Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Finals, Finishing and Freedom

Recently I finished another semester of work at Westminster, my most trying one yet. Yes, I have taken more units, and I have taken harder classes, but what made this one the most trying?

I have noticed that as I have gotten further into the course work at Seminary the easier it has become to fall back into my old struggle with perfectionism. Now many people (myself included) are very happy when their pastor strives to be the best that he can be. No one wants to hear a sermon that is half thought out. No pastor wants to be responsible for preaching a sermon that is half-baked. Well the same goes for schooling. If I am going to try to get my masters degree I want to do well, I want to get an A in every course. I want the freedom that comes with knowing I earned the highest grade I could. Herein lies the problem. What is going on in my heart at that moment? Very likely, it is one of two things. Either, I am trying to prove to everyone, myself included, that I belong, that I am just as smart as the others in my class. Or, I am trying to gain pleasure and satisfaction that I earned that grade, it was my hard work and the time that I put in that got that A. At the root this is an issue of self-justification.

Finals week for me is the perfect time for the seeds of self-reliance and self-justification to take root in my heart. I study my brains out, often I ignore my family, my health and my spiritual well being all in a futile attempt to be satisfied with myself and my performance. I can always tell this when I get a C and I feel the pangs of doubt; “Do I really belong?” “Has God called me to this high calling of a pastor?” “Or, am I just fooling myself?” This line of reasoning ultimately spirals down until I end up questioning God’s love and provision for me. “If God really loved me he would have given me a sharper mind that could understand what I am studying.” I then fall into the old trap of setting out to justify myself for the work that I feel the need to finish. Now don’t get me wrong I do need to study hard, and I do need to put in the work to try and earn a good grade. But, I must not confuse the hard work that I do with the extraordinarily difficult work that Christ has done on my behalf and is doing in me through the examination process.

In Philippians 1:6 the apostle Paul wrote these words, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”[1] This is just coming off of the apostle’s commendation of the Philippian church for their good work in spreading the gospel. But here he gives thanks for the gospel’s work in them. This work is a sure work because it is based on God’s work. He is faithful to be at work in us bringing about the ultimate goal of our salvation. And it is a good work as it makes us more and more in to the image of Christ. Through the trials and testing of life, through the hard work of sanctification, through the difficult task of taking the good news of the gospel to those around us we God’s work is sure and He will finish it.[2]

This is the hope that we have; we are not alone in our sanctification because God has secured for us our justification. What a beautiful hope, what a beautiful truth. This has implications to all of life. When I sit down to take my finals and I feel the fear and the doubts creeping up in my heart I can say with confidence that “He who began a good work in me will bring it to completion in the day of Christ. And since this final is another time where God is working in me to make me into the image of Christ, I can have freedom to do the best that I can do knowing that God is faithful to bring his work to completion in me.” I can fight against the sin of self-justification with the truth of Christ’s work in me. I can know that I belong because Christ has bought me and called me into his kingdom, not because I am a particularly good person, but merely by his grace. I can work hard to be the best student (husband, brother, father, Christian, etc.) because I find my satisfaction in the lasting pleasure of communion with Christ and not in the temporal fleeting pleasure of my grades. I can actually enjoy the process of being made into the image of Christ (go figure!) because I am free from the chains of guilt and shame.

Brothers and Sisters as we face our various callings in life let’s commit ourselves to living as we are called knowing that God is at work in us to make us the people He wants us to be. Just as Paul said later in Philippians 2, “ 12Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”[3]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Php 1:6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[2] These two points are a restructuring of the comments by Roger Ellsworth in his little commentary Opening up Philippians.
[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Php 2:12–13). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Monday, January 21, 2013

What's So Unique about Sunday Worship?

With this post I plan to begin a series on why we do what we do in Sunday worship.  Corporate worship is central to our lives as Christians, and as many Christian pastors have pointed out, it is one thing we know we will be doing for all eternity. It is therefore important to periodically think about the way that it should be done, and to make every effort to worship not just in Spirit, but also in truth.  Further, I believe that a better understanding of the biblical rationale which undergirds the structure and elements of a worship service, serve to greatly enhance our appreciation and engagement in worship.  Before we examine the particulars of a Sunday service, however, there are a couple of big picture questions that need to be addressed by way of introduction.  The first, given in the title to this post, is about the uniqueness of Sunday worship.  Is there anything different about corporate worship compared to what happens during the rest of my week?  The answer, I believe, is yes. In this post I want to show you that when God’s people gather corporately for worship on the Lord’s day, God is present with us in a unique and special way.    

This may sound surprising, after all, isn’t it true that God is present everywhere?  And does not the Scripture teach that as a believer, God himself dwells within me?  Yes of course.  These are both wonderful truths that should not be forgotten. However, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that there is essentially no difference between what happens on Sunday and what happens  during the rest of the week.  The Bible itself teaches that God is present with his people in a special way, different from his general omnipresence or indwelling of believers, when his people gather corporately.  As my seminary professors used to remind us, it is true that God is present everywhere, but he is not present everywhere in the same way.  God is just as present in Hell as he is in Heaven, but his presence in these locations are quite different.  Or think of the story of the Exodus.  God was certainly present in Africa when Israel was being led out of Egypt.  However, God manifested his special presence to Israel, leading them with the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, indicating that His presence with them was both unique and redemptive.   

Similarly, while God is present with us when we are at work or school throughout the week, this is not the same as his presence when we are corporately gathered in worship.  After all, Jesus promised that “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matt 18:20).   In saying this, Jesus is not denying that he is present with us as individuals, but is promising a special presence when there is a corporate gathering of Christians “in his name.”   Further, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that when the body of believers is assembled together, they are assembled “with the power of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:4).  These considerations have led the PCA Book of Church order to conclude:

A service of public worship is not merely a gathering of God’s children with each other, but before all else, a meeting of the triune God with His chosen people.  God is present in public worship not only by virtue of the Divine omnipresence but, much more intimately, as the faithful covenant Savior.[1]
PCA pastor Jeff Meyers, in his book The Lord’s Service, captures this point well:

Even if we cannot define it precisely, God is nonetheless present in a heightened special sense when His people gather as the church on the Lord’s Day.  For one thing, He is present there “for us.”  This is a place and time where he gathers His people around the Word and Sacraments…The bread and wine are singular signs designed to assure us of His special, gracious presence with us.[2]
           If we believe this, it should radically change our view of Sunday worship.  We do not come to worship primarily to “do” something for God, but to enter his presence and receive something from him!  We do not come hoping that God will meet us if our worship is good enough, but confident that He is not only there, but is there in a special, unique way - to bless and strengthen his people by his grace.  If Jesus, by a special revelation from heaven, promised to show up this week at Charger Stadium to speak to his people and bless them, how many of us would miss it?  And yet this is precisely the opportunity we have every Sunday, as Jesus has promised us that at the appointed hour for worship, “there I am among you.”

[1] BCO 47-2
[2] Jeffrey Meyers, The Lord’s Service, 168.