Ugly Duckling Doctrine

The Reformation’s ‘deep’ view of sin is rather like the proverbial ugly duckling: initially unattractive and embarrassing, but secretly a thing of promise. It is a doctrine of promise because without it Christ is robbed of His saving glory, and the gospel loses its wonder. If sin is not much of a problem, Christ need not be much of a Savior, and we do not need much grace.

Only if I see my plight is so bad that I cannot fix it myself will I find true freedom in Christ, for only then will I stop depending on myself and depend on Him. Only then will I despair of my own efforts and look outside myself for hope.

Michael Reeves and Tim Chester, Why the Reformation Still Matters


God and Country

The Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the confessional document of Presbyterian churches (including ARP churches), states the following:

1. The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But 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.

2. Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.

21.1-2, emphasis added

Our worship will not be perfect in this life. There are times when we may become distracted in worship, or our devotion may not be what it should. There will also be disagreements about how some of the elements of worship are employed. Nevertheless, it should be without controversy to say that in reformed churches of the Presbyterian tradition, worship should be as biblical as possible. It is neither right nor wise to go beyond the elements of worship as given to us in Scripture.

As an example of what this may look like, take a look at this past week’s worship bulletin at Midlane Park ARP Church. Since the Lord’s Supper was part of the service this past week (we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper once a month), the order of the service was slightly different than most weeks. However, this gives an example of what a typical reformed worship service of the Presbyterian tradition might look like (if you would like to listen to the sermon that was preached, you can find it here).

It saddened me greatly, however, when a friend recently sent me a link to a worship bulletin from this past week of a church that is of the reformed and Presbyterian tradition (including subscribing to the WCF). It can best be termed a “Patriotic service,” in which the country and the American flag were honored. If certain parts of the worship service did glorify God, I fear that the other parts served to greatly obscure that. This is a service that included, among other things, the Pledge of Allegiance, a flag ceremony, and the singing of songs where the attention is primarily directed to the nation rather than God. This probably not as blatant as the church in our city that once had the following on its sign in preparation for the upcoming worship service (July 4th fell on a Sunday that year): “Celebration of America Service This Sunday.” Celebration of America? Shouldn’t we celebrating God instead during corporate worship on the Lord’s Day?

You can look at a copy of the bulletin by clicking here. I have redacted names, but you should be able to see why this is so troubling.

“Why is it that so many people take no pains in religion? How is it that they can never find time for praying, Bible reading and hearing the Gospel? What is the secret of their continual string of excuses for neglecting means of grace? How is it that the very same men who are full of zeal about money, business, pleasure, or politics, will take no trouble about their souls? The answer to these questions is short and simple. These men are not in earnest about salvation. They have no sense of spiritual disease. They have no consciousness of requiring a Spiritual Physician. They do not feel that their souls are in danger of dying eternally. They see no use in taking trouble about religion. In darkness like this thousands live and die. Happy indeed are they who have found out their peril, and count all things loss if they may only win Christ, and be found in Him!”

J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke

It is often suggested that the fourth commandment is the most openly violated and least observed of the commandments in the Decalogue. It should not be surprising to find this among the secular and unbelieving, who profess no interest in the public ordinances of Divine worship, nor in the holy rest offered to weary souls on the sacred day. Indeed, while all men are duty-bound as God’s creatures to render unto Him whatsoever worship or service He is pleased to require of them, the unregenerate lack genuine interest in spiritual things, and feel no inward compulsion to observe moral duties such as keeping the Sabbath day holy. Only the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in effectual calling can awaken such individuals from their spiritual indifference and implant within their souls the disposition and desire for holy things. But what ought to be both alarming and sad to those of confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian sensibilities is how many there are in the church today who profess faith in and allegiance unto our Lord Jesus Christ with all evident sincerity, and yet who appear almost as dismissive of the the duty of observing the fourth commandment as their secular and unbelieving neighbors, except perhaps in the matter of attendance in the public assembly of worship.

Geoffrey L. Willour

The Confessional Presbyterian, vol. 12, p. 195

Roman Reality

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

Romans 5:6-11

Consider what the word of God tells us here. It describes us — every one of us — in very unflattering terms in our natural state before God. We were “helpless,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” “enemies.” The end of our natural course was not a pleasant one: the wrath of God. And there is nothing that helpless ungodly sinful enemies of God could ever do about that.

But then God did something beyond wonder — He sent His Son, Jesus Christ. And He has done what we never could do ourselves. He died for us. In Him the love of God is demonstrated toward us. He justifies us. He reconciles us. He saves us. This is true for all who are His, all whom He calls, all who look to Him and Him alone for salvation.

If this is something you have never considered, I would urge you to find a local biblical gospel-centered church and attend there. If the gospel is not preached there, if you do not hear about Christ and Him crucified, then keep searching for another church until you do. If you are in Louisville and do not have a church, then visit us at Midlane Park Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. But please do not remain an enemy of God, under His eternal wrath.

And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.

1 John 5:11-12

When we gather for worship, who is our worship really for? Is it for God (as it should be), or is it for us?

In the adult Christian education hour (i.e., “Sunday School”) at Midlane Park, we are currently going through Roger Ellsworth’s book Opening Up Zechariah. In the chapter we studied this Lord’s Day, the author examines Zechariah 7, and asks the important question as to who our worship is really for.

Zechariah 7 brings us face to face with a troubling question: how much of what we call worship is for God, and how much is for us? How much of it is contrived to entertain ourselves rather than give glory to God?

The Jewish people who had been carried into captivity had begun observing certain feasts while in Babylon to commemorate and mourn the events associated with their exile (e.g., the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple). There were 4 solemn fasts that they observed for 70 years. Now that they had returned to Jerusalem, and now that the rebuilding project for the temple was in place, should they continue the fasts? They assumed their fasting had been a good thing, but they were surprised to learn that the Lord was not pleased with them. God had not commanded these fasts or sanctioned them, and they were really not for Him in the first place.

The Lord revealed his unhappiness by pointedly asking, ‘When you fasted and mourned … did you really fast for Me — for Me?’ (v. 5). With this question he was bringing these people to the unpleasant conclusion that these fasts, ostensibly created for him, were in fact created for themselves, so that they could feel good about how religious they were!

Does this sound familiar? Is this a motivation for much religious worship in our day? How much of our worship is fueled by our own desire to feel good religiously and to rely on what pleases us (whether it be novelty or tradition or nostalgia) in worship?

While we agree that worship is for the Lord, we often corrupt it by doing things we enjoy instead of being content to do the things that God enjoys. What does God enjoy? He has made it clear. He wants us to read and preach his Word, seek his face in prayer, and exalt him in praise.

The discussion questions at the end of the chapter include these two:

Identify some things in modern worship services that seem to be more for us than for God? Why does it matter if our services contain these things?

What does the Lord desire of his people in their worship? What can church leaders do to try to promote God-pleasing worship?

Those questions give us some important food for thought. We would do well not to dismiss them or to try to justify modern (or even traditional) innovations in worship. What matters is what God desires.

Free Offer

Is it desired that we should forbear to make a free offer of God’s grace in Christ to the worst of sinners? This cannot be granted by us: for this is the gospel faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation (and therefore worthy of all our preaching of it), that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners and the chief of them (1 Tim. 1:15). This was the apostolic practice, according to their Lord’s command (Mark 16:15-16; Luke. 24:47). They began at Jerusalem, where the Lord of life was wickedly slain by them; and yet life in and through his blood was offered to, and accepted and obtained by, many of them. Every believer’s experience witnesses to this, that every one that believes on Jesus Christ, acts that faith as the chief of sinners. Every man that sees himself rightly thinks so of himself, and therein does not think amiss. God only knows who is truly the greatest sinner, and every humbled sinner will think that he is the man.

Shall we tell men that unless they are holy they must not believe on Jesus Christ? That they must not venture on Christ for salvation till they are qualified and fit to be received and welcomed by him? This would be to forbear preaching the gospel at all, or to forbid all men to believe on Christ. For never was any sinner qualified for Christ, He is well qualified for us (I Cor. 1:30); but a sinner out of Christ has no qualification for Christ but sin and misery. Whence should we have any better, but in and from Christ? Nay, suppose an impossibility, that a man were qualified for Christ; I boldly assert, that such a man would not, nor could ever, believe on Christ. For faith is a lost, helpless condemned sinner’s casting himself on Christ for salvation; and the qualified man is not such a person.

Shall we warn people, that they should not believe on Christ, too soon? It is impossible that they should do it too soon. Can a man obey the great gospel command too soon (1 John 3: 23)? Or do the great work of God too soon (John 6:28-29)?

Robert Traill, quoted in Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ