How we read the Bible speaks volumes about our demeanor towards culture. If I cannot think biblically about any reality or decision-making process I am making myself subservient to extra-biblical authorities. If I am incapable of commencing my thinking biblically I am just as capable of abandoning my Christian categories. It is the great compromise of our age that we hold on firmly to “God and Country” but fail to know what God requires of us who are called to think and speak as citizens of a heavenly country. We have allowed the presuppositions of pagans to guide the thinking of the pious. Our theory of knowledge is inescapably secular. We have retired our Sunday hats after church and replaced it with the hats of neutrality and unbelief.
I have found that people’s passions run deep…for the wrong causes. In fact, they have so engaged in secular pieties that they have established social structures, hierarchies, right and wrong categories, stipulations, and judgment to systems and promises that show utter contempt for the God of the Bible. What guides your thinking of reality? What gives shape to your decision-making? The redeemed man is led by the self-attesting reality of God’s word.
A note to my fellow pastors: We know what it means to delve deeply into the text, to navigate our favorite Bible software, to examine the text grammatically, historically, wholistically, to bring a dose of applicability to the life of our people; it’s what we do. This can be an invigorating process. For some of us, the excitement and expectation begin Saturday night. We hope that our rhetoric will not hinder communication, but be used to transmit a divine message. Some will use an outline, others manuscript, others a 3×5 card, still others an extemporaneous delivery bathed in study. Whatever method and however it is delivered, one thing must be clear: we are insufficient. The paradox of preaching is that God uses finite men to communicate a message of infinite worth. So instead of earthly wisdom, bring all the Gospel foolishness you can muster (I Cor. 1) to that pulpit. Be prepared to let the world deride our message. Come intellectually honest about your intellectual need of God and his wisdom. Bring your faithful study of the Word and marry it to the faithfulness of God to make what is weak, strong and what is lowly, mighty in his sight.
Many of us grew up in theological backgrounds where the psalms were known, but not sung. These theological backgrounds are anomalies throughout the history of the Church. E.F. Harrison observed that “Psalmody was a part of the synagogue service that naturally passed over into the life of the church.” Calvin Stapert speaks of the fathers’ “enthusiastic promotion of psalm-singing” which he says, “reached an unprecedented peak in the fourth century.” James McKinnon speaks of “an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm” for the psalms in the second half of the fourth century. Hughes Oliphint Old argued that Calvin appealed to the church historians (e.g. Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen) as well as the church fathers (e.g. Augustine, Basil, Chrysostom) for the singing of psalms. While the Reformers did not advocate the exclusive singing of Psalms they did express “a partiality for Psalms and hymns drawn from Scripture.” a
The Reformer Martin Luther urged that Psalms be sung by congregations so that “the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music b.“ By the end of the 19th century, however, most hymnals produced had limited psalms to a couple of well-known pieces like Old One-Hundredth. Beyond that, scriptural references had all but disappeared. Terry Johnson summarized the state of psalmlessness:
This eclipse of psalmody in the late nineteenth century is quite unprecedented. The psalms, as we have seen, have been the dominant form of church song beginning with the Church Fathers, all through the Middle Ages, during the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, and into the modern era. By the beginning of the twentieth century the church had lost the voice through which it had expressed its sung praise for more than 1800 years. c
Though the last hundred years were not psalm-friendly, we have seen in the last 30 years a kind of revival of psalmody in the modern church, especially in the Reformed tradition. New hymnals, like the Cantus Christi, and many others are including old and new psalms ( metrical and chants).
So why should we sing the psalms? Aren’t the 19th century hymns and contemporary songs sufficient to fulfill the worship demands of the modern congregation?
The answer is a resounding no!
There are ten reasons I believe congregations should begin to sing psalms once again:
First, Psalm-singing is an explicit biblical command (Ps. 27:6). The Scriptures encourage us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). To have the word of Christ dwell in you richly means to invest in the rich beauty of the Psalter. How can we sing what we do not know? Is there a better way to internalize the word than to sing it?
Second, Psalm-singing was the ancient practice of the Church and it continued for 1,800 years. We honor our forefathers and our history when we sing their songs.
Third, Calvin observed that the psalms are “An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that it is not represented here as a mirror.” The psalms are satisfying to the human being. We are homos adorans; worship beings. God is not against emotions, he is against emotionalism. The Psalter is an emotional book. It provides comfort for the people of God at different stages of life. As a minister I have never once walked into a hospital room and been asked to read a text from Leviticus or Romans, but rather every time I have been asked to read a psalm (most often Psalm 23). The psalms reach deep inside our humanity in time of pain.
Fourth, singing the psalms builds our Christian piety. It is nurturing to our souls. It is God’s devotional book; God’s hymnal. Singing the psalms restores the joy of our salvation. Ask me what book of the Bible I would take to a desert island, and I will not hesitate to say “The Psalms.”
Fifth, the psalms are ultimately made for the body. You may sing the psalms on your own, but they reach their culmination when sung together. They are meant to be roared (Ps. 47:1), because they were written by the Lion of Judah. When we sing together we are both being edified and edifying one another. “We sing because in singing we join together in common breath and melody in a manner that no other medium can duplicate…We become an assembly unified in purpose and thought. And by our singing, we hear God’s Word for us, and the world hears it loud and clear.” d
Sixth, we should sing the Psalms because they re-shape us; they re-orient our attention. We are a people constantly being sanctified by the Spirit of God, and the Spirit has specifically inspired 150 psalms for our sanctification. How should we pray? How should we ask? How should we lament? The Psalms helps us to answer these questions, and thus shape us more and more after the image of Christ.
Seventh, by singing the Psalms we are worshiping the Spirit. The Spirit hovers, shapes, re-makes in the Bible. He is the music of God in the world. In an age when the Third Person of the Trinity has become the source of theological confusion, the Psalms keeps us focused on His role and purposes in history.
Eighth, we should sing the Psalms because our current songs are often cheap and shallow. The Psalms are rich and full of substance. If we wonder why the evangelical community is so powerless, one reason for this is its trivialized worship. Modern worship is often a pietistic exercise, which is manifested in poorly constructed and pessimistic theology. But the Psalms teaches us that God is full of mercy and powerful over all His enemies (Ps. 2). The Psalms are political statements. They are direct attacks on those who challenge the supremacy of King Jesus.
Ninth, the Psalms should be sung because our children need them. Our little ones need to know the God they worship in profound ways from their earliest days. We become what we worship, and so our children will become what we sing.
Tenth, you should sing the Psalms because the world needs them. The world does not need a weak Gospel. She sees plenty of it already. She needs to hear a Gospel of a God who delights in praise, who will not allow evil to go unpunished, and who prepares a table for us.
This may all sound daunting and strange. But I’d encourage you to take that first step. What first may appear to be strange may become a wonderful journey into praise and thanksgiving to the God from whom all blessings flow.
For more information on how to sing the psalms, or for resources, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See Terry Johnson’sThe History of Psalm Singing in the Church; I depended heavily on that article for the quotes on this paragraph (back)
Luther, Martin. Tischreden. No. 2545. Quoted in F. Blume et al., Protestant Church Music (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1974 (back)
Will Willimon writing for the Christian Century asserts that truthfulness is most clearly seen in its practical force. “How shall they know you are my disciples? When you love one another.” This was Jesus’ simple response. At the same time we must not forget that truth is contextualized in history by the writer of history. Life cannot be divorced from truth. Life is formed and lived out by truth if it is to be lived out accordingly. Pagans may conform externally to the law, but manifest “enlightened self-interest” in their actions. The Christian faith, on the other hand, sees truth affecting both external and internal motivations. These motivations are self-less and are shaped by the God/Man who was the embodiment of truth Pilate wondered about. As Willimon concluded:
Christianity is not another philosophy or some primitive system of belief; it is a community of people who worship the Jew whom Pilate sent to the cross.
This devotion to the Jewish Messiah is what enlivens the Christian truth and what changes the world.
Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin Mandatum. The word comes from Jesus’ command on the Last Supper to love one another just as He loved them (Lk. 24). The message of love is very much central to the Gospel message. Evangelicals are all too quick to set the topic of love aside because it draws our attention away from the more important doctrinal disputes and discussions. Yet Paul and our blessed Lord keep bringing us back to this theme of love. God is love. No, love is not God, but it is very much a foundational aspect of all His actions toward us in Christ Jesus.
Maundy Thursday then becomes a special historical reminder that we are called to be a people of love. Paul refers to the useless instruments in his I Corinthians 13. If love is absent, our actions become like those clanging cymbals. The very core of Paul’s love narrative in I Corinthians occurs in the midst of a dying Church. Paul’s application then is an ecclesiastical command. In the same manner our blessed Lord on the night in which he was betrayed– by that unclean man called Judas– called us to a greater ethic. It was not an ethic foreign to our Lord. What Jesus commands is first and foremost something he has experienced and displayed already. To a greater and cosmic extent, our Lord proves that love in a cross of hate. But this is love personified in the God/Man. By sacrificing Himself on that cruel tree He turned the symbol of hate into one of the most beloved symbols in the Christian life.
It is then very appropriate that our Lord would command us to love as a response to the Last Supper. This is the case because in the Supper we are being re-oriented in our affections for one another. The Supper is a meal of love and Jesus would transform that meal in His resurrection. He would glorify love for His new disciples. He would become Himself the manna from heaven that would bring joy to this newly created community.
Love is most clearly displayed and obeyed in this new fellowship of disciples we call the Church. This is why Maundy Thursday was a significant historical event. It was not just a didactic lesson for the disciples, it was also a meal that sealed the theme of love for this new community that would emerge from the darkness of the tomb.
I often sit at my desk on Monday morning after a tiring and refreshing Sunday, and say to myself “Here I go again!” I just finished preaching and leading a liturgical service the day before, fellowshiped in the afternoon, and on Monday morning I am ready to begin that process all over again. I hear many pastors take Mondays off, but on Mondays I am on. I am motivated to find the best resources, the best applications to feed my congregation the following Sunday.
Preaching through Luke this Lenten Season has been part of this motivation. Luke has become dear to me. His attention to details, his emphasis on the Word-authority of Jesus, and his unique description in chapter 15 make Luke unique among the Gospel writers. What is in chapter 15? Chapter 15 describes–among many other things–the lostness of the son, and the found-ness of the Father. The Father finds what He lost; the Son lost what He had, and the elder brother belittled the feast of the found one.
Preaching through this section is filled with remarkable challenges. What to emphasize? What is central to this text? Father or sons? Or both? How is Jesus connecting the lostness of Israel to this text? What is the significance of the feast imageries in the reception of the prodigal son? What does repentance look like? In what way is the Father’s profound forgiveness like our heavenly Father’s forgiveness? How is the elder brother’s reaction much like ours? How is his reaction much like the Jews of the first century? Suffice to say, these are only initial questions to pose in this ocean of beauty and grace.
Once again I am confronted with the glorious task of savoring this text as much as it is possible before I can give my parishioners a sample of it as well. May this sermon do justice to this remarkable and rich passage of Holy Scriptures.
The worship of the Church accomplishes work in the world. Battles are won or lost as a result of how our churches worship God. Too often we act as though our differences over liturgy were simply differences over decoration, instead of differences over effective strategy in the midst of a fearful war. There should be no disagreement over whether the warfare of an army should be coordinated or not…when the choir in militant joy goes out as the advance guard of the army, then God’s name is glorified, and His enemies are scattered.
People of God, this is the first Sunday in Lent. And as we enter into this season we will take a look at Psalm 25. In fact, if you plan on meditating on a biblical book this Lenten Season, I encourage you to make your way through the Psalms several times. If you have been here at Providence for at least a couple of years you may be able to sing through about 25 of those psalms.
If we were to ask ourselves what is unique about the psalms, a good way to begin answering this question is by saying that “in the law and the prophetic writings, it is God who speaks to his people; in the Psalter, we listen to the saints speaking to God.” It is the language of God’s people. The reason the Psalms are so inviting is because it is the language of life, of worship, and of the deathbed. Geerhardus Vos wrote the following words: “Our Lord himself found his inner life portrayed in the Psalter and in some of the highest moments of his ministry borrowed from it the language in which his soul spoke to God, thus recognizing that a more perfect language for communion with God cannot be framed.” This morning we are called to place the psalms in front of you, and see the psalms as images of a Christ-centered people.
In the 25th psalm we see a man after God’s own heart. David’s trust, his many conflicts, his great transgression, his bitter repentance, and his deep distresses are all here.” The psalmist makes painful references to the skills and cruelty of his enemies. This is the lament of David under distress, and this is his response to the unfathomable pain he is enduring. But though we are looking at only the first ten verses, it is wise to keep this psalm together. David individualizes his pain in this section, but ultimately David is speaking on behalf of the bride. David sees his distress as the distress of God’s people, Israel. We get to that in the last verse of this song: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.” David’s supplications are communal. As we consider this passage, do not forget that David is acting as Bride. David is us. He is the picture of redemption accomplished and applied in the midst of suffering; in the midst of grief; in divine guidance. Continue reading First Sunday in Lent: Psalm 25, David’s Distress and Deliverance→
The preaching of the Word of God is alive (Hebrews 4:12). It is sharp and ready to drive itself into the conscience of man. Repentance is a pierced mind by the sword of the gospel. The Heidelberg addresses this as it addresses the second commandment:
But may not images be tolerated in the churches as books to the laity? The answer given is: “No: for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his Word:”
The Word is alive. The Word is no dumb idol (Psalm 115). The Word moves and creates new lives and re-structures broken ones. The word is so crucial that Calvin says that it puffs up those who do not dwell in it. He writes:
The more ignorant a person is the more puffed up he becomes as he swells in his own arrogance.
For Calvin, the Word humbles while the lack of it puffs up. But though the Word of God is alive, it becomes active in and through its delivery and preaching. Calvin viewed the work of prophecy (I Thessalonians 5) as the necessary work of preaching, which according to Calvin was the ” linking of the Spirit with the human voice, which becomes his instrument.”
In summary, the Word is repentance, alive, in contrast to dead idols, and the very voice of the Spirit.
We should be reminded of course that there is also an opposite extreme: preaching “gospel” in such a way as to suggest that Christ makes no demands on one’s life. We call that “cheap grace” or “easy believism.” We might also call it preaching “gospel without law.” Taken to an extreme, it is antinomianism, the rejection of God’s law. The traditional law/gospel distinction is not itself antinomian, but those who hold it tend to be more sensitive to the dangers of legalism than to the dangers of antinomianism.
Such considerations may lead us to distinguish in a rough-and-ready way between preaching of the law and preaching of the gospel. Of course, even in making that distinction, our intention ought to be to bring these together. None of these considerations requires us to posit a sharp distinction. And certainly, this rough-and-ready distinction should never be used to cast doubt on the integration of command and promise that pervades the Scriptures themselves.