simply does not follow. Both glorify God, but they are not the same things. And Reformation theology did not say they were, either.

So, “God is to be worshiped everywhere.” What does “everywhere” mean? Privately, family, and corporately. Now, finally we come to the second part of the original question: is there a difference between individual and corporate worship? The answer is a definite yes. “More solemnly” in public assemblies (with the local church). An important note: individual, or even family worship, cannot substitute for corporate worship. The assembly of the church for worship is “not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken.” When is the time of the public assembly? That’s section 7 and 8 of this chapter in the Confession: Sunday, the Lord’s Day.

Continuing on with the difference between corporate and private worship, there are differences pertaining to the acts of worship themselves. God blesses the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word of God (WLC Q/A 155). That happens in corporate worship, not private (whereas reading occurs in both [hopefully]). Not everyone is allowed to preach the Word, either. The sacraments, baptism and Lord’s Supper, are not private acts but church ordinances, only to be administered by one called to the ministry of Word and sacrament. The church, the corporate body, must be present for the administration of the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper is not to be given “to none who are not then present in the congregation;” likewise, “Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone” (WCF 29.3-4).

So those are some things unique to corporate worship, whereas prayer, the reading and hearing of the Word, and singing of psalms can take place in family or private worship.

All things are done to the glory of God, but that’s not the same as “worship,” as defined by our standards. God has ordained specifically what “worship” is, and it’s clearly not every activity under the sun. God has ordained the acts of worship. Likewise, some of the elements of worship are exclusive to the public assembly (corporate worship).

Understand that, from the Reformed perspective, the center of gravity in the Christian life is with corporate worship. Corporate worship, the public assembly, is the most important thing you do, every week. That’s completely contrary to the typical way of thinking, today. The Western church has whole-sale acclimated to the individualistic atmosphere, so that your life as a Christian centers on your individual acts of piety: personal Bible reading, personal Bible study, personal prayer, “quiet time.” But think historically, for a minute: when was private Bible reading made possible? For the first 1,400 years of the Church, there wasn’t even a printing press. Was God not providing for the spiritual nourishment of his people? Could Christians not worship God in the most significant way? Au contraire. He was, and they could, by the outward and ordinary means: the Word, prayer, and sacraments, in corporate worship.

There is a three-layered answer to the question. First, daily living doesn’t qualify as worship, because God has specifically ordained certain acts to be acceptable worship; they are “holy” or set apart for that purpose (along with the “holy” day set apart for that purpose: Sunday). Secondly, worship can (and must!) take place everywhere: privately, family, and corporately. But, thirdly, there is a distinction between corporate worship and private or family worship. As I used to say: public worship is not the same as your private devotions. Worship is to happen corporately, in family, and personally, but they are not equal.

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Christ-Centered Reading, Christ-Centered Preaching

af01593c53f88178744bca6874953266This makes us feel that, in order to come to this, we shall need to feel Jesus present with us whenever we read the word. Mark that fifth verse, which I would now bring before you as part of my text which I have hitherto left out. “Have ye not read in the law, how on the Sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.” Ay, they thought much about the letter of the Word, but they did not know that he was there who is the Sabbath’s Master—man’s Lord and the Sabbath’s Lord, and Lord of everything. oh, when you have got hold of a creed, or of an ordinance, or anything that is outward in the letter, pray the Lord to make you feel that there is something greater than the printed book, and something better than the mere shell of the creed. There is one person greater than they all, and to him we should cry that he may be ever with us. o living Christ, make this a living word to me. Thy word is life, but not without the Holy Spirit. I may know this book of thine from beginning to end, and repeat it all from Genesis to Revelation, and yet it may be a dead book, and I may be a dead soul.  But, Lord, be present here; then will I look up from the book to the Lord; from the precept to him who fulfilled it; from the law to him who honoured it; from the threatening to him who has borne it for me, and from the promise to him in whom it is “Yea and amen.” Ah, then we shall read the book so differently. He is here with me in this chamber of mine: I must not trifle. He leans over me, he puts his finger along the lines, I can see his pierced hand: I will read it as in his presence. I will read it, knowing that he is the substance of it,—that he is the proof of this book as well as the writer of it; the sum of this Scripture as well as the author of it. That is the way for true students to become wise! You will get at the soul of Scripture when you can keep Jesus with you while you are reading. Did you never hear a sermon as to which you felt that if Jesus had come into that pulpit while the man was making his oration, he would have said, “Go down, go down; what business have you here? I sent you to preach about me, and you preach about a dozen other things. Go home and learn of me, and then come and talk.” That sermon which does not lead to Christ, or of which Jesus Christ is not the top and the bottom, is a sort of sermon that will make the devils in hell to laugh, but might make the angel of God to weep, if they were capable of such emotion. You remember the story I told you of the Welshman who heard a young man preach a very fine sermon—a grand sermon, a highfaluting, spread-eagle sermon; and when he had done, he asked the Welshman what he thought of it. The man replied that he did not think anything of it. “And why not?” “Because there was no Jesus Christ in it.” “Well,” said he, “but my text did not seem to run that way.” “Never mind,” said the Welshman, “your sermon ought to run that way.” “I do not see that, however,” said the young man. “No,” said the other, “you do not see how to preach yet. This is the way to preach. From every little village in England—it does not matter where it is—there is sure to be a road to London. Though there may not be a road to certain other places, there is certain to be a road to London. Now, from every text in the Bible there is a road to Jesus Christ, and the way to preach is just to say, ‘How can I get from this text to Jesus Christ?’ and then go preaching all the way along it.” “Well, but,” said the young man, “suppose I find a text that has not got a road to Jesus Christ.” “I have preached for forty years,” said the old man, “and I have never found such a Scripture, but if I ever do find one I will go over hedge and ditch but what I will get to him, for I will never finish without bringing in my Master.” Perhaps you will think that I have gone a little over hedge and ditch to-night, but I am persuaded that I have not for the sixth verse comes in here, and brings our Lord in most sweetly, setting him in the very forefront of you Bible readers, so that you must not think of reading without feeling that he is there who is Lord and Master of everything that you are reading, and who shall make these things precious to you if you realize him in them. If you do not find Jesus in the Scriptures they will be of small service to you, for what did our Lord himself say? “Ye search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life, but ye will not come unto me that ye might have life”; and therefore your searching comes to nothing; you find no life, and remain dead in your sins. May it not be so with us?

—C.H. Spurgeon, “How to Read the Bible“, The Sermons of Charles Spurgeon vol. 1 loc. 3587

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The Grind: Reading and Listening in 2017

LibraryIt’s the beginning of a new year! For me, that means mapping out a curriculum. Not for others, but for myself. At the beginning of a new year, while most talk is about planning a diet or some other “resolution,” I figure out what I will study that year. I learned right after graduation that if I didn’t take initiative, I would never learn another thing. I know too many who have done just that, not so much as picking up a book after their “education” ended. And I’m talking about people in “ministry.”

Ever learning should we be. Can’t afford to continue my education, academically? Not going to let that stop me. There’s no excuse for stagnation. So one thing I do is plan what to study throughout the year.

Last year was unique, as far as my regimen goes. I kept having to change it up! I didn’t read as much as I usually do. Part of that was because of my new teaching responsibilities. Then once second semester rolled around I read quite a bit out of necessity on something I didn’t plan for. Overall, I didn’t get through everything I wanted. But I usually aim high, anyway. I think it helps.

As you read on, if you find yourself asking me “why do all that?” then go read why I study so much.

Of course, any period of time is not perfectly predictable. One thing that likely will change up my study plan will be what classes I’ll be teaching next school year. But, until something comes up, here’s what I plan to get through in 2017.

Happy New Year. Let the grind begin.

Reading Together

The wifey and I read together. I could probably write about that discipline, some other time. What we are into right now:

Definitive Look at Oneness Theology: In the Light of Biblical Trinitarianism (4th Edition — Revised, Updated, and Expanded) by Edward Dalcour

Oneness theology has a real presence in our context, and I don’t understand it very well. So, this is one way we prepare ourselves. It’s a great book and has already proven useful. We read this in the morning, over coffee.

Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer (New Studies in Biblical Theology) by J. Gary Millar

We like reading volumes of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, together. They are great books. When we saw this one that traces the development of prayer from Genesis to Revelation, we knew this was our next read. So far it’s good. We read this at night.

Now to what I’m doing.

Books to Finish

18 Minutes by Peter Bregman. That’s ironic. I would probably be done with it already if I gave it 18 minutes.

I will continue reading J.C. Ryle. No matter what. Once you start, you’ll never want to stop.

I am determined to finish An Introduction to Systematic Theology by Cornelius Van Til, as soon as possible. That book keeps haunting me. After that, I can breath.

Far as the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption by Michael Williams. I just need to buckle down and do it. I could probably finish it tonight, if I wanted.

I will pick up again in The Church of Christ by James Bannerman. Great book, and necessary.

J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir by Ned B. Stonehouse (free).


First, How Then Shall We Worship? by R.C. Sproul (I finished it, already). I have begun to dabble in Calvin’s Treatises on the Sacraments. Calvin is always a delight.

Westminster Standards

One of my habits is to continue studying a topic even after finishing considerable preparation and am teaching that subject. I’ve decided to call it “binge study.” My current binge study: the Westminster Standards. Some of it made my Best of 2016 list.

I will be listening through William Still’s exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith. So far, it’s good.

I’ll also read Unity and Continuity in Covenantal Thought: A Study in the Reformed Tradition to the Westminster Assembly by Andrew Woolsey. Presbyterian and Reformed Churches: A Global History by James McGoldrick would be most interesting, as well as The Presbyterian Conflict by Edwin Rian (free). And I may read the History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines by William Hetherington. Robert Shaw’s exposition of the Confession, The Reformed Faith, would probably be a good idea, as well. (*As of 1/9/17, available online as daily readings)

Update: Received them 5/11/17!

But, I don’t want to stop there! God willing (because I don’t own these books, yet) I really would like to continue my study of the Standards through reading R.C. Sproul’s 3 volume commentary on the Confession, Truths We Confess, and the 3 volumes of The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, edited by Ligon Duncan (see all three here). Since they are not ebooks, they might take quite a while for me to acquire. Why they are not ebooks yet is beyond me.

I have also added a book to my re-read list, this year: Recovering the Reformed Confession by R. Scott Clark. I’m looking forward to reading it again. It was excellent the first time. The difference now is how much I have learned since. Hopefully, I can appreciate this work more.

Lastly, I will finish the 3rd and final volume of Thomas Watson’s sermons following the Westminster Shorter Catechism: The Lord’s Prayer.

(After I finish Thomas Watson, I will definitely pick up another Puritan to read. There are too many to choose from, so I don’t know which one. Owen’s 2 volumes on the Holy Spirit, Pneumatologia, has my eye. Or perhaps the unabridged Communion with God. We’ll see.)

That sums up my continuing study of the Westminster Standards that I would like to accomplish this year.


Educational Ministry of the Church, taught by John Muether at Reformed Theological Seminary. Finding myself in the role of an educator, in 4 different environments, I need all the help I can get. I’m aware of my need to learn more and improve in educating. Hopefully this class can help.

To that end, I’ll also read Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together by Paul R. House.


My consistency and productivity went through the wringer last year, to my great dissatisfaction. I need to read What’s Best Next by Matt Perman and Focus by Daniel Goleman. If I could just focus.

Pastoral Theology

Later this year I’ll probably read more pastoral theology. It’s a subject I tend to read consistently no matter what else is going on. I have a few books that are interesting. The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine, On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor by Clay Werner, and The Pastor’s Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry by Jared Wilson. Preaching? by Alec Motyer would make a nice addition.


I need some biographies in my life, so I want to finally read John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist by D. G. Hart and Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat by James Bratt.


I’m going to read Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment by Brian Godawa, when I need a rest. That will be a “fun read” for me.

I should finally read Salvation by Grace by Matthew Barrett.

Historical Theology by Gregg Allison would be a good one to regularly read from throughout the year, little by little.

New Focus: Doctrine of God

A new study for me: the doctrine of God and the Trinity. Naturally, I’ve covered this doctrine before. But I haven’t studied it intensely, as I have other subjects.

I started reviewing the doctrine of the Trinity in Pilgrim Theology by Michael Horton, which I have read several times already (it’s on my annual read list). Then, I decided to just read the more full treatment in his The Christian Faith. So, instead of Pilgrim Theology, I’ll just finally read that larger systematic theology all the way through, throughout this year.

The thing is, I’m a bit lacking in material on the doctrine of God and the Trinity. I was looking at my library the other day. I see a lot of Christian worldview, apologetics, hermeneutics, pastoral theology, but not many systematic theologies, or any books on the doctrine of God or the Trinity. I hadn’t notice that, before.

To help remedy this void in my studies, I will finally listen to The Doctrine of God class taught by K. Scott Oliphint at Westminster Seminary. Also, ST: Scripture, Theology Proper, Anthropology taught by Douglas Kelly at Reformed Theological Seminary (since I don’t have his book, below). This class seems to have quite an emphasis (6 lectures) on Trinitarian doctrine. If I still want more (and can dedicate the time), there’s God & His Word taught by Michael Williams at Covenant Seminary.

My library is lacking in this department, so should the Lord provide, I hope to acquire some new books on the subject, specifically:

The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship by Robert Letham. Apparently the best overall treatment of the Trinity.

Systematic Theology: The God Who Is: The Holy Trinity by Douglas Kelly. Michael Horton recommended this for the “marvelous integration of covenant theology and the doctrine of the Trinity.” So that’s good enough for me.

Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (New Studies in Biblical Theology) by Andreas J. Kostenberger & Scott R. Swain. Unfortunately, not available in Kindle edition.

Reformed Dogmatics: Theology Proper by Geerhardus J. Vos, edited by Richard B. Gaffin.

I’ll be keeping my eye out for sales.

2017 is going to be a full year.

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