Thursday, April 27, 2006

How Often We "Do this..."

Over a pleasant lunch yesterday, I was surprised to hear from an OPC minister that he convinced his session (board) to agree to weekly communion in the morning, and bi-weekly communion at the evening services. There are not too many Reformed churches which follow this pattern at worship, and the ones that do are usually liberal in orientation. When I asked why, the very orthodox pastor replied that Calvin encouraged weekly communion, and that more importantly, in the New Testament it seemed to be the practice.

I was asked how often our congregation celebrated the Lord's Supper, and I said that we generally commune five times a year: once each quarter, plus Maundy Thursday evening. When I have had this discussion on previous occasions with other evangelical pastors, they usually reply that their church celebrated on the first Sunday of each month. So, in short, I am taking up the rear with regards to 21st century sacramental practice. I believe that the advice given to Calvin by the Genevan Town fathers to follow Zwingli's pattern of quarterly communion to be sound counsel, in that it prevents the sacrament from becoming the thin edge of the wedge of liturgicalism and sacramentalism, and also prevents the Lord's Supper from losing its profundity through overuse - i.e., familiarity breads, if not contempt, perhaps rather apathy.

Let me confess that I have never appreciated Calvin's views on the sacraments, they seem to be insufficiently distanced at times from Romanism. Weekly communion aside, several of Calvin's descriptions of what occurs in the Lord's Supper sound awfully realistic, i.e., hinting at a physical presence of Christ in the bread and wine. In Book IV of the Institutes, Calvin writes, "First, the signs are bread and wine, which represent for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ" (17.2). "In this Sacrament we have such a full witness of all these things that we must certainly consider them as if Christ here present were himself set before our eyes and touched by our hands" (17.3). "For he in some measure renews, or rather continues, the covenant which he once for all ratified with his blood...whenever he proffers that sacred blood for us to taste" (17.1).

One could sum up Calvin's view of the Supper in the two Latin words he loved, Sursum corda - we are lifted up to heaven and fed at Christ's table. Now I find that a bit mystical and mystifying, frankly, having never experienced anything of the sort myself. I appreciate the Supper as a memorial of Christ's atoning death on my behalf, and enjoy the physical reenactment of proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes. But I am uncomfortable with language which speaks of the Lord's Supper as more than a memorial, more than a sign and seal of our faith. When we say the sacraments are "means of grace," we must understand that in a Reformed Protestant way: that we are blessed, strengthened, and encouraged by the sign of the Supper, and not as recipients of some extra measure of some measurable degree of grace (which is sheer sacramentalism - i.e., grace being the agent of our justification via the sacraments). Zwingli was correct to be nervous about such things, and I am surprised Calvin wasn't, given his statement that our hearts are "factories of idols." Zwingli emphasized remembrance, but also thanksgiving (eucharist), which I prefer to Calvin's mystical communication of Christ in the sign itself.

So I will remain in the rear of this movement to celebrate communion more often. B.A. Gerrish has noted that for Calvin, the Lord's Supper was an offer of the gospel, but for Zwingli it was an act of remembrance and thanskgiving. Both views are Reformed, both views are evangelical, and both views complement and even guard each other from the sinful inclinations of the human heart.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Answer to Doubt

A sermon on Luke 24:36-43, preached on April 23, 2006.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Calvin on Music

From John Calvin's "Preface to the Genevan Psalter."

"What is there now to do? It is to have songs not only honest, but also holy, which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to and praise God, and to meditate upon his works in order to love, fear, honor and glorify him. Moreover, that which St. Augustine has said is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from him. Therefore, when we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory" (1543).

From Goudimel's "Setting for Psalm 5 in the Genevan Psalter"

Thursday, April 20, 2006

What's Going On?

I haven't had much to write about of late, which may be a good thing given all the scriptural admonitions to keep a governed tongue (pen? computer?), and I've been down with a virus. I thought I would just share what I've been listening to and reading. What's on your list?

I just finished reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones' book, The All-Sufficient God (Banner of Truth), which is a series he preached on Isaiah chapter 40. Needless to say it was outstanding - the Doctor never fails to move and inspire. I also just finished Bruce Feiler's Walking the Bible, which was very interesting, although a bit uncritical viz. higher criticism! So now I have begun John Piper's Contending for Our All, and I am also beginning to dip into the recently re-published edition of the first years of The Banner of Truth magazine. I bought this book a few months ago, and only just found out I will be receiving a free copy when I attend the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference in May (a highlight of my year). When I pastored a church in Princeton, NJ, I would usually take one or two days a month to read for a morning in the Princeton Theological Seminary library. Invariably I would head for this book, so I am pleased to own it for myself. I had to pass by a lot of offensive material to get to the right set of stacks!

The classical playlists on my iPod have gone unused of late, as I have been listening mostly to instrumental guitar music and folk music. Mostly I have been listening to Tommy Emmanuel's cd Endless Road, Bryan Sutton's Not Too Far From the Tree, Norman Blake's Field's of November, and his collaborations with Tony Rice. Buddy and Julie Miller are also getting some attention.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I am reading Richard Wilbur's Collected Poems. Just a few at a time, like grapes.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Most Important Verse in the Bible

A sermon preached at the Fairfield Reformed Church, April 16, 2006, on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Body of Christ is Not Broken

The unelected leader of my (current) denomination, the Reformed Church in America, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, is also the interim leader of a new ecumenical body called Christian Churches Together (CCT), which he is very excited about (see link). Even liberals are beginning to recognize that the old ecumenical organizations, the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC), have slipped into silliness and irrelevancy. I am not particularly perturbed about this new effort, as I am convinced it will fail miserably in its mission because it principal presupposition is wrong: liberals believe that the body of Christ, the Church, is broken, and like Humpty Dumpty, needs to be put back together again.

Why is this presupposition wrong?

First, the church was never, even from its earliest moments, structurally one. It always was and shall always be a vast myriad of groups of believers, some small and some large. These groups have different spiritual and theological emphases, distinctive worship styles, and often differing government structures. And yet, as long as they adhere to "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), they contain the body of Christ. They are not themselves the body of Christ, since they are ALL mixed with seekers, heretics, unbelievers, etc., which Jesus called the "tares" (i.e., the weeds, Mt 13:25ff.). They contain the body of Christ because alongside the tares is the invisible church, that is, the number of God's elect children, saved by His sovereign grace through the atoning blood of Christ Jesus. They were once tares, but now are saints, having received forgiveness for their sins through their faith in Christ. God's saints are present in almost every denomination, even those which many consider unfaithful. Augustine and Bernard, for example, lead the vanguard of those saints God has delivered in the woefully deformed Roman church. The body of Christ is glorious in no small part because it triumphs over the fallible structures which contain it.

Second, this presupposition of uniting the church into one body, misunderstands Jesus's message in John 17. Ecumenists have for over a century now cried the words of our Lord in his High Priestly prayer, "that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in me, and I in You" (v.21). John Calvin, in his commentary on this verse, rightly places it within the context of Christ's headship. He directs us to Ephesians 4:3, 11ff., "endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace...He himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head - Christ." In other words, the "oneness" Jesus prays for in John 17 is not ecclesiastical, but oneness we share as believers in the Spirit - a doctrinal oneness - a oneness of truth. In John 17:17, Jesus says just prior to his words about believers being one, "Sanctify them by your truth. Your word is truth."

The bottom line in all of this is that our denominational leadership spends a great deal of time and money pursuing union with liberal mainline churches, while ignoring the great need of the hour - the salvation of souls.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Norman Blake

Speaking of guitars, a careful reader of this blog would get the impression that I only listen to early classical music. Not true! I am great lover of traditional country music, folk, country gospel, and bluegrass (all of which are absent from the radio - unless you have satellite radio). My heart becomes full when I hear the dulcet tones of a good guitar in the hands of Wayne Henderson, Doc Watson, Tommy Emmanuel, or especially Norman Blake. Have you heard of any of those names? Probably not, for they play a music steeped in Celtic tradition - the music our forefathers brought with them in the 18th century when they emigrated here from Britain. When I hear this music, I feel transported back in time to a very different America. I owe this love for folk music to my parents, who would put on the folk radio program "Woody's Children" on Saturday evenings. I received a well-rounded home education.

The best example of this is Norman Blake. He is one of the best guitarists I have heard, but also a gifted storyteller and preservationist of a lost American culture. I heartily recommend you give him listen, whether on iTunes or some other place. A good place to start would be The Fields of November, which is a double album of songs recorded in the 1970s. Oh yeah, here's a picture of the guitar C.F. Martin has made in his honor. And yes I would like to own it...

{The top picture is of Norman and his wife Nancy, who accompanies him}

{What makes this guitar so attractive is that 1. It's a Martin. 2. It's a slot-head. 3. It has twelve frets where the neck joins the body. 4. The neck is a bit narrower at the top for smaller hands. Don't even ask it's price - it means you (and I) can't afford it.}

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


I am having a hard time distinguishing between covetousness and enthusiasm. Let me state it plainly - I have lust in my heart for a guitar. I already have two very nice Martin acoustics: a twelve string and my dream guitar, an OM-21. And yet I am still not satisfied. I find myself looking at "guitar porn," i.e., pictures of high craftsmanship like this beautiful Collings mahogany to the right. It has everything I want and admire in a guitar: a slotted headstock, 12-frets at the body, and a small size. It would sound and play completely different from anything I own.

Since covetousness is a dissatisfaction with what God has given us, a desire for more, I cannot help but think my attraction to this instrument is somehow wrong. I don't need it. I can't really afford it. It serves merely to fill a niche, or better, to scratch an itch. I doubt very much that if I did buy another guitar I would then be satisfied. As someone once said, "You'll only be satisfied with the next guitar." Still that finish is so sweet....

The American economy is fueled by covetousness. We accumulate mountains of stuff, and forget we even own it. Coveting things is our national religion, an attempt to fill the "God-shaped spot" within us with "things" instead of God himself. It is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole - it won't fit, and it won't satisfy. I know this, but I still covet, and I believe the tenth commandment to be the hardest one to obey. When was the last sermon you heard on self-denial? True repentance, according to the Heidelberg Catechism (Q.88), is "the dying of the old self and the birth of the new." As Paul wrote, "If you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God" (Colossians 3:1). And yet I do hope there are guitars in heaven....

Tis a Happy Morn!

Made even more satisfying by coming at the hands of the hated Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Rangers have clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1997. Praise be. Let's go Rangers!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Exalt the Lord

A sermon preached at the Fairfield Reformed Church on April 2, 2006. The text is Psalm 99.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Prayer Does Not Heal the Sick

A report released yesterday, funded by the Templeton Foundation, studied 1,800 patients recovering from heart by-pass surgery. After ten years, it was found that prayer had no effect on the health or survival of those who were prayed for. An article in the Times of London gives more details.

I consider such a study to be a waste of time and effort (not to mention money). Of course prayer does not heal the sick. God heals the sick, whether by intercessory prayer or medicine, medical procedures, and/or the skill of the medical professionals. To reduce prayer to a statistical formula is to try and capture God's sovereignty in a bottle. Countless times, God sovereignly does not heal, whether through medicine or prayer. Such refusal does not affect the benefits of either medicine or prayer. Such studies only indicate our general distrust of God's providence, and even more so our distrust of His revelation.