Heidelberg Catechism Question 4: God’s Justice

God’s Justice

Lord’s Day 4 brings us to the end of the first section of the Heidelberg on the nature and origin of our sin and misery.  This is one of the three things that is necessary for us to know in order to embrace the comfort of salvation in Jesus Christ.  Unless we can understand and accept something about our condition, we will never accept such a radical and humbling solution as the death of the Son of God on our behalf.

The Heidelberg does not purport to answer all the questions that arise over this doctrine.  It approaches the issue from the perspective of what we need to know as believers, not from the perspective of intellectual curiosity or satisfying all the philosophical debates.  The Catechism impresses on us the truth that man is collectively responsible for our own state; it was the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden that doomed us all, because Adam acted as a public person, a representative of the whole race.

One could protest the unfairness of this collective responsibility; why am I guilty for the sin which Adam committed?  The first answer to this question is simply that God the creator makes the rules.  But look at the issue a bit further- do we not in our own lives agree constantly with Adam’s decision?  Do we not by our own selfishness and pride show that we would have done what he did, if we were there?  If we insist that we are judged on our own merits, does anyone wish to subject his life to the perfect and holy judgment of God? We may plead that we’re not that bad, that we are basically decent creatures.  But consider all the evil that is done in the world, all the murder, oppression, hatred and lust, the satisfaction of one’s own desires with no consideration for how it hurts others, the waste of God’s good creation when so many go starving, the lying and manipulation for one’s own benefit at other’s expense, the misuse of power and authority.  The list could go on and on.  We always think it’s the other guy, and always have some excuse for my own contribution to the problem.  I was born in modern America, growing up in a Christian family surrounded by Christian values.  Should I get credit for that?  How would I have lived my life had I been born a Viking warrior or an Arabian princess in the ninth century?

If we protest that my inclusion in the sin of Adam is unjust, then in addition to furthering my rebellion against God’s ordering of the world, I also close off the possibility of being included in the righteousness of Christ.  If one is unjust, then so is the other.  And then I am exposed to the full judgment of God against me, standing alone and naked before His all-seeing eye.  I must give account for my life before His perfect righteousness, and cannot plead any of His good gifts for my own merit.  Indeed, all the good things that God has given me will only count against me as I am forced to explain why I did so little with the great bounties that God poured out on me.  Despite my background, my education, my material blessings, my loving family, my innate gifts and the opportunities which a free society afforded me, I lived for my own pleasure and consumed God’s good gifts in my own lusts.  Did I use God’s blessings to help the poor and weak, to advance truth and justice in society, to be a good and careful steward of what God entrusted to me, including my own body?  Did I do unto others as I would have them do unto me?  Did I even follow the dictates of reason or my own conscience?  If anyone protests against the justice of God, then explain why you failed to follow even those moral standards by which you judge and condemn those around you.

It is only God’s restraining hand of grace that prevents any man from being as wicked as He could be.  Once again, I get no credit for that.  Every man will be judged for what he is of himself, not what he was when enjoying God’s undeserved blessings.  If I physically restrain a man from murdering me, he gets no moral credit for saying that he didn’t kill me because I wouldn’t let him.

When I am cut off from God’s good gifts and fully subject to His wrath, I will only persist, fully unrestrained, in my bitterness, my rebellion, my self-justification and pride, only earning for myself more wrath.  Thus the reason why that punishment will be eternal- in that state I will continue to heap up more and more reasons why I am deserving of judgment.  Having rejected God’s grace, I would be cut off from the only power in the universe that could reverse my condition and free me from my misery.

Thank God then that He has granted to us salvation in the blood of Christ, purely of His free grace, to rescue us from our dreadful, self-imposed condition!  Let us never forget what it is we are rescued from, that we may remember to thank God for His great grace and mercy on His people.

The Definition of our Misery: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 2

Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 2

The Definition of our Misery

We all know there is a problem with the human race.  The Catechism takes no time to demonstrate that there is a problem, but rather jumps straight to its diagnosis.  That there is a problem is immediately evident to all of us.  We do get very good at distracting ourselves from this or at blaming our difficulties on circumstances or other people.  How many people do you know who are blind to their own self-destructive behavior and constantly externalize all the guilt that arises from their own choices by shifting the responsibility to someone or something else?  I think pretty much everyone I know is guilty of this to some degree or another.  What then is the likelihood that I am free of the same behavior?

And over all of us hangs the Judgment Day, the inevitable coming moment when we know we will be held to account.  We skim our little boats across this great dark sea, doing our best to ignore the almost-empty gas tank and the vague, hulking shapes lurking beneath the waters, but we will not be able to ignore it forever.  The imminence of judgment is not simply an abstraction, but a reality which presses upon our minds constantly in the form of guilt, fear and anxiety, and no pleasures, pursuits or pharmaceuticals can do anything other than push the problem out of our minds for a little while.  Ultimately the problem that plagues the human race, the symptoms of which are war, theft, murder, hatred, poverty, sickness, oppression and injustice, is our problem as well.  We are not bystanders.  We are part of the human race; thus, we are part of the problem, and there is therefore no way to avoid dealing with it.

From where do you know your misery?  What is it that will truly tell you the reason for your terrible state?  From the law of God.  From the truth of what God created us to be, ones who love God perfectly and love our neighbors like we love ourselves.  When we hear this, we instinctively know it to be true, for it is written on our very hearts.  When we compare our actual state with the model of what we are supposed to be, then we can see the real nature of our misery clearly, and the cause of it.  The space between our actual natures and God’s original vision for humanity shows us why we are miserable and the form that misery takes.  We are miserable because we are alienated from God and from our fellow man, and we are unable to do anything about that misery because that is not a choice we make but a state we inhabit.  We are prone by nature to that state of being.

Mankind has continually recognized that if people would work together and live in harmony, a great many evils would be reduced or eliminated.  Despite this fundamental awareness, mankind has utterly failed to live together in harmony.  Large, bloody and destructive wars continue, with the largest, bloodiest and most destructive war in all of history within the last century.  And if history is insufficient witness, we all know our own experience of the awareness of self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors, and the great difficulty or even inability to change those behaviors.

The answer of the Christian faith is that this problem has nothing to do with environment or education, that it cannot be fixed by personal improvement, the accumulation of wealth or through the performance of rituals- indeed that mankind’s problem is not one that is susceptible to any solution rising from within mankind at all.  The Catechism will go on to explain the remedy in detail, though the first question already told us in essence what it is- that we are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.  But the only way we will ever accept such a solution, that we will ever be humbled enough to accept the charity of blood, is when we realize and admit the true nature of the problem.  It does not lie outside of us, but in us, in our natures which are not what God created them to be.

My Only Comfort: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day #1

My Only Comfort:  Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day #1

A seminary professor of mine, Dr. Paul Fowler, told us that he thought the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism was the finest expression of the Gospel anywhere outside of Scripture itself.  One of the things that has always made the Heidelberg so beloved is its very warm, personal and pastoral tone, and the first question is a great example.

The whole of the Gospel is the subject of this first question.  Our only real comfort in all the circumstances in life are found in that Gospel, in the truth that by the redemption we have in the blood of Christ, we now belong to Him, are part of His family and His nation, and can live our lives in complete confidence in that truth.

Without that truth, we have a number of problems with no good solutions.

First, we live under the constant shadow of guilt.  Whatever people claim, their own consciences testify to them that they are in a state of condemnation and alienation from their Creator.  This simple fact explains a great deal about the destructive behavior of the human race; guilt and the fear of God’s wrath that comes from guilt drives our politics, our addictions, our tribalism, our envy and hatred of others, and a great many other problems.

Second, we live in a seemingly random, chaotic world.  There is no way of knowing what the future will bring; people who work hard and make all the seemingly right choices nonetheless have terrible things happen to them; disease, war, natural disasters, terrible religious or political leaders and a hundred other things can ruin a man’s life at the drop of a hat, with no recourse.

Third, our own real inability to overcome our human nature condemns us to repeating the same stupid mistakes over and over again.  We are slaves to our lusts, to our ignorance, and to our weakness.  Good intentions repeatedly give way to the desires of the moment.  How do you protect yourself from yourself?   How can you guard yourself against the desires of your own heart?  All the self-help in the world won’t do you any good when at the moment of crisis, you don’t want to avoid the destructive behavior—you want to do it, so you do.  Thus the misery of man is great.

Coming into the redemption of Christ solves all these problems, and the first question of the Catechism explains how it does so.  First, it frees us from guilt, not by trying to hand-wave the problem away, not by minimizing it or giving me some token work to do to assuage the problem myself, but by accepting its severity and dealing with it.  Such a huge problem can only be adequately satisfied by the death of the Son of God Himself on our behalf, propitiating the wrath of God against sin and offering me the benefits of that sacrifice as a free gift, so that both the wrath of God and the mercy and love of God are given their full weight.

Secondly, it then brings me under the protective umbrella of God’s providence.  The world is no longer random and pointless; now a sovereign God is directing all that happens to ensure that my salvation comes to its completion.  If God would give me such a tremendous gift of the sacrificial death of His own Son on my behalf, what would He withhold from me?  Having invested so much in my salvation, how will He ever permit anything to rob Him of His goal?  I need therefore fear nothing that happens in this life.  Though there will certainly be suffering and deprivation, I can live in confidence that all of those things are part of God’s perfect plan for me.

Finally, I now have the gift of the Spirit of God.  He supernaturally works on my very nature, applying the work of salvation to me, so that I am assured of its reality.  He works faith in me, teaching me to trust in Christ, and that trust works every manner of benefit in me.  When I trust God then I can begin turning away from all the foolish self-destructive behaviors that are borne out of fear, pride, envy and lust.  I can have confidence that God will bring every good thing to me in His time.  That trust also works love toward God, arising out of thankfulness for all He has done, a love that gives me a desire to please Him with my life.

The faith that connects me to Christ in this way is not simply wishful thinking, a sort of vague optimism, or even the most intensely emotional “hope-so”— it is a faith that has content, and the second question tells me what the content of saving faith is- a knowledge of sin and misery, an understanding of the way we are saved from that sin and misery, and the response of thankfulness that results.  This provides the outline for the rest of the Catechism.

Worship Notes, 9/8/2019: Saved By Faith

Saved by Faith
60. How are you righteous before God?

Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.

Heidelberg Catechism question #60 has always been one of the most beloved questions in the catechism.  In this one question the doctrine of justification is clearly and fully spelled out.  The reality of sin is acknowledged, that we have absolutely no righteousness of our own that can ever stand before God.  Even after, by God’s grace, we repent of sin and begin to put off the body of the flesh, we never have any good works that can truly stand up to the requirements of God’s law.  Our very best works in this life are tainted by the presence of sinful motivations, of pride, of the desire for recognition, of self-righteousness.

But despite this truth, we can nonetheless stand fully confident before God in the righteousness of Christ.  Our standing before God is and must always be on the basis of this alien righteousness.  If we ever attempt to stand before God on the basis of our own goodness, then we become “debtors to do the whole law.”  It’s all or nothing; Christ’s perfect righteousness or ours.

When we stand by faith in Christ’s righteousness, we can lay hold of this wonderful truth, that God regards us as perfectly sinless, as if we had accomplished all the obedience that Christ had accomplished, and were possessed of the perfect innocence which He Himself possesses.  God still knows that we are sinners, for He chastens and disciplines us away from that sin.  But in a legal sense, there is “no condemnation” (Romans 8:1) for those who put their trust in Christ.  There is truly no wrath, no judgment against the believer in Christ at all, for he is viewed as perfectly righteous.  The sacrifice of Christ forever covers his sin, past, present and future.

When we come to worship God, we know we will fail in many ways.  We may come distracted by the cares of the world, or be lifted up in pride, thinking ourselves more worthy of God’s blessings because we worship. We may think that since we came to church on Sunday God now owes us some blessing.  We may come to church to be seen of others, so that other people would think of us as good people.

Yet even with all these and other failings, we can have confidence and joy, that God will receive our worship, not because it is perfect worship, but because we stand in the merits of Christ.  God receives us and is pleased in our worship, when that worship is offered in the name of His beloved Son, in faith.  We can be sure that we have the heart of the Father when we lay before Him the name of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Worship Notes- O God Your Judgments Give the King

1 O God, your judgments give the King,
his son your righteousness;
with right he shall your people judge,
your poor with uprightness.
And then the mountains shall bring forth
to all the people peace;
the hills because of righteousness
their blessing shall increase.

2 The people’s poor ones he shall judge,
the needy’s children bless;
and he will break in pieces those
who would the poor oppress.
The just shall flourish in his days,
and prosper in his reign;
and while the moon endures he shall
abundant peace maintain.

3 His large and great dominion shall
from sea to sea extend;
it from the River shall reach forth
to earth’s remotest end.
Yea, kings shall all before him bow,
all nations shall obey;
he’ll save the needy when they cry,
the poor who have no stay.

4 Now blessed be the Lord our God,
the God of Israel,
for he alone does wondrous works
in glory that excel.
And blessed be his glorious name
to all eternity.
The whole earth let his glory fill;
amen, so let it be.

O God Your Judgments Give the King

Our final hymn this week comes from Psalm 72. Its inscription says, “Of Solomon.” It is a prayer for the king, and the last verse identifies it as a prayer of David the son of Jesse, so that the inscription means that Solomon is the subject of the Psalm, not the author. It may be that Solomon versified the prayer that David prayed for him, or it may be that David himself wrote the psalm. Either way, David should be regarded as the author, and Solomon the intermediate subject. But Solomon did not fulfill the prayer of David except partially; his rule did not lead to everlasting righteousness and justice. Zacharias’ prayer at the birth of his son John identifies the events of his lifetime as being the fulfilment of these and many similar prophecies; it is Christ the Son of David who is ultimately the king spoken of here, and the glory of His reign which is promised, from Old Testament eyes.

The first verse shows that it is only with the power of God that a king can accomplish these great things, and especially that the righteousness of God is worked in the king. The wickedness and incompetence of their kings was the continual plague of the nation of Israel, and their rare righteous king could do little to reverse the tide. But God had promised David that one of his seed would come and be endowed by God in a special way, and that His kingdom would reign forever. The Babylonian Captivity definitively proved that none of the line of David up to that point was that king, and none from the line of David ever sat on the throne in Jerusalem since then. But God sent His Son, to be born the Son of David after the flesh, and anointed Him with power and glory to fulfill the ancient promise.

This king will provide justice and righteousness for the people. No longer will the strong oppress the weak, and the rich exploit the poor, which is the normal course of the world. People will live in peaceful community with one another, no longer fearing invaders, robbers or evil oppressors. It will be a time of great material abundance, as even the tops of the mountains will be fertile and productive.

Verse 3 shows that this dominion of the king would extend from sea to sea, and all the nations of the earth will be subject to it. The glory of the Lord will be known throughout the world, and the kingdom of this king will rule over all, bringing peace and justice not just to Israel but to all the world.

The Psalm therefore presents to us a time on earth when all the nations are ruled in common by one king, that all oppression and injustice ends, that is characterized by tremendous material abundance, peace, security and knowledge. All of this comes as a result, we see in verse 4, of the wondrous work of God, who “alone does wondrous works” for His glorious and blessed name.

There has always been a great deal of debate about how this state will come about. I believe it makes the most sense to understand this as the eternal state seen somewhat dimly from Old Testament eyes, a time when all of God’s people from every nation live in fellowship and harmony together, praising God and enjoying His good creation without any oppression, fraud or violence, for all eternity. It happens when Christ comes again and destroys all the evildoers and oppressors and wasters, all those who have not bent the knee to Jesus’ kingship and accepted the forgiveness of their sins.

That debate will no doubt continue to rage until the actual state of affairs is fully achieved and all the questions are answered. Until then, however, we clearly can take comfort in the knowledge that Jesus Christ is certainly bringing about this state of affairs even now according to His secret plan. We also can have wisdom to know that since God has endowed Jesus Christ with this power and righteousness, we should certainly expect no other ruler or great man to bring us security, prosperity and justice, except by God’s grace only very partially, as Solomon did. Christ is the hope of this sad world, and there is no other. So blessed be the glorious name of God, and of His Son, Jesus the Messiah, for the day will infallibly come when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Worship Notes: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling

Love Divine, All Loves Excelling

1 Love divine, all loves excelling,

Joy of heav’n, to earth come down:

fix in us thy humble dwelling,

all thy faithful mercies crown:

Jesus, thou art all compassion,

pure, unbounded love thou art;

visit us with thy salvation,

enter ev’ry trembling heart.


2 Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit

into ev’ry troubled breast;

let us all in thee inherit,

let us find the promised rest:

take away the love of sinning;

Alpha and Omega be;

End of faith, as its Beginning,

set our hearts at liberty.


3 Come, Almighty to deliver,

let us all thy life receive;

suddenly return, and never,

nevermore thy temples leave.

Thee we would be always blessing,

serve thee as thy hosts above,

pray, and praise thee, without ceasing,

glory in thy perfect love.


4 Finish, then, thy new creation;

pure and spotless let us be:

let us see thy great salvation

perfectly restored in thee;

changed from glory into glory,

till in heav’n we take our place,

till we cast our crowns before thee,

lost in wonder, love, and praise.

This is a song about sanctification.  The writer (Charles Wesley) fixes the nature and source of our sanctification from the very beginning in the love of Christ, a love greater than any love; and vital to success in sanctification.  As long as we think of repentance and good works merely as a duty or as a way to earn God’s favor or avoid His wrath, we will never truly progress.  On the one hand, we will look to our own strength for the source of our labors, which is woefully insufficient.  On the other our motivation will be fundamentally selfish, and how can we progress in righteousness motivated by sinful motives?  But when we recognize that the love of Christ toward us is the source of all progress in truth, and the motivation for all our efforts in repentance and sanctification, then our efforts are on the proper footing.

Wesley demonstrates a rich understanding of the Scriptures throughout.  Much of the thinking here is drawn from John 14-16, though there are references to many other Scriptures as well.  The lyrics are a progression of thought through the Biblical doctrine of salvation, starting with the love of Christ, through the work of the Spirit, reuniting us to the Father, and ending with our eternal glorification.  This follows well the process of salvation as we experience it subjectively in our own lives.  We become aware of the love of Christ for us in what He did for us in His death.  That love works more and more in us through the power of the Spirit, making us know and understand God better over time, leading more and more to despise the false ambitions, threats, and seductions of this world.

Wesley prays for the divine love to come and make a home in our hearts (verse 1), as Jesus promised to do.  He does this via the work of the Holy Spirit (verse 2), and this is very helpful to know, for it helps us understand the way that our salvation is accomplished.  The salvation of Christ is at work in us through the ministry of the Spirit of God.  Jesus said He would send His Spirit to His apostles, and this resulted in the inspired Scriptures being sent.  The Spirit comes to us as well, not that we might write new Scriptures, but that we might understand the Scriptures already written.  Understanding the role of the Spirit in our salvation helps us give full glory to the Trinity for our salvation, but also to understand the means by which that salvation occurs so that we can be obedient to lay hold of the means of grace as we are instructed.

The Spirit of love is also the Spirit of adoption, and verse 2 recognizes this with a prayer that in the Spirit we might inherit the promise.  The land of Canaan was a type of the promise we have in Christ, a figure to which Wesley refers in verse 2, “let us find the promised rest.”

Verse 2 also gives us a profound bit of psychological understanding.  “Take away the love of sinning.”  This is the great problem of sanctification, of course.  We can develop disciplines, techniques, and habits, and these are all well and good, but in the moment of temptation, the problem is that we don’t want to follow those things.  We want to sin.  And ultimately we’re going to do what we want to do.  Sanctification therefore requires a change in our desires, and this is work that only the divine power of God can accomplish.  He’s promised to work through means, so we’re not passive, but we have to understand that this is not anything we can ever do in our own strength.  Thus Wesley’s prayer, “take away the love of sinning.”  The last part of that verse recognizes that God is therefore not just the One who starts us in the faith, but the one who preserves and finishes us in that faith as well—“Alpha and Omega be, end of faith as its beginning.”  And the result of this is freedom—freedom from the greatest slavery mankind knows, the slavery to sin.

Verse 3 again calls on Old Testament imagery of the temple of God in Jerusalem, in which the presence of God dwelt.  When that temple was corrupted by idolatry, the glory of God departed (Ezekiel 8-10).  The prophets all promised a return to His Temple though, when the Messiah came and poured out His Spirit.  The people of God are that temple (1 Peter 2:1-9), consecrated by the shed blood of Christ and indwelt forever by God.  The consecration of Christ’s blood is so much better than that of bulls and goats (Hebrews 9:13-14), and this new temple to God will never be defiled.  Thus, God will never again leave His new temple.  Verse 3 goes on to reflect on the eternal fellowship of love and worship that the people of God will enjoy forever in this new temple.

So the final verse calls on God to complete the work that He has begun.  The Christian earnestly desires to be free of sin completely.  We do not desire to be merely forgiven sinners, but perfected saints.  Forgiveness is only the beginning.  When we are complete in our salvation, restored to the image of God, recognizing finally and fully that the love of God is greater than any other love, then we will finally be able to come before God and see Him face to face with no impediment, and return to Him all the glory and worship that He deserves.


Worship Notes: Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation

Christ is Made the Sure Foundation

1 Christ is made the sure foundation,
Christ the head and cornerstone,
chosen of the Lord and precious,
binding all the church in one;
holy Zion’s help forever
and her confidence alone.

2 All that dedicated city,
dearly loved of God on high,
in exultant jubilation
pours perpetual melody;
God the One in Three adoring
in glad hymns eternally.

3 To this temple, where we call thee,
come, O Lord of hosts today:
with thy wonted loving-kindness
hear thy people as they pray;
and thy fullest benediction
shed within its walls alway.

4 Here vouchsafe to all thy servants
what they ask of thee to gain,
what they gain from thee forever
with the blessed to retain,
and hereafter in thy glory
evermore with thee to reign.

5 Laud and honor to the Father,
laud and honor to the Son,
laud and honor to the Spirit,
ever Three and ever One,
One in might, and One in glory,
while unending ages run.

This hymn is a song about Zion.  “Zion” is a rich and complex set of metaphors in Scripture, starting from the fact that Zion is the name of the hill on which Solomon built the temple, and was the center of God’s presence in Israel for many centuries.  It is the place where God and His people would meet.  As such, it becomes a figure for the people of Israel as a whole, or in the New Testament, the New Israel, the Church.

Our hymn uses a bold and confident tune, celebrating the joy and assurance that the people of God can have, knowing that He is in our midst.  In Isaiah’s day, Jerusalem was left alone and preserved from the attack of the Assyrians which engulfed the rest of Judah and, indeed, the whole region, which demonstrated God’s ability to care for and protect His people.  Unfortunately, the people of Israel misunderstood this event, believing that Jerusalem could never be taken by foreign conquest.  Jeremiah warned them against this error. The people of Israel had abandoned God, neglected His worship, and chased after foreign gods.  Therefore they were not the people of God anymore.  “Zion” being under God’s protection was never about a place, but about a people, the people who trusted and relied on God, who met with Him and worshiped Him.  Those people are certainly under God’s protection and can trust Him in all events of life.

The hymn starts with a celebration of the establishment of Christ as the foundation of the Church, the new temple, the new spiritual Israel which God had always foretold, which sprouted from the cut-down stump of the old (to mix the metaphors).  The true Church of Jesus Christ must always be united—perhaps not in outward organization but in true spiritual essence.  Jesus “bind[s] all the church in one (verse 1).”  He told His disciples that He would be with them until the end of the age, and He is even now at the right hand of the Father mediating for us.  That is a source of great confidence for the believer.

The second verse celebrates the church as a place of praise for the Triune God, praise which will last forever.  It is the great joy of the Christian to have the opportunity to praise and worship the glorious God, and praise is at its best when it is shared.  When one has a great experience of some kind—a great meal, a particularly enjoyable movie, or anything like that—one wants to share it with others.  This fact demonstrates the truth that people are fundamentally communal, made to be a people, not just persons.  The church is a body of people, gathered together to share that greatest experience of all, the experience of knowing God.

The third verse calls on God to receive the worship of His people, to come to His temple to hear His people worship.  God is gracious and merciful, and receives our worship with “lovingkindness” even though our worship falls so far short of His true merits.  The writer also prays for the “benediction,” meaning literally a “good word,” a blessing from God.  With the blessing of God on His people, we know that nothing can harm us, and even the suffering we experience in this life is part of God’s perfect purpose.  The benediction pronounced at the end of each service is not well-wishes on the part of the pastor, but rather is the promise of God Himself to all those who put their trust in Him.

Verse four asks God to “vouchsafe” to His people the promised blessings.  This is a call to God to work assurance of faith in us, the sure confidence that the promised blessings will come to pass.  This assurance is so important, for it is our only true protection from the snares of the world.  The lures, seductions, and threats of the world will have no power over us when we know that far greater things are secured for us in the eternal Kingdom than anything the world can offer or take away.  We will be kings and priests of a glorified creation, enjoying all God’s good promises, and the greatest joy of all, God Himself, forever.  The assurance of God’s promises, as verse four recognizes, is God’s gift to us and not something we can work up on our own.

The final verse, as early Christian hymns often do, praises the Triune God in each Divine Person, Father, Son, and Spirit.  Many of the early Church fathers recognized the importance of hymns as pedagogy, and knew that the doctrine that people sung would become deeply embedded in their hearts.  Paul calls on us to teach and admonish one another in the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16).  With the Arian heresy, which denied the Trinity, still running rampant when this hymn was originally written in the seventh century AD, it therefore serves a wonderful teaching purpose, as well as a doxological purpose, to end the hymn with a praise to God as Three in One, distinct as Persons, but One in power and glory, forever.


Jesus the Splendor of God’s Glory- Worship Notes

1 O Splendor of God’s glory bright,
from light eternal bringing light,
O Light of light, light’s living Spring,
true Day, all days illumining:

2 Come, very Sun of heaven’s love,
in lasting radiance from above,
and pour the Holy Spirit’s ray
on all we think or do today.

3 And now to thee our pray’rs ascend,
O Father, glorious without end;
we plead with Sovereign Grace for pow’r
to conquer in temptation’s hour.

4 Confirm our will to do the right,
and keep our hearts from envy’s blight;
let faith her eager fires renew,
and hate the false, and love the true.

5 O joyful be the passing day
with thoughts as pure as morning’s ray,
with faith like noontide shining bright,
our souls unshadowed by the night.

6 Dawn’s glory gilds the earth and skies,
let him, our perfect Morn, arise,
the Word in God the Father one,
the Father imaged in the Son.

Jesus, the Splendor of God’s Glory
There is a good chance that you learned the alphabet through a song– “A B C D E F G” sung to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Music has always been used to teach, and was especially valuable when literacy was comparatively rare. It is a great way to transmit knowledge in a fixed and memorable form.

The Church early on recognized the value of good hymns for teaching sound doctrine. Paul calls us to be “teaching and admonishing one another in the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:15). Our hymn of the month, “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright,” does just that, teaching the doctrine of the divinity of Christ in beautiful poetry. It is also a prayer, calling for aid in our walk with God throughout the day. It was written in the fourth century by the very influential pastor Ambrose of Milan, who is credited with, among other things, being instrumental in the conversion of Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians God ever gave the Church.

The first verse captures well the idea of Jesus being the express image of God. “God of God, Light of Light”, the Nicene Creed says, capturing the paradox of the Eternal Generation well—Jesus is fully God of Himself, but in His Person comes from the First Person eternally, so that He is God from God, Light from Light. Jesus comes to earth, God Himself and sent by God, to shine the light of God’s eternal glory on this sad, cursed world.

Jesus said as a result of His ascension that He would send the Holy Spirit to His people, and that promise is called upon in verse two, that Jesus would indeed pour the Holy Spirit out on us. Jesus’ glorification means that the power of His revelation of truth to the world is not limited to His thirty-three or so years on earth, but continues afresh today. So the writer prays for the power of the Spirit in an imminent sense—that He might be with us, and communicate to us the light of Christ even now. Likewise in verse three, the writer pleads for grace in the matter of battling the temptation to sin. This hymn is a prayer, as many are, and should be sung as a prayer, directed toward God.

Envy gets mentioned specifically in verse four. The writer recognizes the great power of envy, as any experienced pastor knows. The power of envy is mighty to cause all kinds of other sins, but envy often disguises itself as righteous anger or a justified resentment over some kind of fault that others may have done to us. The power of the Spirit is necessary to reveal the hidden motives of our hearts, very often hidden even from ourselves. Faith, trust in God, is the antidote to all forms of envy and resentment, and so the writer asks for a renewal of trust in God to steer our minds right in the second half of verse four.

Verse five calls on God’s assistance in strengthening faith throughout the day. The writer uses the light of the day as a metaphor for knowledge, joy, and faith, so that all day we have the joy of the sunrise, the clarity of the noontime, but none of the gloom or fear of the night.

Jesus is called the Bright and Morning Star in the book of Revelation, and is frequently described by the prophets as the dawning of a great light on the earth. So the writer calls Him our “perfect Morn.” He is truly the Light of the World, and whatever understanding or truth that any person has is because of Him. Through greater faith in Him and careful study of His words and those of His authorized interpreters, the apostles and prophets, we can see that glory and that truth even more clearly, and come more fully to understand the Father Himself. And that is the only way we can do so, for no man comes to the Father but through Him. So the last lines of the hymn form a beautiful inclusio with the first—Jesus is the Word of the Father, the perfect communication of the Father’s truth and power, and in Jesus, and only in Jesus, the Father is perfectly displayed in His glory to the world.

Tearing the Veil: Worship Notes, 12/25/2016

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.

Worship Notes: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

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, alleluia!
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.