Sword and Trowel Articles

The Sword & Trowel was started in 1865 by C. H. Spurgeon. It enjoys an extensive readership throughout the world, particularly among ministers and church leaders. It has by far the largest circulation of any magazine (world-wide) adhering to reformed and Baptist distinctive. The Sword & Trowel is now edited by Dr Peter Masters.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Penitential Tear

from Sword & Trowel 2002, No.3 by Peter Masters

Some Christians are able to say that the very first time they heard the Gospel they were so overwhelmed by a consciousness of sin and by the wonder of Christ’s love that they immediately repented and believed. They tell us they became instantly certain of their salvation, experiencing a dramatic change in their lives. Such sudden conversions are a gloriously authentic manifestation of the new birth, but outside times of special awakening they are comparatively rare. Straw polls of pastors taken at conferences, by this writer, show that very few (usually only two or three out of every hundred) testify to having had an instantaneous conversion. Most say they made several attempts at repentance before being certain of salvation. Some tell of many frustrated approaches spread over many months before they knew they were saved.

It would seem that the vast majority of genuine and lasting converts have to seek and pray for some days, sometimes even weeks and months, before they find the Lord. They go through a period of struggling and yearning, some almost despairing that they will ever be saved.

In the light of this it is surprising that most popular modern evangelistic techniques are built on the assumption that conversion is typically dramatic and sudden. The simplistic script of modern decisionism has almost nothing to say to seekers struggling to find their way through the wicket gate of salvation, and needing direction.

Certainly we may always hold out the promise of God that the very instant people sincerely repent and trust Christ they will be saved, but we should always qualify that promise by stressing the terms of the Lord, which are – ‘Thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul.’ It is an inescapable fact that most people who hear the Gospel do not immediately repent and believe in the right way, but need further direction, exhortation and encouragement before they finally close with the Lord in an acceptable spirit.

This article identifies the wrong attitudes which may spoil a seeker’s repentance, and compromise his expression of faith. How may we help seekers to go to the Lord on the right terms? Advice to safeguard against these defects should be included in evangelistic sermons, and it will also need to be gently rehearsed to individual seekers who say they have repented, but cannot find the Lord.

This does not mean that we ask troubled seekers what specific sins they may have left out of their repentance. A less direct approach is correct, by which we give a summary, in very general terms, of the possible mistakes that they may make. The hearer may select in his own mind any portion of our counsel which applies to his situation. We want to help, not to pry.

The main reason why we should never attempt to find out the particular sins (or idols) which seekers may be leaving out of their repentance, is that by telling us, they engage in a form of unconscious ‘confession’, which releases and relieves the painfulness of conviction (by a catharsis), so that the seeker loses the burden to repent before God. If seekers begin to tell us the details of their sin we should discourage them, urging them to go directly to the Lord for cleansing. As a general rule we should never need to hear the particulars of any seeker’s sin. Our message is that seekers must go to Christ as the only High Priest.

Sensitive admissions

Some Christian workers have admitted that they have derived a sense of spiritual importance from hearing people speak of their shame. However, not only is repentance to God deflected, but people may be driven away. Those who have divulged their sins to a preacher or counsellor are quite likely to regret it, and feel too embarrassed to return to church. We know of people who have wandered in a spiritual wilderness for years because unwise workers drew sensitive personal admissions from them.

The following list of possible defects in repentance runs the risk of making repentance sound complex and even meritorious, which it is not. Repentance is not a ‘work’ and we do not want to make it one. It may be expressed in the simplest prayer, such as that of the dying thief, who said, ‘Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.’ Nevertheless, as physicians of souls we must possess a realistic ‘anatomy’ of repentance, and this will add considerable realism and edge to our preaching, as well as enrich our personal counselling.

This topic is emphasised because superficial repentance is probably the major feature and fault in so much contemporary evangelism. We begin with a summary table (right) of problems, and then amplify these a little.

General problem no. 1
The seeker has too superficial a view of sin

(a) Repentance is much too vague and general

It may be that a seeker still has too small a view of the ugliness and seriousness of sin. Sometimes the preacher describes sin only in very general terms, and this does not help people to realise just how guilty they are before God. While God does not demand from the seeker a detailed inventory of all his sin, yet He does require a sorrowful acknowledgement that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, along with sincere repentance of his most obvious sins. A cool, detached and general assent to one’s faults is no kind of repentance. True repentance is more precise, as we see in David’s model prayer of repentance where three distinct aspects of sin are mentioned.

‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight’ (Psalm 51.1-4).

The three ‘faces’ of sin lamented by David are transgression, iniquity and sin. We elaborate on these because, as we have noted, shallow treatment of sin is the most common fault in modern evangelism.

The Hebrew word for transgression points to acts of rebellion against God. We spurn His rule, steal our lives for ourselves, spit upon His authority and break His laws. Every moment of self-seeking and self-will is an extension of rebellion, so David prays for it all to be blotted out. Has a frustrated seeker realised the extent of his wilful rebellion? To present the problem of sin adequately should not lead a preacher into negative, carping, hostile preaching. We can be clear and faithful without sliding into an unrelenting diatribe, unrelieved by warmth, kindness and humour.

The second ‘face’ of sin is termed iniquity. The Hebrew word means crookedness. We have become perverted or ‘bent’, and incapable of being, for example, consistently truthful and unselfish. David prays that his iniquity shall be thoroughly washed, using a very robust word for wash – not the Hebrew word for washing the body, which is a gentle word, but the word reserved for the washing of clothes, which pictures the heavy pummelling given to deeply stained garments. Iniquity is deep-seated disfigurement. Does the seeker acknowledge that there is perversion in him, and long for cleansing?

The third ‘face’ of sin is called, simply, sin, meaning – missing the mark. It points to all actual offences of thought, word or deed by which the sinner has missed the mark of God’s standards.

David additionally acknowledges that these deeds are evil, a word which means (in the Hebrew) destructive or damaging. Sins smash God’s law, spoil His universe, pollute the individual’s life, break all links with God, and hurt and injure others. David longs to be forgiven these deeds, both from the guilt and the memory of them. Does the seeker feel something of the extent of the harm and hurt brought about by his sin?

(b) The seeker sees only ‘outward’ sins

Often people seem unaware of their heart sins, and think only of outward deeds. Is a seeker aware of his inward sins, such as pride, selfishness, self-seeking, deceitfulness, covetousness, capacity for hate, spite and ill-temper? Does he recognise his deep inner depravity and realise that he cannot improve this, and that it is getting worse as the years go by?

(c) Only one or two faults are acknowledged

It may be that the seeker is feeling conscious and ashamed of one particular sin, but has never been horrified at his total condition. In order for him to go to God in true and meaningful repentance he must see his complete need of forgiveness and renewal. His preoccupation with one or two sins may mean that he thinks the rest of his conduct needs no repentance. Judas became filled with remorse over one sin – his betrayal of the Lord – but he never came under conviction on account of all his sin, and so never repented in an acceptable way (Matthew 27.3-5).

(d) The seeker is still proud of his ‘good points’

Perhaps the seeker imagines that God will be pleased with some parts of his life or some of his deeds. He may say to himself, ‘I need forgiveness for my temper and my pride, but God will be glad to have me for my kindness and generosity.’ If the seeker is still pleased with himself in any respect he has missed the point and cannot meaningfully repent. He must realise that his whole life has so offended God that there is no hope of blessing or Heaven for him unless he applies for a free and comprehensive pardon as a totally lost sinner. In his present attitude he is like a convicted mass-murderer pleading that he has always been polite to his mother. Any imagined goodness is an absurd triviality in the light of a sinner’s immense and numerous crimes against God.

(e) Sin is regarded as sickness

It may be that the seeker sees sin as a sickness. Instead of acknowledging personal responsibility and guilt, he says to God – ‘O God, deliver me from this disease of sin which has ruined my life.’ Some preachers actually encourage this attitude by portraying the sinner as a sad and wretched victim of a painful disease. If suffering people (they say) will only put their hand in the hand of the Saviour, then He will deliver them from its tragic power. This is a false picture of sin, which is highly attractive to people who do not wish to feel guilty. We are responsible for our sins, and must repent as guilty sinners.

(f) Excuses are made for sin

Some seekers avoid taking full responsibility for their sin by making excuses. They stole because they were in bad company, or they lied because there was no way out. They have beaten their children because they themselves had received a rough, loveless upbringing, and they have drunk heavily and fallen into carnal indulgence because their circumstances have been so depressing. One sinner blames his bad marriage for his moral failure, while another blames the pressures of business for his temper, and so on. But when we come before God we must leave all excuses behind and say like David, ‘I acknowledge my transgressions . . . Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.’

Unless the sinner accepts entire responsibility for his sin he cannot be forgiven. A truly repentant person cries, ‘O Lord, I have sinned!’ Paul looked back on his repentance and exclaimed – ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.’ True repentance takes the blame, and then the Lord takes away the guilt.

(g) Rejection of Christ is seen as the only sin

It is possible that a seeker may be distracted by the wrong idea that the only sin which really matters in repentance is that of rejecting Christ. Some preachers teach that because Christ has already atoned for every sin that everyone has ever committed, the only sin for which a person can be condemned is that of rejecting His atonement. A seeker who has heard this notion may go to Christ with the feeling that all he needs to do is to ‘receive Christ’, and may not feel burdened to repent of all his other sins. The only repentance in his prayer will be – ‘Lord, I have sinned in rejecting Thee.’

This kind of repentance is easy and may be made by a most superficial and unconvicted person. Obviously if such a prayer were to be accompanied by a heartfelt realisation of all other personal sinfulness, it would be a valid prayer of repentance, but frequently this is not so. The Lord makes plain that people reject Him because their deeds are evil (John 3.19-20). They are condemned not just for rejecting Him, but for all the sins which lead them to do so.

Out of numerous passages of Scripture, one should be sufficient to prove that repentance must focus on the sinner’s overall deeds. In Romans 1 Paul describes a whole range of sins, stating categorically that God will judge people for them. He says also that the goodness, forbearance and longsuffering of God is designed to lead sinners to repent of the specific deeds that he lists.

(h) There is no repentance for unseen sin

True repentance includes a large element of ‘unidentified’ sin. The sinner feels consciously ashamed for much of his sin, but realises that there is far more which he is not aware of. He realises that there is far more wrong than he knows. David showed the way when he repented of both his wilful sins and the countless defects which he had not so far seen in himself, saying,

‘Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults’ (Psalm 19.12).

Has the seeker really been awed by God’s great holiness? Has he grasped that the Lord has eyes as a flame of fire, and that nothing unclean can stand in His presence? Has he said, like Job – ‘Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? . . . now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes’?

General problem no. 2
The seeker feels little shame

(a) A benefit is sought rather than forgiveness

For repentance to be genuine the seeker must not chiefly want benefits and blessings. Preaching rightly mentions the benefits of salvation, but if these are emphasised at the expense of repentance, the impression may be given that God will bless even a token acknowledgement of sin.

A classic example of one who repented only for gain is that of King Saul. When Samuel charged him with disobedience to God he replied –

‘Pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the Lord . . . I have sinned: yet honour me now, I pray thee, before the elders of my people, and before Israel . . . ’ (1 Samuel 15.25-30).

Saul wanted to avoid public humiliation and loss of his kingship, and his acknowledgement of sin was therefore superficial.

Does the seeker merely want the blessings of salvation? Is it possible that he wants to fit in better with his believing friends or family? Does he want to pursue a courtship with a believer? Does he want to be healed of sickness or depression or helped in some other way? What is the motive behind the attempt at repentance? It is legitimate for a seeker to desire the benefits, but there must be a paramount concern over sin. The act of repentance must never be dominated by the hope of benefits such as prosperity, success, health, happiness and Heaven.

(b) The seeker is afraid of judgement rather than ashamed

It is possible for a person with a religious upbringing to be afraid of God, as Luther was throughout his childhood. When a teenager, terrified by a fearful thunderstorm, he vowed to become a monk if God would spare him. A seeker may be afraid of being eternally lost, but not truly ashamed of sin, so that his repentance is no more than an act of desperation. Repentance is more than a cringing attempt to escape trouble; it is a truly sorrowful acceptance of blame, and a dependence upon grace.

Psalm 130.1-4 presents the right approach:

‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord . . . If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.’

(c) A form of passing remorse substitutes for shame

Remorse and regret can produce pseudo-repentance, as the writer once found as a young pastor visiting men in prison, who repented with apparent sincerity, but on release scoffed at what they had done. We think again of Saul, whose violent temper would give way to tender feelings and intense shame for his deeds. One moment he sought the destruction of David, and the next he wept over his actions, but his weeping soon evaporated because it was purely sentimental, and not produced by a genuine sorrow for guilt.

Let us suppose someone has committed a great sin, made a fool of himself, destroyed his good name, hurt his family, and thrown away opportunities, after which he feels intense anguish and remorse. But this remorse could be entirely earthly, rather than spiritual, finding an emotional outlet in repentance. The shame of true repentance is more than self-pitying, transient regret.

If we suspect that someone is repenting only from selfish remorse, we should mention that this is one of the hindrances to conversion. We should not accuse the person of this error, but simply refer to it as a possible factor, and if it is true in his case, he will hopefully focus his mind on his guilt rather than his trouble, because only then will he be able to repent. Has the seeker really looked within? When people truly repent they are ‘pricked in their heart’ (Acts 2.37).

General problem no. 3
Repentance is not God-centred

(a) The seeker is not sorry toward God

We can tell when shame is merely selfish remorse and passing sentiment, or when it is genuine conviction, because the latter involves sorrow toward God. David showed the difference when he prayed, ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.’ Truly repentant people see that God has made them and given them life, faculties and abilities, which they have stolen for themselves. They see their offensiveness in the sight of God, and the crimes committed towards Him. They feel that God has a just argument against them, and should everlastingly condemn them, for He is an insulted, offended party. True repentance is not merely a desire to be safe spiritually; it is sorrow for having wronged and offended the Holy God.

(b) The seeker is not sufficiently moved by Christ’s sufferings

Repentance ideally includes an element of grief for having necessitated the suffering of the Saviour. If genuine, it should contain some measure of responsibility for the price paid by the Lord. The repentant sinner says – ‘My sin was there!’

Was it for sins that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Perhaps the seeker is somewhat ‘selfish’ in his repentance and has taken for granted the price paid by Christ for salvation. Salvation, though free and simple for us, was so costly to the Lord that human language is not adequate to express His dying agonies. The truly repentant person is usually moved at the realisation that he has caused the Saviour an eternal weight of punishment and woe. Biblical repentance flows out of a feelingful view of Calvary.

The Ethiopian eunuch was drawn to Christ as Philip explained the words, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth.’

The prophet Zechariah looked ahead to how Calvary would affect hearts saying, ‘They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him.’ The seeker, therefore, should be advised to think about the effect of his sin on his Saviour, and to feel indebtedness to Him.

General problem no. 4
Rebellious desires still rule

(a) The seeker hopes to keep some sins

A seeker may be frustrated in obtaining a response from God because he wants to keep some of his sinful habits or selfish ambitions. It is a common hindrance to conversion that seekers leave key matters out of their repentance. There may be a genuine longing for cleansing and forgiveness, but it is spoiled by a reluctance to give up aspects of the ‘old life’. Many a seeker has tried to hide one or two sins beneath his coat and still press on into the kingdom of God.

Nothing neutralises a prayer of repentance more than a divided heart. James says – ‘Let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man [one of divided desires] is unstable in all his ways’ (James 1.7-8). Sincerity and openness before God are essential, and the seeker must examine his heart and renounce all his sinful and selfish pursuits, realising that ‘all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do’ (Hebrews 4.13).

(b) A new life is not greatly desired

Does the seeker really long for a new life, or is he secretly apprehensive about undergoing any process of change wrought by the power of God? Does he really want spiritual life and a new nature? In true repentance the seeker realises that he is ‘wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked’ in God’s sight, and he looks forward to the touch of God upon his life, when old things will pass away, and all things shall become new.

(c) The total lordship of Christ is not accepted

Closely related to the previous paragraphs is the possibility that the seeker is unready to yield over his life to the government of Christ. Repentance is meant to bring to an end a state of rebellion and to commence a state of obedience. It is an act that marks a reversal of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Therefore, there can be no genuine repentance if the seeker does not yield to the authority and guidance of the Lord.

The greatest feature of human sin is rebellion, and therefore the chief feature of repentance is an end of past self-determination. The Saviour says – ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments,’ and, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me’ (John 14.15 and Luke 9.23).

The frustrated seeker may need to be asked if he has renounced his past lifestyle and self-seeking ambitions, and yielded his will to the Lord.

The exercise of faith

It may be felt that such an extended treatment of repentance and its possible deficiencies steals from the importance of the ‘positive’ side of a seeker’s approach to God, namely, the exercise of faith. However, it should be remembered that without true repentance there can be no saving faith, because without a sincere yearning for cleansing there is no purpose in laying hold of Calvary.

If there is no deep need, there can be no great dependence. If there is no longing for relief there can be no leaning on Christ. If we are not fleeing from condemnation, we cannot throw ourselves into the arms of Christ. Faith means that I embrace Christ out of urgency as my exclusive and all-sufficient hope.

Repentance of personal sin is the driving purpose of faith in Christ as Saviour and Deliverer, and without it there is no possibility of genuine, urgent, appreciative, and tenacious looking to and holding on to Jesus Christ by faith.

The problem sometimes arises that seekers keep a measure of trust, however small, in their own good conduct or good character. Even if a person has only one percent of good works to subscribe to salvation, his ‘application’ to God will be rejected. If he thinks he deserves grace more than other people – even if only slightly – his attempts to find mercy will fail. Saving faith says to God that Christ is all, and that the seeker has no merit whatsoever. Calvary must wholly accomplish and secure salvation.

Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to Thy Cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Throwing out the Principles

The basic principles of worship broken and rejected by many today. Appendix on Psalm 150

from Sword & Trowel 2001, No. 3 by Peter Masters

CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN WORSHIP has 'captured' countless congregations of every theological hue throughout the world, though not without many a battle. At times the controversy has been so strong it has been dubbed 'the worship wars'. The chief strategy of the advocates of the new worship has been to reduce the whole debate to a matter of taste, style and generation.

'Traditionalists' are charged with refusal to adjust to changing culture. Some have called them the Pharisees of the 21st-century church, guilty of obstructing a great forward-movement of God's people, and dividing over non-essentials. Still, however, large numbers of churches hold out against the new ways, believing that great principles are at stake.

The trouble with the rhetoric of those advocating new worship is that they seem not to recognise, let alone discuss, biblical principles of worship. It is as if there is nothing substantial about worship in the Bible. It is as if the Reformation had never reformed worship, articulating great concepts about our approach to the living God. It is as though the bedrock definitions held over centuries have become invisible and non-existent.

Where have these priceless and vital definitions and principles gone? Why are they hardly ever discussed? Do the advocates of new worship wilfully avoid them, or are they genuinely unaware of them? Certainly, it is an astonishing scene to find them passed over so easily.

New definitions of worship have appeared which would never have been accepted as recently as fifty years ago – definitions which smash down the central principles of evangelical, Protestant Christian worship, taking us back to medieval and Catholic thinking.

This article will identify three major deviations from biblical standards (as recovered at the Reformation) characterising the entire modern worship movement. (A fourth serious deviation appears in a companion article.)

Churches which have adopted modern worship songs and music to only a limited degree, must be aware of the deeply significant errors which govern the writers and composers of the new genre. 'Moderate users' of new worship plug into a radically deviant philosophy of worship, and by doing so train their people (possibly unwittingly) to accept pre-Reformation notions which will lead to ever increasing acceptance of the full-blown contemporary scene.

This is not a complex and theoretical matter: it is straightforward and vital. We must know what worship is supposed to be, and we must assess the new style in the light of God-given principles.

THREE BROKEN PRINCIPLES

1. AESTHETIC WORSHIP

THE FIRST MAJOR deviation today is the espousing of aesthetic worship, in preference to the Lord's command that worship must exclusively be 'in spirit and in truth' (see John 4.23-4 ).

Aesthetic worship is the idea that worship may include things that are beautiful, artistic or skilfully executed, offered up as an expression of worship to God. It is based on the notion that we worship not just with spiritual thoughts from our minds and hearts, but also with the creative skill of our minds and hands.

It believes that genuine praise needs a 'physical' dimension greater than mere unison singing. It assumes that God is an 'aesthete' – sitting in the heavens and looking down with appreciation at the skill and beauty that we bring before Him.

We may bring Him thrilling music, clever arrangements, brilliant instrumentalism and fine singing, and these will please Him. We may worship (it is thought) not only by meaningful words, but by wordless offerings.

This is of immense importance, because the aesthetic idea of worship is the essence of Catholicism, and diametrically opposed to the biblical concept. The Church of Rome, with all her masses, images, processions, soaring naves, stained glass windows, costly and colourful robes, rich music, Gregorian chants, and complex proceedings, makes an offering of worship by these things. All her theatricalism is an act of worship believed to be pleasing to God.

The Reformation went back to the Bible, and embraced the principle that true worship is intelligent (and scriptural) words, whether said, thought or sung, winged by faith to the ear of the Lord. It is true that little bits of Roman 'theatre' remained in the episcopal churches, but by and large the rites, ceremonies, images and everything else that represented a virtuous offering were swept away.

However, aesthetic worship has now flooded into evangelical and Protestant churches, and people have come to think that they can express much of their worship via music and instrumentation (and in charismatic circles via dance, bands, movements and drama).

Certainly, the Lord trusts us with music, and also with instruments to accompany the singing of praise, but these cannot actually convey worship. They are secondary. They are not in the image of God, nor do they have souls, nor are they redeemed.

Modern hymnwriter Erik Routley was way off the mark when he penned the lines (which he meant to be taken literally) –
Joyfully, heartily, resounding!
Let every instrument and voice . . .
Trumpets and organs, set in motion
Such sounds as make the heavens ring.

The recently coined, popular statement that worship is 'a celebration in words and music' (seen so often on church handbills and notice-boards) is a denial of the Lord's statement – 'in spirit and in truth'. Words and thoughts are everything in worship. Music may only assist at a practical level; it cannot be used to express worship. To believe that it can, is to embrace the error of aesthetic worship.

The singing of God's people may be grand and glorious viewed from a human standpoint, but only the words and the hearts of the worshippers matter to God. Does this sound strange? It may do so today, but fifty years ago – and all the way back to the Reformation – practically every evangelical Christian would have said this most emphatically.

A notable advocate of the new ways has defined worship as 'a discovery of God's will through encounter and impact'. Not only is instrumental and song performance offered as a meritorious expression of worship, but from the very performance one is said to glean some form of revelation from God. This is seriously believed by the main architects and promoters of new worship. Do evangelicals who adopt their materials fully realise the deep errors of the philosophy behind them?

Aesthetic worship is a huge stride back to Rome, and has no place in the church of Jesus Christ. It challenges and spoils spiritual worship, and is contrary to every praise instruction in the New Testament. When we evaluate new worship, we must do so in terms of these historic, biblical principles. Worship is exclusively spiritual.

At the Reformation, simplicity, intelligibility and fidelity to the Bible replaced the impressive mystery and pageantry of Rome, and the aesthetically splendid mass surrendered to the understanding soul.

Why did all this take place? The advocates of new worship do not seem to know. They are aware that the Reformation changed doctrinal teaching, but they do not appear to know why it so changed the manner of worship too. Do the new-worship men think it was just a 'generation thing'? Do they picture Luther, Calvin, the Protestant martyrs and others as the youngsters who just wanted a new culture? Do they believe it was all a matter of taste?

The truth is, of course, that the Reformers saw through the sensual worship of Rome (the aesthetic and ecstatic elements) and rejected artistic skill and beauty as a valid expression of worship, and also rejected the 'working up' of supposed spiritual experience by things which dazzled the eyes and the ears.

How is it that well-meaning evangelical Christians have adopted the idea that we can worship through beauty and skill? In the USA many theological seminaries and Christian colleges have greatly enlarged their music departments and courses for 'worship leaders'. Inevitably the role of music and the use of complex worship programmes has greatly increased. Churches have acquired ministers of music as well as professional worship leaders, and how could these highly trained brethren function if they did not feel that all their expertise and creativity constituted an efficacious offering of worship?

In biblical worship, only one offering counts, and that is the offering made once for all by the eternal Son of God on Calvary's Cross. Nothing should be thought of as an acceptable offering, or as having any worship merit apart from Calvary. Our thoughts and words are not an offering, but expressions of praise, repentance, request, dedication and obedience, all made acceptable by Calvary.

Writers promoting new worship actually use language which depicts God as a satisfied viewer of a 'performance' (this is their term). They explicitly say that God is the audience. Some provide illustrations of a stadium in which the church and its performers are placed on the pitch, and the word 'God' is inscribed around the seating in the stands. They seem very pleased with this scenario.

C H Spurgeon would never have an organ at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in his day, because he saw how so many of the larger churches had become carried away by the sound of their magnificent instruments, and the expert capabilities of their organists. They were tickling the ears of the people (as Spurgeon put it) with beautiful musical items other than hymns. He was concerned that people would go to church to be entertained rather than to worship, but even more seriously, he saw how the skill and beauty of the music was itself likely to be regarded as an act of worship, and an offering to God.

Today the Tabernacle uses an organ, but we endeavour to keep its deployment within bounds, so that it provides an accompaniment only, and does not become a medium of worship. We would never say, for example, that the organ 'enriches' worship. It disciplines the singing, and teaches and maintains the tune, but we know very well that in spiritual terms it can contribute nothing.

Contemporary worship, however, is usually fully aesthetic in purpose and practice. God is the audience and the worshippers are performers. Skilful instrumentalism is part of the offering of worship. Many evangelical churches have, in principle, gone back to Rome – and even surpassed Rome both in intricacy and decibels.

At the dawn of world history Abel's offering was accepted by the Lord because it was the very act God had commanded – a humble offering representing the need for atonement. Cain's offering, however, was rejected, because it presented his own skill, labour and artistry. It was a 'works' offering. To parade before God our skills as an act of worship is surely nearer to the offering of Cain than that of Abel.

Today, people often say, 'But what shall we do with our gifts if we cannot express them in worship?' Here is the heart of the matter. Worship is not the exercise of our gifts, but the exercise of our hearts and minds. For many people this is the 'lost ark' of worship, the principle which has disappeared from sight – that worship is not the presentation to God of skill or beauty, or of personal gifts, but the communication of the soul with God, through the merit of the Lord Jesus Christ alone, and by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. Worship is not aesthetic.

We ask again, how is it that evangelicals have tumbled into this dramatic change of viewpoint in our generation? We have not been helped by a number of practices which have served as the thin end of the aesthetic wedge. We have already noted that a few pre-Reformation habits survived even in the reformed churches – remnants of Catholic theatricalism and show. These have been kept up in Anglican churches (except in the 'low' churches), and they have always had an undermining effect, causing good people to lose sight of a clear-cut definition of spiritual worship.

Over the years, pleasant inconsistencies have also been adopted by nonconformist churches. Beautiful anthems rendered by choirs came to offer an increasingly aesthetic contribution to worship. Solo items in services seemed harmless enough, and edifying if worshippers followed the words. But then the solo often became an instrument-only item, so that congregations were given 'songs without words', and taught to regard these as an act of worship. Little practices such as these have helped nibble away at the biblical concept of worship, and the Lord's people have slowly lost sight of basic principles.

But now the pass has been entirely sold, and the judgement of the Lord's people completely clouded. Simplicity has been discarded and we have been overwhelmed by a full-scale attack on long-standing principles of worship.

In many churches worship is now offered and 'enriched' by instrumental and vocal expertise. Performing gifts are exercised, and a human, artistic offering presented to God. This is only one of three quite different major aberrations from biblical and reformational principles of worship. We must return to 'spirit and truth' only.

It may be protested that worship in Old Testament times was rich in actions and artistry ordained by God, and such worship can hardly be disqualified today. How can we deny the worship-virtue of skilfully executed music and song?

It is simply not true that Old Testament services included works of beauty and skill as a direct expression of worship. The symbolism in the design of the Tabernacle and Temple, as well as the ceremonial performed by the priests, represented the work of Christ for them. They amounted to lessons, not vehicles of worship. They were intended as visual sermons, not meritorious acts. They were pictures, given and taught by God, of the way of grace. The people observed and trusted, but their personal response of praise was meant to be spiritual and from the heart.

True worship always was a matter of the heart, and not an offering of human works, skill or creativity. This lesson had to be learned by Cain of old, and many need to re-learn it today. Worship is spiritual thoughts directed to God from the heart, by faith. It is not an aesthetic activity. We again urge readers to consider this principle of worship, because how we worship is not just a matter of culture or taste or generation, but a matter of God-given rules. Principles count. The great statement common to the Westminster and Baptist Confessions stands against all that is going on today:

'The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself; and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men . . .'

Why would any church want to increase the number of instruments used in worship? If the answer is – 'To enrich our worship and to express our gifts,' then the principle has been lost, and the old aesthetic error has taken over.

2. ECSTATIC WORSHIP

THE SECOND MAJOR deviation from biblical principles in so-called contemporary worship is that it involves ecstatic worship, as opposed to 'spirit and truth' worship. The latter requires that Christians pray and sing with the understanding. 'Ecstatic', by contrast, has to do with using earthly techniques to stir the emotions and produce an exalted state of feeling.

Ecstatic worship takes place when the object of the exercise is to achieve a warm, happy feeling, even great excitement, through the earthly, physical aspects of worship, such as the songs and music. Among charismatics this is eagerly pursued, the programme being carefully engineered to bring worshippers to a high emotional pitch, and often to a mildly hypnotic state. In non-charismatic circles the objective is more modest, but essentially the same – to make an emotional impact.

We do not accuse the advocates of new worship unfairly, because they say it themselves in their books and worship guides. The upbeat opening 'number' will (they say) have such-and-such an effect upon worshippers, and then the music should take this or that direction to maintain the mood, and after that move on to another tempo, volume and key. Instruments, arrangements, chords and beat should be woven into a pattern that will bend and sway the feelings of the people to maximise their worship.

Often, tremendous musical expertise goes into the 'production' of a service. But it must be realised that any attempt to make a direct impression on the emotions by the use of music or any other earthly tool, is ecstatic worship as opposed to spiritual worship. The latter does not seek to manipulate the feelings by earthly techniques, but derives its joy from sincere spiritual appreciation of the Lord, of His words, and of the great doctrines of the faith.

Of course, music (and instrumental accompaniment) is permitted by the Lord, but it is not to be deliberately deployed as a means of arousing feelings. 'Feelings' in worship should be our response to things we understand and appreciate in our minds.

It is true that many hymn tunes touch our hearts because of their strong association with salvation sentiments, and this is wholesome and acceptable. Such tunes have taken on a special quality derived from precious words. But the architects of 'ecstatic' worship techniques have no right to hijack this pleasant phenomenon, and to use music as the chief means of moving hearts and producing feelings. This is carnal, cynical, artificial and manipulative, and it is the methodology of false religions.

As we have already noted, worship is words, whether thought, said or sung, and it is only as we are moved primarily by these, and by a view of the Lord and His work, that we have genuine and legitimate spiritual feelings. Emotions fanned into flames only by sentimental or stirring music may be enjoyable feelings at a purely human level, but they are not worship.

The same goes for all artificially generated feelings. If a preacher moves people to weeping by telling 'tear-jerkers', their sense of need for God or their repentance will be nothing more than short-lived emotionalism. If, however, the people understand their need through hearing the Word (which is surely moving enough), their conviction and repentance will be genuine and lasting.

Music cannot move the soul, only the emotions. Valid worship starts in the mind, or understanding. If it bypasses the understanding, it is not true worship. If it is aided by 'external' things, such as skilful and emotionally moving playing of bands and orchestras, it is compromised.

Such worship reminds us of the Israelites who wanted to supplement manna with other foods. Today many say to God (in effect) – 'You are not enough; I need loud or rhythmic music in addition, to excite me.'

The rule for every aspect of worship given by the apostle Paul (whether singing or hearing the Word) is – 'Let all things be done unto edifying' (see 1 Corinthians 14.26 ). The word edifying (in its various forms) is Paul's key word in worship texts. It refers to the erection of a building, but Paul uses it exclusively to mean the building up of the understanding. Every element of worship must be understood, to be valid. We are spiritually moved, not by melody, beauty or spectacle, but by what we understand.

'Worship,' says Puritan Stephen Charnock, 'is an act of the understanding applying itself to the knowledge of the excellency of God . . . It is also an act of the will, whereby the soul adores and reverences His majesty, is ravished with His amiableness, embraceth His goodness, enters itself into intimate communion with this most lovely object, and pitcheth all its affections upon Him' (Works, 1.298). The latter engagement of mind and soul can only follow the initial stirring up of the understanding.

We repeat yet again that in Christian worship we have the privilege of many beautiful tunes, and we are allowed to sing with accompaniment, but these must be kept within reasonable bounds, so that we never depend on them to contribute heavily to our feelings. The new worship, however, is all about music and song being used in such a way that there is a direct influence upon the feelings.

We may ask new worship advocates the same question as before – 'Why do you want to bring extra instruments into your worship?' The answer may come – 'Because it lifts us up and warms and excites us. Because we feel the Lord more. Because we enjoy our worship more. Because we worship at a deeper and more intimate level.' But surely this shows that ecstatic worship ideas have crept in. There can be no greater enjoyment than to respond with spiritual appreciation to great spiritual blessings. Why should we need more instruments to improve on this? Any group, band or orchestra will introduce an ecstatic element to praise, and this is against the principles of New Testament worship.

The new worship sets out to stir emotions externally and artificially. It is all so like Catholicism in this respect. Their worship, we have seen, is an aesthetic offering. It is also ecstatic, designed to engage and satisfy the emotions. It is true that the theatricalism of Catholic tradition is different from contemporary worship in some ways. It bombards the senses with smells and bells, processions, chants and so on. The old Latin mass was not about understanding but making an impression on the senses. Touching requiems were composed to move people emotionally.

The mystery plays of Rome were calculated to appeal to and move the feelings. The medium was considered to be more enjoyable and emotionally effective than the message, and we are back to this in present-day evangelicalism. Contemporary Christian worship shares the same theatrical and earthly aims as Rome.

Today, leading pastors encourage worship procedures designed to move, please, uplift and entertain. Sincere thoughts and words, and views of the Lord and His Word are simply not enough.

New-worship advocates give the game away in their writings. One of Britain's pioneers of new worship wrote in a magazine article the following sentiments. He recalled how, as a young man, he once wearily rose in his pew at the beginning of a (traditional) morning service –

' . . . resigned to a miserable morning, and thought to myself how dreadful it was that the hymn we were singing had so many verses. Most of the lines made no sense to me at all. Worse still, there were three more hymns like this before the meeting was finished! The whole thing was dreadfully boring.

'I tried my best to inject feeling into the 'worship', but it was like squeezing a shrivelled orange for the last drop of juice, only to be disappointed when nothing came.

'Worst of all, I kept thinking over what the pastor had said at the start of the service. He told us that we would spend eternity engaged in worship. I couldn't think of a more dreadful prospect. Surely that would be eternal endurance, not eternal life!'

The writer is frank. He is not saying that he found himself in a spiritually unsound or poorly conducted service. He caricatures any traditional worship service. He found, he tells us, liberty and enjoyment in new songs and music which could stir his passions and allow him liberty for the uninhibited expression of his feelings.

But why could he not identify with the great hymns of the faith in the church of his youth? Why did sincere thoughts and words directed to God fail to touch him? Why did they bore him to distraction? The answer is that for him, emotions had to be worked up by external aids and uninhibited actions. They had to be worked up and put on. This is just what we mean by 'ecstatic' worship. Tragically, no one told this man, in his youth, what he was getting into, and its artificiality and pandering to the flesh.

We can understand how necessary the ecstatic ingredient of new worship is in the charismatic movement. Here (because of the shallowness of preaching) large numbers of people are not really converted. They need artificial emotions. Without the human generation of emotions there would be nothing for them.

Similarly, in some of the so-called mega-churches of the USA, where the true challenge of the Gospel is greatly watered down so as not to offend worshippers, large numbers of people depend on the external emotional impact of the musical-song production. If people are brought to easy professions, and not truly changed by the power of the Spirit, they will not be capable of spiritual appreciation – the basis of true worship.

Leading exponents of new worship now speak strongly against hymns as too cerebral and complex. They want almost entirely choruses, because these, with their minimal truth content, do not get in the way of the music and its effect upon the emotions. They say that 'meaning' obscures 'feeling'!

A word must be said about the extreme manifestation of ecstatic worship, which really amounts to mystical worship. This happens when the emotional impact of music and song is intended to assist the impression of a 'direct touch' of God, or an extraordinary sense of union with Him.

In true mysticism this is sought by such techniques as contemplation and of endlessly repeating thoughts. In charismatic worship it is worked up by powerful musical manipulation, the participants swaying with closed eyes, upturned faces and outstretched hands, yielding themselves wholly into the influence of the words and music.

Words of their choruses and hymns often claim a direct touch with the Lord, or a strong sense of His surrounding arms. Instead of approaching God by faith, and reflecting on His sure Truth and His wonderful work, such worshippers seek a direct mystical impression of God's presence. Mystical worship represents the extreme flank of ecstatic worship, but it now has an immense following around the world. The understanding is unfruitful, but this hardly matters. Spirit and truth are outmoded. Artificially induced feelings are king.

Is mystical worship coming into non-charismatic circles? The alarming answer is that it is firmly established, as a modern definition from a leading seminary professor shows. Here is his definition – widely applauded and accepted. He defines worship as –

'an encounter in which God's glory, Word and graces are unveiled, and we respond, in songs and prayers of celebration. Worshippers seek an encounter with the glory of God, the transcendent power and numinous mystery of the divine.'

Notice the word 'encounter'. Is it an encounter by faith? No, it is nothing other than a mystical encounter with the glory of God. Are we reading too much into this? No, sadly, because it is also described as an encounter with the transcendent power of God! Surely the language is far too powerful to describe anything other than a felt, mystical sensation? The use of the words numinous mystery are conclusive, because numinous refers to the awesome presence of divinity.

The author of this definition believes that worship is a felt encounter with the glorious presence of God in a fully mystical sense, and in his writings shows how this is effected by the entire contents and trappings of a service – spiritual and material. We must be warned – the old definitions are being discarded with indifference and even with contempt, and new ideas are being propounded which are totally contrary to biblical and reformational teaching. The new worship is firmly ecstatic, and also largely mystical. Do cautious, 'light' users really wish to identify with all this?

3. PROFANE WORSHIP

THE THIRD MAJOR departure from biblical principles of worship is the flagrant disregard of the gulf between sacred and profane, so that the worst musical entertainment forms of the world are brought into the praise of God. Thus it becomes profane worship.

This writer, until recently, used the term 'worldly idiom worship' to describe this phenomenon, but it lacked precision. Some people would naturally ask, 'What exactly is worldliness?' Is a musical instrument or a musical style unsuitable for worship simply because the world does it? No, but it is unsuitable for worship if it is used by the world to promote an anti-God, anti-moral agenda.

The word profane focuses the issue more clearly. Is classical music worldly? Not necessarily. It may be beautiful music, not identified with or promoting anti-God, anti-moral forces. Are the old folk songs worldly? Not necessarily. Many were innocently sung for years in the primary schools of a more moral age. (Please notice that this comment is about old folk songs, not the new genre.)

Is the guitar worldly? Not necessarily – it depends whether it is used simply and of necessity (as by the unregistered Russian congregations who were compelled to worship in forests), or by Christians deliberately courting a pop image for the church.

Is the modern entertainment scene worldly? Most definitely, because it is the most powerful and determined anti-God, anti-moral, anti-authority culture for centuries. It is profane, treating moral and sacred things with utmost irreverence and disregard. It actively and militantly decries biblical morality, substituting the opposite. It promotes an alternative society, including the worship of self and of lust as normal, reasonable and acceptable, and that is its standing in the mind of the public.

For this reason the new worship movement is wrong, and sins against God when it borrows and employs all the distinctive components of today's popular entertainment culture. Modern worship is a total artistic identification with that culture, contrary to the exhortation of 1 John 2.15-16:

'Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world'.

Modern worship equally rejects the parallel warning in James 4.4:

'Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.'

The Lord calls for submission to His standards, and will resist, not bless, those who set themselves above His Word. This is clear from James 4.6, where, immediately following the prohibition of friendship with the world, the warning to offenders is given – 'God resisteth the proud.'

A significant statement appeared in a Christian magazine article about the new worship. Thinking of 'Willow Creek', a mega-church in the USA noted for its contemporary worship, the writer said – 'Only a generation that loved Woodstock could love Willow Creek.' That hits the nail on the head. New worship is designed to close the gap between the church and the world, in order to 'win' the latter, and that, we maintain, is to employ sinful compromise in the work of the Lord.

For the last time, we must put the question – why would any church want to bring a multiplicity of instruments on to the platform? What is the aim? What, precisely, will be achieved by a group of guitars plus percussion? And what exactly is added by the inclusion of trumpet, trombone, drums, saxophone and xylophone (now so common)? The answer may well come back along these lines: 'These commend us to the present generation, drawing them in and showing them that Christianity is not fusty, but right for them, and they have nothing to fear.'

So the new worship does away with the separation of the church from the world, unites both together in Vanity Fair, and does away with the offence of the Cross. (Other biblical commands to maintain at all costs the separation between sacred and profane in worship were presented in this writer's recent review of a new hymnal, under the title 'A New Kind of Praise – Sacred and Secular Merged', Sword & Trowel 2001 No. 1. )

We have asked the same simple question about wanting more instruments three times, and the answers – all of which are typical – betray the adoption of aesthetic, then ecstatic, then profane policies of worship.

* * *

The three deviations just described contradict three great principles recovered in the blaze of New Testament light that shone so brightly at the time of the Reformation. Worship is to be offered in spirit and in truth, and not by works of skill or artistry. Worship is to be directed from the understanding, our joy being a response to things we sincerely appreciate, not a joy deliberately generated and magnified by 'external' means such as rhythm and emotive music.

Worship is to be kept apart from decadent and godless worldly culture, and not to be polluted by the deliberate adoption of that culture.

These principles must never be dismissed or surrendered. How we worship is not an accident of history – it is the application of principles. It is not a matter of culture or generation, but a matter of obeying and pleasing God the Father, to Whom worship is directed, God the Son in Whose name we offer it, and God the Holy Spirit, Who translates it into the 'language' of Heaven.

Reverence

A fourth vital principle of worship is the necessity of reverence, which in some form was still in place at the time of the Reformation. Even amidst the spiritual darkness of Rome, the instinct of the common people told them that God must be approached with awe and reverence. Amazingly, advocates of new worship cannot even see this most obvious duty of Christians. Their notions of worship largely discard reverence in favour of uninhibited self-expression. This problem is addressed in a companion article, Sword & Trowel No 3, 2001, page 25.

What About Psalm 150?

Does the psalter sanction all kinds of instruments?

In response to our critical article about the new hymnbook – Praise! – included in the last issue of Sword & Trowel, several correspondents have pointed to Psalm 150 as evidence that all kinds of instruments, including percussion (the 'timbrel' or tambourine) may be employed in worship.

The problem, however, with taking Psalm 150 as an exhortation to literally use the instruments it names, is that a serious contradiction is made to appear in Scripture. Such a contradiction is, of course, impossible. If Psalm 150 is to be taken literally, then the psalmist commands his readers to ignore God's firm rules for instruments of worship laid down in the time of David (and re-affirmed in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah). This matter is of tremendous importance, because Psalm 150 must be understood in the context of the rules for that time.

For a detailed look at these rules, please see the article Brass, Strings & Percussion? – The facts about Bible instruments and the strong rules restricting their use in worship; Sword & Trowel, 1998 No. 4 (part 2 of the series 'Worship in the Melting Pot').

To summarise, David was commanded by God to use only four kinds of instrument in the Temple out of nine commonly used in the social life of the Jews. The selected instruments could only be played by certain priests and Levites, on specified occasions and at certain points of the worship. It is most probable that this was required by God to prevent musical instruments from overpowering the all-important spiritual element of worship. The Old Testament rules for instruments do not apply today, but the principle behind them, namely the practice of restraint, certainly does.

The permitted instruments were psaltery, harp, cymbals and trumpet. These played, while the choir sang, throughout the burnt offering, and when the offering was consumed the instruments stopped, and the people continued to worship without them.

The purpose of trumpets (also used for calling of solemn assemblies) and cymbals (marking the timing) was no doubt to produce a sense of awe and even of shame while the offering burned. No timbrels or drums were allowed in the Temple, and the notion of percussion-heavy, happy-clappy worship is far from reality.

For the singing of psalms outside the Temple (in private and 'synagogue' worship), harps and psalteries are the only instruments prescribed. Six psalms mention other instruments in use, but these psalms are clearly calling the people to join in open-air, civic thanksgiving celebrations for great victories, as well as to direct worship. The rules, therefore, are not broken.

In these open-air festivities timbrels (tambourines) were waved by the little girls who led the victory processions, and any instrument of normal social use was encouraged. However, for the direct worship of Almighty God, whether in Temple or home, the extra instruments were not employed. All this is set out at length, with texts, in the article previously referred to.

In the case of the six psalms which call people to outdoor, civic processions, we must remember that Israel was a nation-state, as well as a church. Greater latitude was in order for national festivities than was permitted for worship.

We return to the case of Psalm 150. At least two unauthorised instruments are mentioned in the psalm.* If these are here prescribed for direct worship, then, as we have said, the Bible contains a major contradiction, and its integrity and authority is challenged.

However, the psalm announces itself by referring to the sanctuary as the firmament of God's power, which means - the 'temple' of the entire universe. The psalmist plainly has in view the open-air, civic thanksgiving events of the nation-state of Israel, as well as the direct worship of the house of God, and this accounts for the inclusion of the 'unauthorised' instruments. It is a very comprehensive psalm.

Commentators of the past have often gone further than this, asserting that this unusual psalm is richly figurative, using the tonal characteristics of various instruments to describe the different emotions of worship. Thus the trumpet would symbolise triumphant and exalted worship, while the stringed instruments would symbolise the sweet tones of heartfelt gratitude. (A fuller treatment is given in the article referred to.)

Psalm 150 should never be appealed to as a justification for using all kinds of instrument in worship, because it would never contradict the rules set for that age. The psalm must be seen as referring to worship in its widest sense, including the civic, open-air, thanksgiving parades and also, possibly, presenting instruments as symbols.

Someone will say, 'But why cannot the symbolic instruments be used themselves in this Gospel age?' Because it is redeemed people who worship, not inanimate, soulless instruments. We are trusted by the Lord to use instrumental accompaniment, but if we elevate this to being a major source of pleasure (and even entertainment), we surely ruin 'spirit-and-truth' worship.

I believe that the friends who have written to me about Psalm 150 will receive this kind of response with serious openness and give it conscientious consideration. The spiritual and courteous tone of their letters suggests this.

Sadly, there are others who would not be interested in reading this, because they have already decided what they want to do, and Scripture will have no great influence in the matter. The drums and many other instruments are already on their platforms. They believe in the authority of Scripture, but sadly, they have far too loose a hold on God's Word in practice.

*There may even be a third unauthorised instrument, as the Hebrew word translated 'dance' may refer to a twisting pipe or horn.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

What is Wrong with Drama?

Why is Proclamation the way of the Bible?
from Sword & Trowel 2000, No. 4 by Peter Masters

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1.18)

God's chosen and appointed means of communicating the glorious Gospel is by proclamation, which means - by words. All the evangelising of the New Testament was by means of words, whether by preaching, personal witness, or writing. The world of those days was full of dramatic art and cultic symbolism, but the messengers of Calvary stood aloof from it all, and worked with words.

'How shall they hear,' asks the apostle in Romans 10, 'without a preacher?' He does not say - without an actor, or a band of musicians, or a discussion group. Gospel communication must be in words addressed to the mind. It requires rational speech, whether uttered in a large building or in a home-gathering.

Proclamational methods - particularly preaching - are under attack today in evangelical circles. The latest church-growth books nearly all sweep away the primacy of preaching, and what preaching is left makes slender use of the Word of God as a divinely provided source and model. The promoters of so-called 'seeker services', though they use a measure of preaching, tend to see it as only a component in an elaborate mix of methods.

Some writers have provided tables of methods to show the comparative effectiveness of different approaches, and preaching always appears at or near the bottom. They claim that when people are tested to find how much they remember from preaching, discussion, dramatic presentation, role-play, and video presentation, preaching gains the fewest points for efficiency. It is said to come last in terms of comprehension, retention, and persuasive force. Such 'tests', however, are never scientific, and are carried out in circumstances where preaching is poorly attempted, and by authors out to prove their case. Nevertheless, the mud thrown at preaching tends to stick.

The undermining of direct proclamation is all the more dangerous in a time when God's servants labour with such small results, due to the prevailing atheism and materialism. At such a time it is tempting to think that something other than preaching should be brought in. What is the good, we may think, of preaching week after week when we are not touching the masses?

We are vulnerable to those who say - 'You have over-emphasised preaching. You should do other things. You should join the contemporary worship movement. You should bring the drums on to the platform during the evangelistic service, introduce drama, wear jeans, cut the speaking to ten minutes and break up into discussion groups. You should do anything but proclaim.'

Resistance to the Gospel is so great that human nature begins to wilt, and traditional methods are imperilled. Well-meaning and wholly committed men have buckled under the clamour for contemporary methods of outreach, because of the hardness of the days.

A time for clarity

This is a time to fortify our trust in God's appointed methods. If a method of spreading the Gospel is not proclamational, it is not what the Lord commands and desires. It is simply not biblical, and surely, obedience is the greatest and wisest duty of God's servants in any age, and especially in an age of mounting apostasy.

Why should it be thought that speech is relatively hopeless and inadequate, when it has been so powerfully used and proved for twenty centuries of church history? Why do the advocates of Christian rock and drama have such a jaundiced view of the spoken word? Is it, perhaps (in many cases), that they cannot preach - and are not truly equipped and called by God? Or is it that they have pursued an inappropriate style of preaching? Or is it that they are revealing their true tastes as worldly 'Christians'? Or do they lack faith in the power of God's Word when attended by the Holy Spirit? Do they not realise that to draw the crowds and teach them with the 'stuff' of entertainment coupled with a lightweight version of repentance will only fill the churches with people who make shallow and deluded professions - the 'wood, hay and stubble' of Paul's famous warning to church builders?

Words are everything in evangelism. Take the Word of God. It is words! It is God speaking to us. The Old Testament certainly uses symbols, and it has one or two miniature dramatic performances, but the 'script' was written by God, the 'performances' extremely short, and they were intended as nothing more than illustrations to sermons or prophecies. At that, they were deadly serious, never the comedy-show type of sketch adopted by the 'seeker-sensitive' brigade of today, designed to get people into 'laughter meltdown'.

Of course we believe in using illustrations in our messages, and visual aids for the young, but the supreme vehicle of communication is directly-addressed words, for this is God's exclusive method of making known His grace.

Why not have drama? What is wrong with it? We have already pointed out that it is not part of the New Testament blueprint, and it is not difficult to see why.

While drama can be powerfully captivating and influential in the secular world, it is a woefully inadequate and inappropriate vehicle for the presentation of Gospel truth, being primarily entertainment, and not a direct and plain challenge to the mind. It chiefly appeals to the emotions, and seldom for long. It is most closely associated in the mind of the viewer with fiction, or make-believe, and this ethos colours its application to Gospel work, hanging as a mist before the eyes of an audience.

If drama presents a case or an argument, it must do so in an artificially contrived situation. It cannot easily compare and contrast viewpoints or argue the point, and as soon as it tries to do so it becomes more boring than direct speech ever is.

Overall, it distorts reality. The various characters inevitably obscure any message, because their own personalities and skills either please or repel watchers. If they are attracted by them, they are unconsciously disposed to approve of their case or 'message', which is merely a subtle form of emotional manipulation, and not a true appeal to the mind.

Only a minimum of real information can be conveyed by drama, perhaps at most two or three significant, simple points. It is inefficient, it is inappropriate, it runs the risk of emotional trickery, it cannot effectively argue the case, and it is not the method which has been appointed. It certainly fails to address the viewer directly, either to appeal to him, or to hold him to account before God.

Drama will inevitably empty the message of real moral conviction. Some people go to the cinema or to the theatre for a good weep, and they are affected in outlook for minutes, perhaps even for an hour or two, but it is at an emotional level only and usually has no lasting effect. In the Bible, 'graphics' are always subservient to proclamation, and that is the way we must keep it.

Portraying the Lord

As for the dramatic presentations which include portrayal of Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, one would have thought any Bible believer could readily see that this cannot be done without disfiguring the Lord. How can you worthily portray, other than in words, the Person, the life, and the heart of the Saviour of the world?

Some may say, 'But is not a film about Jesus full of words?' It certainly has words, but it also has actors, and dramatic impact and spectacle, capturing the attention of the watcher and arousing human sympathies above spiritual understanding. An actor displaces the Lord (most probably in breach of the second commandment) and the vital points of Gospel doctrines are not amplified, explained and applied - this work being the true representative of sympathetic communication.

Let us review some of the superior qualities of direct proclamation by contrast with any of the new methods and gimmickry.

First, with direct words in preaching or witness, Almighty God is always in view. He is always there. He is always being referred to. It is clearly His message, for it is brought from His Word, whereas with non-proclamational methods of presentation God is somewhat obscured, whether it is discussion which wanders and stumbles around the debris of human opinion, or whether entertainment-style songs, or whether drama. Only with direct proclamation is God always the supreme purpose and objective, and the unmistakable source of the message.

That is the point behind the tradition of having an enormous Bible on the pulpit lectern. Our forebears had big Bibles out of principle, because all could then see the source of the message and the authority behind it. The old-time travelling evangelist achieved the same effect by holding the Bible firmly in his hand, stabbing his finger at it and saying - 'The Bible says! . . . The Bible says!'

Whether the proclaimer works from a lectern or pocket Bible, God is clearly the source, authority and objective.

Secondly, proclamation like nothing else enables us to convey the spirit in which God gives this message. It may be expressed with passion, with sympathy, and with pleading urgency. Drama conveys and evokes feeling, but it is feeling expressed between the characters, or evoked by the impact of a situation, not the attitude and heart of God to sinners. Only direct speech on His behalf can convey some sense of this. Do not let anyone denigrate straightforward preaching or Sunday School teaching, because it alone brings the heart of God to listeners.

Thirdly, direct proclamation alone engages the free, rational mind. It is true that preaching can exploit emotional manipulation. The speaker can tell sob-stories, and let his voice range from shivering tones to explosions of sound, jarring the feelings. But if excessive histrionic tricks are avoided, direct speech addresses the responsible (though fallen) thinking faculty, to challenge it and persuade it.

The hearer is not influenced by extraneous things. He is not hypnotised under the sway of compelling, rhythmic music, or projected into an emotional trance by something which moves him at a fleshly level. He listens to plain words, and his mind (from a human standpoint) is under no coercion. He hears a clear message, passionately expressed, but without manipulation, and as the Spirit moves, his response will be genuine. If he rejects this direct message, God will be just in holding him to account.

Fourthly, proclamation enables the 'tone' of communication to be right in another way. This message is serious. This is a life-or-death matter. This concerns eternity. Like nothing else, preaching can get the tone right. Direct proclamation, even though there may be moments of humour, accommodates intrinsic authority, reverence for God, and seriousness.

We have already noted that drama is associated with entertainment, and cannot therefore achieve the right tone. With drama the audience is transported into the realm of unreality from the beginning. With entertainment-style music the hearer is the 'customer', and the singers and instrumentalists the artistes, whose job is to please. In the case of discussion groups, every member is wrongly given the right to determine what is Truth, for they are gathered to teach one another, and to arrive at the Truth between them. They are the source of Truth. They are all-important. Where, here, is the necessary humility to hear the Gospel, and where are the authority and seriousness of Truth? Only proclamation possesses the capacity to preserve these.

Fifthly (extending the previous point), nothing has convicting power like direct proclamation. This message is about great matters of the soul. It concerns God's righteous judgement, and the possibility of a momentous escape through His amazing love and astounding forgiveness. It is about great guilt and deep need. Direct proclamation, blessed by the Spirit, is the exclusive vehicle for the arresting and convicting of the soul. The keep-it-light methodology of the entertainment and seeker-service circles seldom ever knows anything like this. In the end, they must turn to charismatic tricks, such as slayings in the Spirit, induced by crude mass-hypnosis, as a substitute for the convicting of the heart.

Paul says twice that he was ordained a preacher, and this is of great importance.* In the Greek he uses the word herald. The characteristics of a herald in biblical times are of immense significance. A court herald in the ancient world was not allowed to do anything on his own initiative. He had to keep strictly to his text.

Heralds were often sent as envoys in war to an enemy capital or camp, but they were never negotiators. They kept within their brief, taking the message and returning with the response.

Paul uses the 'herald' term because these duties perfectly mirror the very limited office of a Christian preacher, who is not called to devise new methods of communication for every age, but to honour and operate those established in the New Testament.

The term herald also described a town crier who declared whatever message he was given. He could not change the announcement or the date. Similarly, we are not given the scope to vary either the message or the method. We are to work within the limits that are appointed to us, and this is what is being forgotten today. Our energy and initiative should be deployed in bringing in the people and Sunday School youngsters to hear proclamation, and not replacing it with entertainment.

Paul says that he did not preach the Gospel - 'with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect'. He does not mean that preachers cannot use arguments, because he used them himself. His own preaching was wisely marshalled, exposing the folly of dedication to this world, and establishing the necessity of turning to Jesus Christ for salvation. However, he never blended evangelism with worldly wisdom, employing Greek philosophy to tickle the ears of the intellectuals in an attempt to make his message more attractive to them. He never mixed the message with what they wanted to hear.

It is inconceivable that the apostle, if he were alive today, would say, 'The proclamation of the Gospel is not popular and therefore I will mix it, not with Greek philosophy, but with a rock band performance which will commend itself to the people. Then I will reduce the message drastically to give room for pieces of drama, because they do not want to listen to anything serious.'

Whether Greek philosophy or the sound of drums, it is exactly the same - the mixing of the message of the Word with something preferred by lost society, so that we can avoid the offence of the cross. This is what Paul, inspired by the Spirit, clearly condemns.

Only words can cope

When we proclaim the cross of Christ we have much to do. We must present the need for the cross, the holiness of God, the Fall of man, the Person of Christ, and what really happened on that cross. We must also expose the emptiness and futility of life without God, the benefits of salvation, the exclusive saving merits of the cross, and the tragedy of a lost eternity. But only words can adequately explain these matters to rational minds, informing them of the details and challenging attitudes in a way that the Holy Spirit can use. Only words can inform, persuade and remonstrate in a convicting, challenging and appealing way. Only words are supported by scriptural promises of instrumentality. This high work cannot possibly be done by musical entertainment, or by drama (the medium of fiction).

We appeal to preachers and church leaders not to yield to the new experiments in communication. Remember that the people who started these trends are people who present a weaker notion of both conversion and the Christian life, in order to retain a considerable degree of worldliness.

These 'evangelists' only seek a moderately sanitised lifestyle. What they promote is a new syncretism - God and mammon; Christ and the world - and they have proved that it is extremely popular. These are the people who have invented the plethora of new, non-proclamational gimmicks and methods.

Do not imagine this is merely a generational thing. Today's trends mark a deliberate departure from the Christianity which calls people from sin and worldliness to a radical, Holy-Spirit-wrought conversion. Genuine Christian workers must not fall into a system engineered by doubtful workers.

We first encountered these alternatives to proclamation (on a serious scale) at the end of the 1960s when Campus Crusade launched their original 'Four Spiritual Laws'. Certainly, there were Campus workers who were godly people and whose evangelistic efforts rose much higher than their official script, but the script they were supposed to follow fell woefully short of the message of the Gospel.

Big-band musical entertainment jostled with show-biz testimonies and ultra-short messages pointing to a tragically undersized Gospel challenge. Readers may remember the general line: 'God has a wonderful plan for your life.' God is full of smiles and readiness to bless, but, said the script (in effect), there is just one little problem in the way. Before you can be blessed, you need to get this little matter of repentance out of the way. Happily, this can be done in a short sentence, then you can go on to the next, nicer step.

We are, of course, parodying the Campus formula, but it certainly minimised matters, falling short of any real conviction. This is precisely what is going on with most of those who now promote drama and entertainment as an alternative to the direct challenge of proclamation. They do not want the convicting character and power of the authentic message.

For all we have said about the superiority of direct proclamation, the power is not inherent, but is the work of the Spirit. The fact that we preach does not guarantee blessing, and the apostle expresses this bluntly: 'For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness.' Countless people will react with scorn. They will understand, but think it is ridiculous and foolish to put these propositions before them.

They will say to themselves, 'I do not accept that I am a condemned sinner. And if I turn to this Saviour, I shall forfeit my right to rule my own life and do what I want. I will have to conform to new standards, and many things that I am committed to and enjoy will have to go. It is ridiculous to ask me to do this.'

A non-authentic response

Sweetening the pill by watering down the Gospel and disguising it with entertainment will not make it more acceptable, only less understandable. People will hear a modified, weakened Gospel, and their response will not be authentic.

The apostle warns that proclamation works only because God makes it work in the hearts of His people.

When people say to us, 'You people are just traditionalists, stuck firmly in the past, and you want everything to be done in a 19th-century manner,' they have got us wrong. We want to use direct proclamation because it is what God tells us exclusively to do. Whether it is Sunday School teaching, personal witness, preaching in the pulpit, or printed tracts and books, the scriptural way is to present the Gospel in rational words, to rational minds, supported by earnest prayer.

Many evangelicals today see that the public wants rock groups, informality, conviviality, drama and other entertainments, and whereas the apostle Paul had no intention of obliging the carnal wishes of either Greek or Jew, today's modernisers go overboard to give outsiders exactly what they think will please them.

Let us focus all our energies on forms of direct proclamation, and activities which bring people under that influence. These are the only two legitimate aspects of evangelism - proclamation, and efforts that support it.