Friday, February 22, 2013

What’s the purpose of Sunday Worship? Part 1

In the last post I made the point that when God’s people gather corporately for worship on the Lord’s day, God is present with them in a unique and special way.  This important point raises the question, however, of what it is exactly that we are supposed to be doing in worship?  What is the reason that you and I enter into God’s special presence every Sunday?  In this and the next post, I identify several well intentioned, but nevertheless mistaken ideas about the purpose of Sunday worship. So, ask yourself, “What is the purpose of going to church on Sunday?” Here are two answers that are commonly given:[1]

Worship as Evangelism

Many people believe that evangelistic outreach is chief purpose of Sunday service.  The service is primarily for the unbeliever, with the goal being to get as many people as possible to hear and believe the gospel.  When this purpose for worship is adopted, evangelistic effectiveness often becomes the main criteria for deciding what happens during the service.  “If it works, use it” effectively becomes the motto.   This explains why many churches can justify doing seemingly bizarre things (raffle off cars, hire mimes, etc) in the context of a worship service - it gets people in the door.  Generally speaking, this belief leads to passive congregations, where the congregation is more like an audience watching a show, rather than an engaged worshipper. 

While there certainly is an important place for evangelistic concerns when planning worship, we must say unequivocally that it is a serious mistake to make evangelism the chief purpose of worship.  Worship, by definition, is something that has God as its object.  We come on Sunday to, as the psalmist describes it, “Ascribe to the Lord glory and honor, ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.”  Evangelism can never be the chief purpose of worship then, because evangelism, by definition, has man as its object.   Moreover, it is clear from the New Testament that worship is primarily for the believer, not the unbeliever.  All of the epistles are addressed to and intended specifically for “the saints,” not the unbelievers.  The pictures of worship we have in Acts are of the saints gathering to devote themselves “to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Act 2:42). 

Worship as Education

A second view, almost the complete opposite of the worship as evangelism approach, find’s the purpose of Sunday worship as education.  Communicating biblical truth and teaching biblical doctrines to God’s people is the ultimate purpose of worship.   In congregations that have adopted this understanding, the sermon tends to dominate the worship service.  Everything that happens before the sermon is considered “warm-up” for the sermon, and everything that happens after is merely an afterglow of the sermon. Congregants in this type of church will take copious notes during the sermon, but may be relatively disengaged the rest of the service. 

Again, while education has an important place, it must not be thought of as the primary purpose of the worship service.  The biblical imagery of worship in the Bible is simply too rich to reduce it to that of instruction.  The Psalmist calls us to “O come let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.”  In Revelation 4-5, the grand picture of heavenly worship, we read of God’s heavenly host falling down before him and singing.  PCA pastor Jeffrey Meyers is no doubt correct when he observes:  “Jesus said that the meeting place of his people ought to be a house of prayer, not a lecture hall.”[2] 

In the next post, I will identify two more mistaken notions of the purpose of Sunday worship. 

[1] I am indebted to Jeffery Meyers, The Lord’s Service, for both the organization and the content of this blog post.  See his book, pages  19 -31 for more detailed discussion of these points. 
[2] Ibid

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Do I Need to Forgive Myself?

“I just need to forgive myself for my past failures, past hurts and poor choices.  Then I can really heal.”  Have you heard or maybe said something like this before?  Recently our ladies’ Sunday School had a profitable discussion about a popular idea in our culture that needs to be addressed in the light of the Scriptures:  Do I need to learn to forgive myself in order to heal from hurt or guilt?  After talking extensively with my wife Priscilla (who led the discussion) we thought it could be profitable for us all to think about this issue from a biblical perspective.   Let’s think first about the roots of the idea of self-forgiveness, and then we’ll think through a biblical response. 

Self-forgiveness has its roots in the self-esteem movement. 

The self-esteem movement has its roots in clinical psychology, namely in the personality theories of such men as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and their followers.  Maslow in a 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” developed a theory of personal motivation and fulfillment that subsequently has been dubbed the “hierarchy of needs.”  In this hierarchy there is a progression of perceived needs to be met for a person to obtain wholeness - what Maslow calls “self-actualization,” where a person is able to do “what he is fitted for.” Basic needs of sustenance, personal safety and love/friendship build the foundation, but the higher needs focus on the self.  Maslow says that self-esteem is “the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, and for independence and freedom…Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world.  But thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, of weakness and of helplessness.” [i]

Whitney Houston’s famous song “The Greatest Love of All” (originally written in 1977 for a biopic about Muhammad Ali!) made the self-esteem idea even more popular in the 1980’s.  Don’t miss the self-esteem language throughout:

Everybody's searching for a hero people need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs a lonely place to be
And so I learned to depend on me
I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone's shadows
If I fail, if I succeed at least I'll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me they can't take away my dignity
Because the greatest love of all is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all inside of me
The greatest love of all is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself it is the greatest love of all

My working thesis here is that self-forgiveness is a subset of the concept of self-esteem.  Forgiveness is an act of love toward another person. Therefore self-forgiveness is an act of self-love.  If am to love myself in order to be fulfilled, then when I make mistakes and sins I must forgive myself in order to move forward.  But are the ideas of self-love, self-esteem and self-forgiveness biblical?  Allow me to propose a few ideas:

Self-love and Self-forgiveness are concepts not found in the Scriptures.

A search of the Scriptures shows that the idea of self-love and self-forgiveness are never commanded.  Rather, the Bible asserts that we love ourselves too much.  Pride was at the root of the fall, as Adam and Eve wanted to be like God:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.  (Genesis 3:4–6)

Our natural tendency is to think too highly of ourselves:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3 )

And, in a powerful way Paul warns Timothy about self-love:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Timothy 3:1–5)

What is the character of the evil last days?  Among the many vices, the very first one listed is self love!  Paul says to avoid such people who are filled with inordinate love of self. The problem clearly is not that we don’t love our selves enough.  It is that we love ourselves too much, and it takes our focus off of God and places man at the center of our universe. 

The verse used to defend self-esteem is abused:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:36–39 )

Many Christians assert that Jesus here commands us to love ourselves.  But this is not the case – the command is to love our neighbor.  Jesus assumes that we have no problem loving ourselves!  It is our neighbor we must be commanded to love.  “As ourselves” is the nature of that love – in other words, we are to love our neighbor with all the strength, passion and speed with which we care for our own needs. 

The perceived need for self-forgiveness is a search for a way to deal with our deep guilt that comes as a result of sin.  

Seeking self-forgiveness is a failure to understand the root of personal feelings of guilt.  Jay Adams puts it this way in a discussion of counseling people with deep guilt:

The problem is not self-forgiveness. Their expressed agony stems from the very fact that, in the worst way, they want to forgive themselves.  They want to put it all behind them, they want to bury it once and for all….

 The problem is that people who talk this way recognize that something more needs to be done.  Forgiveness is just the beginning; it clears away the guilt.  They also recognize that they are still the same persons who did the wrong – that though they are forgiven, they have not changed.  Without being able to articulate it, using instead the jargon they have heard all around them, they are crying out for the change that will assure them they will never do anything like it again. When, as a counselor, I help them deal with the problems in their lives that led to the wrong, in such a way that they lead a more biblical lifestyle, I then ask, “Are you still having trouble forgiving yourself?” Invariably they say no.[ii]

Don’t misunderstand:  there are other situations in which people feel the need for self-forgiveness, situations in which they themselves were sinned against.  Some who have been victims of horrible sin have feelings of guilt as a result.  The person who was abused by a parent my have lingering feelings of guilt even into adulthood, believing that they were responsible for what took place in some way or feeling guilty that they allowed themselves to abused.  But this is something different that also does not require self-forgiveness.  What is needed in both cases (whether you we are the one who has sinned, or the one who was sinned against) is not self-forgiveness but the need to properly apply the Gospel.  

Instead of self-forgiveness the Bible calls us to apply the Gospel.

Seeking self-forgiveness is actually a subtle form of pride.  Self-forgiveness puts self over God.  It is saying that God has forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself.  This is raising a moral standard above God’s as though Jesus’ finished work on the cross is not enough.  We do not need to forgive ourselves for the sins which God has already forgiven!  It is not our right, for who can forgive sins but God alone  (Mark 2:7)?  If we are dealing with deep feelings of guilt from past sin in our lives, we need to grasp our righteous standing in Christ – we are completely forgiven, righteous and holy: "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Corinthians 5:17).

In our feelings of guilt, we are to think about ourselves differently.  Instead of trying to love ourselves, we need to see ourselves as desperate sinners who are also dead to sin and alive to God:  

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:8–14)

Do you see the connection?  Because of the Gospel (Jesus dying and rising for our forgiveness), we have died to sin and live to God.  So also we must consider (think differently about) ourselves in this righteous and holy standing before Him.  He looks at you and sees His perfect Son.  He now regards just as if you’d never sinned nor been a sinner, all because of Jesus’ finished work.  People in the Bible who have received this news invariably walk away rejoicing  - remember the party for the prodigal son?  They do not walk away saying, “God has forgiven me, but I cannot forgive myself.” 

Also, do not miss Paul’s point in Romans 6:12.  Because of this righteous declaration about you, he does not say, “Therefore feel loving and forgiving toward yourself.” He says, now live a new life in light of this Gospel. 

A word to those who are struggling with feelings of guilt from being sinned against by another:  To heal is to also recognize the above:  you are a dearly loved, valued child, righteous and holy in God’s sight.  The sin, abuse and opinions of others are all trumped by what God says about you.  Indeed you may have come to believe that you are worthless because someone else has used you.  To heal from those painful wounds from the past, you must look to the cross.  There you see the Son of God who can truly identify with you in your pain, and demonstrates His mighty love for you by His death.  My hurting friend, begin to see yourself as God sees you - a dearly loved child.  

The biblical alternative to self-love and self-forgiveness is self-denial. 

The consistent theme of the Scriptures is the call not to love ourselves, but to deny ourselves.  Remember Jesus’ words: "Then Jesus told his disciples, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it'" (Matthew 16:24–25).

To enter the kingdom of God and become a disciple of Jesus is (by very definition) to put off a focus on self and place Jesus at the center of our existence.  In fact, the greatest joy, fulfillment and pleasure (all things desired in the search for self-esteem) are found when we deny ourselves!  Jesus says that self-denial is the path to the joy of eternal life, and honor from God the Father: "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him" (John 12:25–26).

What is truly needed then is a healthy dose of CHRIST-esteem.

The Bible calls us to see ourselves rightly, as wretched sinners who have no hope and no worth unless God were to call us out of darkness and poverty and blindness and our status as orphans, instead calling us children in His kingdom - sons and daughters.  Because of the image of God in us and the Spirit in us we now have great dignity and worth!  But this is not self-esteem – this is Christ esteem, because our worth is based on us being in Christ. 

To heal of guilt from our own sin, we do not need to forgive ourselves, but rather grapple deeply with our own corruption that deserves God’s wrath.  This will drive us to the only place for hope – to the cross, where we can have no high view of ourselves.  There we see how horrifying our sin is (it sent Jesus to die) yet how greatly loved by God we are that He would pay such a price to free us from sin’s grip.  This Divine love completely takes away our guilt that would otherwise stand against us in the Day of Judgment.  For us to continue to hold on to it is to forget the price Jesus paid to free us from the guilt and power of sin.  So brothers and sisters, are you struggling to let go of the feelings of guilt for your sin? Do not try to forgive yourself.  Instead look today to the cross of Christ, and there you will see that God has cast your sin into the depths of the sea, and you are free.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Rejoicing in the Gospel with you,                                                                                                
Pastor David

[i] Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96. Retrieved from
[ii] Adams, Jay. From Forgiven to Forgiving, 64. Calvary Press, 1994.