Worship and Witness in Crisis

Ettrick Press has just published a collection of essays titled Worship and Witness in Crisis.

This is an edited collection of essays which explores how the church has responded to the coronavirus crisis. This book does not set out to criticise the church. Instead it seeks to analyse the questions Covid has posed for the church’s worship and witness.

Contributors from various denominations across the UK reflect on the events of 2020-21 from biblical, theological, and historical perspectives, with the aim of equipping the church for the future.

Copies cost £10.95 plus p&p and can be ordered via the Ettrick Press website. Sample pages (including the full list of chapters and contributors) are also available there.

why gathered worship is preferable to personal devotions

Which is more valuable, having your personal devotions or going to church to worship with other believers? If forced to choose, many people in our congregations would say personal devotions matter more. But that answer does not sit comfortably with how our forefathers in the truth understood the teaching of Scripture. David Clarkson (assistant and then successor to John Owen) would have chosen the opposite. Here is my summary of his sermon on Psalm 87:2, ‘The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.’ The unabridged sermon is available here (pdf).

‘The gates of Zion’ is a reference to the temple, the place where the Lord had settled as uniquely the place of his public worship. ‘The dwellings of Jacob’ refers to all the places where the Lord was worshipped privately, by individuals and families. Psalm 87:2 says that the Lord prefers public worship to private worship. Consequently, his people should too. (p187)

Of course there are differences between Old Testament temple worship and worship in the New Testament. But these differences are circumstantial – to do with the location and the ceremonies. The reasons for the Lord preferring public to private worship remain the same in both Old and New Testament times. (p189)

Here are some of these reasons (p189-197).

1. The Lord is more glorified by public worship than private. God is glorified by us when we acknowledge that he is glorious, and he is most glorified when this acknowledgement is most public. This is obvious. The Lord is most glorified when his glory is most declared – and it is most declared when it is declared by a multitude. It is apparent that God is all glorious when he is publicly magnified – when he is praised in the great congregation – when a multitude speaks of and to his glory.

2. In the public ordinances, the Lord is present with his people in a more effectual, constant, and intimate manner than he is in private. Efficacy is promised in Exodus 20:24 (‘In all places where I record my name, I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee’). Constancy is promised in Matthew 28 (‘I am with you always, every day, and to the end of the world’). Intimacy is promised in Matthew 18:20 (‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’) and described in Revelation 1:13 (he walks and dwells not only with his church but in the midst of the church).

But isn’t the Lord with his people when they worship him in private? Yes, but he doesn’t promise so much of his presence in private as in public. Something is probably wrong if you can’t find more of the Lord’s presence in the place where he is ordinarily most likely to be found. Of course the Lord has promised to be with every individual believer, but when the individuals are joined together in public worship, there all his promises are united together. Each stream of his comforting, enlivening presence which he promises to individuals becomes a river when the individuals join together to worship him in public – a river which makes glad the city of God. The Lord has a dish for every individual believer, but when many individuals meet together, there he makes a feast – a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees (etc).

3. Public worship gives us the clearest views of God. David saw as much of God in private as anyone could have expected, but he still expected more in public worship (Psalm 27:4-5).

4. Whatever spiritual benefit is to be found in private worship, that much, and much more, may be expected from the public ordinances. When the spouse inquires of Christ where she can find comfort and soul nourishment, he directs her to the public ordinances (Song 1:7-8). The church is directed to the shepherds (the New Testament’s pastors and teachers) for food and rest, and spiritual comfort and nourishment. This is what Paul says in Ephesians 4. The purpose for which the Lord Jesus gave church officers and public ordinances is to edify, and in fact perfect, the church. This is how his people get knowledge, unity, conformity to Christ, strength and stability, and growth and fruitfulness. The public ordinances won’t fail to bring these things about, if we don’t fail in making use of them.

5. Public worship is more edifying than private worship. In private you provide for your own good, but in public you do good both to yourself and others.  

6. Public ordinances are a better security against apostasy than private. During David’s banishment, he devoted himself to private worship as much as anyone could have, yet because he was deprived of the public ordinances, he regarded himself as being in great danger of idolatry (1 Samuel 26:19).

Rejecting the public ordinances is the great step to woeful apostacies. Think of those who have fallen away from the truth and holiness of the gospel into licentious opinions and practices. Which of them didn’t first abandon the public ordinances? Is there anyone who has made shipwreck of the faith who hadn’t first thrown public worship overboard? The very reason the public ordinances were given was so that we would not be tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14).

7. In public worship the Lord works his greatest works. Perhaps they seem less wonderful to us than they really are, because of their ordinariness and their spiritualness. But they are greater works than he usually does by private means – conversion and regeneration, raising dead souls to life, turning sinners from darkness to light, curing diseased souls who are otherwise incurable. Of course the Lord does not restrict himself to doing these wonderful things only in public, yet the public ministry is the only ordinary means by which he does work them.

8. Public worship is the closest thing we have to heaven on earth. As far as Scripture describes it to us, heaven is a place where nothing is done in private – all the worship of the glorious company there is public. The innumerable company of angels and the church of the firstborn make up one glorious congregation and jointly sing the praises of God and the Lamb.

9. The most famous of God’s saints preferred public worship to private. David expresses himself rhetorically, ‘How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!’ He longed for them – nothing else could satisfy him. He fainted without them – they were his life, he would die without them. Hezekiah and Josiah are famous for their zeal for God – and that manifested itself in their zeal for public worship (2 Chronicles 29, 34-35). And the Lord Jesus Christ, however far above us he is, did not think himself above the public ordinances. He did not withdraw from public worship, even though it was corrupted. You find him frequently in the synagogues, frequently in the temple, always at the Passover, and his zeal for public worship was such that ‘it had eaten him up.’

10. Public worship is the most effective means for obtaining the greatest mercies, and diverting the greatest judgments. The Lord prescribes it (Joel 2:15-16). Jehoshaphat used it (2 Chronicles 20). Peter was delivered by it (Acts 12). It brought about the destruction of the Roman state (Revelation 8:4).

11. The blood of Christ is more relevant to public worship than to private. The private duties of worship (such as personal prayer and meditation) are due to God by the light of nature, supposing Christ had never died. But the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments are necessarily dependent on the death of Christ. Not only do they represent his precious blood, they are what his precious blood has purchased. As they display Christ crucified, so they are both the purchase of Christ crucified and the gifts of Christ triumphant.

12. God makes promises more to public worship than to private. If I listed all the promises made to the various ordinances of public worship, I would end up rehearsing the majority of the promises of Scripture. So here is a general outline of what the Lord promises in public worship. His presence, Exodus 20:24. Protection and direction, Isaiah 4:5. Light, life, and joy in abundance, Psalm 36:8-9. Life and growth, Isaiah 55:2-3. Life and blessedness, Proverbs 8:34-35. Acceptance, Ezekiel 20, 44:4. Spiritual communion and nourishment, Revelation 3:20. All that is good, Psalm 84:11 (this whole psalm speaks of public worship).

David Clarkson, The Practical Works of David Clarkson, Vol 3.

The whole sermon is available here: http://digitalpuritan.net/david-clarkson/

gathering for worship

According to James Bannerman, public worship is “the external apparatus which [God] has established for the ordinary conveyance of grace to the body of believers from his Spirit, and which is fitted for their spiritual edification and growth in grace.” (p339)

What then are the essential parts of public worship? Bannerman follows the Westminster Confession (21:3, 5) and names four: prayer, the reading and preaching of the Word, singing of psalms, and the sacraments (p344).

But what is so special about the four elements of public worship? Bannerman’s answer extends over a couple of pages (p346-347).

“All the parts of the public worship of the church are characterised by this peculiarity [unique feature], that as means of grace they either cannot be enjoyed and used at all by Christians individually, or not enjoyed and used to the same gracious effect.

“All the elements of worship … are parts of a public ordinance, and not of a private one. They belong to the body of believers collectively, and not individually. They are to be enjoyed as means of grace, not by Christians separately, but by Christians in their church state, and in communion with one another.

“No doubt, with respect to some of them, they may be used by individuals apart and alone, and without respect to their being participated in by others. There is private prayer as well as public prayer. There may be solitary praise addressed to God from the closet, as well as jointly from the great congregation in the sanctuary. There are such things as private communion and private baptism, distinct from the public celebration of those ordinances.

“But even in respect to those parts of public and social worship which may be used – or misused – in private, and by individuals apart from the society of believers, it is still true that they do not carry with them the same blessing in private as in their public use. They belong, in their character as parts of public worship, to the church as a body, and not to the individual members of the church as apart from the rest; and even where the individual use of these ordinances is not impossible or unlawful, but the reverse, they are not used to the same gracious effect, nor have they the same gracious influence, as in the case of the social and joint employment of them.

“Prayer is an ordinance of a private kind, as well as of a public; but there is a promise of a more abundant answer and a more effectual blessing when ‘two or three shall agree together to ask anything of God,’ than when they ask apart.

“The reading of the Word, too, is an ordinance meant for the closet as well as for the sanctuary; but in the former case there is no such special and effectual promise as that which declares in regard to the latter, that ‘where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, there he will be in the midst of them.’

“The ordinance of communion, as its very name imports, is a social and public ordinance, and to the reverse; and the disciple of Christ has a peculiar right to look for grace in company with the other disciples when they meet together at their Master’s table, which those have not who unlawfully and presumptuously change the public into a private ordinance, and partake of private communions.

“In short, the blessing upon ordinances is but half a blessing when enjoyed alone, even in those cases when the ordinance may be used by the Christian apart from others; while there is no blessing at all promised to the unlawful use of public ordinances in a private manner, in the case where they admit of no such private appropriation. Either they cannot be enjoyed at all in their character as means of grace except socially, or else they cannot be enjoyed to the same gracious effect.

“All the parts of church worship belong in a peculiar and emphatic sense to the church, and they are made effectual by the presence and Spirit of Christ, as his instruments for building up and strengthening the collective body of believers in a manner and to an extent unknown in the case of private and solitary worship.

“The outward provision which Christ has made for social Christianity, as embodied and realised in the communion of the church, is richer in grace and more abundant in blessing by far than the provision made for individual Christianity, as embodied and realised in separate believers. The positive institutions of church worship, designed for Christians associated in a church state, carry with them a virtue unknown in the case of Christians individually.”

~ ~ ~

This turns upside down the prevailing culture in the contemporary church which gives higher priority to personal religion than to corporate religion. As long as we can still have our quiet times, and worship God in our own homes, can’t we get by, at least temporarily, without the public, corporate ordinances?

Not really, says Bannerman. He moves on to discuss those who deny the existence or downplay the importance of the public ordinances.

“The fundamental principle of all such theories is that the inward light or provision of grace bestowed upon the individual, supersedes the use or necessity of any outward provision of ordinances in the church; that the Spirit of God given to each personally supplies the want of external institutions and positive rites …” (p348)

Four things, says Bannerman, expose the fallacy of this way of thinking.

1. Christ instituted the various ordinances, without ever indicating that they “should afterwards cease; or that there was a time coming when they were to be abolished as no longer of authority or for edification in the church. … It cannot be shown that any higher and more gracious dispensation … was foretold as about to come and supersede [what Christ has instituted]” (p349).

2. These ordinances belong to the visible church, and Christ has promised that the powers of evil will not prevail against it. “And as belonging essentially to the due administration of [the visible church], and forming a part of it, the outward dispensation of ordinances and worship in the church shall never fail” (p350).

3. There is no indication that at any future time the use and purposes of these ordinances would be unnecessary, and might cease. In fact these ordinances will not have completely accomplished their end until the consummation of all things, as Paul expressly says in Ephesians 4:11-13. So until the last day, we have Christ’s warrant that the public ordinances shall continue to be administered (p350).

4. In fact, “there are express testimonies in the Word of God to the fact that the positive institutions and outward ordinances of the Christian church were each and all designed to be permanent, and not to be superseded or done away” (p351).

In short, the ordinances “are not to be modified into something more spiritual, or give place to any other, until the church itself is transplanted into glory” (p351).

“Dwelling on the earth, and conversant with the creatures of the earth, the church has its outward ordinances and visible signs as well as its inward and spiritual ministrations. Through the channel of these outward and positive ordinances the Spirit of God is poured … upon the hearts of his people – a double power, as it were, embracing both the spiritual and the sensible [sense-able], so as to work mightily for the renewal and sanctification both of body and spirit in man. The Spirit of God conveyed through the outward ordinances of Christ is the fitting counterpart adapted to the soul enshrined, as it at present is, in the flesh. It is both a spiritual and an outward influence, appropriate and fitted to the combination of the spiritual and the outward in man. And the twofold and joint influence of the Spirit and the fleshly ordinance shall continue to work for the perfecting of the church, until [the last day]” (p351).

~ ~ ~

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ. First published 1869. Excerpts from the chapter titled ‘The Divine Origin, Permanent Obligation, and Legitimate Parts of Public Worship.’ Page references to the single-volume Banner of Truth edition, 2015.

Messages from Captivity

The book of Ezekiel is in many places difficult to understand, but its basic message, addressed to a sinful people, consists of both warnings against current sins and hopefulness for a graciously restored future.

During the lockdown of spring 2020, Rev Allan W MacColl produced a series of sermons on the first half of Ezekiel’s prophecy (chapters 1-24). These have now been published by Ettrick Press under the title, Messages from Captivity. These sermons uncover the meaning of Ezekiel’s perplexing prophecies and bring the themes of his ministry to bear on our contemporary situation.

“Obscure as some parts of Ezekiel are, at the heart of this prophecy are the ever-pressing issues of human sin provoking divine judgment, and the utter necessity of being reconciled to the God of all grace.”

Contact me directly for a copy, or drop a line to ettrickpress@gmail.com. This is a 176-page paperback, £8.50 (plus postage).

Walking in the Light

Walking in the Light is a selection of prayer meeting addresses delivered by Rev Hugh Cartwright during his pastorate in Edinburgh. I’m delighted to announce it’s now available for purchase.

From the blurb:

This collection of addresses by Hugh M Cartwright (1943-2011) moves from presenting the gospel itself to pointing out its implications in several dimensions. Always realistic about the darkness of sin, Walking in the Light extends great comfort and encouragement to those who love and trust the Lord.

Twenty-four addresses are arranged in 5 parts:

  • a series of 7 on the Epistle to the Galatians
  • a series of 3 on self-examination
  • a series of 3 on the ‘full assurances’ of understanding, faith, and hope
  • a series of 6 on the ‘walk’ as presented in the Epistle to the Ephesians
  • the remainder on individual texts

From the Foreword by Rev David Campbell: 

Incisive and profound simplicity when presenting great biblical truths, which characterises great preachers in all ages, will be found in these addresses. The centrality of Christ, of the doctrines of grace and the glory of God in the salvation of lost sinners, shines through in every page.

This is a 250-page hardback. Copies are available at £14 each plus postage. Contact me directly, or drop a line to ettrickpress@gmail.com to place an order. 

From the Mouth of Lions

From the Mouth of Lions: Sermons on the Book of Daniel by Rev Hugh M Cartwright (1943-2011) is now available.

“O Lord, we thank thee for the witness of faithful saints in other times, and we thank thee for thy people in our own day who are enabled to be steadfast and unmoveable and always abounding in the work of the Lord, who are enabled in their own sphere to fear God and to keep his commandments. We pray that we might be among them, that we might not be made afraid by temporal consequences of fearing Christ, but that we might have our eye set on thee, the Lord, and on thy care of thy people, and on the prospect that is before each one of them. May we be kept by the power of God, and enabled by thy grace to be walking in the way of thy commandments, and to have thy presence going with us.” (p66, prayer after the sermon on Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego)

Our Faith

Excited that this new resource is now available from Reformation Scotland Trust.

Our Faith is a study guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

All believers seek to interpret the Bible. But too often our personal understanding can be fuzzy and patchy. We don’t see how truths relate to each other and we struggle to articulate them. The Westminster Confession of Faith has helped many generations across the world to have a clear and orderly understanding of biblical truth. It helps us to share our faith together and respond with appropriate worship. Our Faith enables everyone to do this by removing difficulties and providing helpful explanations.

And if you like that, you might also like Bible Truth Explored, a resource on the Shorter Catechism.

Generations of believers, with their children, have not only read the Shorter Catechism but memorised it. By learning it off by heart, we fix its important truths in our mind so that we can use it again and again and so that it shapes our thinking and our behaviour.

scattered

Coronavirus has closed the doors of our churches.

Many bad effects arise from this. Of these, the second-worst is that we can’t gather to hear the Word being preached.

The worst is that we can’t gather.

The loss of preaching can be mitigated. We still have the Bible. The message can still be got out. Anyone who wants to can still access written resources (published sermons, books about salvation). Recorded sermons are also available. Many preachers are also making live audio/video addresses.

Although each of these workarounds has its drawbacks, there’s nothing wrong with any of them. They are all ways of making sure that people don’t starve spiritually, and of hopefully helping people to feed spiritually, while they can’t get the real thing. We’re free to embrace these methods and exploit their potential, pandemic or not.

But they’re not the real thing. However closely we manage to approximate the experience of preaching and hearing the Word, there is no real equivalent. We can be thankful for the technology and the fact that the Word itself can still be ministered, while recognising the defects and limitations of these methods relative to the actual preaching of the Word.

Because for preaching, we need to assemble together. No assembly, no preaching, and live streaming is not assembling.

We should already know this from normal times. If you have to sit out the back with kids, you tell yourself it’s ok because there’s a relay and you can still hear. But it’s lonely out there, excluded from the others, and all you’ve got is a disembodied voice.

In the times before the virus, if you couldn’t make it to a service for some reason, and instead looked up a recorded sermon or listened in remotely, you might well have appreciated what you heard, but it was just you. You weren’t part of the service. The body was feeding, but it was missing a member – you.

For now, thanks to coronavirus, there is no body sitting down to feed on the Word preached, or for that matter, on the Word made sense-able in the sacraments. We are all dislocated, amputated, dismembered from each other.

Of course none of this affects the mystical union between believers and Christ, or between one believer and another. No amount of famine, pestilence or sword can break that.

But the best picture we’ve got of this mystical union, outside of heaven, is the physical assembling together of the saints on earth.

The whole visible body on earth, which reflects the church in heaven, is exemplified in the particular mini-bodies which meet as local congregations. Some are smaller than others, some are stronger, some are healthier. But when they meet for worship, each congregation models in its own limited way what the gathering of the saints is like in heaven. When we gather for Lord’s Day worship on earth, we are joining the outer courts of the sabbath worship in heaven.

Our physical assembling here on earth, where we’re bodily present in each other’s company, is important because it showcases and gives a foretaste of how eventually in heaven we will be physically in each other’s company for all eternity. Our resurrection bodies will be glorified, but they will be our selfsame bodies.

What we do in and with our bodies matters. When one member is missing from the assembly, there is a loss both to that member and to the remainder of the body. For now, when no members at all can assemble, the loss is incalculable.

In every normal worship service, the whole flock is supposed to feed together on the Word and in the sacrament. The individualism which only cares as long as I personally get something from the preaching, and which makes no attempt to grow along with and closer to the other members of the congregation under the Word, should not be encouraged.

The risk of that individualism is that now, when none of us can assemble with anyone else, we take no thought for the body – taken to pieces and isolated behind so many closed doors – as long as, by hook or technological crook, I can hear a message that suits me. This just anaesthetises us for now and weakens us for the future.

Because the future is nothing to comfort ourselves with. If we get through this crisis and simply revert to the old normality, that isn’t much to look forward to.

The most perplexing thing about our circumstances is that it’s the Lord’s providence that has silenced our pulpits and distanced us from each other. But it’s his own worship he’s stopped. The Lord is stopping us from worshipping the Lord. Why? During this situation and once things calm down afterwards, we need to do some hard thinking and soul searching. If we won’t hear the Lord’s voice crying in the city now, what will it take in the future to make us?

Of course, when the Lord sends any difficulty into our experience, we should react with faith not with fear. The Lord is working all things for our good.

But while we react with faith, we should conjoin it with repentance. Whatever the difficulty is, it’s less than we deserve, given our sins and shortcomings.

Personal difficulties should elicit personal faith and personal repentance. But we are all more than isolated individuals. We belong to families, communities, churches, and we share in their celebrations and crises. When the difficulties are family-wide, community-wide, church-wide, our faith and repentance need to be coextensive with the reach of the difficulty. No single individual, congregation, or denomination is affected by coronavirus – it affects us all.

Even as it pushes us apart, it forces us to reckon with the fact that we’re all in it together.

power and mercy

Why are these two joined together – power and mercy – by Moses, as well as by Daniel, Nehemiah and Jeremiah? Why does he join strength, and greatness, and dreadfulness with mercy?

I say, to exalt mercy the more.

It sets forth and aggrandises mercy the more, that a God so great, so dreadful, should yet be merciful. The lion in Christ commends the lamb that is in him (Revelation 5:5-6) – that he that is so great, and strong, and terrible, should be a lamb.

Look – as the unworthiness and sinfulness of us, whom God loves and shows mercy to, commends his love (as you have it in Romans 5:8), so the greatness and terribleness of the person that loves, advances and magnifies his goodness and mercy, that he who is so great and terrible, and has such power, should yet be so merciful.

Mercy in the 1st verse of Psalm 89 meets in this God who, in the 7th and 8th verses, is so great a God, so fearful to all that are round about him. They who are nearest to him know him best: they say this of him – that this God is a God of mercy.

This begets a stupor, an amazement, that he who is able to rebuke all, and destroy all with a nod, should yet have so much love and mercy. This exalts and sets out his mercy, and makes it a wonder.

[This is my summary of Thomas Goodwin’s argument in Justifying Faith (Works, Vol 8, p48)]

infinite wisdom and power

Psalm 147 says, ‘Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.’

Plumer says, ‘There must be something exceedingly drivelling in the tendency of the human mind respecting divine things to have made it necessary for inspired writers so often to teach us that God is great, supreme, infinite.’ (p1200)

‘There is none above him, none with him, none like him, in power, or in any of his perfections. To the mind of God no subject is knotty, no truth mysterious. His mind embraces with infinite ease all the propositions which constitute universal truth.’ (p1198)

WS Plumer, Psalms: A Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks. First published 1867. Reprinted Banner of Truth 2016.