I came across a great article from Sinclair Ferguson on the subject of mortifying sin. Well worth a few minutes of your time.
Rev. David Fagrey is writing a series of articles about the history surrounding the Protestant Reformation in celebration of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. They are being collected and posted here.
This week’s is on the conversion of Martin Luther, one of the most important historical figures of the last two thousand years, whose life makes fascinating reading.
Tearing the Veil
When one studies the Old Testament forms of worship that God gave to Israel, one is struck with the very mediated nature of it. God is presented as very holy, and given the sinfulness of the people, a very dangerous presence. The people insist that Moses put a veil over his face, for even the reflected glory of God is too much for them. They say, “Who can stand before this God?” and turn instead to the worship of the golden calf, a worship they can control. But the presence of God in their midst requires the constant offering of sacrifices, the observance of a great many rituals of purification and cleansing, and the utmost care over all the details. Only certain people were permitted to enter into the temple, and only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence was most manifest.
This is one major reason to be so thankful for the incarnation of Christ. In His person He joins together God and man, and through His work of redemption, His death on the cross, the relationship between God and man is reconciled. The book of Matthew tells us that the veil in the temple was torn when Christ died. That was the heavy curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. Hebrews tells us in chapter 10 that His ministry opens the way between us and God, making an analogy between the tearing of the veil and the tearing of His flesh. Because of the death of Christ and the covering of our sin with His blood, the presence of God is no longer a terrifying threat, but a great joy and comfort. This is not because He is less holy, but because our sins are taken away and covered by Christ’s blood and righteousness.
This was of course true in the Old Testament as well. God’s saints in the Old Testament also talk about the joy of fellowship with God. But this was not seen or experienced to anywhere near the same degree as the New Testament believer experiences it, and this is because of the coming of Christ into the world.
The Old Testament believer’s worship had a strong emphasis on guilt and condemnation, and looking forward to the promised Messiah. Our worship today focuses much more strongly on the grace and forgiveness of God, and the accomplishment of our salvation by Christ, and for that we have much cause to be thankful! To the Judaizers insisting on a return to the Old Testament ceremonies, Peter said, “Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” Sometimes Old Testament worship will seem very dramatic and powerful to the New Testament believer, but Peter here describes it as an intolerable burden.
Because Christ came, the veil is torn, and God’s presence can be a comforting joy in worship instead of a fearful thing. But how much more fearful our judgment will be then if we neglect this great mercy and grace! The way is clear to God, and all who come to Him through faith in His Son are received in forgiveness of sins. And all of this is true because Christ came, because He who was God was born as a man, uniting and reconciling God and man in His own flesh.
1 Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
set your minds on things eternal,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descended,
come our homage to command.
2 King of kings, yet born of Mary,
once upon the earth he stood;
Lord of lords we now perceive him
in the body and the blood.
He has given to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.
3 Rank on rank, the host of heaven
stream before him on the way,
as the Light of Light, descending
from the realms of endless day,
comes, the powers of hell to vanquish,
clears the gloom of hell away.
4 At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim with sleepless eye
veil their faces to his presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!”
Hymn #193, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, is a hymn from the Liturgy of St. James. Dating back to the fifth century, this liturgy is one of the oldest surviving complete liturgies of the Eastern church. The hymn celebrates the coming of Christ, especially focused on His glory and majesty.
This time of year we often focus on the humility and meekness of Christ, and that certainly is a crucial aspect of understanding Him. But too often it seems like people want to stop there, and not consider the other half of His advent, the glorious king coming to throw down all His enemies. People prefer Christmas to Easter for just this reason; they’d rather deal with the child that came for some vaguely positive reason than the risen King who came to establish a kingdom. But the First Advent makes no sense without the Second. The forgiveness of sins is only understood against the backdrop of impending judgment.
So our hymn from the beginning focuses on the awe and majesty of Christ as the conquering King and eternal Lord. All mortal flesh should be silent before Him, in respect for His great power and majesty. The hymn in particular is calling us to this spirit and attitude when we come before Him in worship.
The last line of the first verse is especially powerful- He comes to Earth to demand our homage. We owe Him our worship. Jesus is so often portrayed in the artwork of the modern church as effeminate and passive. He is shown quietly and passively knocking at the door, as if He is merely pleading to be invited in. But this is the Lord who slays all His enemies with a sword, His robe dipped in blood. This is the meaning of the offer of forgiveness—one last chance for amnesty before all the rebels are killed before Him. He has a right to be worshiped and obeyed, and He is not shy about insisting on it.
Given this great majesty and glory, what a wonder that this great king descends to help us with His grace! He is incarnate as a man, and a humble man, a servant. He dies the death of the cross so that He can feed us with Himself. His life, by the power of the Spirit of God, feeds and nourishes those who believe in Him just as our physical bodies are fed with bread. This is the message we read in verse 2.
We therefore ought to worship Him. It is only right, as the heavenly host well know. If angels and saints in heaven worship Christ, and they are far greater than us, ought we not also worship Him? His presence drives away all the powers of hell, freeing earth to be what God created it to be, as John says in Revelation 11:18— when He comes, He will destroy all those “who destroy the earth.”
This final vision, drawn from Revelation, fully impresses on us His great transcendence. The great angels, these magnificent powerful creatures described in the prophets and in Revelation, sit at Jesus’ feet, almost like pets ready to follow His command. One commenter remarked that if we did not know God, we would surely worship angels, and many have. Yet they do His will, and are nothing before Him. What awe and trembling it fills us with to know that one day we will stand before His glorious presence. He will come back to earth in great power and glory, bringing vengeance with Him. On that day we will surely know Him. May we pray to know Him in His grace and kindness before that terrible day comes.
“We walk by faith, not by sight.” – 2 Corinthians 5:7
Economists describe the cost of any choice we make as “opportunity cost”, or the loss of an opportunity to do something different with whatever time or resources we committed to a particular choice. If I spend a dollar on a candy bar, the cost of the candy bar is whatever else I could have spent the dollar on. If I spend an hour watching television, even if it is free there is still a cost- namely, whatever else I could have spent the hour on.
Coming to worship always incurs a cost- the cost of sleeping in on Sunday or going to the park with your kids or whatever else might bring you short-term enjoyment. Worship itself might bring you short-term enjoyment as well- seeing friends, enjoying good music and a hopefully engaging sermon. But there are always pressing needs or more immediately enjoyable activities. That’s why God made it a commandment to observe the Sabbath. Left to ourselves, people will always allow other things to crowd out the worship of God. We do not observe a day in the same ceremonial fashion as the Jews under the Mosaic Law did, but the principle has not changed. We must make time for the worship of God.
When we gather together on Sunday for worship, we are committing an act of faith. Faith means trust, believing in God’s word and promises that He is who He says He is and will do what He promises to do. Worship is a means of grace, the way God works great benefits in His people through the power of His Spirit, but those benefits are subtle and long-term. Often they are not clearly visible in the short term.
The short term benefits of worship mentioned above, while real, should not be our main motivators for being in worship. If short term benefit is our motive, our sinful flesh will always find other things to tempt us. Our real motive should be faith, trust that God will work His work in us over time. We should “desire the pure milk of the word, that we may grow thereby.” (1 Peter 2:2). We should desire to be taught and exhorted by the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (Colossians 3:16). We should desire to “stir up love and good works” in each other (Hebrews 10:24). When we are motivated by trust in God’s promises, then we will be faithful in church even when we don’t feel like it, even if we’re not getting along with others, even if there are other things we’d rather do. Motivated by faith, walking not by what we can see but what we can and must believe, we will learn to attend consistently to the means of grace and have confidence that we will grow in grace as a result.
Holy God, we praise your name;
Lord of all, we bow before you;
all on earth your scepter claim,
all in heav’n above adore you.
Infinite your vast domain,
everlasting is your reign.
Hark, the glad celestial hymn
angel choirs above are raising;
cherubim and seraphim
in unceasing chorus praising,
fill the heav’ns with sweet accord:
“Holy, holy, holy Lord.”
Lo! the apostolic train
join your sacred name to hallow;
prophets swell the glad refrain,
and the white-robed martyrs follow;
and from morn to set of sun,
through the church the song goes on.
Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name you;
while in essence only One,
undivided God we claim you,
and adoring bend the knee,
while we sing this mystery.
Our hymn of the month is an adaptation of a very ancient hymn, one of the oldest hymns still extant, the Te Deum of the fourth century. It is a hymn of praise to God, anticipating the completion of salvation and the fullness of the kingdom.
That anticipation is clear in the first verse, which states that “all on earth your scepter claim,” meaning that everyone on earth acknowledges the rule of God. Clearly it is not the case presently, but we know that it will be one day. So the writer, anticipating it, writes the hymn as if it had already happened. This verse praises the universal extent of God’s rule and the totality of His sovereignty.
Much of the hymn alludes to Revelation 4 and the vision of the throne of God that John sees. The angels, the hymns, the throne, and the refrain, “Holy, Holy, Holy” all remind us of that chapter. Verse 2 describes the worship of the angels, showing us what a glorified thing it is to worship God. The higher we ascend in heavenly glory, the more we praise God. Worship isn’t something we just do in this present state. It’s not something that just serves some end, like giving us comfort in present sorrow or educating us about God’s nature (though it certainly does those things). Even after the need for education or comfort is gone, we still praise God like the angels do, for it is the highest purpose of our created nature to do so.
Verse 3 similarly portrays the great men and women of the faith, apostles, prophets, and martyrs, and their unceasing praise to God. It is truly a glorious gift to know God and to praise Him, as the hymn illustrates to us by the joyful worship of these great saints. This hymn shows so clearly that the worship of God is something we should look forward to joyfully, not a dutiful chore to be performed.
The last verse makes reference to the doctrine of the Trinity. God is one in essence and three in person, a uniquely Christian doctrine. The hymn does not spell out all the nuances of the doctrine, but nonetheless clearly identifies the true doctrine of God as Trinitarian. The original Te Deum as well as many other hymns contains this doctrine for a few different reasons. First, because the nature of God is always cause for wonder and joy at the revelation of this beautiful mystery. Secondly, it serves to identify the orthodox doctrine and shut the heretics of the day (most notably the Arians who denied the deity of Christ) out of the orthodox faith. And finally, it serves a pedagogical purpose, to deeply impress within the people’s mind the Biblical and orthodox teaching in a way that the decision of a church council by itself never could.
This is a great example of the best use of good hymns. It teaches us good doctrine; it serves as a confession of faith for the church; and it guides us in right practice, showing us what a good and wonderful thing it is to joyfully praise our God.
1 Abide with me: fast falls the eventide:
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
when other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, O abide with me.
2 Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.
3 I need thy presence every passing hour;
what but thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?
Who like thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.
4 I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless:
ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
5 Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes:
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:
heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee:
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
This beautiful hymn is the reflection of one approaching death and calling upon God for comfort and assurance as he passes.
We are not all dying. But then again, we are. In 2 Corinthians 6:9 Paul describes himself as “dying, and behold we live.” He is not here commenting on his particular circumstances, but rather on the fact the Christian life is a death to the world and self, an embrace of that death as passing into life. Just two chapters earlier he said that he is “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” (2Co 4:10 NKJ)
The pride of life is sin (1 John 2:16). We are under the curse of death, and for us to boast in our life, to be lifted up in pride in our physical strength or good health or intellectual capacity is to fall into the pride of life, and to fail to recognize the curse of death that is on all of us. If we are in Christ by faith, then that curse of death becomes a blessing, a deliverance, as we are released from this body of death into the glorious life to come. But even as a saved man, the reality of death constantly hangs over me, and it is a reality I should embrace as my deliverance, not to flee from. So the hymnist’s attitude should be all of our attitude whether we are close to death in our estimation or not.
To “abide” is to stay or remain in place. The hymnist is calling on the Lord to remain by his side, to stay with him, throughout the coming darkness. He can endure it if he knows God remains his faithful God, and Christ his faithful savior, throughout the ordeal. There comes a time in all our lives, sooner or later, when troubles overwhelm the ability of even the most faithful and loyal friend, when loved ones are silent and throw up their hands in despair. But God is never overwhelmed at our sorrow and trouble, and can and will be a friend to us when nobody else is.
One does not have to live very long before earth’s joys start to grow dim. The things that used to give me such joy as a teenager, mysteries of life that I longed for, become unfulfilling when now experienced regularly. Buying a new album or seeing a movie in the theater is nice, but not particularly exciting. I remember how glamorous it used to seem to fly on an airplane or stay in a hotel, experiences I now simply endure. “Change and decay” is indeed all around, and the fundamental brokenness of the world becomes more apparent. But the Lord’s comforting presence throughout guides us through.
In verse 3 the writer recognizes that change and decay in himself as well. The devil’s constant attacks, only made more potent by the despair and hopelessness in the things of this world, would ruin us if not for God’s constant presence. The Reformed doctrine of perseverance of the saints does not deny the need for us to stay faithful throughout our lives to avoid falling away; nor does it teach an inherent power in the believer to do so. It teaches that God will abide with us; that those united to Christ by faith will be preserved by God’s power throughout.
The cross, then, is our guide throughout our lives. Jesus’ victory came not through earthly triumph or glory, but through dying. We must enter into His death, that we might enter into His glory. The life of the Christian must be cross-shaped throughout, for if we look to the glory and pride of this earth to bless us, we will be sorely disappointed, and ultimately lost. The cross is God’s verdict against all the world and its glory, and our salvation depends on us embracing that cross—not as an abstract principle, but as a living reality deep down in our bones that shapes our whole lives, right up to death. Then we can say with Christ, “Not my will but Thine be done, Father.” We can accept whatever pain or humiliation the world dishes out, knowing that Christ’s glory came through suffering and death.
So too will mine, if He abides with me.
1 All that I am I owe to thee;
thy wisdom, Lord, has fashioned me.
I give my Maker thankful praise,
whose wondrous works my soul amaze.
2 Ere into being I was brought,
thine eye did see, and in thy thought
my life in all its perfect plan
was ordered ere my days began.
3 Thy thoughts, O God, how manifold,
more precious unto me than gold!
I muse on their infinity,
awaking I am still with thee.
4 The wicked thou wilt surely slay;
from me let sinners turn away.
They speak against the name divine;
I count God’s enemies as mine.
5 Search me, O God, my heart discern;
try me, my inmost thought to learn;
and lead me, if in sin I stray,
to choose the everlasting way.
Hymn #37 from the 1990 Trinity Hymnal is a versification from Psalm 139:14-24. The psalmist expresses a complete confidence in God’s will for his life based on the fact that God created him.
He starts by praising God for this fact, which is most appropriate. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” indeed. A human being is an amazing entity, and we are only just beginning to understand how amazing we are. The mechanical design of our bodies, the chemical reactions necessary, the intricate proteins, and the many different elaborate structures and the way they react to each other all point to a highly complex and ordered design. In the past, more than once, certain organs like the tonsils or the appendix have been declared superfluous, just evolutionary holdovers, only to discover later what the functions of these organs are. One of the most amazing things about a human being is his ability to communicate, that I can have concepts and ideas formed inside my head, and that I can communicate those concepts to others by means of electrical and chemical signals along neural pathways that cause my mouth and throat to make vibrations in the air, that in turn cause tiny little bones and membranes in some other person’s ear to vibrate, which in turn sends electrical and chemical signals along neural pathways to his brain, causing the same or similar concepts to appear in the other person’s brain. How appropriate is it then that we offer glory and praise to God with this most incomprehensible faculty? The amazing nature of a human being should not cause us to be prideful, but on the contrary to praise and worship the great power and wisdom of the God who made us, and to listen to His word. So the psalmist gives His maker thankful praise (verse 1).
Since every single aspect of his being has its origin with God, the psalmist knows he can trust God completely with his life (verse 2). Who can know us better than the God who made us? And if we are His creation, we can have confidence that He has the best in mind for us. He certainly has demonstrated His benevolence toward us many times, not least in how wonderfully He made us in the first place.
The psalmist comes to the obvious conclusion of that truth in verse 3. If all this is true, what could be more important than knowing God’s thoughts, as He has revealed them to Him? It is like the great value the owner’s manual of a complex piece of equipment has if you are having trouble working the machine. Without knowledge, the equipment is useless. Without the wisdom of God, prospering in our life is impossible, or even knowing what real prosperity is. But what a joy it is to contemplate that wisdom when we have it, by His grace!
The fourth verse might seem shocking or incongruous or shocking to the modern ear, but in fact the thought flows naturally from the previous. God is wise and perfect, and loves His creation. The wicked are those that destroy His creation and rebel against Him, and it cannot be that God would permit this to go on forever. If God intends good for His creation and His people, then it must be the case that He is hostile to those who would destroy His creation and His people, and this is what rebellion against God always entails.
Therefore, the psalmist desires that God’s grace would be at work, for he knows it is only by that grace that any of us would be on the right side of God’s justice and not exposed to His wrath. So he prays in verse 5 for the inner searching of God, to know the sins that lie lurking in the human heart, and lead him to righteousness instead. If God is our creator and God’s plan is perfect, then He alone can diagnose the problem in the human heart and fix it, and the psalmist knows this. If we are wise, we will follow the lead of the psalmist and desire the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God, working in us the salvation of Jesus Christ, so that God’s perfect intention for us is fulfilled, for the only alternative to that is the destruction of the wicked. But by His grace we can instead come to the “everlasting way.”
1 “Wake, awake, for night is flying,”
the watchmen on the heights are crying;
“awake, Jerusalem, at last!”
Midnight hears the welcome voices,
and at the thrilling cry rejoices:
“Come forth, ye virgins, night is past!
The Bridegroom comes; awake,
your lamps with gladness take; alleluia!
And for his marriage feast prepare,
for you must go to meet him there.”
2 Zion hears the watchmen singing,
and all her heart with joy is springing;
she wakes, she rises from her gloom:
for her Lord comes down all-glorious,
the strong in grace, in truth victorious;
her Star is ris’n, her Light is come!
Ah, come, thou blessed Lord,
O Jesus, Son of God, alleluia!
We follow till the halls we see
where thou hast bid us sup with thee.
3 Now let all the heav’ns adore thee,
and men and angels sing before thee,
with harps and cymbal’s clearest tone;
of one pearl each shining portal,
where we are with the choir immortal
of angels round thy dazzling throne;
nor eye hath seen, nor ear
hath yet attained to hear what there is ours;
but we rejoice, and sing to thee
our hymn of joy eternally.
Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying
Our hymn of the month is #317, “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying.” This hymn was written (words and music) by Philipp Nicolai, a Lutheran minister, in 1599. Nicolai also wrote “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star,” #515 in the 1990 Trinity Hymnal, and these two hymns became known as the “King and Queen of the Chorales” and both were arranged later by J.S. Bach in the forms we have today. Nicolai is regarded by many as one of the greatest hymn-writers of the Christian faith. These two hymns in particular were written as part of a devotional written to comfort his congregation after a severe bout of the plague, in which 1300 of his parishioners died in one year (1597).
The hymn is a joyful anticipation of the moment when Christ returns to consummate the salvation of His people. It draws from several Biblical figures. In Isaiah 52, the watchmen of Jerusalem call to Jerusalem to awake to see the salvation that God is bringing to them. In Matthew 24, Jesus uses the figure of virgins awaiting the return of the bridegroom for the beginning of the wedding feast, to exhort us to live lives of readiness for His coming. Throughout, the hymn expresses an awareness that the present state falls far short, a night and a gloom that only retreats with the full manifestation of He who is our light.
Verse 1 calls to us, as the people of God, to be ready. It can be read on two levels: one, that we live lives of anticipation, looking forward with joy to the time when our sorrow and troubles are done, when Jesus returns; and two, that we live our lives in the immediate present in the light of the truth that His return may be at any time. The foolish virgins were not ready for the coming of the bridegroom, and had to go get more oil for their lamps, and thus missed out on the feast. The wise virgins were prepared for that return to be imminent, but also prepared for it to be postponed for some time, and thus were ready. Jesus uses this parable to inform us in the attitude we should take to our lives in the present age—ready for an imminent return, but also prepared for a long wait. But even that long wait will be endured in the joyful anticipation of the time we know is coming. The song is infused with a sense of great joy at His coming, a joy that sees God’s people through that long wait.
Verse 2 really emphasizes the truth that our hope and joy is not in the present. Our joy and hope is all in our Savior, and we do not yet have Him fully, and so we are in “gloom,” from which we emerge only truly when He comes. The one who eagerly looks for his joy in this life does not have his mind focused on the Savior, and so the hymn both encourages us to rest in the hope to come, and exhorts us as well to get our eyes off the vain hopes of this world. The speakers in the hymn have their hearts fully fixed on the joy to come, because their hearts are fixed on Christ. If our faith and trust is in Christ, then our hearts must be fixed on the future, for we do not fully enjoy Christ now, He who is “all-glorious, the strong in grace, the truth victorious.” We are united to Christ now and experience many of His gifts, but this can only increase our anticipation of the time when we enjoy Him fully, and even the partial enjoyment of His grace in the present should cause the false and ephemeral attractions of this life fade in comparison. So the hymn, in verse 2, says with the Apostle John, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Verse 3, informed by the teachings of Scripture, imagines what that moment will be like, when God’s glory is fully revealed in Christ to all His people, and we, together with men and angels and all creation, praise God as He deserves to be praised. The writer knows that we cannot even know what that will be like—“nor eye hath seen, nor ear hath yet attained to hear what there is ours;” but nonetheless, we can rejoice now to know that it will truly be wonderful, the full satisfactions of all our desires and hopes, more than we can even understand in the present.